That’s how someone described him, grief-filled as they spoke the word. It captured the essence of a genuine human: exceedingly sweet and gentle, rare gem-like.
Thomas J. Tharp, a jewel of a person, was nineteen years old when he died on June 24 in Boulder, Colorado.
Or maybe it was June 25. No one really knows exactly when he died; all we have is that Thomas—“TJ” to his family and many friends—went to bed on the evening of the 24th after partying with booze, pot, hash oil, and Xanax. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon on the 25th that he was discovered cold and blue in his off-campus bedroom.
In the end, the timing really doesn’t matter. The fact that TJ’s gone from this earth absolutely does.
TJ’s family—the Tharps—loom large in my life. His father Dennis (whom I lovingly refer to as “Thap”) has been my call-on-the-phone-every-day best friend since eighth grade football; Thap was quarterback and I was a frontline guard. When I was a dude, Thap and I were like brothers. When I transitioned to female, we became brother and sister.
Thap never withdrew, never hesitated, when I came out as transgender. “What do I care about your sex?” he said. “I’ll still give you the same amount of crap.”
Loving words in the only way Thap knew how. Indeed, of all the characters in my memoir, many readers report that Thap is their favorite.
As I transitioned genders, so too Thap and family transitioned. Wife Bebo, daughter Nisty, and sons Ryan, Andy and the baby of the family, TJ, went from “Uncle” to “Aunt.” Uncles, aunts, and cousins dropped my man name and religiously used “Ellen.” “He” became “she.”
If you don’t already have a sense of what this family—my adoptive family—means to me, consider this: the Tharps wear a ring of unique design. It’s Southwestern in appearance with inlaid turquoise and other stones indigenous to the desert, owing to Grandpa Walter’s relocation from Iowa to Arizona. The men’s ring is larger, bulkier than the women’s, but they all look alike.
Thap wears a Tharp family ring. TJ wore the ring. I wear the ring.
Through circumstances too complicated to fully explain in a short column, I was the one to tell Thap that his youngest child had died. I’d never wish such a task on anyone, but in retrospect, it was best that word of TJ’s death came from me.
It’s the kind of thing that a lifelong friend-turned-sister does.
How will I remember my precious nephew TJ Tharp?
For one, he was tenacious. When his drug problem surfaced in early high school, he went away to get clean. First it was to a specialized school in god-there’s-nothing-out-there Utah. Months afterward, TJ returned only to later relapse. Yet again he went away, this time to a wilderness school that appropriately takes its name from requiring students to live off the land for months on end. This wisp of a person hiked, camped, and sojourned his way through mountain country in Idaho and Utah. When that didn’t work, TJ went to one more school in Arizona, searching for an answer to his anxieties and need to escape through cannabis.
I wrote to TJ several times while he was away, praising him for his courage and encouraging him to stay honest about his addiction. I reminded him how much he was loved and how the people in his life would be willing to do anything for him, if only he stayed sober.
TJ’s tenacity took him back to Boulder where he enrolled in a community college, hoping to pursue a degree in finance. A college professor would eventually tell TJ that his intelligence and magnetic personality would someday make him another “Wolf of Wall Street.”
It was quite a compliment for a human battling legions of demons.
Still, for all of his tenacity, more than anything, TJ was a lover. When he met a young woman in college and began his first-ever romance, he wrote the woman a love letter. Never sure of himself, TJ asked sister Nisty to review the letter. “What do you think?” he asked. The letter was long and beautiful, flowing in grace and wonderment, with words that any woman would cherish deep to her soul.
TJ needn’t have fretted.
Several months in, TJ’s love affair ended, leaving him with a broken heart. I’ve no doubt that fed into the cycle of self-medication from which he ultimately succumbed. Yet, TJ shouldn’t have feared love lost; it would have been only a matter of time before his essence—that jewel within him—grabbed someone else, another love.
Sadly, that won’t happen now.
What do we make of losing people so very young? How will my dear friend/brother Thap and his wife Bebo survive this?
I have no clue. My heart is broken, too.
When I saw TJ last, it was Christmas 2013. He entered the room and we hugged. “You are so beautiful,” I said, meaning every word.
Always in doubt, and never wanting attention, TJ blushed. “Thank you, Aunt Ellen,” he humbly answered.
I meant what I said.
TJ, you are so beautiful.
We will miss you forever.
Be well in eternity.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org