'He was a brave and fearless little boy'

Thomas Tarantino Jr., 8, loses battle with leukemia

(Photo: Joseph Kellard)

(Photo: Joseph Kellard)

By Joseph Kellard

It turned out to be Thomas Tarantino Jr.’s last trip to his favorite restaurant, but it was the first time he walked in, ordered a Happy Meal and paid for it all on his own.

"He was so proud that he went and did it himself," Thomas Tarantino Sr. said about his 8-year-old son’s trip to McDonald’s on June 23. "It was a big deal to him.”

A few weeks earlier, Thomas’s parents had been told that their son had a month to live after a five-year battle with leukemia.

At McDonald’s, his father had sensed, from the boy’s rapidly deteriorating appearance, that day would be his last. That afternoon, Thomas went home, played cards with his uncle and sat in his favorite spot on the living room couch. After he fell into a deep sleep, his immediate and extended family sang his favorite songs, "Sweet Home Alabama," by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and "Take Me Out To The Ball Game," and his sister Michelle, 15, read him his most beloved book, "David Goes To School." Shortly after 8 p.m., Thomas took his last breath.

For the next three nights, his brother and two sisters slept on the couch together.

Thomas Matthew Tarantino Jr. was born with pervasive deficit disorder, a type of autism, at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre on Nov. 16, 1999. Three years later he was diagnosed with leukemia. In the following years, he suffered two relapses that considerably reduced his chances of healing. He underwent "grueling treatments," his father explained, involving routine trips to the hospital for chemotherapy and various tests and operations.

"He was a brave and fearless little boy who taught us all how to appreciate our lives, our friends and family," Thomas Sr. said. "And I don’t know if he was that way because of his mental incapacity or because of all he went through since he was 3."

Thomas attended the Children’s Readiness Center in North Bellmore, but he could only say a few words at a time and couldn’t spell. Yet he was unusually adept with electronics. By age 4, he could access and operate any feature on any cell phone.

"He could take your cell and show you things on it that you never even knew you had," said his father, whose "Sweet Home Alabama" ring tone introduced Thomas to the song.

When the supermarket delivery man, Tony, came to the Tarantino home on East Hudson Street, Thomas routinely had him check his cell phone with him. "Thomas would call the man’s wife while he delivered our groceries," said his mother, Samantha.

Thomas would also text-message people, pressing successive rows of numbers or letters that instantly told them who it was. He would do the same with instant messaging on the computer to his siblings’ friends while he visited his favorite Web sites, including iTunes.com.

He was a brave and fearless little boy who taught us all how to appreciate our lives, our friends and family. And I don’t know if he was that way because of his mental incapacity or because of all he went through since he was 3.
— Thomas Tarantino Sr.

While the boy mostly kept to himself, he was still outgoing with strangers. "He was always friendly, always greeting people," his father recalled. "He wanted to congregate with you. It didn’t matter if you were white or black, young or old. He loved everybody."

Samantha said it didn’t matter who you were, Thomas would say hello to you. "If we were driving in the car and the windows were open and we pulled up to a red light, he would say hello to the people in the car next to us," she said.

Samantha said that her son taught her, above all, how to be kind and compassionate to others. "He had nothing to offer anybody but his gentle nature," she said. "And if you were kind to him, forget it; you had a friend for life."

When Thomas left his house, he particularly enjoyed going to Gino’s on Park Avenue, Adventureland Amusement Park in Farmingdale, East Buffet restaurant in Huntington Station, and, most of all, any McDonald’s. His parents stepped up their trips with him to his favorite places when they were told in late May that his leukemia was terminal.

About 10 days before he died, Thomas rode with his father on his motorcycle, alongside his uncle and several others from a biker club. The armada of motorcycles roared along Park Avenue and West Beech Street to the Atlantic Beach Bridge, then back to East Hudson.

Thomas watched and rooted for both the Yankees and Mets, he attended Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Island Park with his grandmother, Sylberta Tarantino, and he could often be found playing with his siblings, Michelle, 15, Victor, 13, and Theresa, 5.

"He was an innocent little boy who offered a lot of love," Thomas Sr. said. "And I never knew I could love so much as I loved my son Thomas. I love my wife and all my children. But Thomas was special because he had been through so much, and I had a deeper love for him because of what he had to endure."

At Thomas’s burial at Greenfield Cemetery in Hempstead, Rabbi David Rosenberg, of Shuvah Yisrael Messianic Synagogues in East Williston, sang the boy’s favorite song: "Sweet home Alabama/where the skies are so blue/... Lord I’m comin’ home to you."

But it was the lone bagpiper who played at his funeral at Sacred Heart, which was attended by more than 350 mourners, that hit his father the hardest. "It was so powerful — it was so beautiful," Thomas Sr. recalled.

His brother, Thomas’s godfather, Anthony Tarantino, a head usher at the church, hired the bagpiper, having been inspired by a scene from the movie "Braveheart."

"When the king died," Thomas Sr. explained, "there was a lone bagpipe. And Thomas deserved to be compared to a king."

* This story originally appeared in the Long Beach Herald in 2008.