Over a decade ago I met Tom Standa. This week he died. And I have learned that there can be very different types of sadness. This one I feel for Tom is bittersweet. I include a brief reflection and a few photos here, because he was one helluva mountain-biker, and more importantly, one incredible man.
My Time with Tom –
Tom used to joke that I probably didn’t even see his face for the first few months that I knew him, because I couldn’t take my eyes off his calves. In a world where nothing’s ever perfect, they were about as close as you could get. And it feels ridiculous now, as I cycle through a confused sadness over Tom’s suicide, to find myself remembering his calves. Seeing them stride around REI, pedaling a bike in front of me, holding steady on boulder route, this nearly perfect part that caught my eye and drew me to an amazing man and friend whom I loved and learned from.
Tom and I were co-workers first. San Francisco was opening an REI. I think he was a manager of sorts, and I was just some yay-hoo looking for a job. We became fast friends and before long, the 2 of us were spending all free moments together, finding climbing routes in the city, teaching me to downhill ski, getting me back on a bike. It was one of the most wonderfully carefree times of my life and Tom was the ideal playmate. He was always patient with my lack of experience and enthusiastic to teach me in a way that didn’t annoy me or make me feel stupid and he seemed to relish my antics. I will never forget us boarding a San Francisco city bus, en route to an urban climbing spot. Tom, always the gentleman, had the massive crash pad on his back – bumping everyone as he walked down the aisle. I jokingly asked quite loudly, “Geesh, who’s the jerk with the giant backpack?” which drew horrified looks, but made Tom respond just as I expected, with laughter.
Gawd, he could handle a lot. I doubt I’ll ever again meet someone with as much patience as Tom. He moved into my apartment after we started dating and I can remember he would meticulously fold our clothes (a task he called “relaxing” and I called “torture”). He’d lay the folded clothes on the bed and when he was done, gather it all up and put it away. The room was very tiny and I could easily sneak up on him and launch from the doorway onto the bed – which I did more than once, rolling around on the bed and destroying all the work he had done.
I know. This sounds horribly mean, worthy of a fight. But Tom loved it. He understood it. Knew my trouble-making was a playfulness aimed at just getting him to smile. Which isn’t to say that after 3 times in a row he wouldn’t put his foot down, but up to that point, he knew I did it because it made us laugh. It was just the sort of thing that made his eyes squint with joy, to the point that they became little crescents, hidden under the top rim of his glasses. It seemed like when Tom smiled, all you’d see were the apples of his cheeks, magnified under those damn coke-bottle lenses he had to wear.
On weekends in San Francisco, Tom and I would escape the city, often driving 3+ hours to a magnificent day hike. We’d take his little red Civic hatchback – the car that proved to me that real men drive pragmatic vehicles, and we’d hit the road. Often the mornings were foggy and we’d grab a hot drink before heading to Point Reyes or Big Sur or somewhere further afield. We’d hike and explore all day and then turn around and head home. We’d usually stop somewhere for a burger and a milkshake on the way home and inevitably, I’d fall asleep soon thereafter. It made no sense to drive so far, but we loved it. And when I would awaken briefly to see how Tom was doing, and find the glow of the car dashboard lighting his contented face, it made me feel so peaceful, knowing that this was just another part of the adventure.
It wasn’t long after I first met Tom that I learned he had more than one bike. I’d not seriously ridden a bike since childhood and so it was beyond me why anyone would need more than one bike (how naïve I was!) Not only did Tom have multiple bikes, but I can recall him showing me old photos and there would be picture after picture of his bikes! One leaned up against a tree, another by the side of a trail. I wondered if the photos were because he was selling the bikes…nope, just wanted pictures of them or I needed to use up film (the good old days). It was a dorky pride that belied his generosity. On more than one occasion, he’d simply give one of his beloved bikes away to someone he thought should have it. I was the lucky enough to be one of those people. With little fanfare or discussion, he showed up one day with a Specialized Stumpjumper bike for me. In his understated way he explained how it was made in the 80’s, before Specialized switched their production to some other country (where, apparently, standards dropped). He pointed out the nice lugs, told me how a dog had attacked him once while riding it (hence the mangled handlebar grip) and was excited that I’d be able to use it to commute to work since I had no car or bike of my own. I rode that bike all over San Francisco and then Portland and now Hood River. It is by far the smoothest ride of any of my bikes (of which I have more than one, and do occasionally take their pictures…)
I’ve been mountain biking for a handful of years now. And while my interest took off when I moved to the Gorge, my first official mountain bike ride was on Tom’s teal and purple Klein on a trail in Bend, Oregon. The bike had a huge pivot point right in the middle of the cross-bar. I remember it, because it bruised the shit out of my inner knees – which I’m sure is the result of poor form, inexperience, and simple knock-kneed genetics. We went out on the Deschutes River Trail. The ride sucked. I had no idea what I was in for. No experience, and, perhaps most importantly, no snacks. What I thought would be just an hour, turned into 4. Tom, of course, had plenty of extra food and water and shared it without second thought. He wasn’t deterred that I didn’t immediately fall for the sport he so loved, and over the years, when I would visit him at the REI store in Bend, he’d smile and nod as I regaled him with my most recent trail stories and new-found love of mountain biking. (This summer, I returned to that trail along the Deschutes – and I loved it.) I always assumed that one of these days Tom and I would ride together again and he’d get to see how far I’d come from that first ride. I’d probably try to hit a kicker and fall or go faster than I should and make some silly mistake and he would laugh, pick me up, then ride on without saying much – reminding me just how graceful understated can truly be.
We all have lows and highs in our lives and Tom was there for one of my lowest. I call it my Sad Bad Time. It was one of those periods when perspective goes out the window, you’re left feeling paralyzed, and isolated, and horrible. And you really don’t know if you’ll ever get out of it, and you have no idea how to even try. I can’t even recall if Tom and I were still dating or just friends, but I know he was my touchstone – solid as hell, like he’d been so many times before. I moved beyond that Sad Bad place thanks in part to Tom’s strength and clarity. He always rose to the challenge and he was so darn unflappable – (much to my dismay when I was hoping to get a rise out of him). Which is part of the reason it’s so hard now to reconcile how things ended. And why there’s this illogical part of me that feels it’s all recent enough and raw enough that there might be some way to just turn back the clock, and be there with Tom at the end. And if I could just get there in time I would remind him of riding a bus with a crash-pad, wrestling on a pile of clothes, exploring the outdoors together. I would make fun of his eyes disappearing when he smiled or joke about when he’d finally get that front tooth fixed. I’d tell him that the long underwear that he let me “steal” from him, are still in regular rotation – despite holes and poor stitch-up jobs. And that Stumpy J is still my favorite bike even though it’s old school and heavy and most people don’t understand why it’s amazing.
And then I would remind him what he used to tell me when I felt bad – you are perfectly imperfect. And we would sit back and look out at the world and feel only peace, knowing that above all else, this was true – for all of us.
Thank you Tom for the grace and patience and love and tenderness and laughter and wisdom that you gave me, and so many others.
Rest in peace my friend.
February 8, 2017