Monday, December 13, 2010

"Remembering Danny" by Wyatt Doyle

I learned I lost a friend today. I wish you could have met him.

Danny was a sweet old guy I meet through my kid sister. She’s a singer—she sings like an angel—and she frequently performs at senior citizens’ centers and hospice care facilities. Danny was a resident at the same place our grandfather passed his final days, and everyone there sure knew Danny. You couldn’t miss him: he used to sit out front, the unofficial greeter, enthusiastically welcoming and seeing off all who came and went. And despite the certain sadness inherent in even a fine senior living facility, a friendly hello from a cheerful soul like Danny can’t help but take some of the edge off. Not that I believe Danny thought that way; I think he just really liked people.

He adored my sister, and she was wild about him, too. She knew he and I would hit it off, so she made a point of introducing us the first time I tagged along to one of her shows there. After praising her voice and beauty to the skies, he informed me he was also a singer; and when I asked him what kind of music he sang (placing bets in my head whether it would be gospel or jazz), he surprised me by answering country and western…and also some classical—but acknowledged that was a long time ago.

I liked Danny a lot; it was near impossible not to. Confined to a wheelchair, his teeth were mostly gone and he was deeply critical of his appearance. His hearing wasn’t very good at all, and you usually had to repeat things several times before he picked up on exactly what you were saying. But he was rarely less than fully engaged—and fully engaging. Abandoned by his parents, he’d had a tough time from the very start; by his account he’d spent a lot of his life unloved and unwanted. But he didn’t dwell too heavily on the bad times, no matter that there’d been plenty of them. Maybe having survived them was more than enough; why spend the rest of your life reliving them? And while he was charming and funny and loved to talk, what really stood out was his apparently boundless joy and enthusiasm; he had an infectious laugh, and he seemed absolutely delighted by everything.

The spring before I saw him for the last time, my sister had phoned me after performing a show at Danny’s hospice. “I have some Danny news for you,” she told me. (I was always eager to hear how he was doing.) She went on to explain that as she finished her show, Danny—her #1 fan—asked if he could sing something. She always encourages her audiences to join in on the songs, so she presumed that’s what he intended. But Danny didn’t have a sing-along in mind; he wanted to solo. And before it could even occur to anyone to try to talk him out of it, solo he did, launching into an epic rendition of—wait for it—“Bali H’ai” from South Pacific. But he didn’t merely sing “Bali H’ai”; he belted the bejeezus out of it. “Bali H’ai,” loud as he could bellow. “Bali H’ai” to call the cows home. “Bali H’ai,” elongated and expanded, with new, improvised lyrics and scatting fills. “Bali H’ai” until the other residents were actually crying out, demanding he stop at once! “Bali H’ai,” no holds barred. Hearing the story I howled, and wished I could have been there. I could picture his hospice neighbors, groaning from their wheelchairs for Danny to stop, and Danny, up at the front, center stage in his wheelchair, head tossed back, singing his happy heart out. Unable to hear a word of their protests, showboating his way to his very own Bali Ha’i, wherever that may have been.

Last Christmas, I was back East and got to see Danny again. I’d been looking forward to it. We were able to sit and talk for a while after my sister’s show. He was fascinated that my camera could also capture video, and I asked him if he wanted me to record him singing something.

“What should I sing?” He asked me.

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Later, remembering his love for country music, I asked if he wanted to do a country and western number. His poor hearing prevented him from understanding my request the first, second and third times. After the fourth, he responded, “Oh, you want me to sing a
gospel song!” (His tickled reaction to his own performance at the end of this clip makes it particularly special.)

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copyright © 2010 Wyatt Doyle