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Obituaries

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Thomas William Barnes
October 30th, 1999 – October 15th, 2016


Our dear son, Thomas William Barnes, born on October 30th, 1999, died last weekend on October 15th, 2016, two weeks before his seventeenth birthday. He took his own life. It seems incomprehensible that he should choose to do so during a time he experienced some of the greatest happiness in his life, and greatest success, in a school he loved, where he felt he belonged and where he had friends and caring teachers. It also seems incomprehensible that we detected no sign of suicidal thoughts, especially as Tom was a boy who tended to wear his heart on his sleeve more than anyone we know, and that heart was a big one. It was big and passionate, kind and generous; at times, maddeningly obstinate, but always sincere and always sensitive.

There is a wonderful little children's book, called "The Adventures of Professor Branestawm" by Norman Hunter, which we read to Tom when he was younger. The book's hero, Professor Branestawm, very much like Tom in his absent-mindedness and sudden enthusiasm for an often hare-brained idea, "was so busy thinking of wonderful things…he simply hadn't time to think of ordinary things." Professor Branestawm is a celebration of something we wish would be universally embraced – not just in this school or that school, or by this person or that person: eccentricity. Tom was a bit of an eccentric, and, to many of us, that is what made him so likeable and loveable. From his earliest of days until the days we spent with him before his death, Tom was a real character. As a three year-old, the "ordinary things," such as following teachers' instructions to come and sit in a circle were far too dull for a boy who preferred to contemplate other exciting possibilities, such as the range and design of Wet Floor signs that existed in Hong Kong, where we lived at the time. From office building lobby to Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club stairwell, he taught himself to read by dragging us over to one of those ubiquitous Hong Kong signs to spell out-loud, "W-E-T F-L-O-OR. Wet floor," followed by commentary on the accompanying picture of a person falling backwards. "Look, they are falling," or if there was no picture, just words, he would remark, "No one is falling! Why doesn't this one have anyone falling?" More recently, Tom's quirky way manifested itself, for example, at school where until a few months ago, he went around looking like Sir Edmund Hillary on the first conquest of Everest, carrying a backpack the size of a refrigerator containing his entire array of textbooks, notepads and stationary, lest his scatter-brained mind should forget the right material for class.

One of the most striking things about Thomas was his guileless authenticity. It is true that, like many teenagers, he tried to carve out an identity—or persona—and seek attention for himself through social media, with lengthy and tuneful Snapchat stories (so we are told by the young folk), or through dress, such as loud pink trousers one day or kitten-patterned socks the next. But when one talked to Thomas, he often could not help but speak his mind, honest and unfiltered. Often, after dinner, we would sit and talk. And talk. And talk. (Actually, he did most of the talking. We could hardly shut him up!) Eventually, he would sometimes reveal some bombshell, some mischief made, some activity that no person in their right mind would disclose to mother or father—because he often did not distinguish between audiences. As one of his friends said recently, Tom spoke his mind freely and without fear. To the listener, at times, it prompted shock, at times, astonishment, and, actually, most of the time, just a really good giggle.

Tom was passionate. "Passion" contains a positive connotation in this age, thanks to the romantics, like Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. But passion is not always positive. As any parent knows, untempered anger or indignation are things we must try to teach and train our children to manage and, in fact, as adults it can be a challenge too. Tom often had big reactions to apparently small things. His sister, Raquel, once told him, "Tom, stop eating the whole drawer of cheese in the fridge," and he slammed the cheese slice in his hand onto the floor and yelled, "Raquel, you always tell on me!" and stormed off to his room. He didn't break windows or anything like that, but he did once punch a hole in the wall. He was equally passionate in a positive way. Effervescent and full of zest, he spilled out stories to us about people at school, a recent school hiking trip in the Sierra Mountains and the debates in the school van over gun rights and the presidential candidates. He spoke a mile a minute, excited at every turn, full of ideas about the future, tossing up between the English city of Manchester and Essex county as potential places to live (really, don't ask us why; we gently informed him about the weather in those places—although drizzly places, we must admit, harbour people with a wicked sense of humour, something Tom would certainly like), and he considered captaining ships, teaching or stock-trading as potential future careers. Are you serious, Tom? Stock trading? You just went through six months' worth of budget in six weeks. No comment needed.

The sea was a consistent source of pleasure for Tom. Aboard our sailboat, cutting through the humid Hong Kong wind, amidst the spray of the South China Sea, he would grip the railing, regard the watery stretch and seem truly at one with the world. In later years, sailing became a very important part of his life—being on the water, but it also gave him something valuable to us all: being part of a team, part a bigger whole, sharing something in common. Thus, he spent many happy weekends as a youth sailor with the St. Francis Yacht Club. More recently, he launched a sailing club start-up at his school and began to venture into other sports, and it was always the connection, more than the sport itself, that was the thing that mattered (which was a good job, actually, because apparently, his lacrosse wasn't his strong point).

Tom's fingers on the piano keyboard transmitted the sensitive soul that he was, a sensitivity both inborn and acquired. Tom relayed his inborn sensitivity loud and clear in full-bellowed, ceaseless cries from crib, car backseat and supermarket trolley. But Tom was also sensitive in that he was responsive to all things therapeutic, whether that was being held in our arms as a baby or being listened to by us, and others, as a young man. He had no shortage of care, love and attention, either from his family or from friends and staff at his high school, as well as his middle school before that, and many others in preceding years. While no one will ever truly know how Tom arrived at his end, there is one thing we think of: the acquired sensitivity that came about as a result of being a bit different. The eccentricity that we loved him for has modern names, such as ADHD, Executive Functioning disorder or Non-Verbal Learning disorder. For all his recent friendships, maturing and accomplishments, and despite many past kindnesses, he also spent many years experiencing a certain kind of rejection by others, the kind that leaves a child alone in the playground or out of a boy scout group. It is a rejection that scars the soul, sting by sting, making it all the more vulnerable when something doesn't go right, or when other factors may come into play, such as heightened adolescent feeling. We hope that Tom's death can remind us all of the worth of each person, eccentric or not, and of the value of looking after each other.
A Memorial for Tom will be held at 5.30 p.m. Oct. 30 in the Golden Gate Room at the St. Francis Yacht Club. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Tom's name to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, afsp.org, or any chapter of The Samaritans.

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