On November 16, 2009, my young friend and former neighbor, Darrin Z., passed away after battling cancer for over a year. He was ten years old. In the fall of 2008 he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma. Healthcentral.com provides the following description of the condition, which echoes the last year of my little friend’s life with eerie accuracy:
The most common pediatric malignant brain tumor (10-20% of all pediatric brain tumors).
Occurs more frequently in boys than in girls. Peak age is about 5 years old. Most occur before 10 years of age.
Signs include headache, vomiting, uncoordinated movements, and lethargy.
Can spread (metastasize) along the spinal cord.
Surgical removal alone does not cure medulloblastoma. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often used with surgery.
If the cancer returns, it is usually within the first 5 years of therapy.
I first met Darrin six years ago, when my wife and I moved into our current home with our then eighteen-month-old daughter, Grace. Darrin was the middle of three children, and we fast became friends with his parents Dave and Tonia. They were clearly the more executive parents, with two children already in school and a toddler only a few months behind Grace.
From the very beginning, Darrin proved to be an angel, the calmest and most unassuming of all the kids. What I remember most about Darrin is the way he would quietly enter my garage on a sunny weekend afternoon and just “hang out” while I cleaned and tinkered. He didn’t require special attention or entertainment. I don’t remember him ever asking me for anything, though he was most appreciative whenever I brought home Batman or Spiderman coloring books and sound story books from work. (At that time I was Editor-in-Chief of Meredith Books, and we were actively licensing the rights to produce such books as Hollywood churned out super hero sequel after super hero sequel.)
And it was that simple memory of the quiet, unassuming Darrin alive that overwhelmed me at Darrin’s visitation. I’ve been to dozens of visitations and funerals in my life, but never one for a child who didn’t live long enough to become a teenager. I was not prepared for the emotions that would overwhelm me—emotions that were more intense than the ones I’d felt at my own father’s funeral after his battle with cancer. I stood for a long time in front of Darrin’s casket, and for a portion of that time, I stood there arm-in-arm with Darrin’s father, Dave. The two of us, who had stood in our front yards commiserating about money and work and the state of the nations numerous times while our kids rode bikes or played catch (while Darrin ever-vigilantly watched after my little girl Gracie to ensure she didn’t fall on the concrete or wander unknowingly out-of-bounds and into the street), the two of us briefly stood arm-in-arm before Darrin and cried. There wasn’t much to say nor was there much that needed to be said. We were both fathers with sons and daughters. Dave and his wife, Tonia, knew we loved their kids and all that they and their kids had taught us about raising our own children in the three plus years we were neighbors. Now, after an often hopeful but always touch-and-go battle, one of us was gone.
I stood before Darrin for a long time, and finally I prayed for him one last time, as I had prayed for him daily for over a year, every morning, without fail. I stood before him a long time and wondered how, how on God’s green earth, his parents had the strength to stand beside him for hours and greet all of us who had come to pay our respects. I wondered if I would have had the strength to stand there ten minutes if it were the end of my own child’s heroic battle everyone were coming to acknowledge. And Darrin’s battle, with all of its ups and downs, was the kind of heroic that transformed many of us. Never will my own suffering seem so unique after following this little man’s journey as it was so deftly captured by Tonia on her son’s care page.
Before I finally walked away from Darrin for the last time, Tonia walked up beside me and said, simply and frankly, “It’s a journey, Greg. It’s a journey,” as if she’d been reading my mind, as if to offer me a glimpse into the source of her own transcendent strength.
A few days after the visitation, on Saturday evening, I attended a service at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. The church’s pastor, Mike Householder, spoke at length about suffering. As he did I noticed Darrin’s name in the weekly program under the section listing the names of those “for whom we mourn.” A few minutes later, Mike made reference to the R.E.M. song Everybody Hurts and then posed the question that has stuck with me every waking moment since he first uttered it: Is your faith bigger than your suffering? The implicit message being that, if it is, if your faith truly is bigger than your suffering, then there is nothing you and God can’t walk through with dignity and grace—with the knowledge that at the end of the journey, all will be as it should be. Clearly, Dave and Tonia’s faith, like Darrin’s bravery throughout and his refusal to give up until the very end, is and has been bigger than their suffering, and I pray that it remains so in the days ahead.
Good night and good-bye, Sweet Boy. Your journey lives on in all of us who knew you. Because of you, Darrin, and your mom and dad, and your big sister and little brother, and the utter dignity with which you have all faced these trying days, some of us may one day come to know a faith that is bigger than our own suffering.