Godspeed, Tom

Tom Becker passed away last evening.

In life, he was a quiet, behind-the-scenes person. His name may or may not show up in any obituary pages, especially considering how small newspapers have gotten.

But you should know him, or at least about him. Because it was a very good soul who left us. One of the nicest people I’ve been blessed to have known.

*****

Tom was the entertainment editor at The Fresno Bee for 17 years. I had the privilege of sitting next to him for five of them, from my first day in March 2004 until the day we were laid off together in March of last year.

I often don’t go by first impressions — I mean, I hope people are as good and as nice as they appear, then am disappointed as often as not — but Tom was genuine, and his first impression stuck. A big-framed man with brown hair and a reddish-gray beard, he projected as a gentle giant, as larger than he was, with a pair of friendly eyes set beneath his glasses. He gave forth the image of patience, kindness and wisdom — all of which he possessed in spades.

He also seemed not to sweat the small stuff, as if life had taught him early on not to worry too much about the things that really weren’t important. I learned that in my first three weeks at the Bee. I was trying to make a good impression right out of the gate, trying to nail down a new editing system in as short a time as possible, and making more than my share of mistakes, and worrying that the people who just had hired me would think I was a screwup. Tom could hear me pulling out my hair in the next cubicle. His response: “You’re doing fine. You’re learning a new system. It takes time. You’ll get it down.” And, of course, by the end of the first month, I did.

He was a quiet, private man who enjoyed the comfort of his home. I, on the other hand, was not so quiet and a lot more social. But the two Geminis in adjoining cubicles managed to mesh pretty well. Quite often, it would be something I saw in my usual browsing of Web sites and wires that prompted me to lilt, “Oh, Tom …” and him to respond, “Oh, Fran …” and I would point out something of interest to him — or at least I thought it was interesting. The first three years, we were kind of quiet; the features copy chief at the time, a most dour and particular character, sat in the same quad of cubicles and would constantly complain if we spoke above a librarian’s murmur. Once he left, the mood lightened immensely and the bantering was elevated to something a bit more human.

Such everyday stuff is often overlooked. But it can’t be discounted. The newsroom was a humongous soul-suck, and just being able to talk with a friendly face made being there a lot more bearable.

He loved American history and had traveled East at one point to check out some of the Civil War battlefields. He loved baseball, and having grown up in Richmond, in the East Bay, he was a lifelong Giants fan; the two of us went to our share of Fresno Grizzlies games, catching the Giants’ Triple-A club. He was proud of the fact that Creedence Clearwater Revival came from the neighboring city of El Cerrito.

If there was a word that embodied Tom, it was dignity. OK, two words: quiet dignity. Just as he was not one to sweat the small stuff, he was not one to complain when things weren’t going well, and there were times when I knew they weren’t, but I could tell by his somewhat pained expression. He had a tough job — editing the crew of arts and entertainment writers and putting out a weekly entertainment tabloid. I was Tom and the music writer rolled into one for 11 1/2 years in New Haven, so I know how difficult that can be, even with a staff of writers. He handled things much better than I ever did. True, there were times he would vent to me when it all got to be too much, but those were rare occasions.

*****

Because Tom did so much work, and did it well, and with such class, I was shocked when he was called into the office with me 12 1/2 months ago to be laid off. I figured his job was safe, and that if anyone was getting canned, it would be me. He took it in stride; no surprise there.

And, as I re-learned all too sadly, everything happens for a reason.

At the time, I thought it was unfair that Tom was being let go, not just because he was a good guy who did a lot of good work, but because the layoff happened just as his sister, who was getting divorced, and nieces were moving down to Clovis from north in the Valley to live near him. But the timing actually worked out well; his sister lived in his house until she could get one of her own; Tom went north and played Uncle Mom so the girls wouldn’t have to be transferred out late in the school year.

Of course, there was yet another reason for his family to move that close.

*****

Tom and I would talk on the phone occasionally and sometimes go to Mediterranean, the restaurant on Tulare and Divisadero where we’d escape for lunch on a random Friday afternoon to get away from all the bullshit at work. The last time we went to lunch was last April. We were both starting to feel the effects of being out of work after a month. He had gone to see the Bee-appointed job counselor, though, and felt confident that he would find something sooner than later.

Then, silence.

At the end of June, one of my ex-colleagues emailed me to say that Tom was fighting advanced stomach cancer. Stomach cancer is one of the hardest cancers to detect, and it turned out that he was diagnosed at stage 4 — it had metastasized to other parts of the body and the prognosis for recovery was terrible.

My initial reaction was anger. The unfairness of it all. He was just 56, was looking forward to life beyond newspapers, and his family had just moved down to live near him. And I knew that there were so many dark moments in my life, where I thought ending it all would be the best thing, and here’s my friend, who cherished life, and there was a strong probability he wouldn’t get his chance to enjoy it.

I called him. He told me he was doing OK, that he had lost a lot of weight, that he would get tired more often, that occasionally he get emotional over small things, that the doctors were pursuing an aggressive chemotherapy program. He told me he was keeping a positive attitude, and that there was no room for negativity in his life. And, of course, his family was nearby and willing and ready to help — the true reason they moved down the Valley. He told me there would be days he could talk, days he’d be unable to talk because of the effects of the chemo. But I told him I’d keep in touch.

One conversation was in mid-August. He asked what was happening with me. I didn’t lay the heaviness of my job-search futility on him. But this particular time, I felt strong enough to tell him about my gender transition; at that point, I had told several of my ex-Bee colleagues and was working toward telling my family (which happened a month later). Tom’s reaction: “That’s great! Are you happy? That’s all that matters.” And “Tell your parents. They’ll love you. Life’s too short.” God bless him …

*****

There were some times he couldn’t talk when I called. There were sometimes I didn’t call him because I was going through my own private hell, and the last thing I wanted to do was bring my negativity to a man who was battling to save his life. But we kept in touch on and off.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I was sitting in my parents’ cellar in Connecticut, talking with my mother, and having a discussion about the transition, and I had mentioned Tom, and his bout with cancer, and what he said when I told him I was planning to come out to my family.

And as I did — the psychic friends network at work again — up popped an email from Joan Obra, the Bee’s food writer, slugged “sad news.” Gasp. Oh shit. No, Tom hadn’t died, but she passed on an email that Rick Bentley, the Bee’s TV writer/movie reviewer, had sent around the newsroom that morning: The chemo (at that point at least four rounds) wasn’t working; the cancer was spreading. Tom was coming to terms with it, and was in as good a spirit as could be expected.

Deep sigh.

I called him. I was coming back to Fresno late in the week, and we decided I would come by on Saturday.

Mentally, I had to prepare myself for seeing a frail Tom, for the fact that this might be the last time I saw him. But mostly, on this warm early-December afternoon, I was looking forward to one final good day with a good friend. And I got it.

The door was open, so he told me to come in. Yes, I was prepared, but no, you never really can be. The once-robust Tom, who had been around 265 pounds, was down to about 110. The hair was gone, replaced by a wool cap. The beard was gone, too. The face was deeply sunken. He was in sweats. His smile was weak but as warm as ever. He got up to hug me. Bones. All bones.

I just let all that slide. This was about Tom, not my ohmygod reaction to what had happened to his body. He sat again in the recliner and bundled up, since the chemo had left him with a residual chill. The SEC football title game between ‘Bama and Florida droned on in the background as we talked about this, that and every other thing.

He told me how his stomach was pretty much gone. For all intents, he couldn’t eat anymore. The day before he had received a new toy from the doctors: an electronically controlled IV unit in a briefcase-sized case that sat next to his recliner, on the chair that doubled as his walker.

And damned if he then didn’t tell me something that threw me for a loop.

He knew I had just gone back to Connecticut for three weeks, and he knew how much of a pizza snob I was, and he asked me if I had gone for pizza when I was home. I told him how I went about five times, how my pizza/Hot Wheels pal Randy Price’s place in Manchester was about to be featured on a new episode of “Man V. Food.”

It was then that he told me, “You know, I watch all those food shows.” I looked at him, astounded. But he had a simple explanation: “I can’t eat anymore, so I get my vicarious thrill watching those shows, and I have the memory of what food tastes like.”

For most people in his situation, that would have been the worst, cruelest form of torture. Not Tom. He was embracing it — kind of a screw-you to the cancer that dared attack him. And here I was, talking copiously about food with a dying man who couldn’t eat anymore. And not feeling guilty in the least.

We talked about my wild gender trip. He wanted to know how things went with my family and friends when I was home, since this was the first time the people back home had seen me as my better half. And I had my laptop with me, so I showed him some of the blackmail photos, as I jokingly call the pictures of my better half. His reaction: “This is you. This is where you’re supposed to be. You look a lot happier.”

We talked (briefly, thankfully) about the paper and about unemployment. His summation of his situation: “Getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me. I just caught a bad break.” I’d swear I was talking to Lou Gehrig …

And we talked about death. I’m scared to death of death, which is part of why I’m still alive and didn’t try suicide a long time ago. But Tom had accepted and fully embraced what was to come: “I’m ready. I’m at peace.” All he was hoping for, at this point, was to spend one last Christmas with his sister and the girls.

To that effect, he jumped in and planned everything related to his death. He got his financial affairs in order, made provisions for his cremation and planned for a memorial shortly after. Rick, who was an immense help to Tom and his family these past few months — on top of his usual manic, writing-machine schedule at work — was to give the eulogy. Ron Orozco, the Bee’s religion writer, was to preside over the service. And the reason I brought the laptop was to help Tom select and organize the music for his memorial. I ripped a bunch of music from his stacks of CDs and grabbed the rest on my own later.

And almost every song had a story behind it, which I dutifully noted.* His playlist told me almost as much about him as five years of sitting next to him. In all, I spent six hours with him, and it went by — snap! — like that. Like any good day tends to. And I didn’t realize how drained I was until I got in the car and started to turn the key.

Three nights later, I brought the finished disc to him and Rick. The Christmas tree was up by this point, and the three of us had a nice conversation. That would be the final time I saw him.

*****

A few days later, I was back home in Connecticut for three more weeks for the holidays. I called him New Year’s Day while on a train to New York. He not only had made it through the holidays, but the year started with some encouraging news: He had gained 22 pounds back thanks to the IV machine.

Flash forward to mid-February. I was in a coffee shop in San Francisco, waiting to take another flight home the next day. He told me on the phone that he was going to try another round of chemo. I found that to be a good sign. He also told me he was able to get out of the house for very brief spells. He even drove his truck one day.

I told him, “You’re gonna be in shape for baseball season and we’re gonna catch the Grizzlies’ season-opener.” He responded, “I’m glad you’re so optimistic.”

Uh-oh.

*****

I called him when I returned to Fresno at the beginning of March. His sister answered. Bad news. The chemo didn’t work.

I called his sister Tuesday, and she told me the doctors had done a procedure to at least make him comfortable. That’s all they could do at that point. He wasn’t able to respond to much. She asked if I wanted to come up Tuesday or yesterday to see him — the unspoken “one last time.”

I planned on coming by yesterday, but I called his sister just before leaving the house, around 3:30. She said he was sleeping. If I came, she said, he wouldn’t be able to respond, and that it would not be a very easy thing to see. She was telling me, in essence, it would be better to just not come, to remember him as I knew him. It was only days now, I thought, and I was hoping, as he was, to just make it to the start of baseball season on Easter Sunday.

It was actually only three hours.

I got the news this morning the new-fashioned way: one of my ex-colleagues posted his death on Twitter.

*****

How is it that we learn so much about living from the dying? It wasn’t in an ultra-profound, “Tuesdays With Morrie” way. But many times, when life has become too much, I think of Tom telling me things like “Always remember to have fun.” “Remember to be silly once in a while.” “Life’s too short.”

The process has begun. I wouldn’t call it a grieving process, since that entails a degree of self-pity. I miss him, of course, but I’m looking at his death more as a celebration of his life — the honoring of a good, wise, decent, gentle man — and this post is part of that. So was going to Mediterranean for lunch this afternoon. The mourning, the sadness, the heart-to-hearts, are gone now. I got to see him and cherish him while he was alive, and that was a great gift.

And the more I’ve been sitting here today, the less I’ve been picturing him as the frail, skeletal, weakened body I saw in December and the more I’ve been seeing him again as his robust, smiling, friendly self.

Anyway, I called Rick, and he was in good spirits. He and Donald Munro, the arts writer — who sat diagonally from Tom and directly across from me — were there when Tom took his last breath. He reminded me of something before I got off the phone with him:

“Remember that Tom had a great sense of humor. Today’s April Fool’s Day.”

Of course, I wish this was just an April fool.

But it’s not.

Godspeed, Tom. Thanks for being a good friend. See you at the season-opener.

*****

* Since many of you didn’t know Tom, and there might not be time for 25 tunes at his memorial, I’m taking the liberty of sharing the playlist for his memorial, along with his explanations behind each one. In their own way, they reveal a lot about the man:

1. Mickey Mouse March – Jimmie Dodd: It’s from my childhood.

2. Busted – Ray Charles: Not only was he a great musician, but this song reminds me of a family vacation in the 1960s.

3. Always Late With Your Kisses – Lefty Frizzell

4. Amarillo by Morning – George Strait

5. Candy Kisses – Tony Bennett: All three of these songs remind me of my dad. He sang “Candy Kisses” in what you’d consider a Western swing band in the ‘50s. Lefty Frizzell was a singer my dad admired. “Amarillo by Morning” was a rodeo song; my father was a rodeo cowboy, very briefly, in the 1930s.

6. Oklahoma Hills – Jack Guthrie: It reminds me of my mom, who was from Oklahoma.

7. Bring It on Home to Me – Sam Cooke w/Lou Rawls: It’s just because of a love of home.

8. Begin the Beguine – Artie Shaw

9. Chattanooga Choo Choo – Glenn Miller: These two songs are here just because I love the Big Band era.

10. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square – Frank Sinatra: It’s 1940ish and just a darn good song.

11. Old Cape Cod – Patti Page: This song is a reminder to enjoy the things around you.

12. Give Me the Simple Life – Steve Tyrell: The title says it all – I tried to live a simple life.

13. Murder, He Says – Dinah Shore: It’s a silly song from the 1940s.

14. Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens – Louis Jordan: It’s just plain fun. Remember to have fun.

15. Rocket 88 – Jackie Brentson & His Delta Cats (feat. Ike Turner): This is here because it’s widely considered the first rock’n’roll song.

16. Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash: Just remember burning passion.

17. One Less Set of Footsteps – Jim Croce: It’s the song that made me a big fan of him.

18. Walking in the Sunshine – Roger Miller: It’s an optimistic song I actually knew all the words to.

19. Centerfield – John Fogerty: You gotta have a baseball song.

20. The Only Chinese Restaurant in Butte, Montana – Jim Morris: Sometimes, shit just happens.

21. Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian – Jim Morris: This song is just plain silly. Remember to be silly.

22. I’ve Got the World on a String – Frank Sinatra: It’s just an optimistic song.

23. Cain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down – Sister Rosetta Tharpe: It’s self-explanatory.

24. Peace in the Valley – Doc & Merle Watson: This is self-explanatory, too.

25. Mickey Mouse March, Alma Mater – Jimmie Dodd: Why? Because we like you!

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7 Responses to “Godspeed, Tom”

  1. Paola Says:

    What a lovely man. And you’ve given him a lovely tribute Fran. Lucky you for having known him.

  2. J-Ro Says:

    Fran,

    The timing of your email is uncanny.

    I just read it for the first time and it’s 4 in the morning.

    I never crossed paths much with Tom unfortunately and never got a chance to find out much about him. He did however win me over with the way he handled himself in a meeting I attended soon after I got to Fresno.

    Reading your post made me wish I had made more of an effort to know him.

    As you might recall, JJ’s birthday is April 1 … which also is the anniversary of my sister losing her 3-year battle with leukemia. I had a pretty busy day with JJ and also having to work so while she was on my mind, I didn’t get a chance to take a few minutes to myself.

    And so I drove home tonight thinking about her, and then I get home and happen to check my email and read your entry, a very heartwarming and heartbreaking collection of thoughts.

    Combined with what I already had on my mind … just a wave of emotions. And that’s a wonderful thing … I’ll get scared if the pain ever goes away.

    I try to remind myself to “take it easy” … “be silly” … and the kind of things you alluded to, and sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail.

    As you might recall, JJ’s entry into this world was nearly identical to my sister’s exit. I can’t begin to tell you all that encompassed, but what I will say is I couldn’t agree more on the celebration of one’s life.

    I won’t lie, I’ve shed my share of tears tonight, … we did a video clip at my sister’s service, everyone loved it. I’m sure this playlist will work in a similar fashion.

    If I don’t stop writing now, I’ll never stop.

    Thanks for the great read Fran. I love ya buddy.

    Talk to you soon.

    John

  3. Colleen Says:

    Beautiful.

  4. Drew Cucuzza Says:

    A very moving tribute,Fran.

  5. Ken Robison Says:

    Fran, that was beautiful. Tom was a gentle, decent man in a business that has its share of big egos and power freaks. I loved writing for him and, then, when I was “traded” to Sports, dropping by his desk to chat. I was a music/theater writer for Tom, and he started using me to cover arts. He encouraged me to take some classes in art appreciation, which I did. It made me a better and more versatile writer. Tom went to a few concerts with me (country, probably), and I recognized a few of my favorite songs from his Top 25. I was doing OK, tears-wise, at his funeral today until “Peace in the Valley” came through the speakers. It’s one of my favorite hymns and I hope it’s played at my funeral. Thanks, again, for a fine tribute to our friend. You, Rick and Ron did a splendid job at today’s service.

  6. jmucci Says:

    A very beautiful, moving memorial to a good friend. Obviously I didn’t know this person, but after reading this, I felt like I did, and he sounds like the type of person you would want as a friend. And it reminded me to try to enjoy life more, and have more fun, laughs, etc.

  7. Mike/Christine: My cautionary tale « Franorama World Says:

    […] you make a much better woman!” When I showed the blackmail pix to my recently departed friend Tom on our last long day together in December, he said, “This is where you should be. This is […]

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