I had the pleasure of spending a little time with Harold and Phyllis Anderson a couple of weeks ago as they showed me their marvelous year-round Christmas tree. The tree, which they leave on display all through the year, is filled with ornaments that mark virtually every holiday, plus many memories of their friends, neighbors and family.
It was natural that I would think about Denny.
Denny was Harold and Phyllis’ eldest son. He died a couple of years ago, leaving a hole in their lives and the lives of all of us who knew him.
Denny was a special guy.
Now, often enough, the word “special” is reserved for folks with special needs because of certain disabilities. And though Denny did deal with those kinds of issues, that’s not why I think of him that way. Denny was special because of who he was and how he became an important part of the life of my hometown.
He was one of my oldest friends, stretching back to the days when our mothers would visit over coffee when we were little kids. We remained friends over the years, despite the fact our lives went in different directions. If you met him, you might think, “Wow, that guy has a lot of challenges going on in his life,” and he did. It was the way he dealt with them that made him the man he was.
We tend to measure a man’s worth based on things that aren’t really all that worthwhile. Things like wealth and possessions and job titles. Denny chose friendship, loyalty, determination and wisdom.
He really was everybody’s friend. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was keenly interested in what went on in Galva, and kept himself abreast of all the latest news. “Denny told me” became a signature of authenticity, as everyone knew that Denny truly knew what was going on around town.
He was loyal, especially to his town, his school and its sports teams. I remember giving him a ride home from an out-of-town football game one night. This was a few years after Galva had achieved some great, state-ranked success on the football field, and Denny remained positive despite the fact the Wildcats were in the midst of a so-so season. I was feeling kind of irritable, as one of my sons’ teams had suffered another tough loss.
“Do you think we’ll go all the way this year?” Denny asked.
I was about to respond with something kind of sarcastic when it struck me how much more valuable his eternal optimism was than my short-sided grumpiness.
“I guess you never know, Denny,” I finally said, while feeling more than a little guilty about the foolish, negative thoughts I had been harboring.
His determination was legendary. Born in a time when many handicapped people were more or less swept aside, he, with an enormous amount of love and support from his parents, lived and worked independently, living in his own apartment and tooling around town on his famed three-wheeled bike, while managing his own Amway business, plus working at Abilities Plus and the Kewanee Pizza Hut. The life he led was truly a tribute to the work his parents and others put in to create a working education plan for him well before “special education” was a part of everyday academics.
But most of all, Denny was wise. His life couldn’t have always been easy. There had to have been times of frustration, pain and, even sorrow at the limitations and challenges he dealt with. But instead of choosing to resent the hand he had been dealt, he enjoyed a deep Christian faith in a loving God who would always be at his side.
It was a choice that would serve him well.
When I heard Denny had been diagnosed with cancer, my first thoughts were of how he would deal with the many trials that would face him. With cancer, there are many complex decisions to be made. And often, cancer treatments can be as bad, or worse, even, than the disease itself.
“Will he understand what’s happening to him?” I wondered. “Will he know what to do?”
Denny dealt with it all with great courage. He endured the pain of the disease, its treatments and outcomes for as long as it was reasonable to do so. And when the time came when a final decision had to be made to end treatment and live out his days on his own terms, he did that, too.
They say he died peacefully, and I believe he did. After all, he died knowing that he was soon to be fully united with a loving savior. And he had the faith--and wisdom--to know he was heading for a warm, wonderful place where all men are friendly, loyal, determined and wise.
Just like my friend, Denny.