January 02, 2022 1 Comment
Tom was born and raised in Seward. He and four brothers grew up playing in the woods and exploring the mountains. Many years ago Tom was driving to Long Beach to attend a course in underwater diving for construction. Cathy was heading Outside to visit family, and a mutual friend suggested they make the drive together down the Alcan…. So they headed down the highway together and reconnected that spring - the rest became history!
Tom and Cathy Gillespie have lived decades in their home in Bear Creek, raising their two now-adult sons, Dylan and Austin, to whom they passed on their passion for the outdoors. Free time was commonly spent hiking, kayaking, cross country skiing and camping.
Tom worked as a heavy equipment operator for Metco in Seward for close to three decades. During this career, he spent countless hours working in raging creeks and under the waterfall on Lowell Point Rd during floods. In the winters, he would be up at 3 a.m. clearing borough roads during blizzards. He was an amazing operator, no matter which equipment he was on. “People would often tell me how they enjoyed watching him work - with his concentration and finesse,” Cathy recalled proudly.
Cathy had retired from Seaview Community Services not long before Tom got sick. He was still working for Metco when she retired, but Tom’s retirement and travel was in their plans.
Tom, who had always been tireless, began experiencing fatigue a couple years ago, but kept on going. He had a variety of tests but none of them were conclusive. Last January, he was at work and had a difficult time holding his pen. When this didn’t get better he went to the ER in Seward, where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was shocking and rocked our worlds. "We had been thinking it might be a pinched nerve but it never occurred to us that it would be a tumor," Cathy explained.
So began the trips to Anchorage. After his initial MRI, we went up for the brain biopsy. It was supposed to be an overnight stay but he had a stroke that night in the hospital, leaving him with paralysis on his right side and inability to speak - needing 24/7 care. So began almost four months in the hospital. He was diagnosed with lymphoma and began chemotherapy by way of a port in his chest.
Originally, Cathy wasn’t able to visit him at all due to covid restrictions but later was able to have limited visitation. Cathy spent the winter hotel hopping and coming home on weekends to check on the house, mail, etc. While in Providence, his oncologist ordered a bone marrow scan, which showed that Tom also has a rare lymphoma called waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia. Tom had radiation treatments five days a week during the month of April.
Before Tom was finally released in June, friends and neighbors jumped in and built a wheelchair ramp, installed a stair chair and remodeled our bathroom to accommodate his disability. Friends, to this day, bring food and help in any way they can.
“We have gotten so much support from family and friends near and far, but the community of Seward has been incredible. We’ve always loved Seward [and being able] to call it home, but the people here are truly a special breed.”
The eldest Gillespie son, Austin, works for an engineering firm in Anchorage during the construction in spring, summer and fall. In winter he commercial fishes in the Bering Sea. When Tom was diagnosed they were able to get a call out to him, but decided it was best for him to stay on the boat. He was back in Anchorage in the spring, spending much time in Seward working on ADA projects for his dad. He will be leaving for fishing this month.
Dylan had been working at Resurrect Art Coffee House and was saving up to continue on his love for world travels. But when his dad got sick, Dylan and his girlfriend Ally changed their plans and stayed in Seward. Tom and Cathy own a vacation rental next door to their home, so they canceled all reservations, where Dylan and Ally currently live.
“[I am] so thankful to have them close by. The love both boys have for Tom is heartwarming.”
Currently, Tom is on a daily chemo pill at home; he’s very fatigued but fortunately hasn’t experienced many nasty side effects. He still needs around the clock care, of which Cathy takes on the majority. Tom has an MRI every three months–his last being early December–where results showed some decrease in his tumor and no new growth; the family and community are all hoping and praying for the best.
Friends in the Seward community continue to help in many ways, from bringing food, picking up groceries, splitting and bringing in firewood, helping Cathy organize and navigate massive piles of paperwork, and financial support. The help is extensive, and the list goes on.
“Tom and I wish we could thank each and every one but there are so many who have touched our lives through this. We just want everyone to know what it means to us.
That said, I almost felt like I was writing an obituary, writing about things he can no longer do. But he still keeps his sense of humor and positive outlook through all this. Our family has always been very close but this has brought us and the boys so much closer.”Tom loves creating, and was known to have a knack for building with logs. Cathy claims Tom’s “biggest accomplishment is our log home on Bear Lake where we raised our family and still live.”
“Each winter when the lake froze over, he would put up a tree offshore and string it with lights. Tradition. This winter, our oldest son followed that tradition.”
As a nod to this tradition, and in honor of one of Seward’s finest, we’ve named our Polar Bear Jump Team “Tom’s TREEsures”. We plan to dress as trees to pay homage to his very own frozen tree on Bear Lake - with Tom’s son, Dylan Gillespie, and his girlfriend Ally, also on our team!
“He is very kind and would do anything for anyone. He has an incredible sense of humor and wit. Even through all this darkness, he continues to make us laugh.”
It is our hope and goal to raise funds and celebrate in a tradition that is very unique to Seward, all in the name of finding an end to cancer and to spread awareness of the good people whose lives are touched by its relentless hands.
We are grateful to know people like Tom, who for decades have built the wonderful community that we live in today. We are invigorated to fight against cancer, foster unity with our neighbors, and find even more ways to support the Gillespie family, and more.
We extend special gratitude for Cathy and family for their willingness to open up with us about Tom's story and allowing us to elevate cancer awareness (and its complications) on these platforms. Your strength and vulnerability is something to be admired and not taken for granted. Thank you.
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