Among the gifts I received for Christmas was a framed 1951 pennant from The 7 Caves, given to me by my wife. To many people it might not seem like much, but to me it meant more than words can describe.
In the frame, along with the pennant, which is in amazingly good shape for being 60-plus years old, is a photo of the late Thomas Darbyshire Miller – the best friend I ever had – taken not long before he passed away on June 2, 2000.
Tom’s family – his parents Cherry and the late Chet Miller, and Tom’s brothers Dave and Bill – owned The 7 Caves for many years, and I spent countless days and evenings there, and even worked there one memorable summer.
I have been fortunate to have many good friends, and I cherish each one. But none of them is Tom. If you knew him, you know what I mean.
Tom lived for 26-plus years without kidneys (when he first lost them as a junior in high school his life expectancy was seven years), but you never heard him complain. He took each day as it came, was thankful for it, and lived it to the fullest that he was able.
I have so many memories of Tom, but one always stands out more than the others. When we were in our late teens and early 20s, before either of us were married or otherwise too attached, we’d often head out for a night with the boys. There would be several of us, and almost always there’d be a discussion, sometimes a kind of cantankerous one, about what we were going to do or where we were going to go. Without fail, Tom would always say, “I don’t care what we do, let’s just do something.”
And it really didn’t make any difference to him. Because he always found a way to enjoy himself.
Maybe it was because he knew he probably wasn’t going to be granted as much time on this Earth as most of us. Yes, maybe that was a little of it, but not really. No, Tom was just going to have fun, no matter the circumstances. And if you were with him, you were probably going to have fun, too.
I first met Tom in my second year at Southern State Community College, at the south campus in Fincastle, before there was a campus in Hillsboro. Tom’s dad was the president of Southern State at the time and the Miller family was living in a big house on the old Wilmington SSCC campus, preparing to move to The 7 Caves.
One afternoon, several us were playing Ping-Pong at the college when we decided to take a drive. Eventually, Tom and I were left alone and we struck up a conversation. Before long we discovered that we had so many things in common that it was uncanny. It seemed like nearly everywhere I’d been, he’d been too, and pretty much everything he enjoyed, I enjoyed too.
With so much in common, friendship just came naturally. In many ways, it seemed like our paths were almost destined to cross.
Before long, I was helping the Millers move into The 7 Caves, and what an adventure that was. We explored every nook and cranny, in caves and outside of them. The scenery was fascinating, the family was more than welcoming, and over the next 20 years The Caves seemed like a second home.
Years passed, Tom moved to Cincinnati for a while, then to Bainbridge and then back to The Caves. We visited each other wherever the other lived, but the The Caves were always the central base.
I was the best man at Tom’s wedding, and when my wife and I snuck off to Gatlinburg, Tenn. to get married, it almost seemed natural that we ran into Chet and Cherry there the next day. Of course, once they found out we’d just got married, they wouldn’t let us get away without taking us out to celebrate – on their tab.
As Tom grew older, his lack of kidneys slowly caught up with his body. But still, he battled on. Most of the time he drove to Cincinnati three times a week for dialysis, but over the years he also had a dialysis machine at home, and for a while was on hemodialysis. That meant that he had to wear a bag, which he had to empty when it was full, then had to empty another bag into his body to replace fluids.
Often while that process was under way, we’d be playing pool at The Caves. Didn’t bother Tom. He’d carry the one bag around while it drained, then hang the other one up high and keep playing pool while it filled him back up. It wasn’t exactly the most sterile way for him to do it, but that’s just how he was. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like hemodialysis get in the way of visiting with his friends.
I admired Tom enough that my youngest son, Chase Thomas Gilliland, carries the name of the most selfless, kind and gentle person I ever knew.
This story could go on and on, and that’s partly why I haven’t written it before. It’s also partly because I didn’t know how to put it all in one column, and partly because I wasn’t sure I could do Tom and his family justice.
At a time when I was kind of floundering in the world, they took me in, gave me a job, and made me feel like one of their own. I am forever grateful.
I wish I could take my family back to The 7 Caves. I wish I could tell them about all things we did, show them the special places, try to make them feel the warmth and wonder of nature I always felt there.
I took them there one last time, just before the Millers sold The Caves to a nature sanctuary. But they were young, so it’s hard for them remember. I think that because I’ve told them so much about The Caves, they kind of understand now, but I wish I could share it with them like it used to be.
In a way I can now, thanks to the gift from my wife, and the generosity of one of her fellow Hillsboro teachers.
Sometime last summer or fall my wife was at an auction where some 7 Caves memorabilia was for sale. She wanted to buy some for me, but she left for a while and when she came back it had already sold. Later, fellow teacher Eric Callahan ended up with a couple pennants from the auction. He had talked to Elaine about The 7 Caves that day at the auction, knew she wanted something from there, and offered her the choice of the two pennants he had. That’s how I came to get one for Christmas.
And that makes the gift even more perfect, because it’s just like something Tom would have done.
At the age of 40, Tom’s illness finally caught up to him, and he passed away. The Millers sold The Caves a few years later.
For a few years after Tom died I was reluctant to drive by The Caves. Too many memories, too much that I missed.
But now I drive by every chance I get. And as I do, I linger, reluctant to drive on, as memories pour from every thing my eyes catch.
If the mood is just right, it’s almost as if I can feel Tom’s presence, and see that big smile on his face, and hear him saying, park the car old buddy, stop, and let’s chat for a while.
I hope I’ve done you justice, old friend. I miss you. I hope you know that because of you, I am a better person, and my life will always be that much more complete.
Jeff Gilliland can be reached at www.civitasmedia.com.