The world has come to know something of the life of Tom Little following his recent tragic death in some far corner of Afghanistan. It is too bad that such a tragedy was the occasion for millions of people learning about this remarkable man. I write as a friend of Tom’s. This is not a biography; this is a personal reflection. If there are any factual errors in it, they are mine, but they are not errors of the heart. What I write here is how I knew Tom. What stories I tell are from the storehouse in my memory bank.
Tom had an angular, athletic frame, with sandy reddish hair, increasingly flecked with grey, with an “aw shucks” manner about him. He rather looked like an adult version of one of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River boys. He was a serious man, but with a ready smile. His demeanor was quiet, even shy. He didn’t seek out the spotlight, but when he spoke it was always worth listening. He worked best when the spotlight was on the needy eyes of another human being.
I last saw Tom about 13 months ago, early in the summer of 2009. He and Libby, his dear wife and partner, were on a short stay in the States. They began serving in Afghanistan thirty years earlier to serve for perhaps a couple of years, with no idea that such service would dominate the rest of their lives. Last summer Tom asked if we could get together. I suggested lunch and offered to bring a young colleague along, so that he could get to know Tom better. Tom said a gentle no — he just wanted to see me. When my study door closed he told me he needed me as a friend. I was honored and humbled. Tom had so many friends all over the world. Tom and I were already friends; clearly he wanted time for the friendship to go deeper. It did at that lunch on a warm summer Wednesday.
We ate at a local restaurant owned and operated by Afghanis. When the server came to our table, Tom looked up and spoke to him in his own language. An incredulous smile broke across his face and I watched them converse in two languages. The server had a relative in Kabul, a doctor. Tom knew his relative. I listened in awe even when I could not understand a word they were saying.
Back to our conversation. Tom spoke of some of the long-term effects of living in a country that was more often at war than not. He was experiencing some symptoms related to post-traumatic stress, the kind often experienced by soldiers after wartime combat duty. He was having trouble concentrating and focusing his attention as well as he once did. He told me about his three daughters. They were reared in Kabul. When missiles were heard overhead the family huddled in the basement. His daughters could identify by sound alone whether they were incoming or outgoing missiles. They never had any desire, he told me, to see a war movie — they had lived through enough war.
Tom and I, he just having turned 60 and I a few years older, talked about what retirement might be like for us, knowing that we would not stop working, but that the nature of our work might change. We talked about common friends. I have had the rare privilege of knowing a stream of humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, among them: Christy and Betty Wilson, Harry and Anna Meahl, William Ostrom (then a retired optometrist from Schenectady), and Floyd and Sally McClung (Floyd and I were classmates in college). Tom and Libby followed in that distinguished line.
Knowing Tom and Libby gave me a desire to visit them in Kabul. We talked about possibilities. I did the same with Libby just seven weeks ago, when we were together. That visit didn’t happen on Tom’s watch. I still hope that it will; that someday I will visit his grave in a place I have only known through the stories of friends, friends that loved the people of Afghanistan and gladly went there to serve.
When I heard of Tom’s death, tears did not come immediately; the first response was shock and disbelief. But soon they came. And they still come. I continue to remember so many conversations with Tom. No matter what regime was in power, Tom loved the Afghan people. He loved serving their needs for good eye care. Afghanistan kept allowing Tom to return because they knew that he loved the people and would serve their practical needs. He was never there with a political agenda. He never imposed his own culture or convictions on them. The only flag he raised was the flag of unconditional love, unending good deeds, and cross-cultural friendship.
That flag still flies, though bloodstained.
Tom knew well the dangers of living there and taking trips like the one from which he did not return alive. But there were people to be served in that far corner of Afghanistan. Tom went to serve them. Now he is home, though not as we were expecting, not at this time. How I wish more face-to-face conversations could have followed the one of July 1, 2009. More lunches in restaurants where he could explain the menu to me. How I wish I could hear Tom tell me about his first grandchild, due next month. How I wish I could visit Kabul, walk its streets, and meet some of its people with Tom as my guide.
The poem of John Magee, Jr., entitled “High Flight” comes to mind when I think of my friend Tom. I take the liberty of inserting his name in the opening line: “Tom has slipped the surly bonds of Earth … Put out his hand, and touched the face of God.”
HARRY HEINTZ is pastor of Brunswick Church in Troy, N.Y.