My friend Tom died around 6am Friday morning.
Tom was a professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute for many years, but I never took any of his classes. I got to know him eight or nine years ago, when Shay and I got together. She had been taking care of him for years by then.
We used to drive up to his place in Evanston from Beverly and go out to eat. Every now and again he’d take the Purple Line downtown, then the Rock Island Line out to Beverly. Tom hadn’t owned a car in decades and the one he mentioned most often was his first, a used Model “A” he got as a young man in Nebraska, where he’d grown up.
What had occupied Tom most of his life was his collection. Or, more accurately, collections. A visit to his place was invitation to fall down an endless series of rabbit holes. If you had even a marginal interest in either of Chicago’s World’s Fairs, the English Arts & Crafts movement, Scandinavian design, Roycroft furniture, rare books of various kinds, Disney figurines, menus from the Cunard Line, or dozens of other types of art and ephemera, you could happily lose yourself at Tom’s for days.
After Shay and I broke up, Tom was the only one of her close friends I stayed in touch with. I’d take the train up to Evanston every couple of months and we’d walk from his place to have lunch, usually at either the Celtic Knot or Mount Everest. The two restaurants were a couple doors down from each other. Tom often brought clippings from the New York Times that he thought I might enjoy. Our conversation moved easily between art, politics, literature, and Shay.
After she moved out of town she asked that I look in on Tom from time to time and I was happy to do so. He was a solitary and eccentric guy, but very easy to like. At least it was easy for me to like him. That’s not a thing I can say about many people.
Sometime last spring, Shay took Tom west to visit his childhood haunts in Nebraska. She would text me, exasperated, that he was getting confused or wandering off. Another friend got him an iPhone in the hopes of keeping better track of him, but the device caused nothing but chaos and frustration. He invariably pushed the wrong thing, dialing up the internet when he was trying to call someone, for instance, insisting a news story was a personal communication he was baffled by.
We celebrated his 80th birthday at a friend’s house in the West Loop in the fall. Soon after that, Tom’s health declined quickly. A series of falls landed him in the hospital and forced Shay to rush back to town to figure out how to make his living situation sustainable. He had lived alone in his apartment for twenty-eight years. The two flights of stairs alone now posed a real challenge.
I visited him at the rehab facility where he was recovering from internal bleeding after one of his falls. Then I visited when he was back at the hospital. Then back at the rehab. That time was the last one we had a more or less coherent conversation. “I’m afraid all the news is bad on my end,” he told me, then covered his face with his hands. Each time there was a little less of him—physically and mentally, he was withdrawing.
The scene at hospice was grim. A half dozen frail old people were parked in the lobby before a flatscreen, which was blaring Mean Girls at an earsplitting volume. I held Tom’s hand awhile and got the nurse to bring him some water. His voice was barely a whisper. Not much of what he said made much sense. He said he saw me in a movie. He kept reaching up for something, grasping for a thing only he could see. At first I thought he had his hand up to block the setting sun, which was glaring through the windows just then, but that wasn’t it.
I got up to use the bathroom and as I was passing by an old woman talking to a friend I heard her say, “Pretend you don’t care and you won’t care…” I don’t know what she was talking about but it seemed a fair coping mechanism for the situation in that place. No one would ever want to be there.
The night before Tom died I came for a last visit. His eyes were closed, his mouth open, he made occasional gurgling, choking sounds. Shay was there. She had candles going and music playing. He was covered in a quilt from home and some of his favorite stuffed animals surrounded him. Tom had elaborate years-long relationships with these and many others. We drank a toast with smuggled-in beer.
I will of course remember these last sad moments of his life. But I will also remember many other moments. The one that sticks most is the recurring scene of Tom and Shay bent over a book or a print or some tchotchke as they work to catalogue his endless collection. She often got exasperated in the face of this monumental and seemingly endless task, but kept going nonetheless. They got pretty close to the end before he was too frail to continue. Whoever ends up with the job of dispersing these thousands and thousands of objects will have the very long spreadsheet she created to use as an indispensable guide.
Shay told me that in the last years Tom often told her his life had been a waste, that no one cared about the esoteric searching and accumulation which consumed him. Perhaps he wasn’t the happiest guy I ever met, but he was a man with a passion and a purpose. He was utterly devoted to the subjects he loved, and that, in my book, made his life a meaningful one.
I’m glad I got to know him a little and I’ll miss him.
In his memory, please consider donating under the name Beerbohm to one of the following charities:
International Crane Foundation: https://www.savingcranes.org/
Polar Bears International: https://polarbearsinternational.org/
Native Youth Leadership Alliance: https://nativeyouthleadership.org/
The Arbor Day Foundation: https://www.arborday.org/
RIP Tom Sloan (1938-2019)