by Terri Castillo-Chapin
Visiting the Cockatiels
We were in the kitchen sipping hot tea with his family when Thomas's father asked, "Would you like to see the cockatiels over at the children's museum?"
"Yes!" Thomas cried, and jumped up to get his jacket.
We drove over. It had been more than six months since we had seen the birds. When Thomas put his face to the cage. Tweeter and Pai began squawking and flapping their wings excitedly. They recognized him! He called out their names, gave his signature whistle, and they answered. A little improvised concert was happening. The museum staff gathered around. We all laughed at the sweet scene. Thomas opened the cage and put his finger up to Pai; she jumped on. He brought her to his face and they played "nosey" - something they often had done. Meanwhile, Tweeter happily flew out and circled the room, singing. The reunion was enchanting and joyous. Before we left, Thomas spoke to the birds, giving them his gentlest goodbye.
I Want to Play
That night, Thomas dressed in his favorite billowy white cotton shirt, jeans, boots, and soft cowboy hat. His parents drove us to the concert hall. The show had begun, and we were brought to the wing of the stage where we watched the various bands perform and saw the audience. His parents and brother sat in the hall near the front. The auditorium was filled, with standing room only. We were touched by all of the wonderful music and heartfelt tributes. Meanwhile, rumors spread through the hall that Thomas might play. No one knew for sure, least of all myself. Then during intermission, Thomas - moved by all of the music and love he felt - said to his band members, "I want to play."
When the second half of the program started, they called Thomas to the microphone. As he slowly walked across the stage, the audience stood and applauded; many had tears in their eyes. Thomas, too. Most had not seen Thomas for more than a year. He thanked everyone for their support and expressed his love. "I probably have breath for only ten minutes of good sound," he half-joked, sending his right hand into a downward trajectory motion, as if it could all fall apart. "But we'll just have to find out the hard way." He looked very brave. The flute came to his lips and he blew, playing for a full twenty minutes.
That giant spirit, which he had always been onstage, came to life again. With overwhelming power, Thomas played the most exquisite ballad, each note clear and articulated, a melody haunting and soaring. It was one of his favorite compositions, "Aeolus" (God of the Wind). When it was over, everyone stood, breathless, clapping, with tears in their eyes. Thomas looked out as if he were memorizing every single face that was in the hall. Then he smiled, put his hat to his heart, and took a bow.
At his parents' house, Thomas, while uplifted by the evening, was exhausted. It was late, but after a warm bath, he slept comfortably. In the morning, he awoke with a fever. The next day he was admitted to the hospital. It was pneumonia. We both knew this might be the end. "I'm at peace," he told me, "because of Sunday--." He meant the night of the concert when he had played one last time. We said what were to be our last "I love you's," and then Thomas was placed in intensive care. Ten days later he passed on. He died doing what he loved and fulfilling his deepest wish to play "Not because I want to play, because I must."
* * *
Nine months after Thomas' passing, the building super came to the apartment to fix a bathroom pipe. He spoke of Thomas and how much he had liked him. He had seen Thomas perform once, he said, and had enjoyed it very much. As he was leaving, he paused in the doorway. "By the way, do you remember Moi, the kitten that lived in the basement?" he asked. "Well, right after Thomas died, she just disappeared."
Some days I imagine Thomas, over there, playing some raucous jazz, with Moi turning somersaults at his feet. Thomas is laughing, doing what he loves.