I’ve had a lot of less-than-great days. Sad days. Bad days. Awkward days. And bullshit days. But it’s been almost 7 months since the hardest day of my life, so far.
On November 24th, 2021, Jason and I had just left our house for our first date in Mahwah, NJ without the kids. The house was packed with decorations and food and excitement for the next day—our first Thanksgiving hosted in the new house. We were feeling light and thankful and ready to kick off the holiday season back in the northeast where we belong.
My uncle and his girlfriend, Fran, were staying in a hotel nearby—excited to join us for Thanksgiving Day.
As Jason and I headed to the restaurant for our date, we got a phone call. It was Fran. Screaming. Shrieking. Panicking. Begging for help. “He’s not breathing. He’s not breathing. Help. He’s not breathing. I don’t know CPR. Nicole, help me. He’s not breathing.”
I didn’t know where they were staying. My brain was frozen. I was doing u-turns. Aimlessly driving as fast as the car would take me to no known destination. A lifetime of memories with my favorite uncle flashing before me. Every Christmas sleeping on our couch—swearing he ran into Santa and that Saint Nick told him my sister and I were at the top of the Nice List. Buying my first big-girl desk so I could study hard and do great things. Letting me blast Crocodile Rock on his speakers. Showing up at every graduation, every party, every milestone with a quiet smile and a glowing admiration for his family he loved so immensely. Calling to say hi but always making it clear, “It’s not urgent. I know you’re busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger. Call me when you can. I love you.” And the generosity. Uncle Tom didn’t have a greedy bone in his body. Whatever was his, was his temporarily—because he was ready to give it away to anyone who needed it or wanted it—a trait that’s been passed down in the Derby family for generations.
When I finally navigated the directions and made it to his hotel, it was more chaos. EMTs. Beeping machines. Hotel staff shuffling by. Phone calls to family. Moments of total faith and others of complete despair.
They rolled him out of the hotel room to the ambulance. I touched his arm, telling him I loved him and I was there by his side. It sounds dramatic—but the truth is I couldn’t possibly describe how dramatic it was. Knowing in your heart someone is gone but denying that reality in your mind. It was happening too fast. Too crazy. Too much. Too dramatic.
When we got to the hospital, it wasn’t 15 minutes before they asked me to sit in a room and wait for the doctor. I knew. I knew the worst news was coming my way. I was shaking. I was crying. I was lying, “It’s ok. It’s ok. We don’t know what’s happening yet.” It was some weird limbo where you know it’s not good news but you get to pretend it might be until the door opens and the doctor looks at you with those eyes.
“We did our best but we couldn’t save him.”
We’ve all heard that on Grey’s Anatomy and in every soap opera a thousand times. But when it’s your person they couldn’t save, when it’s your turn to call the rest of the family and tell them Uncle Tom died suddenly and they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, when it’s your turn to leave the hospital without the person you came with—it’s a whole new ballgame.
The priest arrived. He blessed Uncle Tom with his Last Rites. We stood in a circle of prayer. I let out a sigh and looked at the hospital doors. Inside them, I was still in Uncle Tom’s world. His body was here. He was here. Outside of them, I had to let go. I had to step out into a world where Uncle Tom (in the physical sense) didn’t exist anymore. I had to leave him behind.
Everything up until now was enough to make this the hardest day of my life. But what really put the cherry on top was calling my father. Being the one to tell my dad that his number-one best friend and blood brother didn’t make it (just two years after he lost his only other brother… also on Thanksgiving) was the most agonizing moment I’ve ever experienced. I can still hear my dad’s heart-wrenching gasp through the phone.
Uncle Tom was my father’s guiding light for family values and support after my grandparents passed away. They were cut from the same (well, similar) cloth. And they shared an endless treasure of memories, secrets, promises and responsibilities. This loss for my father was impossible to comprehend. And I had to rip the bandaid.
The next day was painful. Fran gave us the boxes of family photos and gifts and memories my Uncle Tom brought with him to share on Thanksgiving at my house. Looking at the collection, I could see exactly what he had envisioned—all of us around the table tearing up and belly laughing over wedding photos of my grandparents, high school memorabilia from the 4 siblings, 80s hair styles, stories of the grandchildren, great nephews and nieces—decades and decades of stories—one leading into the next. It would have been just perfect.
When Annie Bea was a baby she was terrified of Uncle Tom. She would cry and scream at the sight of him. Many dinners were spent with my uncle hiding his face behind a menu so Annie would remain calm. Then suddenly, when she turned 2, Uncle Tom came to visit us in Miami. He walked through the door and there was Annie Bea—open-armed and a big smile—shouting, “Tommmmy! Tommmmy, baby!” She couldn’t get enough of him. Something flipped and she finally saw what we all saw for his entire life—a loving, always-up-for-a-laugh, gracious, family man.
If I could muster up even half the faith my Uncle Tom had, I could guarantee he’s over my shoulder at this very moment. He’s watching me type and thrilled to have had such an impactful role in my life.
He was my biggest blog fan. He read every entry the instant I hit “post.” In fact, I recently did my taxes (naturally, my whole family uses the same firm) and the accountant said, “Your Uncle Tom used to spend the first half of every meeting with me reading your blog. He was so proud of you.”
We should all be so lucky to have an Uncle Tom.
I hope he made his way to heaven and the angels were greeting him with open wings shouting, “Tommmmy, baby! Welcome home.”
I’ll miss you forever, Uncle Tom. Thank you for being one of the greatest examples of how to love. And I hope you know I love you back.