Tommy

For starters, this doesn’t feel right. This feels out of order, a cosmic square peg trying to force itself into an elusive round hole. I am rambling while trying to do my dear friend a modicum of justice.

Anyway, years ago I wrote something about Tommy Deadwyler, something really nice that I can’t remember, but I’ll never forget his response: “Damn, Jerry, I’m not dead yet.” Then he flashed that brilliant, genuine, million-dollar smile, the one that welcomed you right into the best bear hug you’ve ever had. Now that he’s left the planet – or at least, that part of him that you can hug back – it’s hard to find the right words.

Here’s what I know. I know that the book about Col. Bruce that I wrote would not exist without Tommy D, for better or for worse. For my part, it was for better, and I will be forever grateful to him for that, and for his regular taunts of, “Jerry, you done with that book yet?” It took eight years to make that book, from start to finish, so there were a lot of those. And then, when it was finally published, I don’t think he ever finished reading it. He was worried that the ending would make him too sad, and I totally understand that and love him for it. But he is mentioned first in the acknowledgements, and it’s because of the point made earlier: Tommy is why the book exists.

Tommy introduced me to Jeff Mosier. Then Jeff got Bruce to come up to Sautee (and that led to a bunch of different shows up here in the hills) and then Tommy introduced me to Bruce. Like Bruce, Tommy had a real gift for connecting people. Tommy knew how to bring friends together, how to put a crew together, how to put the right artists together on a stage. He knew how performers would fit neatly together, complement each other. And the best part was, he really loved these artists, and they knew it. No, I mean he really loved them. This was no bullshit. The man respected and loved the musicians he worked with, and who were lucky enough to work with him.

A couple of weeks ago when he already knew what he was facing, Tommy was making big plans. He had plans for how he wanted to die and what should happen. For one thing, it was not supposed to happen for several months yet. His spirit had different plans. But during that visit, Tommy was taking stock and allowed that, “I have had an interesting life, no complaints except I wish it would last a little longer. I’ve had the chance to see and do some amazing things.” He did. I asked him several times to write a book just about the jobs he’s had.

So, one of the highlights of his rich life is such a Tommy Deadwyler thing. He said, “I can’t tell you how much it meant to carry Jeff Mosier’s banjo.” Carrying the banjo, I think, was a metaphor for something. He was overjoyed with the growing friendship with Jeff, the partnership they had, the trust — the trust Jeff had to let Tommy carry the instrument. Tommy experienced sincere joy in that. Plus, it was a cool banjo and Tommy enjoyed carrying it.

There are too many favorite memories with Tommy D. Way too many. His 50th birthday is one. We went to one of his awesome sisters’ lake house in Alabama and that’s where we discovered that my son Joe loves going fast. Tommy was helming the boat and he’d turn around to where I was holding Joe and say, “Hey, Joey, wanna go fast?” Joe would respond in the affirmative and Tommy would gun it. The smile on the boy’s face while the wind whipped his hair and caressed his face spread across two counties.

There’s another related to Joe. He was in the hospital 10 years ago with a bad staph infection, spent about a month there, and it included Thanksgiving. Tommy and his partner in life, Tia, showed up to visit and he was immediately put to work. The PICU floor received a bunch of cooked turkeys to feed the parents who were staying in the hospital with their kids. But they needed someone to slice the birds. And they didn’t have any silverware. Not even a scalpel. So, Tommy and I used our hands and a plastic butter knife. The PICU staff and families enjoyed a tasty, if sloppy-looking dinner.

And four years (or so) back, we took Bill Cochran out for one last sleepover at the beach. Bill was in his final days and wanted to see the ocean. So, Tommy and I rode down to Brunswick to pick him up at the hospice center and take him to a condo we had rented for the night on Jekyll Island. It was a bittersweet night out with the boys. Tommy had been Bill’s nurse, basically, before Bill checked into hospice. After a fun afternoon (including an interesting episode at the swimming pool, where we convinced the bartender that Tommy was Jimmy Buffett’s younger brother), we partied back at the condo then tucked Bill in for the night. A little while later, Tommy went in to check on him. Bill wasn’t moving and didn’t seem like he had a pulse and the nurses had told us to not be surprised if Bill checked out during our big time on the beach. So when everything about Bill seemed motionless, Tommy called from the bedroom in a panicked voice, “Jerry, I think he’s gone.” That’s when Bill sat up and said loudly, “Who, me?”

We laughed together about that, the three of us. After Bill died, Tommy and I laughed about it. Tommy was still laughing about it a few weeks ago. Now, I’ll laugh about it.

But one favorite memory of Tommy that touches my heart deeply every time I conjure it, is seeing him on that platform during one of our Headwaters productions, lit by the stage lights, singing in his inimitable voice a song that Mosier wrote, a beautiful song with a lovely, mournful melody, “Ever changing Moment.” I’m crying now thinking about it, the plaintive banjo and Tommy singing, “Tears when my heart is broken, tears when I laugh so long, life’s an ever-changing moment, and the changes make us strong …”

There were a lot of other unforgettable stage moments for Tommy – as Claxton Bliss running for office, as Thomasina Agua-Caliente swinging on trapeze, as himself running across the community center lawn in a diaper (it was a performance, not a fashion choice). Even when he was introducing an artist or asking for money on behalf of the Sautee Center, he had a way of livening up the stage. A couple of times, we even sang together on stage. He made it less terrifying for me, because Tommy could really sing.

Still, the Mosier song and Tommy’s delivery of it was magical and deep and forever feeling. I can hear it yet in my memory track. Tommy’s voice. God almighty, I will miss it. But I am stronger for having heard it and having known Tommy, for having worked and played with him so many times. More than almost anyone else, in the wee hours, he has seen me at my absolute best and absolute worst, and never flinched, never judged, offered love and acceptance instead. Yes, I am indeed stronger.

As a young guy, long before I knew him, Tommy was a football player. A linebacker who took quarterbacks apart. Mean and tough. Then he made a concerted effort that leaned more on love, and though he loved a good football game, he’d made a kind of transition by choice and through an abundance of life experience, from jock to artist, from wild man to gentle giant. To singer. All along the way, I think, Tommy instinctively knew, as the old song says, that the greatest thing is to love and be loved in return.

And my friend Tommy — our friend — loved a lot. Loved Tia, loved his mother and his family, loved his friends, especially loved his grand-daughter (who is only two but will always know Tommy as Grand-dude). He loved life, loved his life, loved the show, loved the hang after the show (facilitated the hang much of the time — in addition to the show). Yes, he could still be the tough guy at times, and seemingly intractable at other times, but the bottom line? Tommy Deadwyler loved love. That’s the gift he shared, and took with him. Imagine that.

Really, though, it’s all too much to process right now, and mostly I’m just rambling in the broken-hearted aftermath of fresh, bad news. This impossibly Tommyless world is going to take some getting used to, but I don’t think many of us will get used to it. In the meantime, I will cherish the memories. Tommy D., I remember you. Always.

2 thoughts on “Tommy

  1. What a wonderful tribute to Tommy Deadwyler. Nobody could have done it better than Jerry Grillo. Jerry, your words brought back some fine memories. He will be missed.

    Like

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