My first year in journalism revolved around writing up crime briefs and obituaries for the Camden Courier Post. For most reporters tasked with writing the obits, it was considered a formulaic chore.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated for … A purple heart awarded for injuries suffered on the Normandy beaches during the allied invasion of Europe (At that time, many World War II vets were dying.) It would include the times and locations for services, visitations, and viewings. There would be a paragraph summarizing the person’s life after the war and another listing their survivors.
One day, one particular gravelly editor grabbed one of my obits from the system. But he didn’t fix it and shovel it along. He stood up at his terminal, rubbing his belly, and announced to everyone in the newsroom: “Hey Mo, everyone in life deserves one good story, even if they are fucking dead.”
And with that, I went back to work on the obit. I tracked down the family and wrote up something that more adequately reflected a person who had lived and loved for more than 70 years.
Not long after that, the news business changed. The obituary’s cultural significance faded, a casualty of progress. But over the years, friends and family members have asked me to memorialize their loved ones, so I kept at it.
That scolding was 30 years ago. My son Ely was a year old.
Now, I am writing an obit for him. It is a task I had never contemplated, yet here I am. I have seen and received hundreds of comments and reflections from his friends and his family in the last few days. And I struggled to piece together the thousands of shards of sadness into a coherent story. It all seems so utterly inadequate.
This is the story of Elyjah Maurice James Tamman, a man who fought his own war.
He was a man who struggled mightily but who had a huge brain and a bigger heart. I cannot fathom how someone who cared so much for others — both those he knew and those he didn’t — couldn’t sustain enough love for himself. He could dissect other people’s logic but not the tumult of contradictions that zigzagged through his brain.
Not a person who knew Ely will read this without regrets. Divers pulled him from the waters near his boat and home at Liberty Landing Marina on Oct. 17th, 2021. He had been missing all day. We’re not sure what happened. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He was 31.
His death on that day, in particular, confounds. He had spent Friday and Saturday talking about the future with his stepmum. On Saturday, Oct. 16th, they had taken 27,000 steps all over Manhattan. They watched the Gators play LSU. They crisscrossed Central Park and, between the laughs and laments over the Gator’s loss, were long and frank conversations about the demons and frustrations that often overwhelmed him.
When she got back to her hotel, around 7:30, she was filled with hope. Later, he met up with a long-time friend to watch the Braves beat the Dodgers 3-2 in the first game of the National League Championship Series. He was wearing a string of pearls in the style of Joc Pederson, the Braves outfielder who recently started wearing a similar string. It fit Ely’s iconoclastic sense of style.
His friend said they had a rip-roaring time and Ely was in his glory, chirping to Dodgers fans while living every pitch. She put him in an Uber after the game. (Ely refused to put the Uber app on his phone.)
On his way home, shortly before midnight, Ely sent several celebratory messages. Those were the last words.
Ely was born on May 13th, 1990, Mothers’ Day that year. His mom is Deborah Shea Worsdell. We were living in South Jersey at the time. She still lives in the area. His sister, Holen Tamman, was five at the time. His brother, Atticus, came along two years later. Holen is married to Brent and they kinda live in Georgia along with their two puggle doggies. She is a traveling nurse and they drag their home around behind them. Atticus lives in Jersey City with his lady, Vitori, and two rescue dogs. He works as a youth soccer coach in Brooklyn. After Deborah and I split up, she married Tom and they had two children. Logan, Ely’s youngest brother, will graduate from the University of Central Florida in 2022, and Sage, his youngest sister, is a freshman at Shawnee High School in Medford, NJ. Ely’s stepmom, Jenifer Weir Tamman, who was an essential parent since 1994, lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.
What of Ely? He was a member of the bar in New York and New Jersey. He graduated from Fordham Law in 2015. He was a Gator, graduating from the University of Florida in 2011, and a Ram, graduating from Sarasota’s Riverview High School in 2008.
He was also a bundle of joyous contradictions.
He was a notoriously superstitious atheist. When he was playing little league baseball, he would keep a white carved elephant in his pocket. He was usually the fastest player on his team but also among the smallest. And he could not hit. Well, he hit the ball, but it rarely made it out of the infield. His coaches often had him crouch down at the plate when his teams needed a run, and pitchers struggled to find the strike zone.
Invariably, he walked and would then steal second and third and sometimes home. Many times he’d bruise his thigh by sliding into a base on top of that elephant. But that didn’t deter him; he just moved it to the other pocket for the next game.
As he grew, his attention turned to politics. He was a proud socialist who loathed the excesses of capitalism and neoliberalism. He voted for Bernie Sanders every time the Vermont senator was on the presidential ballot and wrote in Bernie’s name when it wasn’t. Over the years, he had become disillusioned with the United States but loved the most American of sports: Baseball and football. He adopted the Dallas Cowboys precisely because he knew it would trigger his friends, family, and strangers at New York area bars.
He loved Kanye — even his most recent album, “except the Jesus part,” and forgave him the MAGA hat. Ye, he said, suffers. He also admired Chappelle talking about race and especially the killing of George Floyd but abhorred the comedian’s hurtful words toward trans folks and others. He suffers too, Ely explained.
One of his friends from law school described Ely as incandescent, capable of the most intense affection and passion. “The love was fierce and absolute–I’ve never known anyone like that,” he texted me after Ely died.
Perhaps that is why he could react with such anger when he felt someone betrayed him. And in the last year of his life, as we all struggled, friends and family alike, to help him out of the darkness, he would fiercely reject us. But he couldn’t sustain that and, eventually, he came back, keeping us all up late as we tried to coach him into the light.
His brother, Atticus, bore the brunt of Ely’s troubled last year. He says his brother actually didn’t like to argue.
“He didn’t hesitate to call out bullshit and was able to back up all of his talk,” Atticus wrote in an email reflecting on his brother’s life. “Despite what people think, Ely absolutely hated arguing and being viewed as the one who will. (But) he had such passion it was infectious, good or bad. He loved things so deeply that he couldn’t help but build an atmosphere around it. Ely strove every day to express his voice and be unique with no shame.”
But Ely understood other people’s suffering precisely because he suffered.
It remains one of the hardest parts of this, knowing that almost everyone who spent any time with him loved him. Yet, he struggled to believe that.
“He enjoyed being the ‘odd one,’” his mother, Deborah, wrote in an email. “He could carry a conversation for hours and he was not afraid to stand up for any injustice no matter how small. He loved his family even tho he had a hard time being loved.”
Ely saw injustice all around him. And despite his fear of catching Covid-19, he regularly marched for racial justice in the months following George Floyd’s death in May 2020, offering legal guidance for protesters when he could.
The truth is, a lot of events conspired against Ely and Covid was especially hard on him. And as the pandemic stretched on, he became increasingly isolated, often spending days alone with his thoughts and a bottle of vodka.
But it wasn’t always that way. He was often fabulous too.
He eschewed clothing conventions. He wore baseball caps decorated with clothespins and pens. And if he wasn’t wearing a cap, he wore a bandana similarly adorned. His bracelets were rubber bands, which sometimes doubled as wallets. He wore a pinky ring and gold chains over a ratty sweatshirt or, ironically, over a preppy polo shirt.
In recent weeks, he started twisting the hair of his beard, not unlike Edward Teach, the pirate Blackbeard.
He had a friend’s mother replace the lining of a jacket with bandana material and enjoyed showing it off. When he wore ties, they were purple. But he often skipped ties, preferring to wear a silk Versace scarf as a cravat or a cummerbund. And when someone pointed a camera in his direction, he knew how to pose.
Then there is the dodo, a bird made extinct in 60 years by the European colonizers of Mauritius. At first, they killed the birds for food. Later, just because they could. By 1662, none were left. It was a creature well adapted to island life until the Europeans arrived. And that resonated with him.
He painted the outline of the dodo on his shoes and shirts and had it tattooed on the inside of his upper right arm.
While at the University of Florida, Ely almost died from a nasty blood infection and spent most of a semester at home on a 24-hour-a-day antibiotic drip. (He completed four of his five courses and aced them all.)
While away from campus, he started editing photos of himself and others by placing dodo heads on top of his and others’ bodies.
Anyone who knew him knew about dodos. Anyone who knew Ely knew he cared, deeply. Maybe too deeply.
“Ely was a person that I never really understood, but I tried,” his sister, Holen, wrote. “He was quirky and unique. I envied his individualism often, even more so now. He’s part of the reason I didn’t object more to becoming a Braves fan.”
He became a Braves fan when we lived in Florida because an older cousin was a fan and they were the only team regularly on TV.
On Saturday night, Oct. a week after the Braves beat the Dodgers 3-2, they won the sixth game of the National League Championship Series, 4-2, and are heading back to the World Series.
Shortly before midnight, I heard him, clear as day, chirping from the beyond.
“I TOLD YOU!”
Yes, that’s how loud he was.
If you wish to give a donation in Ely’s name, please consider the organizations below. His friends and family believe they reflect his values and convictions.
“The Innocence Project … exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”
“The Bail Project combats mass incarceration by disrupting the money bail system.
We restore the presumption of innocence, reunite families, and challenge a system that criminalizes race and poverty. We’re on a mission to end cash bail and create a more just, equitable, and humane pretrial system.”
Please notate that the gift is in Ely’s name
“The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
Please notate gift is in Ely’s name
The Democratic Socialists of America, a political party. “Capitalism is a system designed by the owning class to exploit the rest of us for their own profit. We must replace it with democratic socialism, a system where ordinary people have a real voice in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and society.”
4 Comments Add yours
Mo, I’m just hearing this now. I’m so sorry. As the dad of an amazing and unusual son myself, I think maybe I understand a bit. I’ll be thinking of you and Jennifer and your family. Wishing you peace, eventually.
Mo, I’m also late to this. I am so sorry for your loss. I cannot fathom losing one of my kids (a little younger than Ely). May his memory be a blessing.
Mo.I have nothing to say. I’m speechless. But what an awesome thing that you’re not. What you wrote is an absolutely fantastic feature about anybody but the fact that you were writing about your son, and you made it all the way through (no matter how many times it might have taken you), is thoroughly amazing. All my love and respect to you and your family.
A beautiful tribute. Devastating that you had this task. Mo, I’m sorry for all that you and your family have lost. May goodness rise from this tragedy, as it so often does, surprising and impossible.