The fateful evening of July first fell like a curtain and set the stage for the drama that followed. Perhaps it was no more than a cruel trick played by the universe and meant to lull Tommy into a false sense of security. More likely it was the gift of a last few perfect hours. Either way, it was one of those idyllic summer nights when everything seems so right! The party was at Acadia Falls.
It was well past 10:00 pm and he, Beth and Nicky had been sitting around a large bonfire at the falls with a few dozen of their good friends, for several hours. Tommy had brought his acoustic guitar and Nicky had brought Tommy, Beth and the keg in his 1969 GTO, screaming down the dirt road and kicking up an enormous dust cloud the entire way.
The sky above was clear as crystal and Tommy felt as if he were sitting in the center of the universe as a million stars shone down from the heavens, and a million more winked back at them from the mirror of the river’s surface. Green and blue and gold fireflies blinked in and out all around them, mimicking starlight and adding to the illusion.
Water gurgled and gushed over the rock bed of the falls playing percussion to the rhythm Tommy gently strummed on his guitar. It was music to dream to, and dream they did. Save the world is what they would do once they finished high school! Fight the fights and right the wrongs—and so for hours they’d dreamed their dreams and planned their plans and everything had seemed so possible!
A rare feeling of contentment had come over Tommy and looking across the fire, he noticed that Beth’s eyes had never looked as beautiful as they did right now with the firelight reflected in them. He simply forgot that anyone else was in the clearing and began to play, soft and sweet, and just for her.
‘You are like a hurricane,’ he sang. In Tommy’s mind, no one said it quite as well as Neal Young. ‘There’s calm in your eyes…and I'm getting blown away--’
He had just opened his mouth to sing the next line when Officer Weldon walked into the clearing.
Though no alarm had sounded, and the sky had not begun to fall, the effect of Officer Weldon’s presence was the same. The crowd scattered, teens running in every direction, dropping bottles and plastic cups in their wake. Very quickly the sounds of slamming car doors and screaming engines filled the night air. There was no way Officer Weldon could catch every single one of the party-goers and he did not seem interested enough to try. Instead, he planted his feet and stood directly in front of Tommy who still sat with his mouth open and seemingly stuck on idle.
Too late, Tommy jumped to his feet, dropped his guitar and began running. Officer Weldon tackled him about twenty yards from the GTO, pulling him roughly down onto the grassy field.
Tommy wriggled, fighting to free himself.
“Goddamnit, Tommy!” Jack Weldon hollered, fighting to catch his breath. “I’m not here to arrest anybody. I just need to talk to you.”
Tommy stopped squirming and started panicking.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
Tires squealed, marking the escape of all of his friends. Tommy was alone.
“It’s your mom. She’s in the hospital, Tommy. I’m going to need you to calm down and come with me.”
It took every bit of twenty-five, surreal minutes to drive to the hospital, and on the way there Officer Weldon explained that Mrs. Cooper had developed a serious infection due to her low white blood cell count. Septicemia, he called it. She was in the intensive care unit with a high fever and was in and out of consciousness.
When Tommy arrived at her bedside she didn’t look well. He sat with her through that long night and the following days while her fever raged and she drifted in and out. If the first day was bad, the second day was worse, as her kidneys and liver failed completely. On day three, her heart joined them. Little by little, life’s possibilities faded and then blinked out as Tommy held her hand and said goodbye.
The doctors pronounced her dead on July 4th at 3:23 in the afternoon, while everyone else in town was at the park watching the Independence Day Parade.
Dead. The word ricocheted inside Tommy’s head, crashing painfully against his skull. Dead, dying, death…
If death was a dark house, its doorway had been thrown wide and Tommy walked right on in. He was surrounded by death, imprisoned by its stony walls. He was immersed in it too, as it was in the air and had a viscous quality. It stuck to everything. It stuck to the sickeningly sweet-smelling flowers that blanketed her coffin and the luke-warm food that well-meaning neighbors had left at dinnertime. It stuck to the phone which rang constantly, countless condolences on the other end. It clung to the cards and the letters which left his hands feeling greasy somehow and in need of washing. It was pervasive, it was heavy and it stuck to him like a second skin, bringing a bad smell with it.
Had it been only a few moments now that she’d been gone? Or was it years? He remembered the feeling of the touch of her hand on his skin like it was just yesterday, yet it had been so long since he’d felt it that he ached with the wanting of it. Laura Cooper had been Tommy’s lifeline. Gone now…all gone, all dead somehow. How had she gotten that way? Why? And why her? His confused heart reached out for her and death answered back. It stuck to him and Tommy Cooper began to drown in it.