I’m a comedy snob.
I’m serious. I am the worst person you can sidle up to if you want to make someone laugh. Most jokes fall flat with me. Most so-called hilarious stories bore me to tears. I’ll force a smile when I have to because I don’t want to be a jerk, but I take no pleasure in it.
Tom Van Doran could always make me laugh. He was smart, he was dry, he was able to see — and had no qualms about pointing out — the absurd in everything around him. He was deeply, fantastically, sublimely sarcastic, and in the best way. What I mean is he usually saved that particular talent only for people who were begging for it. And there were never any shortages of those.
Tom made me laugh every time we got together, including the last time, at my niece Lauren’s first communion. This was after he had been fighting cancer for two years. He was different that day. Quieter. You could see in his face, and in his eyes, that things weren’t going well on the health front. But he was philosophical about what was ahead for him, and seemed to be taking things in in a way I wish we all did all the time. He also said a few things that were viciously funny. Things that made me choke on my beer.
That’s a good combination.
Tom spent half his life at a job that . . . I’ll be honest with you: I just can’t fathom what it is that makes a man run into a burning building on behalf of people he doesn’t even know. That doesn’t make me a less of a person because as a salesman, and a writer, I’ve spent half of my life running after purchase orders and catchy phrases. It doesn’t make bartenders any less, or hairdressers, or mail carriers, or teachers, or psychiatrists, or priests. It just makes firefighters that much more.
I believe that.
He was doing the job with the best he had in September of 2001 when he caught a Ground Zero cancer that waited, and waited, and finally pounced.
He spent the other half of his life partnering with my sister to raise two kids. Raised them straight on into college. You gotta talk to these kids. They’re smart. Thoughtful. Honest. Earnest. They don’t think of the world as just so much B.S. A lot of people do, you know. Only a lucky few know better, and Tom and Liz raised two like that. They went two-for-two. You think that’s easy? You think that’s not a life well spent?
I was diagnosed with cancer in January.
It’s a powerful thing, cancer. A humbling thing. It changes you. It changed me. I’m told my lymphoma is in remission so far, and I’m grateful to God, and my doctors, and my nurses, and my wife, and my kids, and my mother, and my family. And I’m trying to live with the kind of perspective I saw in Tom, and heard from him, the last time we were together. My baldness is a choice now, and it’s a choice driven by that same desire. A reminder to hold on tight to the things that really matter.
But I know I’m falling short. I know I’m not looking at things, and soaking them in, the way Tom took to doing. I know I’m not speaking as honestly and directly to the people in my life as he spoke to me that last time. That day he was so sincere it made me uncomfortable. So I chose to be glib.
It was a lousy choice.
So this time I’m speaking straight from the heart. Just a little late, huh?
If you respect someone, care about someone, or admire someone . . . If you’re lucky enough to know someone who can teach you real perspective, or who can make you laugh every time you see him . . . Or all of the above . . . Maybe you should tell him.