"A good name is better than precious ointment, And the day of death than the day of one's birth; Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, For that is the end of all men; And the living will take it to heart." (Ecclesiastes 7:1-2)
The phone call came, as all such calls do: suddenly, unexpectedly, unnerving. My wife answered and screamed, "No, no, that can't be!", stomping her feet and shuffling backward; wide-eyed, as if she were attempting to flee from something horrible. And indeed she was.
On the line was John Coates, who wanted to know if we had heard about Tom. We had not.
John informed us that Tom Howard, our mutual and beloved friend, had suffered a heart attack and passed away. We didn't think he was lying---but we didn't want to believe him.
Jennifer rushed to the computer and checked Tom's facebook page. Already, there were postings of condolences and words of sympathy to his family. We were shocked and saddened. We still are.
In the midst of an ordinary day---Jenny and I were cheerfully making our bed when we got the news---our world was shaken. It's still shaking.
In fact, I haven't even been able to write anything about it. Even now, I feel inadequate to express myself in a way that would, either sufficiently express my heart, or properly honor my buddy, Tom. Allow me to simply share a few thoughts.
For two weeks, (he passed away on Friday, January 29th), there has been a hole in the soul of Nashville, Tennessee, at least for the many here who knew and loved Tom. There is a palpable sorrow in the hearts of his friends; they are bewildered by this sudden and tragic loss. In the days following the news of his death, we have shared much with his family and friends; an evening of remembrance, a Sunday service at the church where he served as an associate music minister, a moving memorial service and numerous conversations, recalling life with Tom---and contemplating life without him.
Jenny and I already miss him. Tom was a bit of a night owl, Many evenings he would drop by our house, just to talk and eat and laugh. Often, my wife would go to bed and Tom and I would stay up late, discussing anything and everything; arts, family, politics, popular culture, theology. Sometimes he would fall asleep on our couch and I would stay awake until he awoke and I could send him home!
Any time spent with Tom was a joy. He was hysterically funny, deeply thoughtful and amazingly insightful. He had the soul of a poet and could paint vivid pictures with his words, leaving you in awe at his eloquence---then crack you up with some goofy remark, accompanied with some strange, indescribable vocal affectation! When he would leave our house, I would always feel grateful for such a friend. However, I must admit, there were times when I would tell him I was too tired to get together. Fortunately, he had numerous others with whom he could hang out. Still, I would give anything for one more impromptu visit.
For you who know us and the work we do, you will miss him too, whether you know it or not. You see, Tom has been producing and arranging our music for over twenty years! We were friends in Los Angeles and our first project together was "I Call You Friend." Jenny and I were amazed at what Tom was able to do. We never ceased to be amazed.
Jennifer says he was 'the music behind my songs.' He invested himself so completely into everything we did. An inspired pianist and composer in his own right, Tom orchestrated and conducted our recording sessions as if the songs were his own. One of our greatest thrills was going to the studio and waiting for that first downbeat. With a wave of a baton, he would create a masterpiece around the sketch of my compositions, filling them with color--- and us with excitement.
He would accomplish all this, seemingly effortlessly, quietly going about his business with skill, excellence and loving care for the music. That is something I will miss so much: the love he had for what we were doing and the passion he expressed in helping bring it to fruition.
Tom was an encourager. He would give me insights into my own work that I either didn't see or fully appreciate. He made me feel that I was an important artist with a significant contribution to make to the world. (Often, I didn't share that opinion but his eloquent affirmation had a way of trumping my own insecurities!) That gift he gave me is precious and irreplaceable.
There is no other way to say it. This is a huge loss, not only to Jenny and me, but also to everyone who knew and loved Tom. His memorial service was packed with friends, family, artists, musicians, all fellow travelers with this most unique, inspiring and lovable man. The sanctuary at St. Bartholomew's was filled with beautiful music from the choir and various artists with whom Tom worked---including yours truly; I sang Psalm 23.
What was particularly stunning---and moving---was the music that Tom had written himself, underscoring the entire service. It would have brought a smile, (or embarrassment, knowing Tom), to hear the people whom he loved--- and who loved him---singing his songs. It was as if he was with us---yet, conspicuously absent.
In the fellowship hall afterward, there was a slide show of his life accompanied by yet more of his music, the sharing of stories and tributes, and a nostalgic rock and roll set by some of his brilliantly talented buddies. When it all wound down and came to a reluctant end, we all dispersed into different groups, talking late into the night about Tom, not wanting to say a final goodbye.
Tom is still alive in his wife, Dori, his daughter Katie and his son, Joseph. Their words for him that day were a beautiful declaration of his success as a husband and father. He would have been so blessed to hear that. No one was more dedicated to seeing his family prosper in every way; yet he struggled with his own ability to accomplish that. They, of course need your prayers.
He is alive in his music: his solo piano recordings, the gorgeous string arrangements he provided for countless artists and projects, and, of course, our albums. We will, of course, continue to produce our music; but we don't yet know how we will do it without Tom. (You may pray for us, as well.)
It's snowing here in Nashville as I write this; it was snowing the day Tom died. I spoke to him that morning. We were experiencing a rare snowstorm which was turning everything white, an unusual occurrence in this part of the country. I commented to Tom that it looked like Minnesota. Tom and Dori were from Minnesota, and decided that day it would be fun to go for a walk in the park with some friends. Tom never returned from that walk.
We like to think that God provided a touch of home for the day of Tom's going home. Wouldn't that be just like our Father?
Jenny tells me that, at the end of my phone conversation with my friend, on what would be his last day with us here, I said before I hung up, "I love you, Tommy!" I will be forever grateful that I said those words!!
Tom deserved to be loved---and he was.
We will not see his like again.
And yet---one day---we will! I'm looking forward to that.
Thank you, Lord, for our brother, Tom Howard.
And thank you all for allowing me to tell you a little bit about him.