Bill Hicks, Mike Craver, and Tommy Thompson in 1998
Visiting Tommy
by Mike Craver 
followed by a note from Cece Conway
March 18, 2000

Cece Conway and I visited Tommy yesterday at the institution where he is living.  It's always difficult to go there.  I have to steel myself for these visits.  Often I can't even go through with them; so I find a convenient excuse to put them off entirely.

It is another reality in that institution: a difficult reality one would be hard pressed to characterize as anything but tragic and sad.   I can't imagine what it must be like for Tommy's daughter Jessie to be faced with visiting that place on a regular basis.  And I certainly can't imagine what it's like for Tommy to be living that reality at all times, while many of the rest of us are on the "outside" enjoying life, being in the sun and the breeze, and being "free."

The first things I always notice as I make my way down the hall to Tommy are the amazing faces of the other Alzheimer's patients.  Remarkable faces, some of them so entirely and so vividly lost to another world, but all of them singularly amazing.  Alzheimer's patients strangely intimidate me.   I feel self-conscious around them, like they are going to notice something about me that I don't want noticed.  Even though they are suffering from "dementia," nearly all of them have an uncanny, childlike awareness of the reality of other people, of things about other people, of little flaws, little pretensions, and little vulnerabilities.  One of the Alzheimer's patients kept commenting on the fact that Cece's shoelaces were untied. The woman kept reminding Cece to stop and tie her shoes.  It was good advice.

My favorite novelist, Iris Murdoch, died of Alzheimer's a year ago, in l999.  She was arguably one of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century.  She taught philosophy at Oxford, and wrote more than 26 novels, her productive years spanning from the early 50's until the mid 90's.  Her husband, the critic John Bayley, said that at the end of her illness she couldn't remember any of her excellence, any of her novels, any of her characters. And I know she must have loved them as much as, if not more than, her life itself.   One wonders about all these other people in the institution. What was their past, what beautiful families, what loving partnerships they were part of, what full, rich, creative careers they may have enjoyed, or what incredibly gifted minds they might have had, like Iris Murdoch's, or like Tommy's?

After I visit Tommy for a few moments, I feel like I am an Alzheimer's patient too. I immediately buy into the "us-them" reality.  The first time I visited Tommy one of his companions, an elderly woman with no teeth and a blue-green tongue, assumed I was the new patient on the hall and tried to show me the ropes.  She was very sympathetic and concerned about me getting along.

Tommy always tries to tell me about his situation, to explain, and to warn me -- about the problems of the place, why things don't work out, why things aren't allowed, why there is not "enough."  He starts to talk about it, and then he gets caught in a loop of words and of stumbling over them, but I get a sense of what he is trying to say and do. At least I think I get a sense.  But all I can really do is stare into his eyes and wonder why medical science hasn't figured this one out, and why they haven't figured out a lot of the other tragic human health problems of the last 50 years.  What the Hell else are they doing?  It makes even amateurs like me want to try.

Clearing her eyes of tears, Cece says, "Let's sing something!"  I start in on "Dixie Darling." One of Tommy's fans had emailed me just last week asking me for the words to the song, and it was fresh on my mind.  Tommy jumps right into the singing of it.  He stands very close, right in front of me, and "scats" along to the tune in a very driven, rhythmic manner immediately ready to sing, to grasp at the music.  He gets a surprising lot of the melody and even some of the harmony and a few of the words.  He is so eager, so ready to jump in and sing along.  There is even desperation about it, but it's welcomed.

The music is a relief.  We all three bob and bounce along to it and laugh.  We finish one song, and Cece suggests another.  Tommy smiles and proudly reprises the one we just finished until he gets the hang of the new one.  It doesn't take him long if we help. We sing "The Old Maid and The Burglar," "Three Nights Drunk," "When The Roses Bloom in Dixieland," "Meeting in the Air," "Oh How I Wish I Was In Peoria," "Paper Doll," "Oh the Raging Sea," "The Storms Are On The Ocean," "The Stern Old Bachelor," and "The Yellow Rose of Texas."  He remembers them all in one-way or another.  You can tell his great old brain is still there; it's just been darkened by a demon, like an insidious invading virus might corrupt a hard drive.  All that information is still in there somewhere, but only God knows how to recover it. 

Tommy has always been one of sweetest people I've known.  He has a sense of humor, a gentle and patient ease about him that makes him instantly lovable. And he has that wonderful talent all great comic performers have, the ability to make people laugh out loud, innocently and spontaneously, from their bellies and from their humor-loving souls. It was always beautiful to behold.  And though he can't perform now quite the same way he used to, he still has these soulful qualities.  The ordeal of the illness he has been through has not diminished them.  That is an amazing reprieve in itself.

Tommy's room is quite nice.  It's clean and spacious and sunny, and the walls are covered with interesting pictures, a perspective of his life and career.  Emails from distant fans, loving pictures of family and friends and old associates.  There is a colorful patchwork quilt on his bed.  There are nice clothes in the closet, a FM tuner and CD player with CDs, lyrics to songs taped to the wall, a typewriter -- some of the tools of his old trade.  The window looks out on a pleasant brick-lined deck with wrought iron yard chairs and a pretty lawn of pine trees and shrubs and flowers. The staff at the institution has always been friendly nice, and in my brief and infrequent visits there, I am always impressed by their compassion and empathy for the patients.  I know his daughter Jessie is as concerned about his care as anyone could possibly be, and she gives of her self and her time accordingly.  And I know he is getting good care, as good as he can get, as good as society or government is willing to support.  Yet, every time I leave and go somewhere else, somewhere out in the "real" world, with friends, and laughter and music, I can't help but remember him, biding his time in that place, with no way out.

March 20, 2000
Dear Mike,

        Thanks for the piece on visiting Tommy.  I remember so vividly one tragic comment you said about an earlier visit:  Tommy said, "This is really happening to me, isn't it."  And tragic as this vanishing of the mind is for Tommy and those of us watching, I am so aware that, at least, he is still responsive and can enjoy himself.  His sunniness or "sweetness" and engagingness that you describe remains.  They say that music is the last to go.  For Tommy, I'm especially thankful that is so.

Love, 
Cece

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March 20, 2000