Death of Tom

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Thread: Death of Tom

  1. #1

    Death of Tom

    Tomís death was much like his life as he had lived and died virtually alone. He was being treated at Shaddock, the prison hospital, when he passed away with no one he knew at his side. When the Department of Correction sent the state police to his brotherís home to notify him of Tomís passing, the brother told them he had not seen nor heard from Tom in forty years and had no interest in claiming his brotherís body. He was, however, interested in any amount of money that Tom might have left.

    So the Department of Correction sent a hearse to pick up Tomís body from the morgue where it had been stored in one of those refrigerated drawers. The morgue supplied a simple blue coffin made of reinforced cardboard, and three men wrapped Tomís body in plastic and placed it in the coffin.

    Seven people attended Tomís burial that warm and rainy January morning. Four were D.O.C. maintenance men who were there to put Tomís coffin in the ground. Another was the prison chaplain, a man who recalled who Tom was only when he was reminded of the slovenly guy who would consistently nod off during the sporadic memorial services for departed inmates over the years. Elena and I rounded out the seven, and we were there because we were therapists who had worked with Tom at the Treatment Center for the Sexually Dangerous, the facility that had been Tomís home for the past eighteen years.

    It was not customary for therapists to attend burials on the prison grounds yet Elena and I decided to go because, despite Tomís limitations as a social human, he was connected and seemed to make genuine efforts to be a part of the therapeutic process. We liked him. That may sound funny, as most people believe that all sex offenders are no better than dirt and thus detestable. But Tom was a part of our group and, even though he could be wildly inappropriate and belligerent at times, he also had moments of surprising clarity, warmth, and humor.

    Elena and I arrived that stormy January day to find Tomís cardboard coffin positioned over the unmarked grave, and we both feared that sky blue cardboard would hold up in the pelting rain. I imagined the horror of seeing Tomís plastic-covered corpse fall from the bottom of the casket into the hole as the cardboard deteriorated from the water damage. We were both relieved as Tomís casket was finally laid in the ground.

    When the chaplain was done with his prayers and readings, Elena tossed a Christmas card into the grave. The card had been written by Tomís only friend, Bill. Bill was also a resident at the Treatment Center and the two men had bonded as much as two psychiatrically impaired humans could in a place like that. From all outward appearances, Bill had been unaffected by Tomís death: we suspected he was suffering more than he was saying or showing. Placing Billís card in Tomís grave was more than a symbol; it was a token of true friendship.

    It didnít surprise Elena or me that there was little reaction to Tomís death among the population at the Treatment Center. Tom was not the most likeable guy on his unit. He was indigent, so there was no reason for the freeloaders to pay him any mind at all. He was also a mooch: a nicotine and caffeine addict, Tom was known for asking others for a cigarette or a cup of coffee regularly. In the Treatment Center, these items are valuable commodities and men are reluctant to part with them unless they receive something in return. Tom rarely had anything to give. His nicotine addiction was so severe that he would rummage through trash barrels for used butts, or pick them up in the yard and light them off each other. To many, Tom was pathetic.

    As far as treatment went, Tom was not exactly what one would call a model for recovery. He had been convicted for two counts of sexual assault, which at that point in time was enough for a judge to label him ďsexually dangerousĒ and commit him to the Department of Mental Health for an indefinite period of time. Tom did not own the sexual aspect of his crime. He would readily admit that he did order a woman into his automobile in the early eighties and ďslap her around,Ē but denied touching her sexually as she had claimed. Tom steadfastly denied responsibility for other offenses for which he was charged, and was fond of portraying himself as a victim who was set up by the local police in order t clear up old crimes on their books.

    Despite all of his negative characteristics, Tom made efforts at being sociable. He always greeted my colleagues and me as we stepped onto the block that was his home, and he attended his group sessions faithfully despite his inability to derive any real insight from treatment. Tom seemed to view the group as a venue whereby he could maintain positive communication with others in his life.

    Tomís group was made up of men who had been diagnosed at one time or another with a mental illness, so one could never accurately predict what would happen in the room from session to session. Tom was as unpredictable as any other member as he could be funny, rude, kind, cantankerous, gentle, coarse, or even intelligent, depending on his mood. He would attend regularly for weeks, and then his attendance suddenly would become sporadic seemingly for no reason. There were times when Tom was passive and quiet, and times when he could spurt forth hatred of everyone from his fellow residents to ďJews, niggers, spics,Ē and every therapist that ever lived. Tomís fellow group members were seldom up to confronting him on his behavior, so it was our job as therapists to rein him in when he spoke that way. I was always amazed at how quickly he would acquiesce following our interventions.

    Tomís personal hygiene was consistently an issue. The only clothes he owned were those issued by the state, and he would often come into the group room with his jeans riding down far enough so that the crack of his ass would be exposed if his shirttail didnít hide it. He always reeked of cigarette smoke and his hair was often uncombed and greasy. Elena had steadfastly kept after Tom about his cleanliness and hygiene. Shortly after I entered the group in the spring, we began to rate Tomís appearance each day with a numerical value from one to ten. To our surprise, Tom began to take this rating seriously and seemed to make an honest effort to improve his appearance for a while.

    It all went downhill, though, the day I began to question Tom about his offenses. I brought his files to group on that day and read the official police reports out load to the group members with Tomís permission. I was acutely aware of Tomís reaction as I read, and, although I was not afraid he would act out physically, I had concerns about just what his reaction would be. He angrily denied the police version of his first offense, and predictably referred to the cops who arrested him as ďcock sucking NazisĒ who were anxious to bring him down. It would be Tomís last group for about two weeks.

    When he did return to group, Tom had lost a noticeable amount of weight. He blamed his weight loss on the quality of food in the chow hall, saying it ďsmelled and tasted like dogshit.Ē Tomís color wasnít good, either, and he was coughing more than usual.

    I arrived at work on a Monday morning two weeks later to find that Tom had been moved to the health services unit due to severe pains in his legs. I read an officerís report and learned that Tom was refusing medical treatment because he had stated that the Treatment Center physician was a ďfucking quack who didnít give a ratís ass about sex offenders.Ē Knowing Tom could be as obstinate as a goat, I scheduled time to visit him later that afternoon.

    Tom was sitting on the edge of his bed rolling a cigarette when I entered his infirmary room after lunch. ďI ainít going to the hospital,Ē he stated as he looked up and saw me. ďOh, come on, Tom. Donít be such a stubborn bastard. What if your condition is serious?Ē

    ďItís not serious. Iím fine. There ainít nothing wrong with me. Theyíll have to drag me out of here if they want me to go to that toilet they call a hospital.Ē It was apparent Tom was scared shitless of what was happening to him.

    I watched him slowly rise and struggle to make his way to the dresser where his cup of coffee sat. He staggered and needed to steady himself against the wall. ďIím fine, goddammit!Ē I knew otherwise.

    Tom would never admit it but he knew that if the Department of Correction wanted to send him to Shaddock Hospital, he was going to go to Shaddock Hospital. The move occurred three days later. Thatís when we discovered Tom had been diagnosed with cancer in his lungs and liver. He returned to the Treatment Center a week later, only now he needed a wheelchair. Again he was housed in the health services unit. Despite his condition, Tom found the energy to wheel himself out to the yard to smoke a cigarette at least a few times a day. By the time I found a few moments to visit him again three days later, he was a day away from leaving the Treatment Center for the last time.

    I was nervous as I approached his room, as I had never spoken face-to-face with someone knowing their days on this planet were severely limited. Tom lay on his bed, fully dressed and wrapped in a blanket. He had not shaved in a few days and his face was very pale. I was most struck by his breathing pattern, though. Tom was panting like a dog on a hot August afternoon.

    ďHi Tom. How are you feeling?Ē I realized it was a stupid question, but how does one open a conversation with a dying man?

    ďNot so good. I canít get my breath.Ē His voice was soft and raspy.

    ďTom, I am so sorry to hear about your cancer.Ē

    ďHey, itís the way things fall, thatís all. I didnít expect to go out looking so young and handsome as I do, but thatís the roll of the dice. As the song goes, life sucks and then you croak.Ē

    We made some small talk for a while. I lied and told him the other men in his therapy group had expressed concern for him, though his friend, Bill, had been the only one who had even inquired of his condition. He told me about the pain in his legs and about how he wished he could see at least one more attractive woman up close before he left this world. Tom never sat up and after five minutes of speaking with him I realized he was expending energy that could be better spent breathing.

    ďTom, I have to go to group. Iíll tell the guys that you send your regards.Ē

    ďYeah, you do that. I appreciate you stopping by to see me, Scott.Ē It was the first time I had ever heard Tom express gratitude for anything.
    ďYouíre welcome. You take care, now.Ē

    Tom was transported back to the prison hospital the next day, and Elena and I began to make plans to visit him there. But we were busy at our jobs, our team was down one staff member. In addition, we had to go through D.O.C. administration to obtain clearance to visit Shadduck and one would have thought we were planning to visit C.I.A. headquarters given the hoops through which we were expected to jump. I arrived at work on December 26th and was told Tom had died the day before, on Christmas.

    I was the only team member at work that day. When I visited Tomís unit, I was taken aback by the correctional officersí level of sensitivity regarding the death of a resident.

    ďHey, Scott! Did you hear the old man died?Ē asked Joe, a young officer who was not known for his fondness of sex offenders. ďI hear they have him sitting up in the morgue with a Santa cap on his head.Ē He and his partner laughed until their bellies quivered. I shook my head, turned, and exited their work area and onto the unit where Tom had lived the last years of his life.

    The reaction among Tomís peers was mixed. Patrick, a middle-aged rapist who maintained a leadership role on the block, was the most compassionate. He and I spoke about how sad it was that Tom had died without having any contact with his family for many years. Roland, a man in his sixties who had been convicted for molesting his teenaged daughter and stepdaughter, walked by me and muttered, ďTomís dead,Ē and kept walking. Mike, an ever-angry rapist who had sexually assaulted two women while high on cocaine, remarked that Tomís death was but a sign that all residents are going to die there and that ďTom was lucky because heís out of this hell.Ē

    I was most interested in how Tomís friend, Bill, was handling the loss. I found Bill sitting up on his bunk reading the Bible. ďHey, Bill. Iím sorry about Tom,Ē I said to him.

    ďYeah, me too They called me down this morning and told me he died on Christmas day. Itís sad,Ē he said with an odd smile on his face. His response was appropriate and natural.

    The group met later that afternoon but Bill did not attend. He hadnít participated since the disciplinary board hearing charged him with striking another resident in the recreation yard, a man Bill had perceived as a threat to his safety. Bill felt he had every right to hit the man, given the circumstances. The board had perceived Billís actions as examples of his paranoia getting the best of him. Following the hearing, Bill informed us in writing he would not attend group until his thirty-day restriction ended.

    Three men were in attendance that day. George, a schizophrenic in denial of his offenses, was the first to speak. ďDid Tomís family take possession of his body?Ē he asked. I expected this question to come up at some point. ďNo, George, Tom will be buried by the Department of Correction here on the prison complex.Ē George and the others were saddened by my response, and George commented that Tom was a veteran, and wasnít it a shame he would be buried without so much as a headstone.

    Buck was the oldest resident at the Treatment Center and had consistently denied his offenses since the day he was arrested some thirty-six years ago. ďHey, heís dead. End of story. Itís one less rapist the world has to concern itself with. Besides, I think he committed suicide by smoking himself to death.Ē

    Ray was sitting quietly, gazing straight ahead out of the only window as the others spoke. ďRay, do you have any feelings about Tomís death?Ē Ray cranked his head toward me and stared with steely blue eyes. ďAll I know is that he smoked a lot of cigarettes.Ē

    The following Tuesday, I was on the unit when a sergeant paged me to speak to a man who claimed to be Tomís nephew. The man had just learned of his relationship to Tom and was calling to find out anything he could in regards to Tomís life. The manís father, Tomís brother, had refused to discuss any more than informing the nephew of Tomís existence and subsequent demise. I returned the nephewís call later that day and told him that due to confidentiality issues there was little I could discuss regarding Tomís life at the Treatment Center. He told me that he and his father would travel to the facility to retrieve Tomís possessions.

    They arrived a few days later and asked Elena and me some questions regarding Tomís death. Tomís brother appeared to be embarrassed to be standing in the same building that housed child molesters and rapists; he hardly spoke. Conversely, Tomís nephew was very polite and showed genuine interest in his uncleís life. We hoped that Tomís nephew would have some of his questions answered when he took the time to examine Tomís documents that we handed over to the men. It was obvious there was much tension between this father and son. When we inquired whether they would attend Tomís burial, Tomís brother scowled and stated they would be returning to western Massachusetts that same day.

    Other residents died while I worked at the Treatment Center and had little effect on me. Tomís passing was poignant because it drove home the importance of connectedness. In his last years, Tom seemed to strive to develop relationships with a select few and, even though those relationships were often disjointed and erratic, they grounded him in a way that made some of us who paid attention develop a fondness for him. In the grand scheme of things, Tomís life was viewed by most as a tragedy. To most, he was an angry and bitter sex offender who deserved everything bad society could heap on his plate. But often we as a society fail to scratch the surface to learn, or even care about, why people act the way they do. Tom wasnít evil; he was hurt and angry at the world because of his pain. I think Iím a better therapist today because my experience with Tom led me to scratch beneath that surface.

  2. #2
    You offer some great insights into your environment and the people you are dealing with, unlike the story of your dad. This seems a little more disjointed in the telling. I realize you are trying to add a lot of information about the other men and who they are, and at the same time tell the story through their comments. This is no easy task and I am not a good enough writer to be able to advice on how to best fix it. The short paragraphs and the sudden change in dealing with each new person in your story seems to happened suddenly. I think the story merits you slowing down the process and going into a little more detail so that you can tie it all together in a more fluid way. It appears, and I may be way off but that you have a great story and are somehow limited by word count to get the job done. Good stories will capture the reader this somehow felt a little rushed even though it was very well told...Bob
    God hates a coward Revelation 21:8

    ďGood writin' ain't necessarily good readin'.Ē

    Hidden Content ,

    To encourage and facilitate "me"

  3. #3
    The relentless details added up to an informative though bleak picture -- of Tom, the prison, people and life there. Everything seemed clear.

    How to write a good start: Hidden Content . Useful, original information. Long and thorough.
    Includes Hidden Content (do you start with description?), Hidden Content (a favorite with publishers apparently), starting with Hidden Content (a lost art), and more.

  4. #4
    Hi Bob. Thank you for your honest appraisal of my story about Tom's passing and the aftermath. I would like to do more stories about my experiences working in correctional facilities because they are fascinating places with very interesting people. I wrote this piece several years ago and, since then, I have worked to focus more on writing for the audience rather than for myself. Your feedback was very helpful.


  5. #5
    Yes, it was a fairly bleak place sometimes, and other times it was scary, funny, terrible, and joyful. Thank you for your comment.


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