The very first time I met the man who would in time become my father-in-law, my then-girlfriend and I had just gotten off the train from Chicago to Portland, and she had pointed out her father to me. I was naturally a bit nervous about meeting the father of the girl I loved, the woman I was already thinking I would marry. He introduced himself thusly, after shaking hands and exchanging names:
“So, you just got off the train, huh? You know why the rails of the tracks are that particular width apart? It’s because the wagon wheel ruts from the Conestoga wagons on the old Oregon Trail were that far apart, and it was simplest to just put the rails on the established path. And the reason those wagon wheels were that far apart, was that the wheels on a two-horse carriage were that far apart, because that’s how wide it had to be to comfortably accommodate two horses side-by-side… and it just made sense to use the same factory specs for the axles they were putting on the covered wagons.
So: You just rode two thousand miles on the width of two horse’s asses.
Anyway, need help with your luggage?”
And that… was actually a very apt introduction to Tom Wolf.
I knew right away that I would fit in with this family, based on that introduction. I knew I could count on truly terrible jokes, preferably at the most inappropriate time possible. I knew I wouldn’t have to pretend to be anything I wasn’t, or pretend to feel anything I didn’t. I knew that I would LIKE this quirky, nerdy, snarky guy.
I didn’t yet know what I would learn later, as a member of the family: Tom was a great guy at all times, but he especially shone in a crisis.
You know, it’s true what they say – You never do tell people everything you should while they’re still alive to hear it. You always think they’ll be around longer, you’ll have some warning before they’re gone, you’ll have time to say it when the time is right for them to hear it… and then, they’re gone and you never said it, so you have to say it to their friends and family instead.
Tom died unexpectedly in his sleep Thursday morning. And as we dealt with the crisis, I couldn’t help thinking about how Tom always dealt with a crisis.
The FIRST thing he did was to listen carefully. No one knew how to shut up and listen like Tom. He was never one to interrupt someone else’s anger, fear, or grief with offering advice – he held his peace until you had poured out everything you needed to say.
The second thing he did… was to quietly, calmly, do anything that was in his power to help. He didn’t waste time on telling you how sorry he was for what you were going through – he would drive you to the hospital, or write a check to make the unexpected expense go away, or fix the leak, or tell you gently but firmly that you should do (the exact thing that you already knew damn well you needed to do, but needed someone to nudge you to do it) and offer to go with you while you did it.
The third thing he would do, was to crack some absolutely AWFUL joke. I have no doubt in my mind that, if Tom could somehow be alive to attend his own funeral, he would be the first to gesture towards his own coffin and deadpan “The shell is here, but the nut… is gone.” He would always look for the grim humor that would make the unbearable a little more bearable, to make the heavy burden feel a little less heavy and burdensome.
And finally, AFTER he had done all that, he would ask if it was okay to pray for you.
Now, I grew up in a church where, most of the time, “I’ll pray for you” was code for “I’ll pray for you INSTEAD OF DOING SOMETHING for you.” It was an excuse for inaction, a way for people to feel like they’d helped without having to bother with actually helping. It was telling people “Be warm and well fed” without actually warming or feeding them. Often, when I hear the phrase “I’ll pray for you”, I don’t feel cared about – I feel dismissed. And I often feel like telling the speaker to do something biologically impossible.
But I never felt that way with Tom. Because when he said it, he meant “I’ve done everything I can think to do to help, and I’m sorry I can’t do more. I believe I know a guy who CAN do more – is it okay with you if I ask him?”
It didn’t feel like a cop-out or a social nicety when Tom said it.
When Tom said it, it felt like love.
Ironically, Tom (an old-school man’s man in many ways, who wasn’t generally comfortable with talking about feelings, or with hugging, a man who would have been the LAST to describe himself as a nurturing person) was better at nurturing people in crisis than I am, despite the fact that nurturing people in crisis is literally what I do for a living. He knew that you have to start with the hard part – shutting up and hearing the other person. Then you have to meet the immediate need. Then you have to try and help the person laugh a bit, because laughter makes things look smaller and therefore more manageable. And THEN you offer thoughts and prayers and well-wishes. I had to work for decades to learn how to do what Tom did as naturally as breathing. And now that he’s not breathing anymore, I wish he was here to help us through crisis one last time.
In his quiet, awkward, unassuming, gentle way, Thomas J. Wolf was a giant among men, a pillar of strength where mere power would have been useless; and the world is poorer for losing him. May he rest in peace, and may the rest of us learn how to do, in some measure, what he did for those he loved.
Tom, I’ll miss you. And now I can say the words that would have made you feel awkward if I’d said them to you in person: I love you.
- Your son-in-law,