This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on February 2, 2002.
Each sixth-grader had to give a one-minute speech at the graduation ceremony. Although it terrified them, they had to do it to get out of elementary school. I watched with pride as my son delivered, with a shaky voice, the one-minute speech he had rehearsed for hours.
The teacher told the graduates to talk about their plans for the future, their goals and dreams. She wanted it summed up in one minute. I thought back to the day I had enrolled my son as a first-grader, six years ago. Recently remarried, I uprooted my two young children and moved them from Denver to Los Angeles. He took it hard.
He had left his very best buddy back in Denver and, being a loyal friend from a young age, did not want to make any new friends, much less a new best buddy. He took his time choosing a new friend. Every day I listened as he came home from school and told me what his day had been like and despaired when I heard no mention of a best buddy. Finally, in October he told me about his new friend.
From then on I heard about Danny every day. They were fast friends and I gave a prayer of thanksgiving.
We planned a Halloween party. Danny was first on the list. A few days before the party, his mother called and asked more than the usual mother hen questions. I wondered why but answered them so that my son’s new buddy could attend.
The friendship was sealed. It was always to be, but never played out. “Danny died,” my tearful son said when he arrived home that awful day in November. Who could believe it? Danny died on the playground after school.
He was playing too hard, running too fast and simply ran out of time. Danny had a heart condition, controlled, so his parents thought, with a pacemaker. That explained all the extra questions before the Halloween party.
I wrestled with the idea of taking a young child to a funeral. The decision was made for me when the family closed the attendance to immediate family only. We were left with loose ends but moved on. Six years later, my son was graduating from elementary school.
I suggested he mention Danny in his speech and he agreed. In his first sentence he asked the assembled proud parents and teachers to remember his friend. Before talking about his future, he took a moment to think about his past and his best buddy. We didn’t know that Danny’s aunt was in the audience. She asked for a copy of the speech to give to Danny’s father.
Several weeks later we received a letter from Danny’s dad, thanking my son for bringing his son’s memory to that graduation day. He told us where Danny’s grave site was. We went there together on an early summer day, late in the afternoon as clouds began to gather and the sky was low and gray.
We found the headstone and sat together looking at the sky and talked about Danny. “He wasn’t a nervous kid,” my son said. “He always seemed kind of calm and not worried about anything.”
I remembered Danny in his little tiger costume, with whiskers carefully drawn on his tiny face, running in my living room with several other six-year-olds, never to be seven. On a humid summer evening I looked at my beautiful, healthy twelve-year-old boy, ready to start his life as I sat by the grave of a six-year-old child. Sadness flooded the same part of my heart that was filled with gratitude for my good fortune.
As life bestows its blessings and tragedies, we brace ourselves for the worst and hope for the best. We must always remember to remember. I am grateful for the comfort Danny’s father took when his son’s memory was evoked at a milestone Danny would not mark. He was moved by the compassion of his small son’s friend, who remembered him all those years later.
The letter and the trip to visit Danny gave closure to my son and me. It taught us that compassion is important, especially for those who left too soon for reasons we cannot understand. Danny’s untimely death taught so much. Just as a friend will do, he taught us well.
Kathleen Vallee Stein