Remembering Dan B

The objective connection between Danny and me is that we are stepbrothers: his father and my mother were married to each other for over 40 years. They met when both were employed at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

When I first met him, I was 13 and Dan was 17. Those days were very much the latter phase of the 1960s, culturally speaking. I was then (already) keenly interested in doing drugs and being cool. Dan was the embodiment of all that I aspired to: a cool hippie dude. Complete with long hair, beard, and musical abilities, he was what we used to call “far out” without irony. He was like an older brother and I attached to him immediately.

Our relationship was episodic. For a time in the 1970s we lived together — indeed, in the same room — in La Serena, Chile, where his father directed the Cerro Tololo observatory. In 1982-1983, we happened to overlap again in Tucson when I was graduate student in guitar at the University. After that phase, we would cross paths from time to time owing to the family connection. He showed up for the wedding festivities when I got married (the first of two times) in Puerto Rico in 1994. A few times we coincided while visiting his dad’s/my mom’s home in La Serena and later in Vero Beach, Florida.

Danny was what’s known as a survivor. Of course the past tense is appropriate here — he survived until he didn’t, and if he were here now he’d probably laugh at some grim joke along those lines. But my point is that he overcame some fantastically bad breaks. He was dealt a shitty hand, with mother and brother both suffering from severe mental illnesses and a sister that was… kind of strange, if I may be forgiven for saying so. His dad, my stepdad, was remarkable: an accomplished astronomer and unfailingly loving and generous person. Except that he didn’t much care for dealing straight on with the interpersonal — not an uncommon characteristic, especially among men, especially men of his generation. So he took off for Washington D.C. to take the job at the Naval Observatory, and left Danny at age 15 to deal alone with his profoundly dysfunctional family. And deal with it he did. He got through all that and more, and led a life doing a great many interesting things that he wanted to do, rich in relationships with interesting people.

Truth be told, most of my memories of the times I spent with him are pretty banal, but entirely pleasant. There was good chemistry among our parents and us, and we enjoyed many a happy evening as a merry quartet, eating and drinking well and enjoying lots of long hard laughs. I have a mental picture from one afternoon at a beach in Chile. We waded into the surf and threw a frisbee back and forth, making heroic diving catches of errant throws — the sort of maneuver you might expect from a serious baseball player — but falling painlessly into the water instead of hitting the ground. It was funny, really funny in a physical-comedic way that’s impossible to describe. I have a vivid image of him emerging from the water after one those moves, laughing, laughing…

Now this is part where I make my presentation more compelling by choking up and shedding a tear or two. Note to Danny: that’s another laugh line I think you’d have found amusing.

And now I recover and continue with another fun memory, probably from that same period of time when we spent a couple of weeks in La Serena. We played several games of chess, winning and losing more or less evenly. It was the last night — one of us, I forget who, was traveling back to the U.S. the next morning. So we sat down for a final chess game and abused a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Creme, of all things. That isn’t a very high-alcohol drink and we were both fairly robust drinkers, so we got a little silly but not excessively drunk. The laughter, conversation and chess lasted through the night. The game finally ended in a draw, an outcome that pleased us both.

It is common to canonize people when they die, but there’s no need for that here. Dan definitely had his peculiarities, as do we all in one form or another. He was also a truly extraordinary person, talented and intelligent in a multiplicity of ways, an independent and original thinker, with a sense of humor surpassed by no one. Cliché though it sounds, he lived a full life. But he also did an exceptionally courageous job of dying, from what I can tell. One thing I regret about not attending his memorial in person is not being able to hear more about this from those who were with him at the end. He went out with equanimity, dignity and grace. At times like these I like to quip that dying is so very fashionable. Everyone does it! Those who have not done it yet will get their chance in due course. When my great moment comes I hope to emulate his example.

There is a powerful line in a novel by the writer Haruki Murakami, where two of his characters are in the presence of another who has just died. It reads: he had just accomplished the profound, personal feat of dying.

Good bye, brother Dan. You have accomplished the profound, personal feat of dying.