That name has floated through my head many times over the past thirty plus years. Tom Stevens.
It doesn’t hurt when I think of his name. I can’t really describe the feeling I have. It’s not good; I’ll tell you that. My dad came from Alabama to D.C. to pursue his doctoral degree in physics at Howard University. Tom Stevens was one of the names that came from those days. I have no idea how he and Daddy related through the program, because I actually knew him mostly through my mother. When my parents divorced, it seems that Mommy inherited Tom Stevens’ friendship in the decree.
He was a nice guy, but he did have some peculiar ways. Even as a child, I could see them. He was lonely; I could tell. He was very smart; I could tell. He had lots of money; I could tell. And he was ever to ready to share it with anyone; I could tell.
Remember that round rooftop restaurant in Crystal City that rotated? Well, I had the privilege of eating there as a little kid. Tom Stevens took us. It was fancy - real fancy. My first course was a salad on a clear glass plate. Among the leafy greens was also a fat juicy green caterpillar. Tom Stevens called the waiter, and the plate was taken away.
My first professional sports game was with my Dad. But, Daddy was a baseball guy. My first football game was with Tom Stevens. He took me, my sister, and my mom to a Redskins game at RFK Stadium. It was my first time there. I don’t remember the game very much, but I remember the awe of the stadium, the people, and the action of seeing in person what I had previously only seen on a screen. Tom Stevens.
You know who took me downtown for my first time on the National Mall for the Fourth of July celebration? You guessed it Tom Stevens, Mommy, me, and my big sister sat on blankets we kept in the car. They were handmade quilts my father’s mother made in surplus. We got there early and sat there for an E.Tern.I.Ty, A. Boring eternity until night fell and the fireworks began. The show was worth every single boring moment on Granny’s blankets. Tom Stevens.
I’m not sure how many times we went to Tom Stevens’ house, but I remember where he lived. It was McLean VA. I had never seen ‘cleaner air, cleaner streets, or cleaner grass’ was what I thought when we drove out there. Even today, McLean is definitely the ritziest of the ritzy for the DMV area, but back then, it was not lost on me that this black man was living way out here with these white folks. The significance of it was not lost on me. I’ll tell you being born in Alabama and raised there and in DC, I didn’t personally know a white person until I was 23 or so. So, me and my Jim Crow south self knew it was awesome and important that Tom Stevens was out here with these peoples (as my dad would say). It made me dream about living someplace other than the places I’d seen so far as a kid. Tom Stevens.
I don’t know when those in person meetings ended and why, but Tom Stevens’ interactions with our family at some point became relegated to phone calls. Sometimes Mommy would pick up. Tom Stevens was a depressed person. I heard her talking to him and to others about it. When he’d call, she would often be visibly annoyed. She talked, but would find reasons to get off the phone with him. I always felt bad for him. He was lonely. That’s what they would say. He had no family and he was lonely. Tom Stevens.
Soon, I was asked to pick up the phone when Tom Stevens called. “Mommy’s not here”. I felt so bad telling that lie. If you met my mother for any more than 5 seconds, you’d know for
damn sure we were not at home alone. But there I was telling Tom Stevens, “Mommy’s not here Tom Stevens.”
At some point, that statement transformed into a more sophisticated “Mommy is not available”. I hated hearing Tom Stevens’ voice respond when I told that lie. He had done so much for us when he took me to all those places. I was little but I appreciated it, and I appreciated knowing him. We shouldn’t lie to him. But most importantly it was the loneliness I heard for myself and the loneliness I heard my mother talking about when talking about Tom Stevens.
This went on for years. Years. Until one day Tom Stevens didn’t call anymore. It was a while before I finally heard the horrible news as Mommy was getting it She was cradling the phone she refused to cradle when he called and she was crying in disbelief. Tom Stevens had killed himself. So lonely was he, that he wasn’t even found for a while. It seems, we weren’t the only ones avoiding the lonely Tom Stevens.
Isn’t it funny how we hide from the lonely? Isn’t it funny how “I had my own thing going on” seems so right in the moment?” Isn’t it funny how the lonely are good for games, dinners, fireworks, money, block parties, advice, baby showers, but not to be cradled and nurtured until they can walk again? I mean, heaven forbid, that the Tom Stevens’ of the world fail to thrive in the time you allot.
I don’t think of him daily like I do my Daddy, but I do think of Tom Stevens several times a year since his suicide. I’ve never felt regret like I failed to help him, because I know I couldn’t, But, I have regretted that I lied to him on the phone. I have regretted that we as a family took so much from him and yet were unable, unwilling, or unaware that as good Christian folks — missionary Baptists at that— we needed to pour into him when he clearly needed us more.