Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
VIGNETTE TWO: ANGEL DAVEY
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
What good was knowing such important things if then you had to keep them
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.