When the leaves are just beginning to change, I always remember Tom.
Tom was a long-legged English boy-man of 18 when he died. He and his brother Laurie were the sons of family friends of ours, Frances and Peter. The parents were both artists, but Tomâ€™s gifts lay in design and engineering. He was extremely intelligent and had a full scholarship to an excellent secondary school.
I had known about Tom for years, but had not met him until the summer my daughter and I went to England together for the first time. We stayed with the family for two or three days. Jess was perhaps a year older than Tom and two years older than Laurie, but they became instant friends–in five minutes it was as if they had known one another all their lives. Tom had a more rugged face than Laurie, who was actually beautifulâ€”like his mother, Frances. Tom was appealing looking, rather than strictly handsome, with a mop of dark curls and an expressive, open face. He, Jess, and Laurie spent every possible moment of their time together, and two summers later when Jess came to England for a month, she stayed with them all for several more days. In between, she and Tom wrote back and forth. I think both Tomâ€™s parents and I rather hoped something might come of their friendship, but we will never know what might have been.
When Tom as 14 he had been diagnosed with Hodgkinâ€™s disease. It was in a fairly late stage when it was caught, but the doctors battled it into remission, and since Hodgkin’s is one of the â€œgoodâ€ cancers even his parents had stopped thinking about Tomâ€™s illness when, at age 18, on a post secondary-school graduation trip to Turkey, Tom was rushed to a hospital so ill that he nearly died before they could get him home. It was leukemia–a consequence of the Hodgkinâ€™s treatment, which happens in about 8% of survivors. Because it was a secondary cancer the leukemia was essentially untreatable. The only hopeâ€”a frail oneâ€”was that his brother might have been able to donate his bone marrow. But Laurie was not a good enough match.
All that summer Tom lay dying. The leukemia attacked his nervous system, so he was partially paralyzed and unable to walk or even to move very much. He could not leave the hospital to go home.
His chaplain from school visited him a lotâ€”like many English people, they were not a religious family but he and Tom grew very close. Tom did not utter a word of complaint to his family, and he was just as strong with his chaplain, who came to admire him tremendously. Jess wrote to Tom every dayâ€”at least a post cardâ€”and he kept every one and read and reread them. We all hoped that that there would be a miracleâ€”but his time ran out. The day before he died, a prize offered by the Duke of Edinburgh for a â€œgreen-powered” miniature car he had designed was to have been presented to Tom by the Duke himself. Laurie went in his place, and brought the medal to him. Tom smiled but he was so weak he could barely lift his head to look at it. But when his mother began to cry he said, â€œDonâ€™t cry. Itâ€™s all right. Itâ€˜s no worse than a case of flu.â€
The next day he developed what would be a slight cold for the rest of us, but with his compromised immune system it spread like wildfire. By nightfall he was unconscious. By midnight he was dead. His parents told me that the only way they were able to get through the agony of losing him was by following the example he had set them in how he bore his illness.
His chaplain preached at his service and insisted on putting into the bulletin the words from Pilgrimâ€™s Progress that apply to Mr. Valiant-For-Truth:
Then said he, I am going to my Fathers, and tho’ with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the Trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My Sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my Pilgrimage, and my Courage and Skill to him that can get it. My Marks and Scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me…
Tom died, far too young, in late August. The day I heard he had died, I was walking by a river and I saw, with a shock of surprise, the first red leaf of fall spinning on the water. I had not known leaves fell so early.
But sometimes they do.