The man working in this picture is my friend Dan. When he was no longer able to work at his regular job due to kidney disease, he’d spend a little time making toys and other things out of wood. He would donate these craft items to charities that would turn around and sell them as part of fundraisers.
A number of local churches and non-profit organizations benefited from Dan’s handiwork. Dan beat back cancer, and had been on dialysis in recent years. He recently lost his battle with health problems. Those of us who knew him lost something as well.
A mother lost a son, four sisters no longer have their big brother, a child won’t have a dad to learn about life, and two grandchildren have only memories of a grandfather.
I lost a good friend I’ve known for fifty years.
Dan and I met on the playground behind Port Leyden Central School in the summer of 1964. We were friends right from the get go. In the early years, we’d go fishing, camp outside his house in the summer, and go sledding down a big hill in front of his house in the winter.
In junior high, another friend Jerry joined us. We were quite the threesome. We’d buy candy from the local store, order a bottle of Coke or Dr. Pepper at the local diner, and just hang out on the borderline of mischief. As teens, we were a three-person, Dennis the Menace.
When we were a little bit older, we got a hold of some cigars and inserted cigarette loads into them. Cigarette loads are about the size of a quarter-length toothpick. Little explosions are created when the cigar burns the tip of the load.
We weren’t old enough to smoke, although there was no law against cigarette loads. We sneaked a smoke in a booth at the diner. When the load exploded the cigar, it looked like a cartoon as the end of the stogie ripped apart. Why the owner never threw us out of her restaurant is still a mystery.
One night, we took a rubber snake into a local tavern. We were not old enough to drink alcohol, but we knew the rubber snake might scare some of the older adults standing at the bar with their beer. We cleared the barroom before anyone had the chance to throw us out. We ran away laughing.
You could do things like that when you were a kid growing up in a small town in upstate New York in the 1970s.
After high school graduation, I left my hometown for college. We lost touch shortly after that. For the next four decades, Dan and I went on with our lives. Childhood memories stayed behind as we raised families and worked at our jobs.
He visited me at the funeral home the time my mother passed away thirteen years ago. I sent him a card when his dad died several years ago.
And that’s where the story might have ended had it not been for Dan’s effort to reconnect with me.
He saw my dad in church and gave him my email address. I sent Dan a message. He sent a message back. For the next four years, we were in weekly email contact. We’d call one another occasionally, and I visited with him in person when I would go back to my boyhood home to see my dad.
Three years ago, Dan called me on the night when he made the agonizing decision to remove life support from his wife He told me how he would help her pray every day, sometimes several times a day. He told me how much he loved her. The only comfort I could offer was a listening ear some three-thousand miles away.
On one of my visits, I met his two grandchildren. He raised his grandkids for a couple of years. It had to be a struggle given his deteriorating health, but he never saw it that way. I saw how much the children loved their grandfather. I saw Dan’s patience in action as he cared for them without regard to his own struggles that included dialysis three times a week.
In the past four years, I never heard Dan complain about his life. He talked about blessings. He’d ask how my family was doing. He demonstrated by example how to live life with dignity and compassion.
I think he knew four years ago that his days on earth would likely run out sooner than most of us. He made the most of those years. As a dialysis patient, he helped raise money to help build a treatment center closer to where he lived. He was consulted on building plans. Ironically, that center will open in a few months. Dan never got to use it. But others will, and that is all that really matters.
As often as death has touched people around me, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. We accept death as part of the human condition. But it doesn’t make it any easier when you lose a family member or a close friend. We’ll get by, but we are changed in some way.
And we’re thankful for the time we have with our friends and our family.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced