We lost a good man last weekend. His death was sudden. It shocked those who loved him. When he finally was laid to rest, it was hard to believe how many people paid tribute.
I am not talking about John F. Kennedy Jr., although you probably thought I was. Such is the state of American culture that even death can be usurped by the rich and famous.
No, the man I am talking about was not a Kennedy. He was never dubbed
“America’s Prince.” He was neither famous nor Adonis-like. He never Rollerbladed through Central Park.
Network news anchors did not race to show how dear he was to them. And there were no commemorative issues of Time magazine devoted to his passing.
He was, quite simply, the father of a friend. His name was Tom. He was 65. He suffered a heart attack while attending church last weekend.
And so, while search planes combed the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, the doctors at a Michigan emergency room said there was nothing more they could do to save Tom.
And while the Kennedy family planned a watery funeral that would be detailed by every major news outlet in the world, Tom’s family held a quiet, more common service, in a church, with a coffin, friends and family gathered in prayer.
In the eulogies, I heard no words like “cursed,” “tragic,” “regal” or
“godlike.” Unlike JFK Jr., Tom was not described as “an icon of magic and grief.”
But one by one, Tom’s children, relatives and friends came forward to speak. And the word they kept using — that still rings in my ears — is “available.”
Tom was always available.
A life of good works
When someone needed a hand in a construction project, Tom was available, tools and all.
When someone needed a ride home, Tom was available, keys in hand.
When alcoholics needed help, someone to talk to, Tom was available, part of a phone support network through Alcoholics Anonymous.
And when a school for handicapped children needed someone to keep its books, Tom, a financial wizard, was available, free of charge.
When one of his children needed a soothing voice, Tom was available. And when one of his grandchildren needed to be held, Tom was available, too.
Every Saturday morning, with coffee and doughnuts, Tom was available for his childhood friend.
And every day of the week — really, it seemed, every minute of the day — Tom was available, on the other end of the phone, on the other side of your door, to pick you up, to help you out, to offer a little trademark wisdom or to smack you with a dose of reality.
Has there ever been a more underrated adjective?
To cap it off
When we celebrate people in America, we cite accomplishments. How much they’ve done. How far they’ve risen. “He was the youngest in history . . .” “He was tops in his field . . .”
We talk about how much they acquired, the bridges they built, the companies they formed. We talk about how many people they influenced.
But we never talk about how many they supported.
We never talk about the simple act of being there for someone else. Of answering the phone and being ready to talk, or answering the door and being ready to assist.
All these thousands of simple acts, never chronicled by People magazine. And yet, when someone dies, which question truly makes us grieve: “Who will give me another headline?” Or: “Who will be there for me now?”
The world may have been mesmerized by the loss of JFK Jr. And his charismatic legacy now will be marketed worldwide: books, photos, Web sites, trinkets. You can buy a piece of his memory — even if you never met him.
Tom, who was known only by people he’d met, preferred caps. Baseball caps. Whenever someone would say, “How can I possibly repay you?” he would shrug and say, “Just buy me a cap.”
He had, at his death, a huge cap collection.
He was always available. You can write a lot of words to sum up a man’s life. There may never be a greater compliment than that.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).