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Dancing with Death Ė The Tom Boyington Braveheart Story

Tom BraveheartÖ.I only started calling him that toward the end. I think if I would have added anything to his name before that it would have been Tom Sweetheart, that was always how he was with me.  That's Tom on the right with me in the accompanying photo.

It was maybe 5 years ago, after a Dance in SLC, that this slender fellow appeared in front of me for a hug. After the hug he reached in his pocket and gave me a small rose-quartz crystal heart. I still have it. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship and journey. I saw a lot of Tom after that and it was at a Wilderness Dance Camp that he told me he had colon cancer. I hugged him again since I had nothing to say. Then we went back to the Dance.

Tom was interested in a lot of spiritual things and continued to deepen in the Dances. He started to attend all the Oneness Council meetings and worked with the financial committee so we connected again. I think here is where I discovered some other aspects of personality; he had a tendency to procrastinate but when he did work on a task he was very thorough. Like any quality or tendency they can work for or against us. His procrastination may have shortened his time here with us but his thoroughness, applied to his friends even more than his tasks, turned into a care-fullness that filled and lengthened the Moment. I very much enjoyed being with Tom, he really listened and thought about what I said and his responses were well thought out.

As his health declined Tomís dancing increased. During the last couple of years I would see him at every retreat. It was sometime in late 1998 that he told me the cancer was spreading and he wanted to do only the "important" things. For him that meant even more Dancing, but also on the list was a Space Shuttle launch and seeing the new Star Wars movie. Oftentimes, Tom would wait til the last moment to decide what to do. Our family was planning a big trip to New Zealand for both Dancing and vacationing. While traveling previous to flying across the world I got an email from Tom (then in Florida) saying he had signed up for the NZ Dance retreat and was jumping on a series of airplanes to get there.

The NZ experience was wonderful for all of usÖ.eight dancing days at the Mana Retreat Center on the beautiful Coromandel peninsula (not to mention the weeks of body-surfing hiking and biking!). In the course of a deeply spiritual and transformative retreat Tom met and fell in love with Vilasini, a very wonderful and volatile woman from Australia. I was flabbergasted when Tom asked me if I would marry them then and there, which, though amazed by the rapidity, but considering Tomís situation, I did. After the retreat we all jammed into our small station wagon; Ginger and I, our kids, Sam and Miriel, Tom and Vilasini, one guitar, 2 drums, etc., etc.. Tomís health took a rapid turn for the worst and we had to take him to the nearest hospital emergency room. It was there, after various tests and xrays, that the doctors said the cancer had spread to Tomís lungs and other places. The doctors inserted a catheter in Tom and his current crisis stabilized. We had heard fabulous reports of a woman sufi saint living a short distance away and decided to swing by and drop Tom and Vilasini off there (they were heading to Australia shortly). We ended up spending 3 days with Halima at her Sharda Center. Halimaís life (sheís 84), vision and service are documented in a video produced by Anahata called "The Hidden Jewel of New Zealand". A wonderful, unassumng, no-nonsense spirit radiated from Halima and infused us all. We went our separate ways and shortly after Tom and Vilasini got to Melbourne they had a big blowupÖ.I could feel it all the way from NZ. About 3 weeks later on our way home, we had a brief layover in Fiji; and surprise!, up walks Tom. He was returning home, somewhat shell-shocked from his experience with Vilasini. It was at this point that we reconfirmed with Tom our invitation to stay with us if he felt that was the best spot for him.

After bouncing around for about a month (filled, of course, with Dancing) Tom landed in Bozeman. One of Tomís wishes was to be with his extended Dance family again. This was answered in a sizable fashion at the 140 strong Easter Oneness retreat at Lava Hot Springs. Tom was having a lot of pain in his neck and when we got back to Bozeman x-rays had confirmed there was a tumor on his upper spine. The doctors said it would continue to deteriorate and become more unstable and that his neck could actually break and, because of where it was, it could stop his breathing. Tom told me that it was like knowing that he was going to be in a possibly fatal car wreck soon, but not exactly when. Tom went off with a friend to see his parents in Spokane and his 17 and 19 year-old sons in Idaho Falls. We got a call a few days later that Tomís neck had destabilized and he was breathing OK but unable to stand or even sit for long. We jumped in the van and went down and brought him back to Bozeman. He was checked over at the hospital and the next day he came home with us, not to leave again, at least not in this earth-body. The oncologists gave him a couple of weeks to live. We made arrangements with the fantastic Hospice people in Bozeman for backup help. There was an unceasing support during Tomís last two months. Do not fail to contact your local hospice group in a similar situationÖ.they were a wonderful comfort and help to Tom and the rest of us.

A constant flow of Blessings, or call them miracles, streamed into us in the ensuing weeks. The Sunday after Tom first moved into my bedroom (I moved into my office) we had the first of several public Dances in our living room rather than in our normal rented meeting space. We couldnít move Tom to the Dances so we moved the Dances to him! Sort of a new wrinkle on the mountain to Mohammedís adage. There were approximately 30 folks with out-of-town visitors as well at this first Dance. We circled up around Tomís hospital bed for the Toward the One Invocation. As Tom was literally leading the Way he appropriately led us in the Invocation. We started by singing some Dances around him and then proceeded into the living room for Dancing. Maybe it was the second or third Dance, right in the middle of it, we formed a snake and Danced right back into Tomís room and around his bed. Itís not a big bedroom so we overflowed up on to my unused bed and filled every bit of space. We continued to Dance in some fashionÖ.though restricted in external space the internal connection with Spirit soared. The whole evening was beyond magical. Tomís imminence with Death brought us all naturally into a place of Presence that I for one rarely access with such completeness. I will never forget that evening, it ranks on my personal all-time best Dance events.

The following weeks settled into some sort of routine. Tomís folks were in contact with us. After about a week they drove over in their RV and settled it in a Bozeman RV park. Tomís Dad, Jim, pretty much was with us every day for the duration. Tomís Mom, Bobbie, was also though it was harder for her to handle Tomís deteriorating physical condition. Nuria was around and did a lot for Tom during the days. Since I work at home I was around a lot too. I pretty much had the night shift with Tom to myself until Penny Lippincott started driving 2hrs each way from ID to spend many nites with him. She would often leave very late or very early to get back in time for work. She was quite amazingly wonderful. Other of Tomís friends started showing up, sometimes staying for days. Tomís boys, Scott, 19, and Andy, 17, showed up and stayed for a week or so. Schooling and military service required them to return to their normal lives. It was beautiful to see Tom and his boys rediscover their love and respect for each other.

Tom was quite a computer jock. We set up his laptop on a swing-over table that Hospice got us. Tom would hammer away at various things from emails to fix-its for any of his friends that came to him with technical problems. I would be up late at night, working in my office, just on the other side of the wall from him, and I would get emails and other electronic stuff from him. One time we were emailing back and forth until I finally yelled, "Letís cut it out! Iím only 10 feet away," and walked into his room. Because of his technical know-how I would go to him a lot and even though he was always in pain Tom was continually working on solutions.

Tomís Dad, Pappy, and his 2 brothers were, or still are, in the U.S. Air Force; jet pilots or support personnel. Fighter pilots are not the usual DUP material but they got into it every time we danced when they happened to be here at the house. And they always sang, or tried to sing, even though Iím sure it was unfamiliar airspace for them! Pappy, normally quite capable of crustiness, really seemed to take a liking to it.

Just a couple of weeks before Tom Danced onwards a really wonderful thing happened. Shree Ma, a truly saintly bhajan singer from India came to do some public kirtan in Bozeman. She and her group were staying at dancers Tony & Kayís house and they had spoken of Tomís situation. Toward the end of a public event Shree Ma was giving individual blessings with water from the Ganges. I spoke to her main American disciple, who I only know as Swamiji, about Tom and asked if there was anything they could do. Lo and behold, the next morning Shree Ma and Swamiji show up along with Tony & Kay. Everybody (about 10 of us, including Pappy) piled into Tomís room and Shree Ma sat down next to Tom, took his hand and started to sing. Tom lit up like a light bulb. Ma had more holy water and liberally used it on Tom. After a bit (actually a Bit) the flow moved on. Before Ma left she hugged Nuria and I and thanked us for doing what we were doing. And then she was gone. Pappy was one of the first to speak, "well, Iíve been around some supposedly powerful people, four star Generals and the like, but not a one of Ďem can hold a candle to that little lady!"

Tom increasing weakened physically and spent a lot of time out of his body. We would be talking and he would stop in mid-sentence and go away for minutes or more at a stretch and then come back and pick up right where he left off. Sometimes he would put the most peculiar things together but if I relaxed and went with the flow they often had a profound connection to them. He started to be less and less interested in food and he was losing functionality in his arms and legs. We also had to up his dosage of morphine and other drugs. Sometimes the drugs would mask the pain but more often Tom would just go away. At this point both Tomís brothers and his Dad were staying with us and there was one of us with him around the clockÖ..Tom liked that. Iím having a little trouble remembering exactly how his last days were. We were all on a vigil, keeping strange hours, and in somewhat of an altered state. One evening Tom suddenly seemed to rally, he asked for the telephone and had us dial a few friends and his sons; either he spoke for awhile if they were home or we left messages for him. That night was very hard. There was a part of me that wished he would let go. I even spoke to him of that and said I thought he had done and was doing a wonderful job. The next day he slept a lot but we all stayed around. That evening, again he was awake and in a lot of pain. It got very difficult so the only thing I could think to do was sing and play to him, with Nuria joining in and Bill and Mike and Pappy there, all sitting close. Tom was really struggling; he couldnít breathe or get into the chanting. I heard him say, "I donít understand," and I said I donít either and then he said it again and I said he didnít have to understand. I tried a different sacred phrase, "Om Nama Shivaya" and he began to be with that and then we did some Zikr and he whispered and joined with that and then flowed into unconsciousness. That affirmation of eternal Unity was the last whispered words that Tom ever spoke. He ceased breathing a few hours later.

Tom Boyington became Tom Braveheart to me. And his life and his death have made my heart braver too. Thank you my brother, my son, my father, my friend. We Dance On.

Written in installments over the last year of Tom's life by Narayan Eric Waldman