We shared first names. While I’ve known a lot of Dans in my life, I’d never met a fellow Dan like this one.
Something about an unusual question draws me. I don’t know what it is about the asking of something otherwise left unsaid, whether by ignorance or by purpose, but when someone asks THAT question, I notice.
This other Dan asked those questions. Relentlessly. And he thought about the answers. You could see the wheels whirring.
Dan and I worked in ministry together. He was a seminarian, and a year or two older than I was, but it seemed like more. Not from an age standpoint, but from a sense of wisdom. Even in my 20s I was naive, but not my fellow Dan.
That said, he seemed always to be searching, and when we talked, the conversation went deep in a heartbeat.
One day, he called and asked if I wanted to go for a drive.
And some drive it was.
We met up where he was staying in town that summer. I hopped in his old, yellow Beetle, and we took off around I-275 in Cincinnati. Just driving. Talking about deep things, the kind of questions and answers you delved into only when the night was pulled down like a cover around you. But for these two Dans, neither needed the protective cover of darkness.
So we talked. The Ohio River and Kentucky loomed. We crossed and kept on driving. We crossed them again.
I can’t tell you the details of the conversation. It was 25 years ago. But it was epic. And so was the drive, as we kept pulling that slight arc to the right that took us through the loop of Cincinnati’s encompassing circle highway. When the end became the beginning, Dan just kept driving. Two hours? Three?
Did it matter? We were young. We had ideas. They were good ones too. Dreams that could change the world–if only the world would listen to two Dans in a VW Bug looping around the local metropolis on a hot, late-summer day, the windows rolled as low as they could go, the radio silenced by the ongoing brilliance.
We felt like we’d only brushed the surface, but eventually we ended up back at his hosts’. We still had things to discuss, but they would wait.
Evenings were spent at Pizza Hut with some of the other crew our age on the ministry team. Even when the job concluded, we got together.
If Dan were a baseball diamond, it would consist of nothing but left field, which was why his dry, bizarre sense of humor had us rolling on the floor, laughing, always. Leave it to Dan to say the funny thing no one else dared to utter. And the dude could drink Mountain Dew endlessly, as if the caffeine simply evaporated before it hit his lips.
When he left town for his final year in seminary, we vowed to stay in touch. We did. Just like that I-275 crawl, we would talk long distance for hours. When I eventually moved to Wisconsin, he was one of the few who supported financially my ministry work there. He called regularly too. And the hours on the phone would trip by effortlessly.
It’s like that when you talk to someone interesting, a person overflowing with a tangential way of looking at those aspects of life most see only head-on. Whenever Dan talked about ministry, he saw what others missed. He wanted to know how we got locked into forms and programs that were so obviously ineffective, and what we could do to fix the problems. He challenged the status quo.
Dan got me thinking about the Church in ways I’d not considered, and I loved that about him. He was that friend who never shied away from “going there,” no matter where there was. You’d be shocked for a minute, and then you’d be glad for the release, because something heavy had gone away in the process.
Heavy accompanied Dan.
We got together when we could. Distance was an issue. Still, there was the telephone. (The Internet was something still in the clutches of the military and braniacs at that point.) Never failed to enjoy the talks.
I think it was at a wedding we both drove back to Cincy for when we agreed to meet up for Christmas at the church for which we’d worked. Agreed on a time and place.
He liked Dum-Dum lollipops and handed me one. He said the name was apt. “A Dum-Dum for a dumb-dumb,” he noted. “Will keep you humble.” Already loaded with enough sugar from the wedding cake, I stuck the sweet in my trenchcoat pocket. Maybe later.
I’d been dating a girl seriously. We met at the Christian camp where I was working full time. One of those infamous camp romances, but it lasted beyond the end of the season, and though she was summer staff and I was year-round, we kept dating.
We planned to drive to her folks’ place for Thanksgiving. I’d never met them, so I was a little anxious. That changed to frustration when she announced the night before that I was “just too nice,” and she was ending the relationship. Out of town, no idea what to do, I drove with her to her folks’ anyway, with me attempting damage control most of the way. I met her folks, we had a tense meal, and I bolted back to Cincinnati to see if I could still make an unexpected showing at my family’s Thanksgiving and nurse my wounds.
The drive back to Wisconsin afterward was interminable.
Checking into the camp office, I had seven phone messages that had come in over the long weekend. The phone number was the same.
The message on each gradually changed as the days passed. The first was a “What’s up?” The middle was “Let’s talk soon.” The last one was “Please call.” The receptionist at the camp had underlined the Please.
I called Dan back. No answer. Left a message. Two, three times.
I figured it had something to do with our Christmas meetup. A change of plans. Something like that. If that were the case, I’d hear in time.
The drive back to Cincinnati at Christmas was a long one. I still hurt from the breakup. Being the nice guy no girl wants is a tough row to hoe. But hey, I was resilient. Besides, I was looking forward to hanging with the crew over the Christmas break. Women, who needs ’em?
On Christmas Eve, I went to church for the evening service and waited on the back stoop as scheduled, under the pale yellow bulb that cast a halo overhead. Snow had begun to fall, tender flakes doomed to vanish when they hit the warmer ground. Inside, the first strains of the organ sounded and others lifted their voices to God. Christmastime was here. Happiness and cheer.
But no Dan.
The first carol ended, and the intro of the second wafted through the door of the full church.
I wasn’t the only one who would enter late; my friend Jeff walked up the back entrance.
“Waiting for someone?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Dan and I agreed to meet here. He seems to be late–as usual.”
Jeff hesitated, and the look on his face lost all meaning.
The snow came down, lighter now. The yellow light tried to warm the scene but instead cast harsh shadows on two men standing alone in the cold.
“Don’t you know?” Jeff said, his eyes betraying an emotion inscrutable to me. “He killed himself a few weeks ago. Over Thanksgiving.”
I could feel that Dum-Dum in my right coat pocket.
For all our time spent talking about the deep things of life, I didn’t know Dan was engaged to be married. I didn’t know that he’d just gotten the job he’d always wanted. I didn’t know he had a chronic illness he struggled with.
I didn’t know.
I keep the Dum-Dum in the pocket of the trench coat. I still have both. I didn’t know, but I don’t want to forget.
We are fragile, each of us hoarfrost, vanishing in the warmth of a sudden spring breeze.