The Shannon Clan, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1970 something.
Growing up in rural Texas, we didn't really interact with extended biological family much. We did have family networks, and I found clan connection with the Spivey family and with the Nelsons. Something shifted, though, that summer we borrowed a Winnebago from the family who owned the racetrack where dad trained horses and headed to Pine Bluff to spend time with my mother's side of the family, the Shannons.
I couldn't have been more than six. I remember riding in the huge Winnebago on one of our first trips as a family that went beyond the boundaries of the small bubble of Santo, Texas. I'm sure somewhere on the road the adults were frustrated and there was probably some cussing about the lumbering, gas-guzzling Winnebago. I'm sure there were probably some sibling arguments in the back. But I just remember the magic of going somewhere new as a family.
And then we got to Pine Bluff and more magic happened. My mom's brother Larry and his wife had a huge house on Cherry Street and they had seven kids. Seven: Mike, Jim, John, Tom, Bob, Mary, and Patty. I'm sure as I sit in my office in Kansas City today watching the busy traffic on 63rd street that I was overwhelmed by the sheer energy of the city, but I remember more the energy that house on Cherry Street somehow managed to, only sometimes and only partially, contain.
Memories from that trip are mainly images. Feet, for instance. We went to the pool, which was a totally new experience for me. While I remember the sun washed concrete and the crowds of people, I remember my cousin John's feet even more vividly. I remember looking at his flip flopped feet as he pressed the gas pedal, wondering if I would ever be so grown up that you could see the veins in my feet like little road maps.
It was on that trip that I also met my cousin Tom for the first time. Even then as a young teenager he was quick with dimples. I was enchanted to the point that I couldn't bear to be away from him. And, he let me sleep with him one night, complaining the next morning that I was all knees and elbows.
Later, Tom would marry the equally enchanting Tami and move to Santo, Texas where he worked on oil rigs with my dad. Renee and I would sometimes go spend the night at Tom and Tami's. I remember reading The Chronicles of Naria in their kitchen while Renee and Tami talked about more grown up things. Their little family soon became an extension of ours, and I remember Tami picking us up for school and riding in her car as the radio played. I also remember thinking that the two of them, Tom and Tami, were a lot like my mom and dad in their easiness with each other--the kind of grand easiness that makes the hard moments all that much harder when they happen.
When we moved to Arkansas right before my 12th birthday, we were close enough to Pine Bluff that my Uncle Larry and Aunt Gay became regular weekend visitors. By that time, all of the kids but their youngest daughter Patty were grown and had lives of their own. Tom and Tami came to visit, too, and in one of their hard moments, Tami left the farm without him, heading back to Pine Bluff. Tom decided to take off after her, steeled by beer and my dad's words that if he loved her he shouldn't let her go. Tom jumped in his black Monte Carlo and took off, not realizing that dad was not quite in the car. Dad's scar on his back from the gravel never failed to remind me of Tom and his great capacity to love. It also never failed to remind me of the dangers of letting your demons get the better of you. Even in that moment of seeking the light he found with Tami, there was darkness there.
Tom and Tami didn't make it. I like to think that they both were too special to just share that with one spouse, maybe. More than likely it had more to do with Tom's running from his demons. At one point, he worked as a prison guard at Tucker. Later, I would think about how hard it must have been for him to work there. He wasn't authoritarian and I can only imagine that the job was a soul-sucking one for him. Perhaps that experience contributed to his nomadism; maybe seeing others physically imprisoned made him fight against whatever it was that kept him tied.
Over the next 30 years, I'd see Tom from time to time. He would fall down and get back up and run at something wonderful all that much harder. He became a nurse; I never saw him with his patients, but I can only imagine that he gave as much of himself as he could. He remarried, and his second wife was also a good match. And then his demons caught up with him again. I know the methods he used to run, but I don't know what was chasing him.
And last week, Tom died in Colorado. In the years since I last saw him, he worked as a traveling nurse and sometimes worked with reservation folk. In my head, I have a whole fantasy of what his life in the West was like. I am sure my fantasy is nothing like the reality, but I think I'll let my hippie imagination believe that he was free out there. Maybe in solitude and in an environment so unlike his own he was able to not only help his patients but also able to let them help him heal.