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Friday, October 15, 2010

In memory of Tom Buckley

Well, it’s long past time to close down this blog, and I’ve been wondering for some time whether it would be a good idea to go out with my reminiscence of my dear friend Tom Buckley.  After months of dithering, I’ve decided that it might be just the thing to do.

Tom died suddenly this past March, leaving behind his wife, Nita, and his two teenage daughters, Gwen and Ellen.  (The Charlottesville Daily Progress obituary is here).  He had spent the previous day playing racquetball with Nita and taking her to dinner; that evening, they went to bed, and Tom passed on in his sleep.  His heart simply stopped.  Needless to say, Janet and I were shocked by the news, and spent weeks and months thinking about him and talking about him.  We visited his family in July.  They’re doing as well as humans can possibly do under the circumstances, but clearly, these are the kind of circumstances that call for grieving.

For Janet the news was especially jarring: Nita is one of her best friends, and five years ago, another of her best friends lost her husband to a mysterious illness. Jimmy Crofts was only 48; Tom Buckley was all of 53.  These would be reasonable life expectancies in the United States somewhere around the year 1910; in 2005 and 2010 they are anomalous, and therefore all the more devastating.

But Janet said something brilliant to Nita, something that only becomes more brilliant if you happen to know that they met while working as cardiac intensive-care nurses in the University of Virginia Medical Center: she pointed out that Tom’s father had died of heart disease at 41—and that Nita’s gentle vigilance, watching over Tom’s cholesterol, his blood pressure, and his love of spicy salty meats, probably gave Tom another ten years of life.  Another ten years of marriage, another ten years to watch his children grow.  Janet is surely right about this.

I wrote the following tribute to Tom back in July, and have been waiting ever since for the right moment to post it.  (After I got Nita’s permission, of course.) I’ll leave it up until the end of the month, and then, just like back in aught-seven, I’ll draw the curtain over the blog and leave the archives here for Blog Archivists of the Future.  Thanks once again to everyone who stopped by this humble blog since its humble origins in 1985—it’s been lovely to meet you all.  I’ll be seeing you now and then at Crooked Timber or in a comment section yet to be determined.



I met Tom Buckley in 1987, not long after he met Nita Reigle, and one of the first things I learned about him was that he relished telling the story of how he met Nita Reigle.  He assured me and Janet that he had noticed Nita months earlier in the course of his duties at the UVa hospital—“hmmmm!” he hmmmmed, raising his eyebrows dramatically—but had also noticed that she was wearing a wedding ring.  A few months later, he caught a glimpse of her again, and, from across the room, immediately checked out her left hand.  “Hmmmm,” he hmmmmed, more emphatically this time, “no ring.” He made his move a few seconds thereafter, and wound up putting a brand new ring on Nita’s finger in 1988.  And there was much rejoicing.

And why wouldn’t there be?  No one was as delightful or as silly or as sweet as Tom, and all of Nita’s friends celebrated—as well they should have, because miraculously, Nita had found someone as delightful and as silly and as sweet as she was.  Who else would name his house, nestled somewhere in the hills and woods of Charlottesville, “Buckocello”?  Who else would greet friends by channeling Telly Savalas and growling, “Who loves ya, baby?” Who else would remember that the Little Rascals referred to people of short stature as “fidgets”?  Who else would greet me, as I was struggling with writing an unwieldy dissertation, by asking me “how’s the book report going?” That question did me no end of good: nothing puts things in perspective like having your 400-page dissertation called a “book report.” But that’s how Tom kept things in perspective: by gently deflating anxieties and obsessions.  One night, Nita and Janet were talking about their work in the cardiac intensive care unit—this patient, that patient, the new crop of interns, the difficult ethics consult, and so forth.  Tom turned to me and launched into a riff I’ve cited many times since: “it’s so weird,” he said, “no matter where I work, we go out afterwards and we talk shop.  I used to work for Birdseye, making those ‘frozen fresh’ peas.  After work we’d all go out for a beer, and goddamn if we didn’t sit around talking about freezing the peas.” “Well, yeah,” I replied, “but you three are actually dealing with real people.  I mean, it literally is life and death.” “Ahhhh,” Tom demurred, “it’s freezing peas.”

Now, lest anyone get the sense that Tom regarded his patients as mere Birdseye feed, let me explain that he was a neonatal intensive care nurse—and a brilliant one at that.  While Nita and Janet were treating patients who came in with everything from your standard strokes and heart attacks to your genuinely weird fell-into-a-lake-after-drinking-24-beers and scraped-oneself-with-a-rusty-nail-while-housepainting cases, Tom was downstairs saving babies.  On one long (and legendary) shift, Tom and a colleague had kept a precariously premature infant alive overnight by competing with each other to work the Ambu bag, manually squeezing oxygen into the child’s teeny lungs for twelve hours.  We are talking about a guy who served on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Neonatal Nurses Certification Committee and who was sent to rural China to help set up neonatal intensive care units.  There’s no telling how many children he saved or how many lives he touched.  But he would be the last person to talk about any of this when we all got together.  So, instead, the conversation about work would go like this: he would ask me, “how’s the book report going?” and I would reply, “pretty good.  How are the peas?” “Freezin’ ‘em fresh,” Tom would say, whereupon we would proceed to talk about pretty much anything except our jobs.

Like all great souls, Tom loved a good joke even when the joke was on him.  We hadn’t known him very long before he told us the story of when his Bayside, Queens apartment was burglarized (by which I learned that Tom and I grew up within a two or three miles of each other, back in the day).  Tom and his roommate called the police to report the missing stereo, and when they arrived the officers were flabbergasted by the ransacked state of the apartment.  “Wow, these guys really destroyed the place,” they said.  “Do you have any enemies?  This looks like a vendetta.” Tom didn’t admit to them—but cheerily admitted to us—that “this” was in fact the apartment’s natural state.

And then there was the epic joke that took years to play out.  I think it started when Tom and I were talking about our childhoods in Queens, and about the fact that there was no place to play stickball in Charlottesville.  This would be outer-borough stickball, which involves a schoolyard with an appropriately distant home-run fence and a strike zone spray-painted on a wall, as opposed to Manhattan stickball, which involves a batter bouncing a ball on a manhole and swatting it.  The former version, obviously, is a test of pitching, and can be played one-on-one—which was the point of our discussion.  Eventually, we realized that we could devise a ramshackle stickball field by playing sideways across a bunch of UVa tennis courts at night, under the lights, long after the tennis players had left.  We agreed to play a seven-game series, which Tom eventually won, 4-2, after three or four years: unfortunately, in the middle of the series Janet and I moved to Illinois, making stickball scheduling somewhat difficult.  (Though Tom and I did play one game in Champaign, in a schoolyard with a ridiculously short porch, which Tom exploited for something like a dozen home runs.) But along the way, during the games or perhaps during a post-game beer, Tom and I fell to talking about hot sauce.  (Not peas!) I learned that Tom was something of a hot sauce aficionado, one of those guys who puts hot sauce on everything from hot dogs to pancakes and who will not rest until he’s found the sauce that makes his head asplode.  So we agreed to try to get each other some seriously hot sauces, and to find out who could stand the heat.  The following Christmas, he sent me a couple of jars of very fine, very hot sauces he’d found in (of all places) Charlottesville’s Fashion Square shopping mall.  (This would be long before the days when everything in the universe could be found on an Internet near you.) Trying to reciprocate the following year, I searched central Illinois for hot sauce—but because that area of the Midwest, in the early 1990s, was a place where people found Gulden’s mustard too ethnic and burny for their tastes, I came up empty.  The best I could do was to respond in jest, by buying Tom a two-gallon jug of salsa at Sam’s Club.  The salsa, of course, was mild.  So I crossed out “mild” in magic marker and wrote “Extra Extra Hot! Danger!” instead, festooning the jug with skulls and crossbones.  It was funny, kind of, but it was also a sad admission of defeat in the first round of the hot sauce playoffs.

OK, so now we’re halfway through the joke.  The following year, what should appear in the Champaign shopping mall but a temporary kiosk devoted to ... hot sauce! “Thank you, God,” I murmured as I went up to the kiosk and told the hot saucepeople about my good friend Tom, who loves sauces called “Bat Guano” and “Holy Habanero” and the like.  “Does he like really really hot sauces?” they asked.  “Oh yes,” I insisted, “he’s looking for the hottest sauce on the planet.” “Well, then,” they replied, “we have just the sauce for him.” They proceeded to show me Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce, and to give me a sample, they dipped the tip of a toothpick into the bottle.  “Now, don’t put this whole thing in your mouth,” they warned.  “Just touch your tongue to it.” Quoi? I took the toothpick, skeptical that a teeny drop of sauce would tell me anything—until I actually got a couple of molecules of it on my tongue, at which point I burst out laughing.  The sauce was indeed so insanely hot that even the microdrop I’d been given was enough to make my head asplode.  “Oh, this is perfect,” I said when the smoke had cleared, “one bottle of this stuff, thank you, and please gift-wrap it.” And just like that, my Christmas shopping for Tom was done.

Well, it must have been the “Extra Extra Hot! Danger!” warnings I’d scrawled on the two-gallon jug of Sam’s Utterly Innocuous Salsa the previous year that convinced Tom to blow off the notice on the Dave’s Insanity Sauce label.  That notice, no doubt the result of Dave’s Insanity Legal Division, read as follows: “WARNING: Use this product one drop at a time. Keep away from eyes, pets and children. Not for people with heart or respiratory problems.” Ordinarily, a warning like that, plus the tag line “the original hottest sauce in the universe” across the top of the label, would have put Tom on notice that he was dealing not so much with a hot sauce as with a chemical solvent or an incendiary device.  But no, Tom decided that he’d seen many a hot sauce in the course of his life, and was not going to be scared off by a little sales-pitch hyperbole about the “hottest sauce in the universe.” So he opened the bottle, gave it a sniff, and proceeded to run his tongue along the inside of the cap, thinking he could get a concentrated, efficient dose of insanity that way.

Three days later, when Tom was finally able to take some of the ice chips out of his mouth long enough to hold a conversation, he called me up and said simply, “You.” Chomp, chomp, more ice chips.  “Win.”

Janet and I have so many indelible memories of Tom—of the day we held a tag sale and Tom brought the most hideous lamp we’d ever seen, an octagonal wooden thing with a hanging chain.  But it was the way he brought it, limping up our lawn and barking at us in a pirate voice, clanking the chain behind him, that makes the memory indelibly Thomistic.  Or our son Nick’s memory of what he called, at age two, the “running Toms”—the photos of Tom finishing a couple of New York City marathons in the 1980s, which Nick found fascinating and we found totally impressive, especially since his times were somewhere in the three-and-a-half-hour range, indicating that the running Toms had just run 26 consecutive eight-minute miles (he ran thirteen NYC marathons. Thirteen!).  Or of the gentleness and good humor and bursting pride with which he raised his daughters, Gwen and Ellen. Or of Nita and Tom’s wedding reception, which was so much fun, complete with a rockabilly band and capped off by an ecstatic Tom doing an dionysian dance that somehow involved sliding repeatedly across the floor.  Or the dearest and silliest memory of all: the night Nita and Tom and Janet and I went to dinner at what was then Charlottesville’s first and only sushi restaurant, ate and drank and had a great old time, and then—this part was Tom’s idea, of course—had a Couples Chicken Fight in the strip mall.  That’s right, a chicken fight.  Janet got up on my shoulders and Nita climbed on Tom’s, and we squared off and tangled and menaced each other menacingly until our laughter and our wobbliness began to make us a clear and present danger to ourselves and others.  We learned an Important Life Lesson that night, namely, that it is good for good friends to have chicken fights every once in a while.  And that you need to be especially careful on the dismount.

There can’t be many humans who have enjoyed life more than Tom Buckley, or who have brought more love and happiness into the world.  The boy was full of mischief, I tell you—but it was never the least bit mean-spirited; it was always the very best mischief, the kind perpetrated by people with kind eyes and warm, ready smiles.  As Janet and I were trying to deal with the shock of his death, I remarked, “you know what never happened?  No one ever came away from a party or a dinner or a casual get-together saying, ‘that was nice, but Tom was a bit of a pill.’ He was always hilarious, always sweet, always great company.  Everyone else in the world is a bit of a pill sometimes.  But not Tom.” It is no wonder that six hundred people turned out to his funeral, stunned by the news but suffused with a sense of Tom’s profound goodness.  There was no one else in the world like Tom Buckley, and though the world is poorer for his untimely departure from it, his spirit will surely be sustained in the memories of the innumerable people whose lives he touched—and changed.

And now to go out with some appropriate music, something beautiful and elegiac, something about the frailty and the beauty and the preciousness and precariousness of our lives.  Oh, I know:

Posted by Michael on 10/15 at 07:08 AM
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