Remembering Tom Meyer

with Tom in Guadeloupe-Photo 125

I lost two brothers this year — one, my youngest through my father, the other through friendship that in many ways transcended such bonds.

The nature of my relationship with Tom was such that when I informed people who knew of our friendship, I received their condolence. They understood how close we were.

Tom was more than a colleague. When we met in the fall of 2004, it was through a brief conversation on ideas that established our instant connection. He was in the world of Stanley Cavell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, with concerns raised by the iconoclasts Gilles Deleuze and Friedrich Nietzsche. I remarked that my work on decadence and philosophical culture, on the question of what it means to be human, was a point of entry into such concerns. Tom’s response was somatic, as his thought always was, in the form of his raised eyebrow and that distant look in his eyes when he was lost in thought.

So began our friendship.

For some who didn’t at first realize to whom I was referring when I spoke of his passing, I added the phrase, “My odd, quirky friend.” They instantly knew.

Tom’s eccentricities were genuinely such. But, as we know, genuine, as sincere, is never quite what it seems. He worked at this in a way, because Tom was aware of himself as a project.

This led to his many endeavors that were odd to some. That he loved running wasn’t so unusual. But that he loved to run at night through graveyards says it all. I recall his telling me about the occasional deer he would encounter or a young couple seeking metempsychosis with the shelter afforded by a tombstone.

Once, when he visited my family in Providence, he emerged from his room in full running attire, ready to go several times round the nearly four-square-miles park in which we live. The serious and focused look on his face was memorable.

Tom’s passion for running included a theory about teff, the grain used to make injera, the bread used in Ethiopian and Eritrean food. He concluded that part of the high performance of East African runners is due to this non-gluten whole grain flour. I just thought it was delicious.

My family and I loved Tom. He and I were friends so close that we could often complete each other’s sentences. He spent nearly every Shabbat with my family when we lived in Philadelphia. There is hardly any picture I took from those years in Philly, when we hosted groups of students and faculty, in which Tom was not there. I think he missed only two of those dinners.

My wife Jane remembers his response to a bottle of blueberry vodka we received as a giftfrom one of my former students who had traveled to Russia. (I used to receive so many rear alcohols from friends traveling abroad, which the ban on taking liquids onto airplanes pretty much ended.) Tom called it “The girlie vodka,” which for him meant he always requested a shot of it.

Those Friday nights often led into early Saturday mornings as conversations on philosophy, politics, or simply popular culture or religion led to the proverbial last man or woman left standing. In some of them, Tom mentioned having Jewish ancestry. He loved the whole ritual of breaking challah, lighting candles, sharing wine, and embracing community. He also loved when I cooked Afro-Sephardic and Mizrahi dishes, such as a wonderful goat stew.

Tom also had a dangerous side well beyond running through graveyards at night. He would always request kitfo, the raw East African minced beef dish, whenever we ate at Ethiopian restaurants. My eldest son recounted going for dinner with him at an Ethiopian restaurant that will remain nameless. My son was spending time at Tom’s home while exploring living in Philly. Tom characteristically ordered kitfo while mice took free reign of the restaurant’s dining area. One scurried over my son’s foot. When he jumped, Tom’s response was fraught with his usual and at times morbid wit: the vermin’s presence enhances the flavor of the food.

I won’t here go into the details of Tom’s death. I will, however, admit that Tom always seemed morose. Among his oddities was a loud, horrible, almost gargling sigh that he would sometimes tremor out of the blue as his body wriggled it away as if in an exorcism. We took it as moments of existential frustration.

Tom was full of great facts, many of which revealed an obsession with health. Chew gum, he would encourage, since it increases the flow of blood to the brain and makes us alert. He was right. It makes one wonder about how better many children would have performed in primary and secondary school if they were permitted to do so during their exams. He stopped drinking alcohol, or significantly reduced it to his sip of wine during the blessings on Shabbat, to heighten his focus for doing mathematical exercises. It’s difficult to believe that someone so obsessed with his health, and in fact with controlling his environment, would choose an exit from life through a fourth floor window.

Tom loved “missions.” A good friend memorialized his taking on the task of being there for her during her bout with cancer, her efforts to secure a spouse, and, thanks to online ministries, officiating her wedding. My family, too, understood how Tom loved missions. When we moved from Philly to Providence, Tom was assigned the task of the most logical way to pack the U-Haul. He rose to the occasion, complete with special ropes and the mathematically most precise way to pack the truck. Taking the nearly six-hour drive (sometimes shorter when traffic is ideal) with him was such a joy. We talked about everything along the way, but he was most impressed by my nuanced understanding of the best route, which brought us there without incident. The nod was made: he was pleased.

Tom was such a generous person. His students have countless stories of his taking extra time with their work and also with their life struggles. His close friends have stories similar to mine, of his helping them move, of his helping them build things, and of his effort simply to be there in times of need. He was among my few friends — and even family members — on whom I could count without hesitation. When I commuted through too many itineraries at the Philadelphia airport, it was Tom who often came to my class and drove me to the airport, along with one other close friend, when the R-1 couldn’t get me there on time.

The million-miles SAAB, which he handled with great care, revealed much about Tom. It was something with which he connected to his father, whom he loved so dearly. It once broke down on one of his visits to Providence. The task of getting it running enough to get him back to Philly was handled with grace and joy because, in the end, it was a material expression of love.

He loved his mother very much. We had so many conversations about her, about the impact of poverty on the sensibilities of Irish immigrants, and of how, simply, he loved her. It was connected to his understanding of how much I loved mine, whom I lost in a tragic accident in 2004.

Our good times were spent, as well, on many travels abroad through his work with the Institute for the Study of Social Thought and the Caribbean Philosophical Association. These adventures involved Tom not only presenting carefully written and precise papers on topics ranging from Du Bois’s importance for American thought to concerns against the deliberate production of dysfunction in contemporary politics. I remember how overjoyed he was when I had arranged a room for him at the Mona Lodge at the University of the West Indies. He expected Third World university housing of a modest bed and a barely functional washroom. That these were beautiful rooms for guests of world renown, lavished with the accoutrements of island beauty, tickled him with joy.

Tom was not one for smiling. But when he did, it was because he was overwhelmed with pre-reflection, and it was a beautiful thing to see.

Life’s complications led to a period of little conversation between Tom and me, although we continued to send students each other’s way. I returned from my lectures abroad last summer first to the death of my longtime friend, Bill Jones. While preparing for his memorial service, I received the terrible news about Tom.

As Tom admired W.E.B. Du Bois, I add here the closing sentences of his Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century, which I used also for my reflections on the passing of my youngest brother:

     Let then the Dreams of the dead rebuke the Blind who think that what is will be forever and teach them
     that what was worth living for must live again and that which merited death must stay dead. Teach us,
     Forever Dead, there is no Dream but Deed, there is no Deed but Memory.

In Judaism we respond to death through an affirmation of life. Our mourner’s recitation in fact makes no mention of death but instead exalts the power and glory of G-d. The point here is that our lives don’t ultimately belong to us, and this act of memorializing Tom exemplifies this since it is about what his life means to us, the community who loved him. A group of so many with some relationship to philosophy means the rejection of an afterlife as well.

If there were some kind of continued existence after death, however, I know exactly what Tom would be doing. He would be running, as he used to do, with joy and abandon, among the dead. Farewell, Tom, and thanks for such good memories during what for me have been such difficult times. Good bye, My Friend.

© Lewis R. Gordon