Tom Jones passed away before I was born. He was my mom’s brother. The one who raised her. She called him “marshmallow”, and she was 27 when he died.
I never met Tom Jones. Every picture I’ve seen is striking. He has a nose people visit plastic surgeons for and piercing blue eyes radiating with passion he’d gush out at the MET or the Louvre. Tom called people, “hunny” and told them off. His spirit joins the chorus of all those lost who called New York City home, and there are so many and the losses are so heavy. But when I stand in New York City, his is a solo thundering through the restless city.
Once, he sat at Sarabeth’s in New York City. A disheveled woman in a moomoo sat at the table closest to him. He scoffed that someone would dare present themselves so poorly at such a trendy establishment. The waiter leans over to Uncle Tom, and he whispers, “you have the distinction of sitting next to Elizabeth Taylor.”
Those were the funny moments. He nurtured his siblings. He abandoned a small city that could not love him as he was and is for New York. He would not let his love be a secret couched between the hills of Pittsburgh. He refused to love only in the dark, to taper his fervent sparkle for a world blinded by it. No, Uncle Tom moved where everything was sparkle. Like attracts like, I guess.
And then something came to rob him of his sparkle. As a nurse, he saw the black shadow overtake beautiful, bright boys like him. Gay men became imprisoned in bodies so compromised by AIDS until those bodies could no longer fight it, and then those beautiful bright boys were gone. And mass funerals erected around the city. And protests and screams poured through the gridded streets of New York. And the shadow caught Uncle Tom, too. He became a supernova– the last evolutionary stage of a massive star, powerful and luminous stellar explosion. Only it was a slow and excruciating fizzle. I know he was a Libra. I know his birthday, but I don’t know the date he died. There’s something powerful about my family, that I remember everyone’s birthdays but not necessarily when they left this earth. Because Tom wasn’t the way he died. That matters, but he lived so brilliantly, that date is a historical landmark. His death is when the light went out.
Loss is ugly. It incites chills and tears, and losing those closest to us has no beauty. It is not glamorous nor poetic. I feel the absence of a relative I’ve never met. I miss him, and I only know him in secondhand stories. My mother’s grief roots so deeply in her body that carrying me imparted some of her Everest grief to the next generation. I feel his loss in my chest. It lurks in family pictures and moments where I can hear him speaking, and I don’t know his firsthand voice.
An ex-girlfriend lost her sister to cancer years before I dated her. When I asked my mom how I could support my then girlfriend, my mom said, “it’s something you never get over. you get used to carrying it with you.” I carry him with me, too. His memory is a powerful and luminous stellar explosion, but his loss is broken glass in so many of our chests.