Originally posted 8/8/09. Please donate to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network if you can.
I’ve been stewing on this for hours. Since I got the call from my Mom this afternoon, I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to say…how to say it, what to divulge and why. Things I can’t say aloud or talk about go here I guess.
Tom Miller was my uncle. He was ten years older than me. We were always close…probably because of our ages, but more so because we were both a little weird. If anyone in the world matched my sensibilities – humor, temper, attitude – it was Tom.
He left home at around 17 or 18, joining the Navy and getting the hell out of our crappy home town. He went to the Philippines, Turkey and saw places that no one in else in our family had imagined.
When he came home from the Navy, he lived with us in Florida when I was about 12. We had a house with a pool, and every day we would swim laps then do Tai Chi. Or at least he did – I just liked hanging out with him.
One of my favorite stories hinges on the fact that I used to listen to the radio and call in to contests. One day they asked ‘what singers real name was Reginald Dwight’. Being an avid ‘Casey Kasem Americas Top 40′ listener, I knew it was Elton John. So I called in and won the prize: two tickets to see ‘The Who’. Being a dumb kid, I had no idea who they were,nor did I care.
So Tom generously traded me a Radio Shack remote controlled car for the tickets. Quite the boon for a kid! A few weeks afterwards, he started playing me their records and got me into real rock – Casey Kasem would not be my music mentor any longer. Did I mention that this was their farewell tour?
I’m not going to write a biography here. But he was a huge part of my life. Growing up without a father, I was raised by my uncles – they all taught me things. Sometimes good, sometimes bad – or they tried to. Whatever good parts of being a man that I know, I learned from them.
Tom got me into cigars. He got me into music and politics (although I swung back to the left a bit in the late 90s), bought me books, taught me to drive. He inspired me to do things better, to get out of the life I was creating for myself. He pushed me to do things, to learn things, to question things. Even when I was at my stupidest or my most self destructive, he was there with advice and encouragement.
He always believed in me when no one else did. He always said I had potential and he truly believed that, even when I didn’t.
Christmas 2007. As we tended to anytime we were at a family gathering, we were outside having a cigar. We talked a bit about work and family and life in general.
Then he told me he was dying.
We had all noticed for a year or two that he had lost weight but everyone attributed it to hard work and his lifestyle. But that day he told me that he had pancreatic cancer and that he was going to die. He didn’t go into detail, but he did ask that I not tell anyone.
It turned out that I was the only person he told for a long time. In fact, when he had a particularly bad spell late in 2007 and was hospitalized, it turned into a bit of a family feud when I responded to news of his cancer with ‘yes, I knew already’.
That’s how he was – private, complex and and never wanting to burden anyone. His illness was his and he apologized to anyone who had to help him in the rare cases when he didn’t do for himself. Despite helping out everyone in the family at least once over the years, he hated to have it reciprocated.
His cancer was pretty bad. He was always in a lot of pain and he continued to lose weight. I went up to see him around this time last year…August 2nd. We spent the day talking, had some lunch, smoked a cigar. We talked about how we had made it out of Athens – about how we had beaten the odds and had both somehow managed to make something of our lives despite the way we came up.
On August 7th of 2008, he sent me an email thanking me for a care package I had sent up (a wireless router and some Obama stickers – a staunch Conservative with a sense of humor, he loved them) and to wish me an early happy birthday. In the email he told me how proud he was of me and said he was sorry for any bad times and that he wished he could have been there for me more. I wrote him back, asking if he was alright – the tone of the email had me worried. He responded that all was fine – he was just a little tired and morose.
Over the past year, we had seen each other just once more – at Christmas again. He had gained a few pounds back and seemed to be responding to his medication a bit. We exchanged emails and the occasional phone call – the last being a few weeks ago when he was in California. We played phone tag for a few days but didn’t get reconnected.
A year after he had me so worried I get the phone call in the middle of the day from my Mom, telling me he was gone. But there’s more to it than that.
After the years of constant agony, of dozens of pills a day and so many surgeries and so much pain, he had enough. After going out Saturday morning for some shopping, he came home, went into his office and shot himself.
No bullshit, no dancing around the issue. He was not a man who took things lightly…he was very meticulous with his life. He carefully weighed the pros and cons of situations. He saw things clearly and for what they were, good or bad. If after years of that pain he finally had to end it, he had reached the wall.
Although I wish it hadn’t happened, I honestly can’t say I can blame him. He knew what he could take and as someone with more than a bit of medical knowledge, he knew what was left.
After having been up all night thinking about it, I’m going through that whole ’5 stages’ thing. My first thought was that he couldn’t have done it – it had to have been a burglary or something. I’m pissed that I didn’t call more, that I didn’t make the effort to see him more. I’m mad that he didn’t contact me one last time – minutes after the call, I went to check my email in case he had.
But mostly I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to say goodbye or that I didn’t get to tell him how proud I was of him for being so fearless in the face of death.
Even as I sit here at 5:30am, on my 40th birthday, it astounds me that even as I hate him a little for leaving us all behind, that I admire him for once again doing things on his own terms, dying as he lived and once again inspiring me to do more, to do better, to be better.
Rest in peace, Thomas Maurice Miller.