I first met Tom Sardy in the summer of 1998. My recollection is that I was camped under the granite towers of Archangel Valley in Hatcher Pass, when my friend Zach arrived, with Tom in tow, for a day of rock climbing.
Zach and I had met just a few months prior, when we’d spent three weeks guiding clients up the west buttress of Denali. We’d become instant friends on the trip, and I was glad to be climbing out in the real world with Zach, and his friend Tom.
It must have been July, as the days were long, and the sun was powerful. I have memories of hiking up a mossy, Tolkien-esque valley, to a prominent rock band that was split by 2 striking cracks where we climbed all afternoon. What I remember about that day is that we laughed a lot. And even though Tom seemed a bit shy and introverted, it was clear he was comfortable with Zach – and me as well. Like a lot of days back then, it was a memorable moment in the mountains – being young and healthy, and just simply climbing for the pure joy of it – with friends.
I never climbed with Tom again, but I did stay in touch with Zach – and it was a few years later that I remember Zach mentioning that Tom was struggling with mental illness.
By that time, my own life had changed dramatically – In 2002, I sustained an injury that effectively ended my climbing career. I drifted away from that part of my life. But I still stayed in touch with Zach, and as the years went by we’d run into each other from time to time, and always be glad to catch up. Zach would also fill me in about Tom, who by that time was living on the streets, lost in the paranoid confusion of schizophrenia.
As sad as it was, I didn’t think much of it until maybe around 2010. One day, I stopped to grab a coffee near the REI in Anchorage when I noticed a figure moving toward me. Something about the person looked familiar. He was disheveled, his clothes soiled and torn, with dirty, matted hair poking out of a beanie, and a bushy red beard. Without another thought, I approached him and said, “hey Tom, it’s me Evan”.
Tom hesitated, but then seemed to understand who I was. As we spoke, he had an almost euphoric expression, that seemed to look straight through me, into a world that only he could understand. I asked him if he was ok, where he was staying, if he was hungry. He acknowledged that he was living in the woods, but seemed nonchalant, like it was no big deal. I offered him the $20 bill in my pocket, which he eagerly accepted. When we said goodbye a few minutes later, I looked back as he quickly beelined for the Subway sandwich shop across the street.
The encounter left me shaken. Tom was a shell of the vibrant 18 year old I’d climbed with years before. I could only imagine what it was like to live in his mind.
Over the next few years I saw Tom frequently. Usually around the parking lot of REI, sometimes on the coastal trail, and other times – random places in Anchorage. Tom and I spoke a few more times, but as the months went on, he started avoiding me when we made eye contact. And then, as the months turned into years, I stopped seeing Tom all together. Once again, life moved forward, and time went on – and then in May 2019, out of the blue, I heard a story on the radio.
It was an interview with Marin Sardy – Tom’s sister, who had recently published a memoir, The Edge Of Every Day, which detailed the story of Tom’s struggle with schizophrenia. I listened intently to the story, taking in the information methodically, so I could try and piece together what had happened to him. And then at the end of the segment, I understood at last, when the reporter stated plainly that Tom had died in 2014.
A few months ago I was fortunate to speak with Tom’s sister Marin, about her brother Tom, and what it meant for her to write The Edge of Every Day. Although I learned a lot more about Tom in our conversation, I also learned that Marin’s family, like my own family – like a lot of families, has a long and complicated history with mental illness.
- Marin Sardy
- The Edge Of Everyday: Sketches Of Schizophrenia
- Alaska Public Media (May 2019)
- Evan Phillips Music