He loved writing, especially by hand. Eventually the pieces were refined on his laptop computer, but only after filling pages of a standard yellow legal pad or a Moleskin notebook. Random thoughts covered the outside of an envelope, or curved around the corners of a postcard, both sides. He wrote by hand every day, wherever he found a comfortable spot to sit, reflect, muse. He favored writing with a classic fountain pen dipped into an inkwell, or the “world’s best” cedar pencils and rubber erasers purchased from an art supply store. In his hand, these tools produced beautifully written letters, a cross between printing and cursive, deliberately neat with just enough curl to be fancy.
Tom Ryan, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, held master’s degrees in both strategic planning and English literature. A seasoned soldier with a lifelong love of the arts, he was often called “the smartest person in the room,” and “the kindest man I have ever known.” Now that he could finally devote all of his time to writing, he was prolific, always journaling, taking notes, writing poetry, plays, articles and essays. Tom’s business cards – written by hand, of course – said simply, “Writing for Words,” expressing his passion for both the physical process of handwriting and creating art out of words.
When we met I had recently quit my day job to work full-time as a musician. Kansas City’s artistic community was thriving and Tom and I loved it all. We could be found at my gigs or other music events, or at the theater or art exhibits or the ballet. We knew artists in all genres and attending shows was a social event. Our personal artistic ventures kept us busy as well. On top of performing as a singer/songwriter or with bands, I taught preschool music, coached voice students, and sang to memory care patients. Tom wrote poems and essays for his website, “Avalon Deployed,” blogged for the Kansas City Star newspaper, volunteered at the public library, and began to workshop a play he was writing about the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton.
After two years we decided to live together, and found the perfect place: an urban, fifth floor, downtown loft, with brick walls and high ceilings supported by rough-hewn wooden beams. Out our window to the west we could see, hear and smell the Folger’s Coffee factory. The loft was located right in the midst of our beloved artistic community. For me, this was the fulfillment of a long-time dream, having seen the 1980s film, “It’s My Turn,” in which Jill Clayburgh took a freight elevator to reach her rooftop loft, a big, open, bohemian-styled living space. After weathering many losses and heartaches in my life, I could hardly believe my good fortune of falling in love with this wonderful man, being a full time musician, and living in the loft of my dreams.
Five months later everything came to a sudden, unexpected end. Tom didn’t let on that he was experiencing heart palpitations and shortness of breath, until one day he went out for a walk and never came back. He had a heart attack and died instantly, falling hard to the sidewalk half a block from our building. The last words he ever wrote were on a small, yellow sticky note left on my bedside table that said, “Left at 8:30 for coffee,” signed with a hand-drawn heart.
I was asleep when he left, and when I woke up and read the note, I knew he should have already returned. In desperation I opened Tom’s journal, searching for clues about where he might have gone or an appointment I didn’t know about. I had never before looked in his journal, even when he left it open on his desk by the window or on the arm of our sofa. Now it was critical to see what was on his mind and in his heart, written by his own hand. That’s when I read about the chest pains and difficulty breathing that he felt that morning, and that he planned to “walk it off.” Frantically, I called the coffee shop on the first floor to see if he’d been there, and the library just a few blocks away, one of his favorite places to stop, but no one had seen him. With the help of his daughter and son-in-law, we finally found him in the nearest hospital, an unidentified man who died around 9:30 a.m. that morning from a heart attack. We only needed to mention the Saint Christopher’s medal he wore on a long chain around his neck, a gift from his two children, to know it was Tom.
The funeral was surreal. Hundreds of people came to show their love for Tom and me. Many people told me then, and still tell me now, that Tom made them feel as if they could accomplish anything they set out to do in life. Unfortunately Tom’s life ended far too soon for him to realize the success of his lifelong dream of writing and publishing.
I moved out of the loft, and as I slowly began to navigate a new life alone, I read more of his journal entries and the bits of paper and notebooks he left behind. Beautiful, streaming thoughts about the night we met, our first date, and falling in love. Difficult things, too, like times he spiraled into debilitating depression; struggled with PTSD from several near-death experiences and violence from 20 years as a soldier; and grieving, heart-broken words about the loss of his adult son, a few years earlier, in a fatal car accident. Deep, revealing, heartfelt thoughts and feelings all recorded in his unique script. I’m thankful to have these writings as a comfort and reminder of this special man.
Handwriting is the physical transfer of thoughts that flow from the brain out through the arm, hand, and fingers. A uniquely personal forming of lines and curls morph into letters, then words, and beyond. Artistic shapes take on meaning as sentences, paragraphs, and pages relay information, express feelings and ideas, tell stories, and document history. As Tom Ryan would say, “Writing for Words.”