Tom’s Mountain

Tom’s Mountain

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

Tom’s Mountain

Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.

John Quincy Adams

With a name like O’Malley you know I’m Irish. They say those of us with Irish blood have a fighting spirit. Well, I channeled my fighting into the spirit of adventure: I have climbed on mountains all over the world. I had always thought that Mount Everest was the tallest, toughest mountain. I was wrong. My older brother climbed one that was much taller and far more difficult.

His name is Tom. He’s a brilliant and talented person, with a ton of that fighting Irish spirit. He graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and due to his accelerated abilities and excellence in both the classroom and in sports, he received both academic and athletic scholarships to college.

Tom is ten years older than I. As a child, at night when I became frightened or unable to sleep, I would notice Tom’s bedroom light on. It was as though he never slept. I would go into his room and he’d let me sit on his lap while he continued to study. When I woke in the morning, back in my own bed, he was already off to school, or his furniture moving job, or training for some wrestling match. Then at night he’d be back studying hard again.

Tom completed law school, married, and had two sons, Tim and Tommy. While returning home from Tommy’s college graduation, the whole family was in an auto accident. Tommy was severely injured, and my brother lost his wife of twenty-five years and his son Tim.

Critical and in a coma, Tom underwent emergency brain surgery. If he survived, the doctors predicted certain and dramatic brain damage.

The entire family took shifts, staying at Tom’s side. During my turn I would sit beside my brother each night, talking to him as if he could hear and understand me. Tom would lie motionless as I rubbed his arms and sang to him his favorite Irish songs.

One day when my sister Molly was with Tom, she called the family up: “Come to the hospital! Tom is dying.”

All of his major body systems had begun to fail and the doctor suggested our family gather for our last good-byes.

Tom’s climb seemed to be over.

Minutes turned to hours. Some forty-eight hours went by and I stayed with him as the others left to get some rest. I said, “You know, Tom, sometimes when I’ve been real sick or injured, all I could do was stick out my tongue or move my eyes.”

Tom stuck out his tongue.

I ran out to the nurse’s station and yelled, “Tom just stuck out his tongue! He stuck out his tongue!”

I could tell by the look on the nurse’s face that she didn’t believe me.

Quickly I pulled her into his room and she awkwardly asked, “Mr. O’Malley, please stick out your tongue.”

He didn’t.

Then I thought maybe I had been hoping too hard.With tears running down my face I bent down closer to his ear and whispered, “Please, Tom, stick out your tongue again.” There was a long pause . . . then he did. As time passed, the diligent nurses helped him learn to communicate in a laborious process using an alphabet chart. First he communicated by blinking his eyes, and then he progressed to nodding his head for yes and no. The very first night we tried this, Tom indicated he wanted to ask something. After an exasperating hour of frustration, we figured out his question: “Do the doctors know they are working on a lawyer?”

That is when I knew he was still in there, climbing a mountain higher than I ever dreamed of attempting.

With the nurses’ unrelenting efforts and encouragement, Tom made slow progress, step by tiny step. He began to speak, to sit up. We were thrilled the day they placed him in a wheelchair.

He was transferred to Craig Rehabilitation Hospital where another team of remarkable, committed nurses worked him past his limitations with a tenacity and courage I’d never seen on any climb.

One day, while he sat in his wheelchair, paralyzed on his left side, Tom said to his nurse, “Someday I’m going to run the Boulder Bolder.”

Without hesitation, she said, “I’ll see you there.”

I wondered what false hope she might be giving him. He’d run that 10K with Sharon every year. But how could he ever do it again?

Every day, with his nurses’ help, he pushed, pulled, and did whatever it took to take another step up his mountain. That fighting Irish spirit that served him so well in school and in bringing him back from his coma was the same spirit and driving force that pushed him beyond his tragedy.

One year later at the famous Boulder Bolder race, Tom crossed the finish line—so did his nurse—in memory of his wife, Sharon, and their son, Tim.

Brian O’Malley

More stories from our partners