Twenty-five years ago, I saved an obituary written for someone I never met. Her name was Danielle. The paragraphs were written by a newspaper reporter, but really the story was written by Danielle’s mother, who is quoted for most of it: “She liked being in school and got good grades, her mother said. She loved dancing, running, climbing fences, and listening to music. Recently the nurses at Hopkins took Danielle to the ninth-floor playroom to enjoy Christmas caroling.” She was five.
In those days, my own kids were still small. I constantly found myself always looking ahead, toward things that hadn’t happened yet, unable to be grateful for the small stuff: When would he learn not to interrupt at the dinner table? Would she learn to swim before summer was here? Was he behind his classmates when it came to reading, or was it my imagination? They were silly, niggling worries, but I didn’t see that until I read what Danielle’s mother had written.
In a shorter life, there is no room for insignificant fears like mine. Danielle’s mother realized she needed to take stock every step of the way and be grateful for each tiny milestone. She knew she would never see her daughter in a prom dress, or what her smile would look like on graduation day. So she went as far as she could in the story of her life: “Danielle was not a finicky eater and liked seafood, steak, and all green vegetables. She even looked forward to taking her medicine. She dealt with it like a champion.”
I carefully clipped that newspaper story and put it in a file folder, where it would ultimately get old with me. That year I also took a part time job in a pediatric rehab center. I was the fill-in person on weekends, called a child life specialist, which sounded much more important than I was. My job was to play with the young patients who didn’t get to go home on weekends. My job was to make a long Sunday afternoon less long.
And that’s how I met Johnny, who had been in a horrific car accident several years before. As bodies went, there wasn’t much left of his. His facial muscles were intact, but sometimes there was a delay in his reaction, like a bad telephone connection. He could move his right arm. Brilliant smile. No speech. Many opinions, usually about what he would or wouldn’t eat for lunch.
His favorite thing to do on Sunday afternoons was to cruise the hospital’s parking lot with me and look at cars. My role was secondary — push his wheelchair and ask him questions, to which he’d give me hand signals that left no doubt about his feelings on the automobile industry. I was often the straight man, giving him chances to silently laugh at my ignorance. He always gave convertibles a thumbs up. Anything red got his attention. As we passed minivans, he would hold his nose and then look up to see if I was giggling behind him.
Without his ever saying a word, I knew his dream was that one day I’d scoop him up in my arms, strap him into a Corvette, and the two of us would speed up and down country roads for the afternoon.
That never happened. What happened instead was that one day a crash cart went sailing into his room, and in a matter of hours, everything about him had changed. But that’s when a funny thing happened.
“You were such a character, Johnny, you and those crazy sunglasses you used to wear,” his nurse said as she studied the monitors over his head. Someone else in the room laughed and said, “Remember this?” and in front of his closed eyes she duplicated the motion he’d make with his good hand whenever music played. We called it The Snake. She kissed that hand and sighed, “You sure were a dancin’ fool.”
That was the funny part. Were it not for the frail body of a child under the blanket, you might have thought we were at the deathbed of a very old man we had known and loved our whole lives. One memory triggered another, and there was enough material to fill a newspaper column, full of his unique history.
I searched the newspaper for a week after he died. Nothing was ever printed. I found myself foolishly wishing a newspaper reporter would call and ask, “Do you have anything you’d like to say about Johnny’s life?” or whatever it is they say when they have to make that horrible call. I had the words ready anyway. So I wrote them down, and put them in the file folder.
“Johnny P. loved to mold clay in his right hand but had no use for finger painting. His smile was legendary. Nerf basketball was his specialty. Johnny made a mess when he ate peas but never wasted a drop of applesauce. Without words and with facial muscles that had seen some hard times, he always let you know when you said something brilliant or when you had totally and woefully missed the point. He sparkled. He was eight years old.”