In the last decade or so a surprising theory for identifying early human life on an archaeological site began gathering attention in some scholarly circles. It treats the remains of flowers at a burial site as more compelling evidence of humanity than finding tools on the site. Beauty offered to memorialize someone who has died as sacred and beloved may run more deeply human than the ability to set goals and marshal resources to achieve them.
Twice I talked with Tom about the place of beauty in terrible goodbyes. The first conversation happened one spring morning near the end of my first year at Penn. I had turned back my M.A. exam book unopened, telling the proctor that I would work this out later with the department. I wandered across campus and found myself knocking on Tom’s office door. I only knew him a little then. “Bill died about 5:30 this morning,” I said, “we sat all night with him.” Bill Moody was a Jesuit with whom I lived; he was thirty-four like me when he died of peritonitis after diverticular surgery. I was heartsick and exhausted. Tom got up from behind the big desk in his office and went to make us tea. We sat at the tea table in front of the desk and talked about Bill’s death that morning, and he told me about the death of his young son. We talked about losing someone too young, that terrible grief. That was, I think, when we began to be friends.
The second conversation began soon after Agatha died. I flew to Philly to spend some time with Tom. Agatha was a soul friend to me; her sudden, shocking death opened a loss in me that made it natural to be with Tom without talking very much. Words limp sometimes. Even so, and with [End Page 970] some hesitation, I invited Tom to consider letting me keep him company as he grieved. It still moves me deeply that Tom took me up on that offer. Once a week or so, for the better part of a year, Tom told me ordinary day-to-day stories as he lived his way into the absence of his partner and soul friend, into savage loss and tenderness woven together. Today, as I live into Tom’s absence from my life, those conversations about Agatha and Tom help me.
Whether he had heard about the theory of burial flowers as archaeological evidence or not, I think Tom would understand the point. Humans try to do justice to loves that have become sacred in them; flowers help say such love better than efficiency. So does storytelling. So we who gather here use our presence with one another, our stories, our singing, as ways to offer beauty that treat Tom as sacred and beautiful and beloved.
We live gradually into intimacy with the people we come to love. Sometimes we have intense moments of closeness when we grasp how deep the one we love runs in us. But most of the time our intimacies deepen when we aren’t paying attention, busy as we are with our lives. And the more the one we love becomes embedded in our life, the more readily the deepening of our intimacy can escape notice except for privileged moments of insight once in a while. So with Tom. In the weeks since he died, we have been telling each other stories about Tom. It’s what humans do when we lose someone so close to us. We listen to one another tell about Tom.
Here are two more of mine.
The first story unfolded over decades of friendship. Now and again, Tom and Agatha asked me to dinner while I was a graduate student and in our later years. Through those years Millman Street became a place where I expected wonderful conversations. Sometimes we visited in the kitchen and talked about Agatha’s combinations of flavors, textures, and colors in a work of art that became our meal. Sometimes we talked about substantive matters...