"His bravery was the kind you hear about in wars..."
A nice snow last night. Was up early this morning to take a peek. My daughter had to work at 10am so I wanted to clear the driveway and clean off her car. Dad-daughter stuff.
It was the light, fluffy kind. No need to fire up the snow-blower. Overkill. So, grab a shovel and push. What falls over the shovel's sides is for the next pass. And the next. Eventually you get it all. It was ankle deep. Maybe a bit deeper when I swept off the car with a broom. I was in no hurry. My office was 20 feet away. In the basement. My commute is navigating the cat under my feet as I make it down 12 steps. It's where I've spend 1/3 of my life the last 2+ years. A cocoon. A bunker. A cell. An insane asylum. Pick one.
It was first light, and nobody was about. I had on the sweat pants I slept in, and a pair of untied boots, and I kept stepping on the laces and nearly pitching over the shovel. I was making the only sounds. There was no wind....so the chill was almost welcomed after oh-so-many days under climate-controlled conditions. Every breath was crisp and clear and my sleepiness was gone in an instant. The clouds still ruled, but you could sense the sun, finally, behind them. It was only a matter of time. The plows had been out, so my daughter's drive to work would be ok. Good deal. It's a good neighborhood that way. Friendly enough. People who drive by the house and see you out will wave, even if you don't know who they are. I like that. There's lots wrong with the world, but too often we don't even notice what's right anymore. I mean....we take for granted that we wake up to clear streets after a good snow, instead of wanting to thank the guys and girls who made it so. I wonder what made us this way?
My girls were inside sleeping. I stood in the driveway and imagined myself a sentry, keeping the crazies of the world away from them. Marching back and forth. Shovel on my shoulder. Safe from yet another storm. On duty, always. If they spied me at that moment, decade old Pittsburgh Steeler cap pulled tight over my ears, my 2X sized pants constantly needing to be pulled up, wildly unshaven, untied boots a major safety hazard, stopping occasionally to gaze at the sky, or a pretty tree, or the mountains, or to make a snow angel, or catch a flake on my tongue like Linus....they might have gotten the wrong idea. But then again, they know me by now. So probably not. They would have laughed and gone back to bed. Feeling safe. My mission accomplished.
All I think about is them. All my wishes are for them. All my worries.
Fathers and Mothers and Daughters and Sons.
We’re little self-contained armies. That’s what we are.
A few hours earlier I was alone. And I had a good cry. Because one of those armies had lost a terrible battle.
Photo: Keith and Nathan. Drawing by Jay Luke
And NEPA lost a warrior. Nathan Gray, widely known as "Nathan the Super Hero". Nathan was 8 years old, and fought savagely against cancer for well more than half his life. My friend Keith Perks introduced me to him and his family back in 2020. Keith was putting an online photo montage together for Nathan, and asked if I had any music for it. I was in the midst of making a record with my friend Bret Alexander, so we paused and came up with a song. Nathan and his family loved it, and immediately reached out with thanks. I'd been following this kid for a while by then. His Mom kept a Facebook community of friends updated, and her reports filled us with awe. One of the lines in our song said Nathan was "stronger than a Steamtown train". It wasn't hyperbole. Well over 200 rounds of chemo. Twenty-six surgeries. Thirty-three days of radiation. He was referred to hospice care on 3 separate occasions. Doctor's could never explain how he was functioning, let alone strong enough to stay up until 2am this past New Year's Eve playing cards with his family. They settled for "well....he's Nathan". His bravery was the kind you hear about in wars.
He spent so much time in and out of hospitals. To and fro. Near and far. Whenever he'd hear another child crying, he'd bless himself and say a prayer. His empathy for others was bottomless. He was way more mature and world-weary than any child should have to be.
I was honored to meet Nathan and his family in person once. There was a large outdoor benefit for him in the early fall of 2020. Me and my youngest daughter went down. Hundreds were there. We snapped on our "Superheroes for Nathan" bracelets. (I've never taken it off since) He smiled shyly when I introduced myself....that was all I could get out of him. I met his Mom and Dad, both of whom possess a type of quiet dignity and grace that is hard to put into words. They were as strong as he was, because they had to be. They thanked me again for the song. I thanked them. It was an honor to be in the presence of this little man and his family. His big brother. His little sister. It seemed the entire valley was there for Nathan. NEPA is a lot of things. Not all good. But Nathan brought out our better angels. I was proud to call this place home that day. And I still am. A GoFundMe to help the family with funeral expenses has already raised well over $13k. It was started this morning.
Yesterday Keith called me with the news. I shouldn't have been shocked, but I was. If miracles were real, I held out hope that one had been put aside for Nathan the Super Hero.
I don't think I'm feeling any differently than hundreds of others right now. This "little boy from a south side street" (as the song said) pierced our hearts. And those hearts ache for his family right now.
It seemed a little darker a little earlier yesterday. Didn’t it?
We all hugged our own children a little tighter last night. And maybe snuck in a few more tears.
One little boy made a HUGE footprint around here.
So many will never forget him.
In a bit..