“In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you learn to let go?” -Buddha’s Little Instruction book, by Jack Kornfield
When Uncle Tommi died on August 17 of last year, my best friend sent me a handwritten note on which with the above quotation was written. Those questions were my solace during surreal phone calls, the silence needed to comprehend the grief, and the funeral itself. Turns out, Tom would have had no trouble in answering those questions.
I saw him for the last time on July 3 over dishes of red mango yogurt. We sat outside under the roof, the air sprinkled with the fresh scent of rain and the thick density of humidity that comes with summer in Nebraska. My husband, daughter, and Uncle Dave joined us. We talked about the upcoming school year, Linnea’s childcare situation (Tom joked that it was around this age–nearly 2–that he and his ex-wife “institutionalized” his son by putting him in a daycare), and stories of Dave and Tom’s upbringing. He seemed particularly reflective and jovial in his stories and I found myself wanting to hear and ask more. But, time is short with a toddler and family obligations.
What strikes me when I remember that last encounter with my friend, is the lasting vision I have of him: walking away, looking off into the distance, his homemade jam I brought him in one hand, car keys in the other. I teared up right then, looked at Ben. Crying is not abnormal for me, but crying after a happy visit with the prospect of seeing one another relatively soon, is. I felt the urge to give him one more hug, one more smile. We drove on.
Tom kept in better touch than most anyone else I knew, and that fueled our bond. We kept in touch throughout my study abroad experience. He was the one to check in frequently to gauge homesickness and travel plans. In fact, he encouraged me to rendezvous with his friends in Brussels, Belgium and stay a weekend with them. So, I did. And immediately fell in love with them. When I met them in the train station for the first time, I felt like I had always known them. Like Uncle Tommi, they, too, have become like family to me.
He kept in touch in other ways too: setting up the Santa dialer to ring me and Benners up with a hilarious message, letting me bounce ideas off of him as I explored my vocation, framing treasured photographs of mine, road tripping out to our wedding reception, and my favorite: conversations in coffee shops.
Although he could be a man of few words at times, he was like a sage when it came to advice. In my last email from him, he commented on my news of signing up for a half marathon. He questioned which half I would be running and wrote the following: “I suggest the first half, cause who needs all that competitive winning stuff…it’s about the journey, and the view.”
Perhaps what could describe my friend, and adopted Uncle best, is a glimpse into his funeral. Though he was not religious, his ceremony took place at a church. At one point, the pastor said, “Damn. I wish I would have known Tom.” After the service, my sister, Uncle Dave, and I sat at a local bar & grill to reflect, talk, and eat. We looked across the room and saw another group of his friends doing the same. By the end of the afternoon, there were about ten of us sitting in a tight-knit circle, laughing, sharing stories, and toasting our dear friend, Tom.