by Edward Reid
Here I was at Tom’s funeral.
The turnout for the service at the church was rather modestly attended. I would say fifteen people. But does a turnout for your death matter? I mean you’re dead, so it only means enough to those that showed up and view any flower arrangements and who sent them. There was one large bouquet of dark red roses signed – you know who. How would a dead person know? It wasn’t me. I didn’t know Tom really cared for flowers, except for the artificial African violet in his office.
Anyways, I went because Tom was an eccentric co-worker who invited my curiosity, which led to a friendship. He rarely came out of his office. He was physically ambiguous. I mean, he was neither masculine or feminine, there was no physical angularity or geometric shape or softness to his body. He occasionally made inappropriate comments and used anecdotes as if they were truths. Maybe at one time they were, but not in the present. Everyone just overlooked him, as did I, until I didn’t. I became curious after an incident.
It seems he had some behavioral issue, I wasn’t quite sure at first, but he had been on the job for decades. People sometimes will have issues as perceived by others, but without knowing the reasons, we won’t ever know the depths of the individual.
He was the Information Technology guy, and it seemed like without him, the company would collapse. Maybe that is why his eccentricities were accepted by management? He was necessary for the company, and they didn’t feel like dealing with perceived superficial issues.
The other employees were not at the funeral except Andrea; she was the representative who usually was with customer relations. She glanced at me and nodded as though she was mourning, although she was a terrible actress.
Most people at work avoided Tom. As for his details, he was portly, generally wore a visible gold ankle bracelet over his hosiery, didn’t believe in deodorant and was seen with his head down, texting whenever not working, whether in the offices or the parking lot and constantly scratching his chin as if weighing a decision. No one would approach him, at least not in person. They were hesitant for whatever reason, so they wrote him a note.
Rick, the company “stud” or the one that believed himself to be a ladies’ man, a self-appointed leader, and climbing the company ladder, took charge of the scapegoating of Tom. He drew a crude picture of Tom with balloons containing quotes about what was wrong with him. I saw him drawing this up in the breakroom and people chuckling uncomfortably. At least there were people with a moral compass. I confronted Rick, and he called me out on my sensitivity. And at that point, I simply told Rick we had a difference of opinion and walked back to my cubicle.
This event gave me the initiative to get to know Tom better. I had been working at Jamestown Properties for over three years, and it wasn’t just Tom that I didn’t associate with, though. It mainly was everyone. It’s just my personality, keeping to myself, not getting involved with company drama that often evolves into trouble once you become friendly. I did my work and came home. That was fine for me until this shitshow with Tom. Now I felt some obligation.
That Tom was a target ate at me. It made me angry. Maybe I wasn’t going to beat up the bully, but I could be a friend to the bullied. I’m not a saint but feel for people. What if something like that happened to me? That could be painful.
I didn’t want to ponder the situation that much, so I went to his office at lunchtime. It was like a bunker, down near the bottom of the complex, away from everyone else. Knowing now what I do, this was a purposeful strategy because it didn’t add to the Jamestown cooperate “look” that we are all supposed to have. They don’t push this propaganda in your face, but it’s there, and signage and marketing portray that. What is ironic is the whole inclusiveness they talk about. Inclusiveness has shadings of meanings relative to the person.
Tom was sitting in there, and his back was turned to me, and above his desk was the taped picture that was drawn of him.
Tom turned towards me. “Edward, that’s your name, right?”
“Yep, call me Eddie, though”
Tom smiles. There was few seconds of silence.
“Eddie it is. How’s it going? I don’t usually get many visitors down here and I don’t usually frequent the breakroom, as you can imagine.” Tom motions to the picture.
“I can imagine. I don’t usually bother going there either. I would rather sit in my cubicle and stare at the ceiling. Better company. That’s why I thought I would take a little trip. The ceiling does get old”.
“Cool! Grab a seat – on the desk, that’s fine.
Tom hurriedly pushes off some files to make some room.
“So, Tom, do you have a wife, kids? I know you’ve worked here forever, or that’s what I have heard?”
“I had a wife a long time ago, and I have a daughter. She’s at university right now, and I am proud of her! I have worked here for over twenty-five years; they’ve been good to me. I had a stroke years ago, and they kept me. That’s why I taped up that picture. It’s my motivator.”
“It motivates you?”
“Indeed, someone thinks I am like that, fuck them.”
“I like your way of thinking, and you are absolutely right, fuck them!”
Over the next year, I got to know Tom well. I ate lunch with him almost every day. The office thought this was strange, but I wasn’t worried. Tom had a rough life. He had a stroke at 38. I also noticed tattooed on his forearm a series of letters, perhaps in Latin, and a small icon of sorts. He caught my glance and rolled down his sleeves. I never asked him what it meant. After his stroke, his wife left him for his brother and started a new family, taking his daughter while he was incapacitated.
Tom was grateful for the job because the company kept him as he was recovering for over a year. It was an uphill battle learning to walk and talk again, yet he was always sharp and was still the best I.T. person the company ever had. Now that he’s gone, the company will have trouble replacing him.
At the funeral, no one spoke for Tom except the priest. So, the service was short and to the point. The priest spoke of forgiveness, faith, and hope in the afterlife. Tom and I never delved into religion or spirituality. I didn’t know his beliefs, and I am unclear about the service and how it was set up. Maybe he set it up himself. I am also not sure how he died? There was no statement or information. Whether through his illnesses or something else?
After the service, veryone moved outside the church, and I wanted to reach out to those there. I knew Tom as Tom. The Tom that defined himself to me. Perhaps I could get more of a glimpse of who he was from others.
I knew his daughter was named Virginia, and that’s the most he shared. He said she was a medical student that was becoming a pediatrician. Outside, there was a lady of about thirty with a daughter, and I thought I would introduce myself.
OUTSIDE THE CHURCH:
“Hi, I’m Edward, I mean, Eddie, I worked with Tom and…you are?”
“I’m Virginia. This is my daughter Kaci. He was my dad. We drove a couple of hours. I didn’t get to see him often. We were not close, but that was my fault.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
Virginia started tearing up.
“I’m sorry as well. It was family stuff, My mom. She had all sorts of bad things to say about him, but he’s been supporting Kaci and me for the last couple of years. Those years have been rough.”
“Tom must have loved you then.”
“He wrote and I never responded, except cashing his checks. Lots of regrets, but I don’t know what to believe.”
“Well, if he did that, you can believe he cared about you regardless of what you believe. Tom was a good man.”
“We better get going. They’re just going to cremate him. No need to be around.”
“I see. It was nice meeting you”.
Virginia and Kaci departed. I watched as they walk to a land rover. The car did not suit their looks. Tom was taking care of them.
THE AMBIGUITY OF TOM:
I looked around to see who remained, and the priest stood in discussion with an older, distinguished looking black gentleman. He seemed like he was sincerely sad as he was in conversation. I decided to find out who he was and what role he had in Tom’s life. I walked over and waited for a moment until I could speak.
“My name is Edward; I was a co-worker and friend of Tom’s. Tom was a good man.”
The priest spoke first, “Tom worked with us for years. He supported us with donations and ran our website. We also work with underprivileged children. He was always there and selfless.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Interestingly, I don’t think I ever saw him enter our church for a service.”
“I had no idea.”
“He was a very private person.” The priest looked at me as though he was looking through me. I was uncomfortable.
The distinguished gentleman looked at me and smiled, “I was also a friend of Tom’s…and shall I say…we worked together on some very delicate projects. I could depend on his discretion, diligence and support.”
The priest then added, “In the end, few of us have any clear idea about the human soul.”
“I guess you’re right. It was nice to meet both of you.”
I quietly asked myself, “Tom, who were you? Does it matter?” He was a decent and charitable man.
Tom’s life mattered to some and was utterly irrelevant to many. Our company will miss him because he was their I.T. guy and that’s why – nothing else.
The Monday after the funeral, I went down to Tom’s office and took down the picture. I went back to my cubicle and taped it up.
That is his legacy, at least for me, and a motivation.