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From Afar the Bullet Holes Look Like Lace [R.I.P. Steve Toms, friend, teacher, mentor, smart aleck]

Posted Oct 30 2012 11:48pm

This picture cracks me up. It’s from a Shape photoshoot and Steve and I both hated it – I thought my thighs looked fat, he thought he had a double chin – but of course this ended up being the one they used as the lead pic on the story. We had a lot of laughs about this one. Also, that water bottle isn’t mine. He grabbed it from some random person in the gym. I’m trying desperately not to laugh. This is how I’ll always remember him: kicking my butt and making me laugh.

I honestly don’t know if I can write this post. I feel so much pressure because I’m a writer and I should be able to say something amazing or profound or… whatever. Especially because he deserves an amazing tribute. But I’m so gutted with grief I can’t think. I’ve never lost anyone this close to me in this way before. Of course I was absolutely heartbroken when my beloved grandparents, my sister and my baby died (not all at the same time – my life is not a Jonathan Franzen novel yet) but those were all expected in their own way, albeit wrenching. But this? This is so shocking, so nonsensical, so devoid of answers (Why? How? When? WHY?), I can’t grasp it. My friend Dr. Jon said there is a thing aptly called SADS, like SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), but meant to describe when a young, perfectly healthy adult just… dies. He died. My friend is dead. I can’t grasp it. I can’t stop crying.

The pain is in all the little holes he left in my life, puncturing my immediate future like buckshot, letting the water run out of my hands, my ears, my eyes. I can’t hold it in.

Steve Toms’ death is a tragedy for the big holes he left. His beautiful young wife left to celebrate alone their one-year wedding anniversary in two weeks. His sweet son who looks just like him but will have no living memories of his dad. His terminally ill mother, whom he moved here to take care of, thinking he would walk her through death but instead went through that door first, the way no child ever should. The fact that he is – was (I can’t stop talking about him in the present tense! I can’t grasp this.) just 35 years old. The fact that he was one of the healthiest people I know. Knew.

But I think Steve’s death is so personally jarring because of how present he was in my life. I saw Steve or talked to him nearly every day. It began because he was my liaison to Lifetime Fitness when I first started working with them but it quickly evolved because of who Steve is – he has (had!) a great talent for connecting all kinds of people, bringing us together in seemingly random patterns that ended up benefiting everyone. He was my personal trainer, interviewee, mentor, teacher, collaborator and even once (in a pinch and under much duress) a fitness model for one of my articles. But most of all he was a friend. To be clear, I make no special claim on his friendship. He was this way with everyone: open, funny, generous, direct, and a wee bit sarcastic when the occasion called for it. Ironically it’s because of all the little ways that he helped me that this hurts so much. I’m told that buckshot may be small going in but the exit wound is horrible.

A small hole: Other than my husband, Steve was the last person I talked to last night. It was nothing substantial, we were setting up a time to meet to coordinate our various projects. Then he told me he had to go get some chicken and deliver it somewhere else. I joked that he was going to pick up chicks. I laughed. I think he did too. But the last thing I read before I went to bed last night was “Okay, see you tomorrow.” Tomorrow only came for one of us.

A small hole: The first thing I read when I was awoken at 6:25 this morning was a text from Steve’s cellphone telling me that he, inexplicably, was dead. (Why? How? When? WHY?) It was his sweet sister-in-law going through his phone, letting me know our 9:30 meeting was off.

A small hole: The alarm chime on my phone dinged promptly at 9:20, reminding me not to be late. I have a dozen such appointments placed weeks ago in my calendar, landmines, waiting to remind me not to be late. Waiting to remind me he’s still dead. I can’t bring myself to delete them.

A small hole: I reached into my purse to get my keys and out fell a neatly folded magazine clipping, a report of a study about the detrimental effects of intensive endurance cardio on the heart muscle. Put there because I was going to give it to him at our meeting to help him with research for a book he was writing and I was helping him with. I put it back in my purse.

A small hole: He wrote me this: “You have no idea how inspiring you have been to get my butt in gear, to make an impact on the world. I will always help you in any way I can.” He was always, always looking for ways to help people. And I didn’t realize how much I have come to depend on his help until it suddenly was gone. I was trying to help him too. I still have a copy of his book proposal on my hard drive. Do I have enough pieces to put it together?

A small hole: I had to make a call to coordinate an interview/photoshoot. And then I realized Steve was the one with her phone number. And that even if I had her number, she likely had not yet been told about his death. And that even if I had her number, was able to call her and spoke with her, I didn’t want to be the one who told her about his death. And then I realized if Steve were here he’d be laughing his butt off, the way he usually did when I over-analyze things and get all control-freaky about my job. He probably would have made me do jumping pull-ups to burn off my nervous energy. I hate jumping pull-ups.

A small hole: I was sitting next to him at his beautiful, smart, talented wife’s bodybuilding competition (reporting on it for Shape, natch) and when she came in second place, I noticed tears – just a few. At first I thought he was crying because, as her trainer, he was upset she didn’t win. No, he told me later, it was because he knew how disappointed she would be and since she never cried for herself, he did. I don’t know if she knew he cried for her that night. In that moment, when she stood with her smile never wavering, shining alone in her perfect circle of light, she wasn’t really alone.

A small hole: One day he asked me why I so intense with my exercise. I answered “Because I was hurt once and I never want to be weak again.” He answered me, “Being hurt doesn’t mean you were weak.” (He was famous for his terse answers. Once I ran into him with my toddler daughter who was dressed like a hobo. “She dresses herself,” I shrugged, by way of explanation. “So do you,” he shrugged right back at me.)

I feel like a jerk, making his death all about me. But what we know is so limited:

- Sometime between the folds of dark and dawn, in the space between one breath and the next, he died.

- His wife found him, already gone.

- No one knows why. (Why? When? How? WHY?)

Did it hurt? Did he even know it was happening? Did his mother feel it, the way I think I would, as that last ghostly strand of umbilicus severed? Did he whisper his son’s name? Did his soul rejoice to meet his Savior whom he so deeply loves and served so well or was he momentarily caught, watching his beautiful wife, shining alone in her perfect circle of light, as she cried the tears for him he could not cry for himself? These are questions I can’t ask. I can’t grasp it. And so I talk about myself.

Steve didn’t make our meeting. From afar, all the tiny holes look like lace.

Rest in peace, my friend Steve Toms. It was my great privilege to know you in this life and I hope to meet you again in the hereafter. As long as you don’t make me do jumping pull-ups. 

And to those of you who stuck with me and read this far, I am deeply grateful. Thank you for letting me talk. Your generosity of spirit, your empathy, your forgiveness, your patience. That is a gift to me today.

This. I wish we all could go back to this point. Press pause.

He was way more worried about his plyo box getting damaged than me;)

What he was actually saying was “If you pee, I’m going to rub your nose in it.” Which made me laugh so hard I almost did pee.

 

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