Reflecting on my stepfather's death, I am reminded that life and relationships are beautifully complex, akin to the mosaic of human existence. The man was a colorful contradiction, his good times echoing the rhythm of life's rich melody and his struggles amplifying its dissonant undertones. Amidst sorrow and joy, his legacy continues, not just in the photographs he left behind or the lives he touched, but also in the life he saved through organ donation - an ambiguous hero in a complicated world.
May 2023 marked the 14th year anniversary of my stepfather’s sudden death of a pulmonary embolism, just after he returned home from surgery at the Washington Hospital Center. He had a fatty tumor located near his heart removed.
Remembering Tom Clark: A Lust for Life and a Complex Legacy
His best friend picked him up and drove him home. My stepfather walked over the threshold of his rented rancher and said “I think I overdid it.” With these final words he fell to the ground. I imagine this phrase was intended to describe the day's events - but they also summed up his life.
Tom Clark was a photographer, amateur race car driver, pilot, and half of the time had an unmatched lust for life. A few month's before his death he was honored with the Citizen of the Year Award by the Frederick Police Department for his photography memorializing Officer Mark Bremer, who was killed in the line of duty.
The Unexpected Death: Grief and Decisions
But the rest of the time his outlook was dark. Paranoia, mood swings, and unprovoked blame were the price we paid for the good times. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he was known to go off his medication from time to time. He and my mother had been separated for 361 days, and their divorce was to be finalized just four days later. Instead, my mother found herself what I will call an ambiguous widow.
An Unexpected Discovery: The Envelope and Its Contents
Perhaps six months or a year later - I don’t remember - my mother handed me a manila envelope with the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland as the return address. Inside were two notes: One from the organ donation coordinator and one from the recipient. I didn’t open the envelope myself - I was not ready. So many people in my life died that year, I needed a break.
I waited so long that I forgot about the envelope until about 6 years after his death. On Memorial Day Sunday, I stayed inside and sorted through boxes of Tom's papers. That manila envelope reappeared into my consciousness , and my sorting turned into frantic searching.
The Recipient’s Message: A New Lease on Life
Inside the envelope I found a five sentence note from the recipient. He offers his gratitude and says that he is sorry for our loss. He tells us that he needed a tissue graft for his neck, for surgery received after a car accident. He says that this gift has made a difference to him, and that he feels like a new person.
It’s that last part that gets me. I always wanted Tom to have the chance to be a new person. He had demons that I will never be able to understand. He was charming, and the good times were really good. He could turn on a dime though, and that really hurt. We had to learn to be empathetic, patient, and try not to take it personally even when it was directed like an arrow to our heart.
Memorial Day Reflections: Honoring a Complicated Hero
Now I know there is a man out there whose life has been changed for the better because of my stepfather’s gift. Because my mother was willing to do something very difficult in order to help someone in need. Yesterday when I read the letter I cried tears of sadness and grief. Today I’m welling up with tears of joy and respect for the preciousness of life.
Today is Memorial Day and it is beautiful outside. Today I am going to go buy a flagpole for the Stars and Stripes given to me by the Army to commemorate Tom Clark’s death. Today I’m going to recognize my stepfather as a hero.