Death…Part One!

Darren was about 11 years old when I first met him, a couple of years younger than me. But in that stage of life a couple of years meant a great deal.  He lived just a few doors down from O’Grunts in one of those post war, red brick, long and narrow bungalows, or ranchers.  He was a very fragile lad, sickly in fact, suffering from numerous ailments, the most egregious of which was asthma.  In spite of his frailties he always tried to be a part of our crowd although he could barely keep up with us with his constant wheezing, hacking and bronchial cough.  He tried to play hockey on our outdoor rink and baseball in the summer, football in the fall, and any other activity that we thought about. We always welcomed him but could not really accommodate his physical weaknesses in our game play other than with encouragement and inclusiveness.  Often Darren would just watch, then run, or skate, slowly toward us then stop, cough, wheeze catching his breath as if lost somehow then try again.  He was always part of our football huddles, omnipresent it seemed with that deep, raspy breathing of his, as if in a reverb state, somewhat like an echo chamber, powerful but for its resonance to reflect Darren’s difficulty in every breath he took.

Thinking back now I am truly amazed at his courage and determination to participate in these types of activities. He would have been infinitely more comfortable in the more sedentary, intellectual pursuit but at such a young age the adventure, sense of belonging and sense of being alive, part of the gang, were probably more of an attraction for him than the limitations brought on by his physical liabilities. We should have been more enlightened at that age to welcome him but at the same time steer him away from our everyday activities to ones that would have been more suitable for his condition. Ignorant that we were at such a young age we sort of took him for granted, as he was always there.  Sadly, regrettably, we were ignorant of the warning signs that were staring us all in the face.

Darren died suddenly. This was a huge shock to all of us.  We were very young as well and incidents such as a death tend to hit youngsters like us suddenly and without warning, like a jackhammer to the gut.

He died from an asthma attack, I do believe, though I cannot be entirely sure of this given that Darren died some 50 plus years ago.   O’Grunts told me of this tragic event, when I came to call on him one summer’s day

“Darren died” he said, as if questioning me somehow.

“No way. How? What happened?”

“Yesterday.” Don continued “He had something of an asthma attack and couldn’t breathe properly. His dad got him to the hospital but it was too late and they couldn’t wake him.”

“Holy crap” I couldn’t believe it and just stood there, in shock, shaking my head as if somehow I could exorcise this news and make things real again. “Holy crap.”

Death wasn’t something that was really real to us. We weren’t oblivious to it but it was something that happened to old people: Grandparents, Grand Uncles or Grand Aunts.  Old people. People over 40.  Not to an 11 year old boy! And not to somebody we knew who was only 11! No way. We were immortal at that age.

Playing didn’t seem so important now, or appropriate, or relevant somehow.  I turned to leave O’Grunt’s house and began my walk home, in thought, in shock, my head down in sorrowful disbelief, walking by rote as if in some automaton trance passing Darren’s house on the way.  There it was, on my left.  Nondescript.  Just a structure of brick and mortar.  Inanimate from the outside.  How many times have I passed that house without giving it a second thought or a glance, only knowing that it was Darren’s house.  How could I even look at that house knowing full well the grey pall that was descending upon it like a cold blanket of grief: all encompassing, unrelenting, suffocating grief!  I couldn’t imagine the awfulness that was permeating through it like a deadly virus, throughout every room: in the walls, the floors, every nook and cranny of that house. Crushing memories of a child, of a son, of an innocent youngster who had his whole life ahead of him yet was saddled with the misfortune of not being able to capture the breath of life.  Even today, as I walk past that house it looks exactly as I remembered it, as I walked past it hundreds of times in my youth.  It remains to this day a very modest, post war abode: long and narrow, a red brick structure that was a home and very common for this street before the tear downs and monster home craziness began to destroy the neighborhood.

We all went to the showing.  I must admit how scared I was.  The foreboding atmosphere of the funeral home: the smell of the carpets, the incense filled heaviness and tension, sadness in the air.  Was this how death smelled?

We were all escorted into the viewing parlour.  I could sense that Darren was laid out somewhere for all to see but couldn’t see exactly where he was due to the large number of people there.  I think that the funeral home’s concierge sensed this as he made a path for us to come and have a look or pay our respects.  We all followed him somewhat gingerly, with some trepidation, for none of us knew what to expect.  I think I grabbed onto Jimmy mum’s arm at that moment in time for reassurance that all would be okay.  He looked at me and I could see a slight tint of foreboding in his face.  O’Grunts was non plussed about the whole thing but solemn looking nonetheless.  Big Maxx was there as were many of the girls in Darren’s immediate neighborhood.  All were in shock and in an emotional state.  The concierge sensed our fear and told us not to worry as Darren would appear to be asleep. Okay! That helps

Finally we were all there around his open casket. I think I had my eyes closed and then, very carefully, bravely, opened one eye for a short glance.  Darren did indeed appear to be asleep. His eyes were closed and his face seemed to be coloured with blush, just a hint of rose, smooth but pastel-like, with colour on his cheeks and lips.  Laying there straight up with his hands folded, in peaceful remorse, dressed in his pajamas as if he was in an eternal asleep.  Above his coffin they had a landscape form of the heavens, in a kaleidoscope of colours, with the moon and the stars sparkling as if in some magical, ecclesiastical collage. To a young boy like me it was both beautiful and creepy and I can still remember that scene as if I saw it yesterday and not 50 years ago.

We kind of paid our respects as best we could to Darren’s mom and dad and then got the hell out of there.

Pain, or shock, tends to heal and lessen with time. So they say. While at first it seemed somewhat surreal for us to be out playing in the park as if nothing really happened, before too long we were back to our normal ways. Yet there were times when the whole frightening affair came crashing back to me. It was during those times when walking home from O’Grunts place, that I would pass Darren’s house and see his dad sitting there out on the stoop alone.  Lost in thought he appeared to be, or, perhaps he was oblivious to his surroundings, as if in a trance like state of mind.  I would shyly acknowledge him as I passed by the house with a nod of my head, as if I was somehow sharing in his grief knowing full well that nothing I could do could ever come close to easing his sorrow. Sometimes he would see me and nod his head in recognition but most times nothing but his blank stare, a stare that was straight ahead and somewhere out there into space and time.

What was going through his mind one can only imagine? Staring straight ahead into nothingness, seeing nothingness with nothingness of a future. Hopelessly wondering about all of the “what ifs.” The guilt must have been overbearing, unceasing, interminable. To lose one’s son at such a young age. Life is not supposed to be this way. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Being a father myself I know of the hopes and dreams that come with parenthood. What will he or she be like at 10, at 18, at 21? What will they become: a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a plumber, a proctologist, a what?  What about the grandchildren? What will they be like? Life is so full of promise, of wonderment, of hope, of joyous potential and contentedness. Then, to have it all come crashing down in a flash like some cruel joke.

Seeing Darren’s dad was just that to me. Seeing Darren’s dad!  I knew he was sad but knowing that he was hurting emotionally, physically and spiritually was difficult for someone like me to grasp at such as young age. I would never be able to understand or be able to measure the pain that he was going through. I could only say…hello!

Song of the Day