Friends are something I have always treasured in my life. Being invited into a part of someone’s life, no matter how long or brief, is truly an honor. Finding out about the loss of a friend is a difficult experience because you are no longer able to reach out to that person through a phone call, dropping by their house, sharing a meal, or sending an email or text message to let them know you care about their wellbeing. That news hit home to me recently.
I received an email from my friend Tom Dameron’s wife, Judy, who told me Tom had passed away back in September due to complications from a massive heart attack. She was unable to contact me until now because I had recently sent an email to Tom to catch up with him. She didn’t have my contact information before. When I got the news, I was stunned and shocked, but I am grateful I got to know him over the last 27 years.
Our friendship started uniquely. My family and I were moving to Austin from Macomb, Michigan, because my dad had accepted a new job. At the time I was a third-grade student at Ojibwa Elementary and Tom was my teacher. My sister Amber was a student in Tom’s class several years prior and told me he was a fun person who made the class exciting. The next school year I considered myself lucky to be placed in his class. It turns out Amber was right that Tom was great at what he did and connected with his students. He made subjects I hated, like math, enjoyable. That in itself is a miracle. About halfway through the fall semester, I was told we were moving. I didn’t like it and was scared about the change and leaving my friends behind. In a way to stay connected to people up in Michigan, I asked Tom if I could write to him. He agreed and gave me his home address. So began the years of correspondence between us.
Looking back to some of my earlier letters I sent him, and the ones I received back, all of which I have kept, the things shared in them evolved from casual conversations about the weather, family, or what was happening with the Detroit Tigers. They evolved to more serious topics like faith, the sharing of future plans, and seeking out advice on problems. Sometimes the letters and emails contained jokes we each found funny. In college, I remember him sharing about the loss of his daughter, Megan, whom he’d taken care of for all the 33 years of her life. She was born with Rett syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes impairments in language and coordination, and repetitive movements. He always considered her to be one of the greatest treasures of his life next to his wife Judy. When she passed, he wrote in a letter that “Megan is in heaven, but she is my heart forever.”
Tom would often talk about Judy and Megan and what they meant to him. He also talked about his twin brother, asked about the well-being of my family and my sister Amber, and his love of teaching.
He told me in one of his letters after he was nominated for “Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers” about the love he had for his chosen profession. He said, “Teaching is such a gratifying profession. I know I could have made a lot more money in other professions, but I am far richer having impacted and interacted with all these young men and women over the last 30 years.” That speaks to his character and the type of person he was.
He also spoke about traveling the world with his wife. His adventures abroad and domestically have inspired me to explore and be curious about the world I call home. I have already started that by going to Rome and London and have many other places on the list still to see.
As I look through the old letters from him, the advice he gave over the years still rings true such as finding humor in life early, don’t take life too seriously, and, most importantly, don’t take yourself so seriously. He also advocated talking to others to seek out how they weather life’s storms. That is advice I use every day as I face what life has thrown at me.
He told me once, “Say your prayers as you always have and let things happen naturally. Don’t be a Don Quixote challenging windmills. You are OK. Just remember to use the ‘life check’ and ‘spell-check.’ ”
Good advice. He always looked on the bright side of things even when life threw some pretty hard punches like the heart valve replacement and liver transplant he went through. I never heard him complain; he always looked toward the future with positivity.
It is very unusual for a teacher to remain in contact with his former students for this long, but I am grateful he did. I am grateful for the friendship he extended to me over the years. So, if you are reading this, reach out to the friends and family in your life. Let them know how much they mean to you. As it has been said by many people you are not ever guaranteed tomorrow, so act today. Thanks, Tom, for your friendship.
Andrew Branca is an award-winning journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.