Before there were giant, cuddly stuffed sloths in Hallmark store windows; comical, animated sloths on Geico commercials; and actual sloth photos featured on calendars, there was ‘Slothy’ (a.k.a. Thomas) – one of my son Dan’s closest young childhood friends.
Thomas was a quirky, super-talented, funny, wise-beyond-his years kind of kid. Like Dan, he wasn’t particularly into sports. He looked like a blond version of young Harry Potter when he wore his small wire glasses, and loved music and yoga. Thomas, in fact, ran the ‘yoga station’ at a home party we had for Dan around health and fitness.
Thomas played the bassoon (which my parents always joked was played by the kid who signed up last for orchestra instruments. Not true with Thomas – he loved it and played exceptionally well all through high school, along with piano.) He carried a sloth backpack – again, before they mysteriously became so popular.
Thomas and Dan would play imaginary games up in Dan’s room for hours. Not into video games, they played with a plastic Batman toy set, where a ‘bad guy’ who always came disguised as Batman’s butler, would try to get into Stately Wayne Manor. (Kind of like ‘Land Shark’ on the old Saturday Night Lives, where the killer shark would try different tactics to break into people’s apartments and wreak havoc … ‘Candygram‘ was a code word those who know the skit might still chuckle about.)
Thomas and Dan would also write down and memorize song lyrics and play the piano. Thomas’ little fingers would fly over the keys playing that ‘Spinner‘ classical piece every young kid seemed to play for NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) competitions. It made my attempts at piano as a kid seem absolutely fruitless.
He was funny too, in this mature kind of way that endeared him to grownups (and even my daughter Jamie – who professed her intense hatred for every other friend of her ‘annoying’ younger brother). When my mom, a former school librarian, would come read a book in their elementary school class, Thomas would raise his hand and call her ‘Gilda’ when she repeatedly asked him to call her Mrs. Epstein, like the rest of the class.
But we all loved him. And he was the only kid my parents invited to a few of our family Passover seders. He was from an interfaith family like ours. And mom, I think, was so happy to help instill some of our Jewish traditions in him, as she did for my kids. Plus we simply enjoyed his company. My mom still remembers how she and my dad took Dan and Thomas to Avery Fischer Hall in New York City for a Mostly Mozart orchestra concert.
As a teenager, Thomas grew kind of quiet and distant and Dan lost a little touch with him. But he was still part of the childhood friend crowd. He played keyboard in the jazz band, bassoon in the orchestra and band, and was into art. And he officially gained the nickname ‘Slothy’ for his characteristically quirky, unique affinity for sloths.
You may have noticed I’m speaking in the past tense. Tragically, Thomas took his life when he returned to his upstate NY college after spring break two years ago. Dan called home from his own upstate college and said, “I have the worst news ever. Thomas is dead.” I have the chills writing this and am close to tears, but I wanted to share a little about Thomas’ life and what he continues to mean to me and many others.
Within a week of returning to school that year, all Thomas’ childhood school friends came back home to Long Island for a memorial gathering. I’ll forever love and admire the way a few kids’ moms immediately sprang into action (like they always did on the PTA, school board, etc.) to set up a Go Fund Me account for funeral expenses and bring all the kids together to heal.
And I’ll never forget when Thomas’ mom arrived. I can’t imagine the strength it took for her to do that, among about maybe a hundred of us who all knew and loved Thomas – kids, parents, neighbors. As we hugged and sobbed, I promised her I would never forget Thomas. And she said, “He touched a lot of lives, didn’t he?”
That same year, one of daughter Jamie’s best students took her life, at just 14 years old. I keep photos of both her and Thomas on my desk, along with various ‘sloth’ images, stuffed animals and memory beads I received for donating to a Suicide Walk charity. And I think of Thomas when I practice piano, which I started playing again a few years back.
As I keep my promise to Thomas’ mom and think of her often too, I count my blessings. Like the fact that both my kids knew they could call home to share and express their pain. And they always know we’re there for them.
I want to end by sharing something I heard from another, wise-beyond-her-years person, daughter Jamie. She said: “A lot of us feel really down at times, to the point where we might consider the unthinkable. It’s normal to go through these phases, but that’s often just what they are – a phase. Even depression can pass. Sometimes all you need is one person or one thing to remind you of that. If only people like Thomas could hold on a little longer, they would realize this.” That’s the hope.
Part of my own hope, and healing, shortly after Thomas’ death was to talk to the people at the Long Island Crisis Center and make a contribution in his name.