Every year, his friends walk in his honor. Team Tommy Fuss they call it. It’s their way of remembering, finding closure by never forgetting. Each year, their emails come in, asking for donations or more walkers, anything really from my high school classmates, now dispersed across the country.
No one knows why he did it but his death came at a time of great stress, not just for him, or our class but also for the millions of other high school seniors approaching the precipice of college, seeking direction for their previously directionless lives. In his obituary they noted his many friends, not just his close friends—Team Tommy Fuss—but also the many other members of Belmont Hill School’s seventy-two-person graduating class. He was not unpopular; people said hey to him in the hallways, as they did for everyone else in such a small, insular New England prep school. People made fun of him too—bound to happen to anyone in the all-boys environment and especially to those with a love of Star Wars, aeronautics, chess, and the television show 24. They made fun, but they loved him too. He had so many passions, so many loves. He seemed such a permanent part of the class. Therefore, when the news arrived that he had driven home from school, parked his car in the garage, closed the garage door and waited until his lungs filled up with exhaust fumes, it arrived in the company of a shock so complete as to be incomprehensible. Asphyxiating is the word.
Afterwards, all we got were gatherings, first in the Fuss’ home, then in our school’s chapel, then outside a church, all the boys in their coats and ties standing in two lines, holding umbrellas, welcoming people to the funeral service—silent, confused. All we got was mystery. Depression they thought it was, malfunctioning medications. But no one really knew or no one decided to tell us. I remember sitting in my best friend’s house with the lights off. It was late at night after Tommy’s wake, we had the fire going and I sat next to my friend—a boy of quiet confidence, of restraint—him crying strange, silent tears, me wondering what to say.
I started spending nights in my girlfriend’s car, in parking lots somewhere. We sat, the seats reclined all the way back, talking, listening to music, occasionally touching each other, occasionally not. It was here, listening to my girlfriend answer the questions that I asked, telling stories she had previously kept so intimately to herself, it was here that I realized how little we know each other. We talk, we interact, we participate in activities, know each other’s hobbies, likes and dislikes, but we never hear the thoughts behind these things, our whys and why nots. It’s only when one of us leaves, that we ask the hard questions. Then we want to know everything, but can find out nothing. And that’s what my parking lot discussions with my girlfriend were: an attempt to answers the questions that lay behind the everyday, a change to get real answers before it was too late.
Maybe this was what Tommy was doing in his car that night: enjoying the calm recesses of the familiar space, trying to shift through the whys and why nots. Perhaps, he was taking his moment away from the world, soaking in the serenity that he so often had enjoyed while flying rockets in the afternoons or with his parents on the couch watching Jack Baurer kill terrorists. Maybe not, but this is how I will remember him, remember it. Or maybe still there was something more too it: maybe, in his leaving, he was giving us something, a chance for us, the surviving, to tackle the questions that he himself couldn’t fully tackle. A reason to question each other and to talk. I learned so much during my parking lot conversations, things about my girlfriend and myself, about life. That was Tom who gave that to me. And he gave me this as well, gave us, the members of Belmont Hill’s class of 2011: a reason to grow closer—though it is a shame that such a reason might be necessary.
I look now at my computer and see again the email from Team Tom Fuss. They are asking for donations or for walker, anything really, anything to honor the memory and the tragedy and the gifts of Tommy. I read the email once again and then I click reply.
Written by Standard Alexander, 2010