The only obituary I ever saved—now yellowed and brittle—was written for someone I never met. Her name was Danielle. She was five. Born very sick, she lived her life in and out of the hospital.
Danielle's mother is quoted extensively in the obit: "She liked being in school and got good grades. 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."
When I first read this 25 years ago, my own kids were still little. At the time, I was always looking ahead, toward stuff that hadn't happened yet, unable to be grateful for the proverbial small things that count: 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 have any type of perspective on it until I read what Danielle's mother had written.
In a shortened life, I realized, there's no room for insignificant fears like mine. Danielle's mother knew she needed to take stock every step of the way and be grateful for each milestone. She knew she'd never see Danielle 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 daughter's 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 reactions, 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 and look at cars. My role was basically to 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 also got his attention. As we passed minivans, he'd 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 burst into his room, and in a matter of hours, everything about him had changed.
"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."
Were it not for the frail body of a child under the blanket, you might have thought we were at the deathbed of an old man we had known and loved our whole lives. One memory triggered another, and there was enough material to fill a newspaper column, brimming with his accomplishments, 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.
"Johnny 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."
When I finished writing, I placed the story of Johnny's short life next to Danielle's obituary in my old file folder, where they would be children together forever.