by Terri Castillo-Chapin
Then at the end of summer, he received discouraging news. The leukemia was back and there was little more the doctors could do. "I want to live," Thomas said to me. "I want to grow old with you. I want to play again."
We mustered all of our energies and looked into alternative therapies and clinical trials. These were not the easiest of days, yet we had so much: our faith, our families and friends, each other. Thomas maintained a rigorous spirit and optimism. These days he wasn't playing music onstage; the instrument he now played was himself. His generosity, courage, and humor were the notes coming out of him, and people - even strangers - were attracted to him. Often doctors and nurses called or stopped by the house to say hello, and former hospital roommates would phone him.
Between the new treatments and outpatient visits, Thomas spent most days in the sunny, back room of our apartment - his music room - that overlooked a neighbor's small garden. We had to ask Thomas's father to come and take the cockatiels away until Thomas was better. His father took the birds to a children's museum near their home in Connecticut where they were welcomed and cared for.
It was late Fall and the days were shorter. The house was quiet without the birds. Treatments were continuing. Thomas was frail. One day I found him in the music room, sitting with the saxophone on his lap, tears in his eyes. "I just want to play again," he sighed. And then, as if knowing some truth that hadn't yet registered with me, he said, "I want to play one last time."
As the weeks passed, I began to feel the weight of the illness overtaking all of our long, hard efforts. I could see Thomas's fatigue; this was to be one of his most challenging periods. Yet, he wouldn't give up. The desire to play music again fueled his fight.
Show Time for Cat
One day Thomas stood at the window overlooking a neighbor's house. "Come quickly," he called. I ran over and stood next to him, looking out. He pointed to a small black-and-white kitten we'd never seen before frolicking in the garden. The energetic darling was making such a fuss, jumping high to catch a squirrel scampering up a tree trunk, darting between flower bushes and having a...well...raucous time in the garden. Thomas was mesmerized, laughing at the entertainment. The next few mornings it was show time for the cat, and Thomas was the audience. Afterward, Thomas would return to his piano and play with renewed concentration.
One morning Thomas got dressed and said, "Let's go outside and find the kitten."
"I don't think so," I replied. "You know stray city cats aren't very friendly."
But Thomas was already out the door, and I was trailing behind him. When he reached the neighbor's yard, the kitten - from nowhere - came bounding into his arms. Thomas just laughed as the kitten nibbled up against his face. It was as if these strangers were old friends.
Day after day, Thomas would go out to greet the kitten. One day he learned that our building superintendent had adopted the kitten and let her wander in the basement. That became the new rendezvous for Thomas and the kitten, now named Moi by our super's children. "We don't know where she came from," the kids said while feeding her milk.
The leaves started falling off the trees, then came Christmas and blustering snows. Thomas was walking more slowly now, but having his friend in the basement somehow made things easier. Moi was becoming a very special presence to both of us, and we talked about keeping her ourselves. But life was too erratic now; we first had to get Thomas's health and strength back.
Off to the Concert
It was February; the snow lay packed under minus zero temperatures. A year had passed since Thomas had fallen ill. Musicians from his home state planned a benefit concert for him in his parents' hometown. For weeks the event was written about in the local papers and announced over the radio. By now Thomas had grown quite weak. "I want to attend the concert," he told me and the doctors. They weren't sure that being three hours away from them was a good idea. But on the day of the concert, the doctors agreed to let him go.
Thomas, who had not been anywhere in months, was overjoyed. A friend came to drive us. Before we left the apartment, Thomas tucked into his bag the silver flute his parents had given him for graduation. He went downstairs to see Moi. She wiggled playfully under his embrace. "Goodbye, Moi," he said, hugging her close. "Be a good girl while I'm gone."
We left the concrete sidewalks and dense surroundings of our city dwelling and breathed in the fresh, cool air and wide, open spaces of the approaching countryside. It was Thomas' first trip north since he'd fallen ill.
Arriving in the Connecticut neighborhood of his childhood, Thomas perked up at the sight of the familiar scenery: snow-covered fields where he cross-country skied as a child, hills and woods full of tall trees, winding trails and icy brooks. He had hiked there often and found treasured solitude among the birds, the squirrels, and the deer. When we arrived at his parents' house, he didn't go in immediately, but walked on the frozen ground and among the trees in the yard. He stopped and listened to the song of a bird. I think Thomas could have stood there forever.