Tom was one of our great writers and poets. And one of our great under appreciated writers and poets. He was also a sad soul who could not face his remaining time on earth without agony, and chose to end his own life on this past July 4th, Independence day 2008.
Tom was a friend of mine, I am proud to say, because his friendship was a validation of my own value. I don't need to have my value proven to me, but to earn the care and love of such a special person is special. And my care and love for Tom was easy, because he appreciated me for whatever reasons.
Are you familiar with Tom Disch?
Tom Disch was best known to different followings as a writer of SF, thrillers, criticism, and as a poet. His stunning science fiction includes: The Genocides, Camp Concentration and the brilliant 334. If you never heard of these books, you probably never read any of his poetry either.
Here's a wikipedia entry, if you are interested.
When I have found myself talking about Tom in the recent past, it is often enough to folks who have asked me what I'm working on, and I tell them a film about a writer. Then they ask what he has written, and then I usually ask them if they have heard of The Brave Little Toaster. I know that a few folks have heard of that one, it was made into an animated film by Disney. It began as sort of a children's story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, briefly becoming a very minor franchise with its sequel, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars.
Disney subsequently asked Tom if he could develop further projects. Tom delivered to Disney as "work for hire," a clever adaption of Shakespeare for the kids, and transported it to Africa, even giving it an ecological subplot - and without a credit or the slightest stake in its future, but for the grand sum of $5,000 - this astoundingly literate, self educated poet and non-businessman offered up to the world something called The Lion King.
But one generally has to find commissions where one can if your vocation is writing. Tom, once an enfant terrible of the SF New Wave, was now what they call, a mid-list writer. Those are writers whose work isn't popular enough to keep his older novels in print, or do sizable runs or significant promotions on their present work. Tom's had a few books reappear in reprint editions over the last few years, a few can still be found.
His latest novel is The Word of God, due out this month. Rejected by a supposedly sympathetic literary agent early on, Tom complained that he was now accepting an advance he would have refused at the beginning of his career. But Tachyon Press are good people, and at least the book will see daylight. He wrote it at the drunken end of the writers' block that challenged him as he cared for Charles. (If you want to hear g-d's voice, a q & a is available.)
I haven't yet mention Charles. Charles and Tom were partners for 35 years. Charles died of prostate cancer about three years ago; Tom cared for his lover until the bitter end. Only Tom's NYC landlord was pleased at that news, and began eviction proceedings against Tom, while the body of Charles - the leaseholder -was hardly cold.
My son, Isaac, and me brought Tom back up to his country place in Barryville, for a look-see at what might be Tom's only refuge. The country place was a none too posh old two story wood frame house, full of painful memories amidst plenty of quiet and solitude - though these were not exactly the things Tom needed or wanted. And he had ignored the house for most of the Winter and Spring, as his caring turned to mourning.
We had a hard time forcing open the door to the place. It had swollen shut tight from the burst pipes and water that was everywhere. Now thousand of books, artwork, the piano, the box with Charles' ashes upon the piano, the stuffed animal surrogate children and all the memories were damp, destroyed and toxic with mold. The entire home was a ruin, and Tom mused about living on the streets. He stayed at my house, some 30 minutes away that night, resigned and strangely bemused by it all, at least once he could recline and take it a bit easier.
At 68 years old, Tom is not as mobile as he once was, no surprise. But his diabetes has taken a grave toll, the neuropathy in his legs made him walk like Frankenstein's monster, his drinking, his sadness, his large frame was carrying much too much weight for his weakened spirit. He could no longer enjoy the taste of food, had not much will to eat, missed having someone to cook for and dine with, and was growing more and more concerned about the price of food.
He was being dicked around by increasingly smaller people. He was spending money he could hardly afford to fight his eviction. He was fighting with an insurance company over his house. Tom has never suffered fools lightly, but for the insincere and dishonest, he had frightening anger, even hate.
Some three or so years ago, Tom rang me up; he was a bit drunk. He asked if I had my camera available and if I might be interested in a collaboration. He had lately written a series of poems after a very sad, very famous Schubert lieder, and they were intended to be his suicide note. If I taped him reading, he could then kill himself, and I could enjoy the publicity that followed. I offered to videotape him, only if he would postpone his suicide.
I couldn't hope to convince this man, much smarter than I, and at a place I had never been, to do more than spare me a role as his accessory. The best I could do was be a friend. His spirits improved from time to time. He was frequently so depressed he could break into tears at any moment.
Last week we spoke, and I made him laugh a few times. Over our last few conversations, he has been more concerned for me and whatever my problems might be, than ever before. The time before last, after we had completed our formal goodbyes, and as I was lowering the phone to its cradle, after a pause he spoke without my expecting it, while inertia and confusion ended the call too abruptly. In a voice strained and tentative he had said "I love you."
I didn't know what to do, or whether to do anything; though now I think I understand, and I am a little disappointed in myself. But only a little, because I'm pretty sure he already knew.
I love you too, Tom.
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Here is Tom's blog, which includes not only his latest poetry, his thoughts and his wit, but since his death became public knowledge, it is as though a wake is being held there.