Less than a year ago, I was eulogizing my friend Marty Gear in this space. Marty lived a full life, and changed the lives of many, many people for the better. He died quietly in his sleep. Up to the last, he did the things he loved with the people he loved. I miss Marty, and the shock of his death was wrenching. But I can’t look back with any regret on his behalf. As far as I can see, Marty made of life everything he could. His life was well lived.
Sitting in a meeting Tuesday, I learned via email that Danny, Marty’s son and my former classmate at Atholton High, was now dead as well. Danny took his own life, ending his journey early. I wasn’t close enough to Danny to comment on what kind of life he led, whether he was happy (I conclude he was not), or how many lives he touched. I know tidbits about the trials he endured, relayed to me by a concerned father. I know he had children, and I know from their public posts on Facebook that they loved their Dad very much. After 1980, Danny was mostly the son of a friend of mine; someone I thought well of because his Dad loved him so much, and was proud of him.
But, in 1980 Danny was a bright spot in my life, and I’ll never forget how that felt. The reason I say that might seem kinda silly, but little things mean a lot, especially to a 14-year-old who hasn’t confronted a lot of big things.
When I was 14, Danny taught me to hit a volleyball over the net. If you’ve never suffered the indignity of being a weak and awkward little kid, of not being able to do what your peers could do, then you may not understand what I’m talking about. As an adult, it just seems ridiculous to think that a game, a game, could matter at all in the life of a teenager and in his image of himself. But kids and teens take games very, very seriously. To be the one kid in class who, when it was his turn to serve from the back line, couldn’t do much except occasionally bean the kid in front of him with the ball, was humiliating. People laughed. Girls laughed. Pretty girls laughed. They laughed before I tried to serve the ball!
I suffered through 6th, 7th and 8th grade this way. And no one, not my teachers, not my friends, would take the time out to show me what I was doing wrong. Or, if they did, I became so easily frustrated (I realize that those of you who know me personally find that hard to believe) that I caused them to write me off as a lost cause.
But in 9th grade at Atholton, when it was time in the Spring to play the dreaded “V” game, Danny patiently taught me how to avoid a little bit of humiliation. He coached me through how to hold the ball, how to keep my fingers in a fist, how to follow through on my swing. He stopped the game to do this! And he made it abundantly clear to the other kids that laughing and name-calling were not going to happen while I learned. Danny was one of the bigger kids, big enough that no one challenged him in this.
I wondered why this bigger, cooler kid had taken me under his wing. He actually seemed to like me! No one liked me, except other kids that were into comic books or science fiction. Nobody liked me just for me, they liked me for shared interests. (That was my 14-year-old perception, by the way. It wasn’t true, and I’m well aware of that now. I have friends from that time who have stuck with me for more reasons than because we both liked the same comic books or TV shows. But an adolescent self-image is a tenuous thing, and I admit the failings of mine in hopes that others will see that someone else has been there and survived.)
But Danny seemed to like me. Oh, I think my snarky nature finally got on his nerves. And he went to another school, as I recall, before our Freshman year was over. But I’ve never forgotten the time Danny treated me like I deserved some compassion. Like I mattered. Like he liked me. I doubt I ever will forget that. As Danny himself said, when I mentioned it a few years ago, it wasn’t a big thing in the scope of our lives as they developed. But it was important to me. More important than he realized. And it showed his character.
But I guess character and compassion aren’t always enough to combat mental illness. I won’t get into details. I don’t know many, and those I do know aren’t part of a story that’s mine to tell.
But I will say this: If there’s any take-away, for me, from Danny’s death, it’s that mental illness has a reach that goes far beyond the person who’s suffering it. Untreated, hell, even treated, our mental illnesses can hurt people around us. If you’re depressed, if you’re suicidal, if you think you have a condition that makes you unable to deal with other people and your everyday life as you wish you could, please believe that there are people who can help, and that it can get better. Don’t go it alone, and don’t make your family members responsible for “saving” you. Talk to a counselor at school, seek our your EAP through work, Google “counseling services” and your zip code, buy a “for Dummies” book! But don’t go it alone.
Goodbye, Danny. I hope the next world, if there is a next world, shows you more compassion than this one did. If God (and I use that term generically) passes judgment on you, I hope he shows you that compassion you once showed me, and that I’ve no doubt you showed a lot of others. Your own compassion. It’s well-deserved. I’m sorry life was hard for you, but I know there were probably a lot of people, like me, whose lives were a little better because they knew you.