For the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about a person whom I never met: Thomas Gregory Griffin, Jr.
Just 17 days ago, Thomas took his final breath. His wife, Orianna Dixon Griffin was in a familiar place: by his side.
Back to Thomas in a moment.
I’ve known “Ori” for about 38 years. She and I attended the same middle- and high schools. While we may have had some classes together along the way, I remember her most for the things she did outside of the classroom. Ori was the type of student who was hard to ignore. She was a leader, an advocate, a presence (everywhere she went), and a friend. She was elected president of my middle- and high schools, varsity cheerleader, homecoming queen, and editor of “The Liberty,” our high school newspaper. She also knew how to make the most of her days in school. And I’m certain that she took the same energy and acumen with her to Howard University, post high school.
In this age of social media, she and I have become reacquainted. During the course of our friendship, I — and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of others — got to know her husband Thomas. In fact, he and I also became friends on social media. To that end, I learned first-hand about his selfless nature, compassion, humor, and health challenges. That Thomas exercised altruism in the face of incredible odds is indicative of the type of man he was.
Ori shared her life with Thomas through posts and updates on social media. When she and Thomas got to enjoy a rare dinner out at Marie Callender’s or at the Four Seasons, we were there; when they got to experience the outdoors on Labor Day, we were there; when they were enjoying Gospel music in the hospital room, we were there; when they drove through the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy, on their way back from visiting Ori’s hometown of San Jose, we were there; when Ori woke at 4:30a.m. to surprise Thomas on Valentine’s Day at his dialysis appointment, we were there; and when Thomas was blissfully discharged from the hospital, we were there — championing him every step of the way.
Thomas was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the first Black intercollegiate fraternity, established at Cornell University in 1906. As a native of Detroit, he was a staunch supporter of the NBA’s Pistons, NFL’s Lions, NHL’s Red Wings, and MLB’s Tigers. And while he loved his hometown, Thomas eventually came to experience and enjoy the climes of southern California, graduating from the University of Southern California. By every measure, Thomas lived in the spirit of a Trojan, and like the school song, he fought on.
Two days ago I attended a “Celebration of Life” for Thomas in southern California, where family and friends shared stories about his love for chocolate, dancing, and Sade, and his ability to smile – that infectious smile — in the face of adversity, the unconditional love he had for his bride, and most of all, his faith.
One of the pastors at the service, Loren Hicks, spoke about the “race” that the good Lord puts before each of us. He said that Jesus doesn’t refer to winning, but “finishing.” And Thomas, he said, “Finished his race.” In fact, Thomas “extended his race.” By every measure, Thomas was a living miracle.
I’ll be honest, some of the medical explanations Ori shared over the months before his passing were beyond my paygrade. So I relied on Thomas’s “Fight On” spirit — knowing he would pull through. And then I patiently waited for Ori’s updates.
In January, Ori requested video messages for Thomas. I posted one – indicating that he and I would meet someday. Alas, that didn’t come to pass. He finished his life’s race before I could come down again. To that end, I knew that there was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to miss the Celebration of Life to honor him.
Anytime black folk come together, you can expect to be moved. Saturday’s memorial service was no different. One moment I choked-back tears, and seconds later, laughed out loud.
When Ori spoke, I heard and saw the love and pain in my old friend. She lived for Thomas, and he fought to live for her. Their relationship was unlike any other I have ever seen in my life. In a lighter moment, she reflected on the time she called Thomas “Tom”; to which he replied, “You can’t call a black man ‘Tom’! She jokingly responded with, “I’m going to ask my nieces and nephews to call you ‘Uncle Tom’!” Of course, nothing about Thomas even remotely resembled an Uncle Tom. He was Uncle Thomas down to the marrow.
Months before meeting his beloved Ori, Thomas prayed: “God, can you send a godly woman into my life that will become my wife. And can you make it obvious? Because I will miss the subtle hints.”
RIP Thomas Gregory Griffin, Jr.