We met when I was just eleven, and he was twelve years old. He was sitting next to the window on the school bus that would be taking us on a school field trip to an ice skating rink. I sat down next to him, and asked his name. It was Dan. I excitedly told him that I used to ice skate when I was little, and that I wanted to be an Olympic ice skater when I grew up. He didn’t know how to skate, he said, he had never done it before. Proudly, I told him I would teach him, show him how to turn, and skate backwards, and everything.
Years later, Dan would tell me that he liked me because he liked the way I talked. “I liked the way you pronounced your ‘s’s,'” he said. “They were very…crisp. You talked like a grown-up.”
Dan has been my best friend ever since. There have been years when we were inseparable, and there have been years when we didn’t connect. There has never been another soul who has made me laugh as hard, as long, or as uncontrollably as Dan, and there has never been anyone less deserving of pancreatic cancer.
He was there for every first day of school. he was there at every lunch, every school assembly, every after school afternoon from 2:45 to 3:45, when we rehashed in gossipy, teenage detail on the phone about the day just concluded. When it turned out that my eye disease meant I would never drive, he drove me home from school in his green Honda Civic every day. He took me out on my first date, on my sixteenth birthday. When he couldn’t be there at various times over the years, he found a way to make his presence felt, like the day I moved from my lifelong home state to another, when an enormous box of housewarming gifts and supplies awaited my arrival, with a sign on it that read, “welcome home.” He flew two thousand miles and trekked through a forest trail of redwood trees, to stand with me on my wedding day. Then, he wrote me a letter after my husband passed away, less than six months later, a letter he had written for me as a journal on my wedding day, with all of his observations about all the little details he knew I would have missed for being busy and distracted with wedding day events. He read the journal to me, over the phone, and I recorded the call.
If a more misfit, oddly precocious, ugly little duckling ever needed a best friend, it was me. It is truly stunning what fully accepting another human being for exactly who they are, and loving them just the same, can bring about in the life of another. Because of Dan, I took chances, I ventured forth. I learned the meaning of quiet generosity and climbed to a new altitude so as to gain a better perspective. Because of Dan, I learned how to make a place for myself in a world where I didn’t believe I belonged. I laughed. At nothing. At everything. At what he said, at what I said, at the notes we passed in class, at what we thought of every stupid little thing, that laugh that is so out of control you can’t breathe, can’t even make a sound. I am who I am today because Dan’s influence has been so powerful, I have aspired to be like him.
Dan lost his father to pancreatic cancer when we were just teenagers. Dan lived in terror of the day it would be his turn, his entire life since. When I got the call two years ago this coming thanksgiving that Dan had been diagnosed with the same cancer, I was haunted by all of the times over the years Dan had expressed this fear. But now, it’s different, I thought. Now, treatments are better, health care is so much more sophisticated, surely, there’s something…something.
One might think that this sort of news would bring about a closeness and renewed bond between lifelong best friends, but sadly, it has not come to pass. Dan has been unable to see me, to say goodbye. he has chosen to speak with me only on a handful of occasions since the diagnosis. the only explanation that I have been comforted by is that he is trying to protect me from the pain. I can only cling to that, because nothing else makes any sense at all.
Today, I got the news that Dan has been placed with hospice. He is nearing the end of a process that has robbed him of absolutely everything that makes life worth living. If he can be loved more, I surely cannot imagine how. He is surrounded by his family, his mother and his sister and his partner, and they have taken one grueling step after another, walking in faith, and with hope that the son will not retrace the steps of the father. I am writing this now in hopes that he will be read the words here, and that he will take my love with him tonight, and every night for the rest of his life. I’ll have his love, his laughter, his joy of life in me for the rest of mine.
I love you, Dan.
Author’s note: Dan passed away on Sunday, September 21st, 2014. The world has become dimmer today, as the irrepressible spirit of a beautiful human being has moved on. My condolences to Dan’s family, Fran, Teresa, Philip, and all those he loved and made laugh.