Yesterday we said goodbye to an individual that meant a great deal to me. Tommy was an inspiration and guiding force in my life, and although there is comfort in knowing that he is now free of the pain and limitations he faced during his lifetime here with us my heart is still heavy with his loss. His mom, Rita, asked me to speak at his funeral yesterday. It was not easy, but I was humbled and honored that she trusted me to speak about her son and the impact he made on my life and the lives of everyone who knew him. My only hope is that in the words I shared I honored him and his life as he deserved.
Tommy Harner was my very first friend. Born only two and a half months after me, I don’t remember life without him. As toddlers we were carted to our grandparents’ houses, propped up on couches in ridiculous Halloween costumes while our parents took our picture together. When our moms and dads got together to play cards on Saturday nights, Tommy was my playmate. It was a thrill to listen to him say my name (and also a little annoying when he said my brother’s name so much more clearly and frequently), and it was always fun to get him to try to repeat things I said to him. In typical kid fashion, I was a little jealous of Tommy’s cool toys - especially his Teddy Ruxpin - anytime we went to his or his grandparents’ house. During the summer, on nights when our families would get together at Gordon and Cindy’s, the adults would hang out in the yard or by the barn while I pushed Tommy in his chair down the lane and my brother pushed Nicole in her stroller. As we entered the school aged years life got busy and it became more difficult for our families to find time to spend together, but that didn’t stop our friendship from growing. We waved to him like crazy people from the curb like he was a local celebrity as he passed by us in the Harvest Days parade. In high school there were nights when he stopped by the Dairy Queen for a milkshake and a quick visit while I was there working. He was at my high school graduation party, and I returned the favor a couple of years later. A few years after that, like all the other 24 year olds in attendance, Tommy showed up fashionably late to my wedding reception to join in the celebration.
All of this goes to illustrate that there is not a time in my life that Tommy wasn’t a part of. His physical presence provided many fond moments, but his friendship gave me so much more than memories. Tommy’s life shaped my own life in ways that I’m still just now fully coming to understand. Tommy faced many challenges and limitations in his lifetime, but that never stopped him from changing my life and the life of so many others that were lucky enough to know and love him.
As a kid, I don’t ever remember thinking that Tommy was different. Sure, he didn’t walk and he couldn’t see like I could. We went to different schools and he had medical needs that as a kid I couldn’t begin to comprehend. But honestly, other than that I don’t think I ever saw him as being disabled. What I saw instead was how capable he was - capable of being silly just like me. Capable of laughing just like me. Capable of making his parents a little bit crazy just like me when all they wanted was to spend some grownup time with their friends. He was capable of playing and loving and finding joy in the simple things just like me. We did things differently but we were more alike than not. And just like that, Tommy taught me the first of many important lessons. He taught me about acceptance. He showed me that when the focus shifted to what made us similar, all the things that made us different were so much less important than what made us the same. How lucky was I to have such an important lesson taught so early in life by such a patient teacher?
I don’t remember the moment, but I’ve heard the story told several times. My mom and I were driving through Dwight one day and on the drive we passed Fox Center. From the back seat I told my mom, “That’s where Tommy goes to school, and someday I’m going to teach him how to walk”. Now, at five years old I’m not sure what made me so bold as to think I could teach someone how to walk but there it was. In his own way, Tommy had provided me with a mission, and wouldn’t you know it but somehow that challenge stuck with me. He had planted a seed that would take root, grow over time, and blossom into a life path for me that lead to working with children with special needs. My friendship with Tommy instilled in me a sense of compassion and a desire to help those who couldn’t do for themselves. My life experiences with Tommy encourage me daily to continue to tackle that mission he set in front of me so many years ago, to work harder and be better in order to a make difference in the lives of kids like him.
I’ve spent some time over the past few days reading messages from others about Tommy, and in every note it’s obvious how much he was adored. How could you not love Tommy Harner?! He made us laugh. He changed our lives. He was an inspiration. He was a true joy. It was an honor to know him. These words are shared over and over again by friends and family who loved him deeply. Tommy won the hearts of all who knew him and was definitely one of a kind. My wish is that in some way Tommy felt the impact he had, that he knew the work he did during his 36 years on this Earth touched the lives of more people than he could ever begin to imagine.
When Rita asked me to speak today, I have to admit that I was a little overwhelmed with the request. I kept asking myself, “How do I do justice to a person who has had such a profound, lasting impact on my life”? Rita’s request was simple - to honor Tommy and his life - but as I thought about what I wanted to share I realized that no matter what I said about Tommy I would not do him justice unless I also honored the people in his life who gave to him as much as he has given to all of us. Never in my life have I been witness to a more powerful display of devotion than that of the love and care Tommy received from his parents and grandparents. Tom and Rita, the sacrifices that you have made for your son are beyond anything I can begin to imagine. I know and have felt first hand that the depths of a parent’s love for their child run deeper than anything anyone can begin to imagine, but when I look at the life that you gave to Tommy I am reminded time and time again that that love is endless and all consuming. Your dedication to Tommy has always been and will continue to be one of the great sources of inspiration that I have ever experienced, and I am certain that anyone who has ever come into your lives would agree. On those days as a mom when I feel that my well has run dry and I have nothing left to give to my daughters, I think of you and know that there is always more. Tommy was loved and cherished and accepted by all who knew him because that’s what we saw in his relationship with you. I can only pretend to imagine the grief and emptiness that you feel with his loss, but I believe with all my heart that Tommy would want me to be his voice in order to share this with you:
You have lost your son, but your work here is not done. Tommy’s work here is not done. He is counting on us - on ALL of us - to continue to lead by his example to teach and inspire others while he guides and watches over us from above. He’s counting on us to continue his life work by teaching compassion and acceptance, friendship and love, devotion and dedication to all people in all places every single day. We have all come together in this space to honor Tommy, but honoring him should not end when we leave here today. We must continue to honor him every day because that’s what he deserves, and we do that by living as he did.
We will smile and laugh because that’s what he loved to do. We will accept and celebrate each other’s differences because that’s what he taught us. We will show compassion for others because that’s what we saw in him. We will devote our lives to making the lives of those we love better every single day. We will dedicate the rest of our lives to making Tommy’s life on this Earth meaningful by taking what he gave to each of us and passing it along to another.
Tommy is now free of the limitations and pain that he experienced in his life here with us. Now it’s our turn to carry his burden, to continue his life’s work in his honor. I will gladly do this for my friend. It’s the least I could do for someone who did so much for me.