The Dresser — Thirty Years and Counting

I’d never been in play long enough for the flowers to die in the dressing room. ~ Mercedes McCambridge

When you can’t do something truly useful, you tend to vent the pent up energy in something useless but available, like snappy dressing. ~ Lois McMaster Bujold


April Fool’s Day. Coincidentally, this year, it’s also Palm Sunday and I’ll be giving the offertory prayer this morning at church. Trust me, there weren’t many people who thought that would ever happen! But, I’m certain to be dressed nicely and that’s a part of this story.

It’s said there’s no fool like an old fool. This little story may well be the proof of that saying. It’s an anniversary today. It’s even a deliberately chosen anniversary. Seemed like a good idea at the time, though it’s been proven over and over again to me that many of my decisions weren’t as good in the long term as I may have imagined at the time. Left to my own devices, for instance, I doubt I’d still be around.

I’ve been thinking lately about having my picture taken in each of the combinations of outfits I wear to church. Why? You don’t really think I dress myself for church, do you? No, no, the idea is just too frightening to imagine. It’s not that I’m colorblind, more like I’m color- and style-impaired in the most major way possible. My idea of a good look in the late seventies, early eighties was a sleeveless, mesh shirt. Perhaps you can see the problem. In fact, I’m still not certain I understand what was wrong with that look.

With photos of all the possible combinations of shirts, slacks, jackets, and shoes, I might have a chance of putting the right color combinations together – of recreating a look I’d have no idea how to replicate without help. Think of it as Garanimals for church. I even have to have the socks laid out for me, though I get to chose the underwear. Who knew white socks don’t go with everything?

A movie called The Dresser came out in 1983. Bear with me here, it really is pertinent. The story was about the personal assistant (the dresser) of a deteriorating veteran actor and the struggles to get him through a difficult performance of King Lear. In the play, King Lear descends into madness after foolishly disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all.

In my case, Tom (the dresser) showed up to help a rapidly deteriorating drunk struggle through what was developing into a difficult performance of his life. I’ve mentioned Tom here and there in my writing, but he’s always appeared as an aside. He’s been the one showing up in cameo roles making what may seem like obvious statements about things that were far less than obvious to me.

Tom showed up on the scene, we think, probably sometime in late February or early March, 1982. I was twenty-nine going on ninety and he had just turned twenty-five. You probably won’t believe this – I don’t think Tom really does – but I knew this one was going to stay. Yes, me – arguably the most insecure person on the planet. But I knew. Not that the others walked away, mind you. No, I did. I’d walked away over and over, unable to accept anything good for myself. The few who did walk away did so simply to save themselves. Having battled depression all my life, I’m not going to pretend I’m an easy person to live with. Even so, I knew there was a reason he was there, though I acknowledge I didn’t know at the time what that reason might be.

It’s now thirty years later, Tom is still here, and I now know why he was there all those years. I’m not entirely certain I know how he stayed, and survived to tell about it, just that I am grateful he has been able to do so.

We all lie to ourselves on a regular basis, I think. I just happen to be extremely good at it. It seems we believe we might treat ourselves a little better if we just didn’t have to believe this or that hideous thing we know to be true about ourselves, but would rather we didn’t know. In my case, I did an excellent job of pushing away a great many very unpleasant things. They didn’t go away, exactly, though a lot of it I can no longer remember in any great detail. And, in a way, that made it seem like those things had gone away.

Here’s one of the bigger lies I told myself over the years with Tom: he was the one who needed help. I simply wasn’t sure how he’d survive in the world without me around. One of the downsides of therapy, however, can be that the lies you tell yourself may be exposed. Imagine my surprise — no, my horror — at the realization after all those years that Tom wasn’t the crazy one! It seems by the time I met Tom, it was necessary for me to believe I was the strong one; I was the together one. It simply wasn’t going to work any other way. Don’t get me wrong. A part of me was completely aware of the fact I required almost constant reassurance that I was okay simply to get through the day. I was already hiding so many things from myself and was afraid of letting others see the things I thought I was hiding from me.

You may be getting a little of an idea what it’s like living with me.

When I first tried to get sober in my early thirties, Tom was there. When I subsequently started to drink again after a few years, Tom stayed anyway. Career changes, moves across the country, a move back to New Mexico to help take care of his mother after a stroke. Things continued to go south after Joan’s death and then my father died. It was Tom who, finally, made it clear that I would have to do something about my drinking – I mean more than simply continuing to drink more often and in increasing amounts.

I can tell you for certain that living with a stumbling, depressive drunk is, at the very least, a challenge. I’m happy to say that people now say to me things like, “I just can’t imagine you drunk.” My standard answer to this is to offer to give them Tom’s phone number so he can set them straight. While there were certainly some good times, some fun times, the reality is that life with an alcoholic is a roller coaster ride. As a black-out drunk, it was impossible to know whether I was going to be the life of the party or end up as a screaming, finger-wagging, slobbering maniac.

I can also tell you without hesitation that I am incredibly spoiled. I have had someone there to take care of me in some very dark times, as well as some incredibly good times. I may learn how to take care of myself one of these days but, in the meantime, I’ve survived because someone recognized early on that I was going to need some serious help along the way.

In addition, I’ll have to admit that living with me sober isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either. Things have changed for me a lot in the past few years, but I still have a legacy of fifty-plus years as a frightened, often petty, person. I try to be better but still have a lot to learn about looking outside myself to recognize other’s needs.

Finally, when we got mother’s devastating diagnosis of metastasized cancer, it was Tom who was left to provide the help — a task he did without question or hesitation. Tom had already been taking care of so much across the street for mother. At the same time, I was getting progressively sicker with Meneire’s disease and was physically unable to help very often with the things mother needed. The diagnosis of the return of cancer came only a couple of weeks after my surgery to correct the Meneire’s. I was trying to recover as Tom was left to take care of both mother and me.

For the last few months of her life, it was Tom who did the heavy lifting and made countless middle-of-the-night treks across the street to help my sister care for mother. Judith had arrived about a week after mother’s diagnosis to stay with her. She and Tom made up the team who made sure mother had what she needed during that time. Suddenly, the office where I worked closed and I was faced with the difficult decision to transfer us to Richardson with my job. That meant I was even less help than when I was still in town all the time. I arrived back in Waco on Friday nights to visit mother and do what I could, only to have to leave again on Sunday afternoon. What I could do, I’m afraid, was very little.

What was crystal clear to me at the end of mother’s life was that she’d come to see Tom as another of her sons. She had seen how he’d taken care of me in order to allow me to live long enough to figure out I was going to have to sober up and grow up. She had seen that he moved to Waco with me so we could be closer to her by the time she was going to need more help. She had seen him begin to dress me for church when I decided I wanted to go back, never once asking me why I’d even want to return to church.

In short, I owe my life to Tom. I even owe the ability to return to Texas to be closer to mother to Tom. Every difficult step of the way, he stayed and survived it the best way he could. Every step of the way, he was there to encourage me when I was full of doubt in myself – which, frankly, is a lot of the time. Don’t get me wrong. Tom was cranky about a lot of this on many occasions. But he never gave up on me despite so many good reasons to do so. He may have come close a few times, but something allowed him to stay.

A part of my anniversary gift to Tom is acknowledging to others the incredible gift his presence has been to me for thirty years. We may be allotted a very few true friends in our lives and I have been lucky enough to have what is probably more than my share. Only one, though, has been there every step of the way these past thirty years. And when I remember that, I realize, once again, that I have led a blessed life.

So, the next time you see me in a nice, coordinated outfit and think to yourself, “Hey, he cleans up pretty good,” remember also to think, “That Tom sure does a great job.” Thank you, Tom. I truly couldn’t have done it without you.

And thank you, God, for placing Tom in my path and giving him the strength and courage to stay.


10 thoughts on “The Dresser — Thirty Years and Counting

  1. What a gorgeous, amazing tribute to Tom, Benjamin. And even though today is April Fool’s Day, I know this piece rings of truth and is no joke. I hope to have the privilege to meet Tom in person one day. I want to shake his hand, maybe give him a hug, and thank him for being such an anchor of support for you all these years.

    My heart partner, Cindy, is exactly like that for me, I can totally relate. Much love to you both and mazel tov on your anniversary!

    • Yes, April Fool’s was originally the joke since both of us were a little too messed up at the time to remember an actual date. Sad, but true. It matters little, as it turns out, because we’ve made it to this point and it no longer seems like a joke.

  2. Oh my! This is the most beautifully tender, heartwrenching, yet sweetly poignant and loving tribute to anyone that I’ve ever been privileged to read. I’m so glad Tom was placed in your life to provide stability and loving care while God worked His miraculous transformation in your life and gave you the peace and insight of just how important that one pivotal encounter has been to this culmination and continued growth of you in dealing with all that came before, during and since! Tom is an amazing person and those of us who have been allowed the delight to slowly get to know him are all aware of what a wonderfully humble and caring person he is as well. Enjoy your annual anniversary commemoration of this relationship. I think you are both are very blessed and moreover, so have are all of us who been blessed as well and count ourselves as friends of both of you!

  3. Having seen Tom in action, I just want to say that he’s definitely a keeper! I think you are both blessed and fortunate to have found each other, and I feel pretty lucky to know you both. Thanks for the beautiful tribute.

  4. This brought tears for me. How wonderful to have someone who truly cares unconditionally about you in your life and more so, for you to recognize it. Both are blessings!

  5. What a beautiful story of love and friendship, in all the truest meanings of those words.
    I want to meet Tom! I have a feeling he’s like Richard Rohr, except without the clerical collar and vast collections of writings. 🙂

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