The last time Tom and I met, we were surrounded by coffee grinder uproars, conversations, and laughter inside the Grindhouse Café. It was May 2, 2015 and members of Highland Writers’ Group gathered for our biweekly meeting. Tom Spencer sat to my immediate right. His oxygen tube indicated that all was not well with him, but his sharp mind and high spirits told me otherwise.
After my turn to read, Tom made encouraging comments about my manuscript. Then he leaned toward me.
“Why haven’t you signed up for the poetry class?” Tom asked quietly against a cacophony of background noises.
“I’d like to, but my schedule is too full right now,” I heard myself muttering feebly. I’d learned a few weeks earlier that Tom was offering free poetry lectures. Upon consideration, I had decided against adding more to my plate.
“But writing poems will help you build your vocabulary,” Tom said persuasively.
~ ~ ~
For the next few days, Tom’s words kept ringing on my head. On May 11, the morning of the first class, I sent Tom an email saying that I had found my son a ride to and from his orchestra concert that evening and asking if it was too late to register. When no response came by midafternoon, I mustered my courage and dialed Tom’s phone number. Doris, Tom’s companion, answered and told me that Tom was ill. But yes, I was welcome to go to the class that evening.
I attended the class. Toward the end, each of us got to speak with Tom on a cell phone. To me, Tom’s mind was as astute as I’d ever known, his voice strong and enthusiastic. There wasn’t even a thread of doubt in my mind that he’d soon recover.
~ ~ ~
The next day I received Tom’s email (below).
On May 12, 2015, at 3:11 PM, tom spencer <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Forgive my lack of response Helena, This is the first I could get to my e-mail since Sunday. I am pleased that you attended and hope that you were pleased also. Let me know if you have any questions on last evening's presentation. You have good writing skills and I would be happy to help you expand them. What instrument does your son play? Your family will always come first in my book of rules so there is never a need to apologize for your devotion to them.
Tom’s message filled my heart with warmth and energy. I wanted to thank him and tell him what I thought about the class. Yet I was too busy spinning around my hectic activities to write my reply until June 2, when I was 31,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean on my way to Shanghai.
On my return flight from China on July 1, I let my thoughts roam in pleasant anticipation. One of the events I longed for was to attend the July poetry class. I was sure I’d see Tom and have a chance to express my gratitude.
Nothing prepared me for the shocking news that Tom Spencer had left the world just two days before I came back home.
~ ~ ~
The last time I saw Tom was at Sheets Funeral Home in Lowell on Sunday, July 5, 2015. Gazing at the tranquil face of the 71-year old poet, I felt a few poetry lines bubbling out of my blurred memory.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song” resonated with my emotions.
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I know not where,
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
I could not remember exactly when and where our first meeting took place. But each time I saw Tom was at a writing-related event. And on nearly every occasion we had a private conversation. Tom would prompt me to do more, such as attending a workshop or a poetry reading, so that I could learn to write proficiently in English, which is not my mother tongue.
Emily Dickinson’s lines then came rushing to me as my thoughts roved along memory lane.
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
I was a mere acquaintance of Tom, or else I’d have known about his serious ailments, as all of his friends did. To me, Tom the man and poet made a difference for the better. In my eyes, therefore, his life was definitely not in vain but of great value.
When I looked at Tom for the last time, Henry David Thoreau’s words rang in my ears.
My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.
I thought that Tom Spencer, now lying peacefully in a coffin surrounded by visitors and flower baskets, ought to be proud of his life as a poetic masterpiece, for its echoes have reached far and deep.
Helena Qi lives in Munster, Indiana. She has attended Highland Writers’ Group meetings since 2011 and aspires to become a skilled writer.