Tuesday, February 13, 2018


This is the second in a series of vignettes about growing up in the American Midwest that I'm currently writing and hope to publish as a collection later this year.

Davey was born with a hole in his heart. That was how my mother, Reba Mae, described it to me.
He was, she explained, what was known as a “blue baby”. But I should never call him that, or mention it, or say anything at all about his condition, period. But hadn’t I noticed how he had blue lips, and blue fingernails, and a bluish cast to his milky white skin? Well, that was caused by this blue baby condition, by the hole in his heart, which didn’t let him get enough oxygen pumped into his heart and brain and so forth. The way she understood it was that the poor little kid was always starved for oxygen.
Reba Mae was always making me privy to this kind of momentous information and then swearing me to silence about it. Like the time I mentioned that a girl friend of mine’s brother looked a lot like his dad, tall and lanky, and that my friend looked a lot like her mother, kind of short and stocky, and my mother said that was impossible because they were both adopted.
“But for godsake don’t ever say anything to them about that because I don’t know if they know. And don’t go telling anybody else either, because it’s nobody else’s business...Although half the town probably knows it anyway. But still, just don’t say anything to anybody about it, understand? No reason for you to go around telling everything you know!
What good was knowing such important things if then you had to keep them a secret?
Blue Baby - a sculpture by Robert Bleier
I’d made friends with Davey at school. Leave it to me to pick the most unique kids in my class to be my friends. He was clearly unique. On top of his heart condition he had dark almost cherry-red hair and marble-white skin and was almost painfully thin, all of which made him stand out like a lighthouse beacon amid the more normally-complected kids. In pictures, he sort of looked like an alien from another planet who had infiltrated the class—a pod person or a body-snatcher, perhaps.
He was bright. Almost scary bright. If his brain lacked oxygen, it surely wasn’t obvious from his intellectual prowess. Kind of made you wonder what he’d be like if he was getting enough oxygen. Like I say, scary bright. While we fumbled and struggled with our first adventures in reading, writing and arithmetic, he wowed us with his conversant knowledge of just about anything our teachers brought up. Sometimes he even left the teachers with their mouths hanging open.
For some reason, Davey liked me. I wasn’t particularly smart or particularly interesting, but he gravitated to me early on in grade school. Then we moved from the south side of town to the west side, and his parents’ place was only a couple of blocks away from our new home. So Davey wanted to hang out.
And I wanted to hang out with him, as well. But Reba Mae wasn’t very sure that was such a good idea. It was such a responsibility to have a kid like that over. What if he had some kind of crisis or something? What the heck would she do?
So we reached a kind of compromise. I could go play with Davey at his house, but he couldn’t come to play at mine. That was, until Davey’s mother called once and told Reba Mae that she had to go out for a couple of hours. Would it be okay for Davey to come play with
Danny a little until she got back?
So after that, the play dates were pretty evenly split between Davey’s house and mine. But I always got the Reba Mae Blue Baby Lecture before the kid arrived. I was strongly reminded that Davey wasn’t some ordinary everyday kid. That I had to be gentle with him. No rough-housing, no running, no hitting or tackling and no over-tiring the child of any kind. Did I understand? We’d have to find something quiet to do.
But Davey wasn’t having any of this kind of molly-coddling. He’d come over wearing his dual-pistol Hopalong Cassidy rig and black dimestore cowboy hat, and if I got out the Monopoly game, or checker board, or the Old Maid cards, he’d scoff and whine, “That’s boring!” and insist we play cowboys.  
It was hard not to rough-house with Davey. He was full of life despite his condition, and he had a kind of “come-get-some-if-you’re-so-tough” attitude that egged a fellow on. So I mostly just tried to hold him when he’d come at me with his toy Peacemaker, bent on pistol-whipping me with it, or when he’d rush me like a screaming banshee to try and wrestle me to the ground.
Clearly, I always had the advantage and managed to resist without actually fighting back. But that didn’t always work either. Davey knew when he was being condescended to in our cowboy games and didn’t take kindly to it. He tired easily, so when my holding action got the best of him, he’d sit down on the couch or hassock to catch his breath and then, sweet as could be, he’d say, “Hey, lemme see your hand a sec,” and as soon as you were within snatching range, he’d reach out and grab your wrist in those two spidery, bony little mitts of his and twist the skin back and forth until he managed to give you an incredibly painful “Indian sunburn”—never knew another kid who gave a nastier one. Davey was the Indian sunburn champ.
It was once while he was trying to give me a “sunburn” and I was trying to avoid it that our hands slipped and my fingernails raked across the delicate back of one of his hands, leaving three furrows that suddenly started to ooze blood. At first, I was just fascinated to see that Davey bled just like me, that it wasn’t some strange blue blood that came dribbling like ink from his wounds. This was the genuine article, real red blood.
But then I got scared. I wasn’t even supposed to be playing rough with him, let alone injuring him! Clearly, these were just some minor scratches, but I was worried sick about them. How did I know what even a minor injury could do to a fragile little kid like Davey?
And Reba Mae didn’t make me feel any better. When she brought us each a glass of chocolate milk, she immediately saw the scratches on the back of Davey’s pale little hand and said, “Oh, my gosh, Davey! What happened to your hand?”
“Nothing,” Davey said emphatically. “It was an accident.”
But as soon as he went home, I got a riot-act version of the Blue Baby Lecture. She’d told me to be careful!  Hadn’t she told me that? How in the hell had I managed to hurt that little boy? Was I out of my mind? Wasn’t I ashamed of myself, picking on that poor sick little boy? How did we know how vulnerable he was? Didn’t I realize he might get blood poisoning and die from scratches like that?
I was devastated. I wanted so badly to take it all back, let Davey Indian-sunburn me until my wrist caught fire. Nor was I the kind of kid who could just say, what’s done is done. Nothing I can do about it now. And forgive myself for what was obviously an accident. No. I stewed about it instead, went around feeling like I’d caused a major tragedy. It was hard to go to sleep at night because I kept seeing Davey’s bony white hand with the three scratches across the back of it and wanting to kill myself. And in my mind’s eye, I could see the blood poisoning, the red lines moving through his thin blue veins, away from the scratches and toward his ailing heart. My god! I was a monster!
That happened on a Saturday. On Monday, I saw Davey at school and the scratches were scabbed over like they would be on the hand of any normal kid and during recess, he and I hung out on the playground together as usual and had a great time. Later in the week, I went to his place after school and we raced wild around his house playing cowboys and rough-housing like always until we drove his poor mother crazy and she finally said it was time for me to go home so Davey could do his homework.
We were both nine and still close friends when Davey started missing some school here and there. His mother told mine that they were trying some treatments on him, preparing him for a new kind of operation to correct the sort of problem he had. If it worked, he might be able to end up living a pretty normal life. So toward the end of that year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Davey and I didn’t see much of each other, and finally not at all, as the time for his operation drew near.
My sister Darla and I were busy. Our little brother Jim was still very little, so he was still just enjoying the magic of the holiday season. But Darla and I had saved our allowances to buy Christmas gifts and were raiding the dime stores to see what our budget would allow. And then there were activities at church that we were participating in, rehearsals for the Christmas cantata and the live Nativity and the Christmas pageant, then Christmas vacation from school. And snow to play in and Christmas cookies and candy canes and other treats to be eaten.
I really wasn’t giving any thought to Davey and what was going on in his life. Out of sight, out of mind.
The Sunday before Christmas, I was sent to Sunday school as usual. Christmas was way later in the week that year, if I remember correctly, maybe the following Wednesday or Thursday. And Christmas was about all I could think about. Back then, I loved the Christmas season and reveled in every festive minute of it.
But then Sunday school began and my Christmas joy came crashing down.
“Before we start the class today,” said the teacher, a pious woman in holiday red and green with a matching pillbox hat and half veil, “I want us to take a moment and say a prayer for the soul of little Davey who passed away last week on the operating table in the hospital. Let us pray also for his family, since it will surely be a very sad Christmas for them without him.”
I couldn’t believe my ears! Her words were like high voltage that passed through me from head to toe. I felt dizzy, sick at my stomach. Davey, dead? Kids didn’t die! There must be some mistake.
The class began but I couldn’t hear it, couldn’t concentrate. I sat there with a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes, trying not to cry. I didn’t want to be there in stupid Sunday school class. All I wanted to do was run home and be with Reba Mae.     
At home, my mother sat down beside me before she put the fried chicken, rolls and mashed potatoes on the table for Sunday lunch. She wanted to know how I was doing. I started to cry. She put her arm around me and apologized for not having told me before. “I never thought your dumb-assed Sunday School teacher would open her big mouth. I wonder how many other poor little kids found out that way? I just didn’t know how to tell you and was kind of waiting for the right moment.”
I asked how little kids could die. I was confused, inconsolably sad and scared silly. “Oh you don’t have to worry,” Reba Mae said. “You’re so healthy. All you kids are. Poor little Davey was so, so sick. He was born sick. He never knew anything else. It’s just a shame the operation wasn’t a success.”
But why was he sick, I wanted to know? How could God let that happen? If God was so good, why had Davey died? I had always hated the prayer Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, the part about, “If I should die before I wake...” Why would a kid have to pray that? Dying was for old folks. Kids shouldn’t die!
“Only God can answer that,” Reba Mae said. “But did you ever stop to think that maybe Davey was never supposed to live longer than that? That maybe God just sent him here to learn some little lesson before taking him back home to heaven?”
I wasn’t buying it. What lesson? How to be sick and die? And although I was saying a prayer several times a day for God to “play nice” and not kill me or my brother and sister, or, while He was at it, my mother and father, no matter how much I fawned over God and told Him how much I loved Him and asked Him to please, please, please, protect us and give my family long life and good health, His killing Davey had given me an involuntary picture of Him at the back of my mind as a sort of mean bully with a can of lighter fluid and a box of matches, sitting on the sidewalk lighting up ants (us).
For a year after that, I had trouble sleeping at night and when I did, it was often with nightmares. Including some in which Davey was the protagonist, a luminous presence who came to visit and said nothing but showed me the pale scars on the back of his hand where I had scratched him.
Angel Davey had given me my first taste of death and it wasn’t a terror that was going away any time soon. Suddenly, it was a reality I had to face, an inevitable part of life that, sooner or later, was coming for us all.

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