His Words Were Smiles by Erika Raskin

Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me.”

Photo of a child's writing
Photo courtesy of Erika Raskin

Some people are born with a different level of grace and goodness than the rest of us. My nephew, Tommy, was one of them. The middle child of my brother Jamie and his wife Sarah, Thomas Bloom Raskin was extraordinary from the jump. Even as a small child he could glide into any set of arms, any conversation, any group. He was born kind. And intuitive.

And piercingly sensitive to the needs of others.

At eight, he came to his cousins’ high school graduation and clapped for every single student accepting a diploma, acknowledging each of them. When I had a brush with cancer, Tommy called weeping. He was ten. In middle school he had a classmate already flirting with serious gang membership. The boy was always in trouble. Something went down (none of us can remember what) but the teacher blamed the usual suspect. Whatever the infraction was, it was a no-joke kind of a thing that could have resulted in a big deal punishment. Tommy knew the kid was innocent and went to the principal to speak on his behalf.

Wickedly funny, he never participated in the verbal jousting/blood sport that most Raskins excel at. Our coat of arms is basically a pictograph of relatives plastered against walls protecting our backs, the words “Never Leave the Room” emblazoned beneath. Which isn’t quite accurate. Everything said about you is also said to you. For example recently, when Jamie was the Lead Impeachment Manager, he used a moment of his allotted time to call out his new son-in-law for eloping. It was a teeny dig that another niece said came as a surprise to exactly no one.

Of course, history would be briefly interrupted for a family roast.

But in his twenty-five years, I don’t remember Tommy ever taking part in this pastime. His empathy precluded well-placed jabs.

Except for towards people who got off on being nasty or cruel. He didn’t hold his incredible oratory skills back when standing up to them.

In high school, he created a mentorship program enlisting hundreds of kids to support peers struggling in different subjects. It helped multitudes. He worked as a cashier, ringing people up, bagging groceries, making a goal of cheering edgy shoppers with magic tricks and jokes. Some engaged. Others looked through him. What he took from the experience was that basic human connection doesn’t replace a living wage — but it’s still wildly important. And it’s something everyone can do.

On the night of the 2016 election when Jamie was running for his first term in Congress and Trump was running for President, the Raskins were in a room at this big convention center watching the election returns coming in. Everyone was excited, staring at the Maryland numbers. Everyone except Tommy, my dad and me. As others piled their plates with Chinese food, the three of us kept looking at each other in utter horror as Trump stealthily piled up electoral college wins.

Sweet Tommy knew what he was seeing.

He redoubled his work for social justice and peace. He went vegan. Which was funny since he was seriously allergic to the multitudes of family dogs. He would air pat Zola and Toby and Potter and Hippo, as well as all the cousin canines, stroking high above their heads, complimenting them for their status as sentient beings.

After Tommy died, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez—in the midst of raising millions for Texas relief—gave up meat for Lent in his honor. She tweeted out her efforts, inviting others to join her.

He was so special that when he permanently slipped out of our grasp at the end of 2020, he left behind an afterglow of compassion and decency, strong enough to spark more. When Kari McDonough learned about Tommy in a piece Jamie and Sarah wrote, she created a Google Document encouraging neighbors to commit to performing and recording “Acts of Goodness” to celebrate him. It took off. People all over the world got Tommy’s essence, vowed to uphold his example.

They donated their stimulus checks to charity. Provided meals. Rescued animals. Cleaned parks. Paid off strangers’ utility bills.

Other acts inspired by Tommy include:

-Helped a recently homeless woman and her son furnish and set up their new apartment.

-Reached out to someone we read about in the Post who is struggling to make ends meet due to the Covid-economy and are helping him and his wife to pay their back rent so they aren’t evicted.

-I will make a platelet donation to the Red Cross . . . to honor Tommy.

-I will provide free weekly sessions for one year of psychological counseling to a client with depression.

And in a non-related post, somebody with a pro-MAGA handle commented that he’d known Tommy, and he was a ‘seriously good kid’. (I don’t know why, but that really got to me.)

When you’re in the check-out aisle, think of Tommy. See the cashier. Smile.

The Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People And Animals has been established to support the causes that were important to him.

Erika Raskin
Author of Best Intentions and Close, Erika Raskin is Streetlight‘s fiction editor. More of her words be found at erikaraskin.com and @erikaraskin on Twitter.

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