Sunday, August 9, 2009

I thought about Daniel today

I think about Daniel every now and then. I used to think about Daniel quite often. Before that I thought about Daniel all the time. There was even a period of time during which I thought about Daniel every day.

I met Daniel when he was about 10-and-a-half and I was nineteen. The youngest of five children, Daniel was a typical boy his age, polite and thoughtful some days, sassy and a little smelly some other days. Fairly annoying most days, but in a still-a-little-kid way that has its charm.

The two things I remember most about Daniel: he liked me OK and he had a mechanical sort of mind. He liked hanging out with me because "being at home was boring." Gosh, where have I heard that before?

So he went places with me, like the grocery store. On one occasion, he went with me to the store and I stopped at the customer service desk to cash my paycheck. The woman counted the money out into my hand, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw his head bob. It was the slightest movement, a bit like a tic. But I saw it and knowing his brain, I counted the money back to her. Sure enough, she had shorted me $100. That's never good, but this was back when $100 was a goodly portion of my paycheck. I asked him later and he told me he had seen it coming, whatever that meant. Maybe she looked shifty!

Daniel learned young how to ride a motorbike and take care of it. He took apart a wonky remote control and put it all together again. I don't recall what it was, but I remember he once took something apart just because he could (that was his answer to the inevitable question), but when he put it back together, there was a leftover part. It still worked. That's what I remember, whatever the item was.

Daniel's birthday was in May, toward the end of the month. This particular year, he turned 14 around Memorial Day. He had recently had his photo taken without glasses and he had changed so much. In that goofy preteen way, you could begin to see that this slightly nerdy boy was going to have a very, very good chance of becoming a handsome young man. We celebrated his birthday with a cake from Gladstone Bakery in Chicago. Yum.

That Monday, instead of going to school, he went into his oldest sister's garage. Inside the garage was his older brother's motorcycle. Daniel skipped school and went joy riding. He put on the helmet, probably because he'd been lectured a million times to never ride a motorbike without a helmet.

At some point during a police chase, Daniel lost control of the bike - a crotch rocket too big and too powerful for a scrawny 14 year-old boy. He hit the curb, I believe, and got himself and the bike wedged underneath a car. He had what is called a road rash on one leg and that just about accounted for his injuries.

Except Daniel put the helmet on without fastening the chinstrap.

The hospital in Niles, a Chicago suburb, did what they could and then sent him down to Northwestern Hospital in downtown Chicago. Things were grim. The doctors talked about organ donation, but the family just couldn't do it. They needed a miracle and they prayed for one on Wednesday when the machines were turned off.

It was incomprehensible.

I learned a lot of things about death from Daniel. He was my first experience with death other than the cats and dogs of childhood. I learned about miracles and how they sometimes don't happen even to the most deserving people. I watched grief rip people into pieces and later I got to watch them pull themselves back together.

It was, unfortunately, not the last time I saw a family's need to blame someone for their tragedy. There was a great time for the healing of family relationships, as well. I only learned later that this is not uncommon, but often the healing is temporary. I saw a family share deep secrets.

Lastly, I felt for the first time the sense that you are on the brink of significant change. It can feel as though you are alone in the ocean and you see a gigantic wave coming. You can brace yourself, you can hold your breath, and you can pray. But that wave is going to swamp you and when it does, you struggle to breathe. You lose your bearing. You fear the second wave. Most of us fight to keep our heads up, some succumb and dip under the water hoping to silence the roar of the angry ocean.

And then...relentlessly, the sun rises and those waters calm. I was 19 a long time ago and I think about Daniel every now and then.

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