Tom’s Story

In the hotel dining room, he sat at at high pub table eating his complimentary breakfast while watching updates about the hurricane in the Carolinas. His eyes glanced around the dining room periodically, scanning the other guests, making eye contact when he could. His unusually bright white t-shirt bore a vertical fold mark down the center, the telltale sign of a seasoned traveler. His blue plaid pajama pants, baseball cap and earring in his left ear gave him a relaxed casual look, which matched his soft spoken voice as he spoke to the woman working in the kitchen. The tone of his voice and his demeanor conveyed a familiarity that seemed to indicate that he’d been staying at the hotel a while.

He greeted the newest visitor in the dining room, a woman traveling alone, smiled and nodded at the television and said, “I’m making money on this hurricane.” A questioning smile was all it took for him to explain that he had investment property that was being used for staging equipment for first responders and that a South Carolina city was paying him to use his land.

As they exchanged breakfast pleasantries, the woman mentioned she had traveled from North Carolina to this Missouri town and his eyes clouded a bit. He asked her if she remembered headlines from Raleigh about nine years ago about a drunk driving accident where a young man was killed. She paused, thinking that she must have heard about it, because the tone in his voice was serious. But she shook her head honestly and wondered later if it was because she was numbed by news of that nature, because it didn’t affect her or because it was too common. Without emotion, he matter of factly said, “That was my son, Anthony, who died.” His son had been killed by a drunk driver in a Hummer, a man who had previously been stopped for drinking and driving, who kept  a well-stocked bar in his office and who had gotten out of those traffic stops because he had money and was well-connected. The man, who was a heavy investor in an architectural firm, was in jail now, for taking the life of another man’s son, a son this man in a hotel dining room had raised alone.

He introduced himself as Tom and freely shared that he still ached for his son, who was not only his pride and joy, but his best friend. Tom explained the delight he felt when he found out he was going to be a father when he was only 17, although his girlfriend had expected him to pay her to have an abortion. “Of course I said no” and told her he would take care of her until the baby was born and then he would take the baby. And while he was true to his word, he and his newborn son lived in his car for their first six months together, unable to stay in homes for new parents, because those homes were always for unwed mothers, not for unwed fathers.

Somehow, the pair survived until Tom met a girl who became his girlfriend. Her mom helped take care of baby Anthony. Tom worked two and sometimes three jobs to support them all, and got into trucking. As Anthony grew, Tom would teach him about trucks and engines and how things worked and always made sure that Anthony had, of all things, very good shoes. He didn’t know why, but the shoes were important. Perhaps as an indicator that his son would always stand tall and have the stability of a good upbringing.

Anthony grew up, went to college and became a mechanical engineer. He met his own special girl, Teresa, and moved in with her. He called Tom to tell him that he wanted to marry Teresa and they conspired as to how he would propose.

But Anthony never got the chance. After the funeral and the court case and the lawsuit, Tom, devastated and lonely and lost, had a friend pack all of Anthony’s things and put them in a warehouse. The friend called and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Anthony’s closet held so many boxes of new or pristine shoes.” And Tom smiled wistfully at the memory, and shook his head. “Those shoes are still in that warehouse. I don’t know if I can ever go there.”

Tom couldn’t bear to attend the court case for the driver, nor the lawsuit dealings. And while he was awarded $25 million in damages and the driver went to jail, Tom was still floundering when he got a call from his attorney that the president of the  architectural firm in which the drunk driver had a 75% ownership wanted to speak with him. With the knowledge that the lawsuit would put the firm out of business, Tom went and he still didn’t know how he had mustered up the strength.

The company president greeted him with a pale demeanor and escorted him into a room where he nearly broke down with emotion both at the devastation of the loss of Tom’s son and the realization that the company he had worked so hard to build would have to shut down because of the settlement. The president explained that the drunk driver had been the company’s largest investor and that was his only association with the firm. In fact, he was the one who had been president and who had built the company with heart and dedication and had over 100 employees that depended on him. The man asked Tom if there was any way he could buy the company over a span of time….and Tom said yes. “Do you see the way events affect all people down the line?” Tom mused aloud.  “I lost my son. I didn’t want anyone else to suffer a loss because of one man, so we drew up papers and I told him to just make payments to me every month.” Tom smiled slightly, “He’ll probably be making payments to me for a long time, but that’s okay……”

Tom was at the hotel in Springfield, Missouri while his truck was being upfitted and painted. His truck was his home. He followed the road, and often camped at racetracks across the country. He is a big race fan and actually had camped for years with another couple before he found out they shared the commonality of loss of a child. And now, they were even closer and called each other weekly, if not more.

Anthony’s Teresa called him, too, and not long ago, called to tell him she was going to get married and she would like for him to be there. He said he was going to make sure she was taken care of and that he would of course, attend her wedding.

The hotel employee quietly wiped the table and interjected that the kitchen was closing and the momentum of the conversation halted. Tom absently wiped a tear from his eyes that had rested on his cheeks as he told his story and the woman hesitated, still aware that they were really strangers but that she had been the recipient of a great gift — the story in his heart. She stretched out her hand awkwardly and when he grasped it, she held it a little too long, as if to let him know his Anthony was now in her heart, too. They wished each other well, and as she stepped on the elevator and pressed the number to her floor, she let out a sob.

Downstairs in the lobby, Tom went to the front desk and said, yes, he would stay another day. He wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere and in fact, he wasn’t quite sure what his next destination would be anyway. Maybe this was where he was supposed to be. For now.

tom altom

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Speech to Grand Oak Elementary School 5th Grade Graduates

June 7, 2018

 

If I opened up my wallet right now, you all would see lots of small change, a number of pictures, and very few dollars. I don’t have very much money.

But if it was possible to open up my heart, you’d see that it was very, very full — in my heart, I am a very rich woman. And today is one of the reasons why. 

Fifth grade graduation is a huge deal. I get to talk to soon-to-be middle schoolers who are on their way to bigger things. And don’t get me wrong: Middle school isn’t easy. In fact, it can be tough. There are classes that will blow you away — you’ll find challenges and test subjects that you don’t think you can do. But you can. You will walk down halls and see so many unfamiliar faces that you’ll wonder if you will ever be able to meet all of them. And you will. You’ll experience middle school drama and you’ll sometimes think it won’t get better. But it will. Because you’ve made it this far. And you all — every single one of you — have so much further to go.  

When I was younger, I never in a million years would have thought I’d run for election. I never thought I’d meet people like former Vice President Joe Biden or the president of Hong Kong. I never thought I’d have a conversation with former President Bill Clinton or sit on a yacht and hike with a Chinese billionaire.

And while all of those are pretty cool things and pretty awesome people to meet, none of them come even close to my being able to stand here right now and look at all of you. Because I know — I KNOW — that our paths are going to cross again. Some of you will write books that I will read. Some of you will work for companies that do great things. Some of you may become inventors or public speakers or people who give back to your community. You may eventually have families of your own and raise your own outstanding future citizens. And here I stand, realizing that I am watching important people move from 5th grade to the future.

As you travel on whatever paths you take, I want you all to remember that there is one really important thing to carry with you. Remember to be kind. No matter how many A’s you get, no matter how much money you make or save, no matter how many friends you make, always remember to be kind.

And look for YOUR Robert Marsh. Who is Robert Marsh? Well, he was in my high school. He was different than most of the students. He was too friendly sometimes, kinda nerdy, didn’t always wear the best clothes. Sometimes he would say something awkward and he didn’t “fit” in a lot of groups. And Robert Marsh came to our high school prom by himself. He walked around the dance, smiling at people, but no one seemed to want to talk to him. But I did. I walked up to Robert Marsh and I asked him to dance. And you know what Robert Marsh said to me as we were dancing? He told me, “This is the best night of my life.”

Now that was almost 40 years ago. I don’t know if Robert Marsh remembers it. But I do. Because simply by being kind, I made someone else happy. And that’s a feeling I’ve tried to have every day since then.

When you go to middle school, there will be kids who aren’t like you. They will be finding their way, just like you. And you want to be the one to be kind to them. Because decades later, you’ll remember how it filled your heart and made YOU the richest person in the room….just by being kind.

Congratulations, Graduates. Thank you for the privilege of watching you move on your way today. I’m excited to watch what’s ahead for you!

 

 

It’s A Good Time to Share This

The recent headlines calling the countries of Africa and Haiti a vile name sent me back four years ago when my high school-aged daughter was applying for colleges. The essays required had her mystified — how do you explain what has formed you for 17 years in the simplicity of words?

Here is one of the results. All words by Sydney Swain. All beliefs shared with her proud mom.

 

Like an old negative developing into a photograph, the blurred lines become crisp, and I see two figures. As the picture becomes clearer, one begins to resemble the image I see in the mirror. My strong jawline, olive skin, and dirty blonde hair are now vivid. There, in front of me, I see myself. I am glowing, with opportunity and potential illuminating from my fortune of being born into a land promised with a wealth of possibilities.

The figure beside me is still dark, dull, stuck in the gloomy transition, not able to fully actualize into the extraordinary being that is hidden behind the shadows. But I see what is invisible to the eye. Repressed, abused, and neglected, there stands a small girl. Curious and capable, yet unable to express her creativity between the enormous walls and barbed wire fences that have imprisoned her for her eight years of existence.

Except, she does not exist. She was born in the confines of one of the several Haitian refugee camps in the Dominican Republic, a country that does not issue birth certificates to babies of parents without passports. This child is without a country, without an identity, and without a future. She is not real. To leave the dusty roads of her little world and step foot outside of the cement barricade would be to enter another country illegally. So there she waits. Patiently. For her story to develop.

As a surge of darkness envelops this fragile creature and her outline diminishes, I try to not turn away. I cannot leave her now, for although she may not be real to the rest of the world, she is real to me. I have felt the soft stroke of her hand on my arm; I have listened to the subtle hiccup she gives when a giggle unexpectedly overtakes her body; I have seen the cheerful smile she always wears, even in the midst of such poverty and despair.  How can I prove that there is more to her than an absent piece of paper? How is it fair to deny this child the chance to grow up, based solely on the condition in which she was born?

Without help, the shadows of her picture may never be defined. The aspirations and dreams of a faceless refugee child may never be able to radiate as mine are now.

So I will continue to stare at this imbalanced image, while the difference in contrast proceeds to grow, hoping that my light will somehow find its way to her.

To Be ThanksGiving, You Must Be ThanksReceiving

A few months ago, after experiencing the evil in people, it took everything I had to put one foot in front of the other and move amongst the very world that seemed to be against me at the time. Yes, it was political season, but I wasn’t a candidate, and yet the acts of cruelty lobbed against me and against my family was something I never imagined a human being could do to another — a purposeful effort to hurt my family’s reputation, finances, hard work.

One August morning, I decided I needed the peace of the mountains and I drove to Blowing Rock. I walked in the downtown, browsed through the stores, watched children swing in the downtown park. When rain started to fall, I meandered to a restaurant with a deck and sat down at a table in the corner.

I ordered a salad and a glass of wine (as a treat to myself for being alone!) and as I neared the end of my meal, a woman walked up from the sidewalk to the side of the deck. “Honey, can you tell me where the Flat Top Manor is?”

Well, I couldn’t, but the waitress Googled it, and as she was looking, the woman told me I “must” go, that it was a beautiful old home on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with a stunning vista and available wares from artisans for sale. “Why not?” I told her, and I paid my bill and began to walk to the parking lot to my car.

In an alley in Blowing Rock, there is a giant postcard painted on a wall that tells visitors, “Welcome to Blowing Rock!”. It was there that I saw another woman taking a picture of it. “Can I take a picture for you with you in it?” I asked her. She handed me her camera with thanks and I took a few pictures.

She asked me where I was from and I told her. I reciprocated the question and she told me she lived in a small town in Oklahoma, but then she amended her answer: “I actually am FROM a small town in Kansas.”

I was afraid I knew what she was going to say next when I asked her which small town. “Harper,” she replied. I dropped my shopping bag and my purse on the parking lot ground and heard myself whisper, “I must have needed you.” And then I told her, “if you have angel wings on your back, I won’t be surprised.”

You see, my great-grandmother was the first girl born in the incorporated Harper, Kansas. My grandmother was born there, and my mother. I spent most of my summers in Harper and in college, when I needed love and re-invigoration, and because my parents lived several states away, Harper was my solace, because my grandmother was my best friend.

This woman, Carol, actually had lived close to the family land we call Pilot Knob. She had attended the one room schoolhouse on the property that my grandmother eventually tore down and from which I still have some old books.

Carol joined me on the trip to Flat Top Manor, where we sat on the porch in rocking chairs and talked to other people from far away about the connections that can be made when your hearts are open. I drove home that day incredulous and inspired and overwhelmed…and happy.

I have much to be thankful for, as I always do. In giving thanks this year, I will remember that when I make my heart available, so much more happiness comes my way. I am able to give more, and in return, I receive.

I haven’t received a text lately from Carol and I’ve been hesitant to text her myself. Because part of me wants to believe she was an angel, sent from my grandmother, to let me know all is going to be okay. But I may just send her this note, to let her know that in the randomness of the world, on a day I decided impulsively to drive to a mountain town, ate a restaurant that was closest to me when a quick rain shower came down, sat at a table close to a sidewalk where a woman could walk by and ask me a question and walk down an alley where someone was taking a picture, she will be on my Thanksgiving list today.

Happy ThanksReceiving Day.

There Are Always Two Sides to What You Read. Make Sure You Ask.

These are the reasons to check into each candidate. Talk to him/her. Ask about what you read. Delve into issues and look at votes. There is usually more to to learn.

Conversely, if someone sends you a “fact”, don’t rely on their research. Don’t rely on mine. Do your own.

Danny Phillips Wins the Lottery