Like It or Not

The first four things I ever learned about Daniel were apparent within just moments of meeting him on a porch on North Main St. He was friends with Bruce, he played the guitar with passing ease, he had a not-inconsiderable drinking problem, and he could tell a story as easy as breathing. A natural introvert with the gift of gab and for pulling faces, Daniel was often both the life of a party and the first person ready to go home.

One evening years ago I gave him an unanticipated, early ride home from a party Grace and Main threw to celebrate somebody’s first month of sobriety. At that party, Daniel had sneaked away to go get a beer in the restaurant’s bar. As I drove him back to his place on North Main, I was a little irritated to be missing the last of the party, but Daniel was even more so. Maybe it was embarrassment or maybe it was indignation, but he was ready to pick a fight.

“I wish you all loved me like you love Bruce,” he said, half grumbling but meaning for me to hear it. Bruce had been clean and sober for over a year at that point and Daniel had both celebrated and lamented the sobriety of his dear friend and once-drinking-companion.

“We love you just as much, Daniel,” I had insisted, perhaps with more force than I might otherwise have if I hadn’t already been aggravated.

“Well,” he said with a thoughtful pause that became a familiar pattern, “I don’t feel it.” It wasn’t the first time he’d said it and it wouldn’t be the last time. He’d say it again to me as we overlooked the garden months later when he relapsed for the first time. But this time I didn’t respond for a minute or two. I believed what I was saying, but I was aggravated and I had no clear idea how to make somebody feel something.

“Well, we do,” I finally offered to the growing silence before trying to bring the lightest shade of levity to our heavy conversation by continuing, “whether you like it or not.” I’d meant it to be a way of saying that our love for him was unconditional and not built on his own achievements or any kind of merit. Even more, I wanted Daniel to know that while our love might be weak, God’s love was undeniable, inescapable, and perfect. It was a lot to ask one half-joking statement to accomplish, but there was truth to it nonetheless.

I had the privilege of baptizing Daniel not too many weeks after that awkward ride home. Over the years, we’ve learned that recovery is a lot like the vows we make at baptism. Each day, we have a chance to recommit ourselves to our promises and sometimes we simply fail to keep them. Relapse means a chance to try again—something we learned how to do from Daniel. Whenever Daniel relapsed, he did so with a flair for the dramatic. But when he finally entered recovery for the final time, he did it with equal passion and flash. “I asked Jesus to take it away from me, and He did,” Daniel liked to explain when asked how he finally got clean, “I never thought I could be this content without drinking, but I don’t even want to [drink] anymore.” The eagerness with which he had once drank was turned toward prayer and the earnest pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Rarely did I visit Daniel that he didn’t want to talk at length about what God might be calling him to do in the neighborhood. As one of the creators and organizers of the Morning Breakfasts we once did on North Main, Daniel knew that doing good was easier than it seemed and no less possible for him than anyone else.

Daniel moved into Bruce’s hospitality room a little over a year before Bruce would show signs of cancer and then pass quickly. His first day of sobriety was October 22, 2015, a date we celebrated every year following. In the last days of Bruce’s life, Daniel was in the hospital every day to help share in caring for our beloved brother. Where once he had tried to break Bruce’s knees with a baseball bat out of a mix of drunkenness and jealousy, Daniel lifted a spoon to Bruce’s lips in those final days and gathered pictures and cards to hold close enough for Bruce to see. In the months that followed, Daniel took up the mantle of Bruce as caretaker of the house, the Tool Library, and the Urban Farm property not to mention Booboo the cat, whom we may or may not have sneaked into the hospital in those strange days of September 2017.

After a life lived hard and often fast, Daniel started getting sick a little while back. Liver cancer and some other complications meant numerous drives to Charlottesville early in the morning and the occasional hotel stay. Some of these trips were made during COVID-19 lockdowns, making them even more eerie than they might have been otherwise. With remarkably few exceptions, Daniel fell asleep in the car before we could even make it to Blairs. He was always more talkative for the return trip. We’d talk about what he was reading in the Bible or about what we thought heaven was like. We took turns telling stories ranging from reminiscence to the inventive and likely-only-somewhat-true. My favorite stories were his many wild adventures over the years like the time he accidentally hitchhiked to Charleston, West Virginia, when he had meant to go to Charleston, South Carolina; true to form, instead of finding a way home, Daniel just lived in Charleston for a year making him the only person I’ve ever met who accidentally transplanted himself to West Virginia. Inevitably we’d stop somewhere on the way back so he could get a milkshake and our conversation would turn like a homing pigeon toward Bruce for a bit; ice cream still made us both think about Bruce.

When the end of Daniel’s path was approaching, we talked often, and at length, about how he wanted to die at home and how he was ready. His vibrant, genuine faith buoyed him through suffering and struggle while turning his attention to loving others even in those last, most difficult days.

“You know we love you, right?” I asked him one of the last times I saw him. I knew the answer and I didn’t need to confirm it after all these years, but sometimes a question mark does what a period can’t.

“Yes,” Daniel said with that characteristic pause, “I certainly do.” He reached his hand down from his chair and scratched Booboo behind the ears. “I love yall too.” At the end of the path, he felt our love and abided in God’s love. With confidence in the resurrection, with faith in the God who loved him before he was born, and with over five years of sobriety and many more of service to the Kingdom, Daniel passed from this life to the next part of the story on Friday, May 7, 2021. We give thanks for his life and that now he rests from his labors and knows how deeply he is loved in a way that is far beyond words – whether he likes it or not.

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