“You live for a good time, not a long time.” – Tomasz Ziarko
Tom and I became fast friends a few years ago when our mutual high school friends from Mother McAuley (where I went), Brother Rice, Queen of Peace, St. Laurence (where he went) – and beyond – meshed together…well after high school.
Some time went by before I learned that Tom was in remission from his first bout with Metastatic Melanoma (Stage III). I remember him telling me how he got away with having tinted windows and he was feeling “better than ever.” He was also a voice of reason and comfort when I told him there’s a chance I could have lymphoma. (*Side note: No diagnosis on my condition yet, but no cancer cells thus far).
Tom walked me through his diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments, but for each question I asked, he asked me even more questions about my tests/lab results. I’d forgotten we were in a crowded bar (with a band playing) and that I had tinnitus and balance problem, all because Tom put me at ease and really cared about 1. what I had to say and 2. how I was doing. And that’s Tom. He always cares, he always listens, he always smiles.
One of the best times I had with Tom was at his birthday party last year. We danced the night away at Zante Lounge, and amidst all the techno tunes and dance hits he stopped me to ask, “How are you feeling?” Again…it was his birthday and he wanted to know how I was feeling. We did spend some time chatting about my health and quickly changed topics to sports, music, Polish vodka (did I forget to mention Tom’s Polish?) and the theme of my next birthday party. I’ve had a themed birthday party for years, and Tom really enjoys theme parties.
My last themed party this past March was a pajama party, but I didn’t take any pictures because I was on steroids for my undiagnosed illness and had ‘moonface.’ I hated pictures at the time for that reason. And even though Tom told me I shouldn’t be ashamed of the way I look, I just couldn’t bring myself to take pictures. I should have listened to him…
So now I think back to my 2012 ’90s birthday party, when Tom transformed into a ‘blonde Tom Cruise.’ A ‘Zack Morris’ type. I mean, all my friends got into it and wore fantastic ensembles, but Tom stood out because he was smiling and laughing the whole time. And if you knew Tom, you’d know that smile and laugh just make a party. Without them, parties aren’t the same.
Earlier this year, Tom’s melanoma came back, this time at Stage IV. But you’d never guess that he was feeling sick. Granted, after the end of April he didn’t come out much. But every text message was just as sweet, thoughtful and happy as any I’d ever received. He never led on that he was really sick. Maybe it’s because he didn’t want us to feel bad for him, but what I really think is that he was stronger and braver than anyone I’ve ever known.
Tom was in and out of the hospital for treatment for a few months. I really wanted to visit, but I never had the chance to until Saturday, July 6. My friend Jessica texted me saying that Tom was up for visitors and said we could come. I ran out to get him some Chicago Blackhawks 2013 Stanley Cup Champions gear and we headed to Loyola for a quick visit.
We walked in the hospital room and Tom’s eyes lit up when I showed him the Hawks gear. If you know me, you know how much I enjoy giving people gifts. But this was definitely one of my favorite gift-giving moments ever. We sat and talked about his treatment, our group of friends, plans for upcoming weekends and more.
One of the things we had planned was participating in the Miles for Melanoma 5K Run/Walk at Montrose Harbor on July 13. I couldn’t do the walk because of my health condition, but I did donate (our team “Truckin’ It For Tom” raised the most money!) and I felt like I needed to do something else, anything else to help. So after visiting Tom in the hospital, I rushed home and decided to make buttons for everyone. I designed them and put a rush order on them so they’d arrive in time, as the walk was just a week away.
Let me go back to the visit, though…Tom also told us how his sick leave was ending and he wanted to work something out with his boss to return to work for a bit. All he wanted to do was go back to work, be with his family and hang out with us. And again, amidst all this talk, he wanted to know what my doctors were saying. I told him some things and finished with, “But this isn’t about me.” And he said, “But it is!” He then had to go for some X-rays, so I held his hand and said, “I’ll see you later.”
Three days letter, Jessica called me at 8:45am. I missed the call, and when I saw the missed call, I didn’t want to call back. Tom passed away, at age 27, from Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma on July 9, 2013. And as fate would have it, the “Tom Ziarko is my hero” buttons arrived that very same day. Call it poetic, call it what you will. I believe it was Tom’s way of telling us he’s okay, he’ll always be around and he’ll see us again. For us, all it meant was, “There goes my hero…”
And as our very wise friend Tom Bykowski said, “Tom didn’t lose his battle with cancer.” Tom fought for a long time and decided it was time to leave us. He didn’t want to suffer anymore and didn’t want his family and friends to suffer with him. Tom’s strength, tenacity and good nature inspires me every day. Like he said, “You live for a good time, not a long time.” And that’s how I’m living…
If you’d like to donate to support Tom’s family and melanoma research, please visit this page. Every dollar helps.