When Tom passed away, I’d expected to fly back to Michigan. I’d expected to be there for Mary. Instead I am here, online, writing to you the eulogy I should have delivered at a memorial service. Covid continues to shatter all our expectations.
My family has always called Tom and Mary my dog-parents. Since I met them they have mentored me in life and dogs, sharing unconditional love, knowledge and friendship. They are part of the family I have made.
When I think of Tom, I think of the 100-mile stare. After running sled dog teams over thousands of miles of trails, training and racing in Michigan, Minnesota and Canada, he’d learned that stare. Bex, he’d say to me, when the dogs tangle the lines or you're dragging behind the sled when you fall on a turn - that's not worth getting upset about. Sort it out and move on, it’s the next 100-miles that matters. Looking back, I know they never sent me out with more dogs than I could safely handle. And that 100-miles stare? It's also called resilience.
In the 36 years I knew Tom he only truly got angry with me once. I’d seen that Tanner, a wheel dog, had slipped his collar and had it dragging along, but I was almost home and didn’t stop. I can still hear his voice, You could have broken his leg and he might never have run again. Later he apologized for being so hard on me, explaining that he just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t forget. I’m grateful for that dressing down, it taught a flighty day-dreaming teenager to stay alert on the sled, watching out for anything that might hurt the dogs and to find ways to resolve issues as quickly as safely possible.
Tom was a skilled stone mason, turning stone walls and chimneys into a works of art. He even let me try to split stone once - after all I could split wood. We both laughed at my attempts. I did not have an eye for reading stone nor the ear to hear where to start a split.
Although shy, Tom was a storyteller.
When I begged, he’d tell me tales about nights on the trail where the temperature was measured by the number of dogs you needed to stuff in your bag with you to keep warm. Sometimes he’d speak of special dogs and those magical moments on the trail where everything is perfect and you fly over the miles with only the squeak of snow on the runners. Then he’d smile and talk about massive tangles where two teams got mixed together - but in the end he made it to the next 100 miles so it didn’t matter in the long run.
He taught me how to shout loud enough to break up a dog fight with my voice, and how to not tear up my hands if my voice failed. He taught me to never let go of that sled.
He and Mary supported me at several points in my life. They gave me my first car, a ‘78 Chevy, once belonging to Tom’s parents. They clapped at piano recitals, and cheered when I raced their dogs. They gave me a place to stay when I started freelance writing and visited me in Europe, several times. I never recall meeting my god-parents, but my dog-parents? They were always there.
I’ll end with a favorite memory. I’d spent Friday at their place, enjoying pizza before getting off to bed so we could start training dogs early. The day was perfect, cold, sunny, with crystal snow falling from the lake’s moisture.
Tom and I were hooking up six dogs and I grabbed Lynx, a large white dog who almost equaled my weight. I slipped and Lynx, eager to run, surged forward, with me attached to his collar, sliding along on the hard-packed driveway. When we hit the deep snow Tom was suddenly there, grabbing Lynx with one hand and pulling me up and brushing me off with the other. I’m fine, I declared, half shouting over the barking of the dogs still waiting for their chance to run. Good hold, he told me with a twinkle in his eye.
Thank you Tom for all the years. Thank you for being my dog-father and teaching me life lessons so I could find my own 100-mile stare. May you mush on forever, in the great dog yard in the sky.