31-year-old Duane Bazeley died in November 2011. Though he was severely disabled, his life affected hundreds of people. In this series of articles, his sister Maureen reflects on the value of her brother's life, why he meant so much to so many, and how he disproved many of our common myths about success and fulfillment.
Myth: "Never show emotions."
Well, Duane begged to differ. When he was mad, the world knew it. If he was done sitting around (church, dinner, graduation, whatever) he let you know with a big "get me out of here" roar that continued till he was acknowledged and whisked out. He didn't really consider our emotions on this one, and whoever was sitting next to him would be hunched over, toes curled in embarrassment. You'd want to shout, "D, is it that bad? Everyone's looking at us!" Once a situation was defused, however, he forgot it. A glass of water, a chance to stretch out some sore muscles, and he was fine. Life was good. (There must be something to a good honest roar. It sure seems to work better than weeks of polite whimpering.)
D's joy was equally expansive, taking up far more space than his thin, crooked, wheelchair-bound body. If he was watching fireworks, he would laugh till he choked. "Breathe, D, breathe!" we'd beg. Then, whoosh...BOOM! the next one lit the sky, and D was off again, his own personal show.
Scale isn't everything; sparklers could be equally entertaining. No substitute for fireworks, you say? Next Fourth of July I'm going to celebrate their hilarity. I'm going to picture his face, and remember his declaration of independence from other people's opinions.
Myth: "Watch your back."
Never trust strangers; they're out to get you. True to form, Duane's operating procedure was just the opposite: Love everyone who wanders across your airspace. Trust them, and when your trust is poorly placed, forgive them, and trust them again.
All of us who loved him let him down. If we forgot that our first task was to be there for him and sense what he couldn't ask for – if we got bogged down in our own issues – we could betray him badly, without even realizing it.
There was a lot of potential for hurt right in his basic living routine. You had to watch not to park him an inch too close to the table. His brakes had to be set, his seat belt always buckled, his transfers from bed to chair done with great gentleness and strength. His eight different medications had to be administered in the right combination at just the right time. Through it all, D was enormously patient about everything. Mom called him noble, and that says it best. Yes, he could holler when he had to, but I have never encountered such grace under fire anywhere else. His forgiveness turned on a dime. You knew that he loved you and trusted you through all the bumps and lurches and things that did not go right.
Jesus says we should all forgive like that, though I've always had a million reasons not to. It's too easy to accumulate one puny grudge after another, unaware of the collective weight. You only notice how heavy they are when they're gone; when forgiveness offers you liberation. Duane couldn't catalog the sins and shortcomings of others. But that didn't make his freedom any less instructive. It was through him that I began to ask myself: If the smallest resentment can weigh you down, what about the big ones?
There were a handful of guys from the National Guard – friends of a friend – at Duane's funeral. Maybe that's what got me thinking of D's life as something militant, in the most peaceful way imaginable. There they stood, tall and erect, shoveling earth into his grave with such respect and dignity – for someone who never could stand, let alone straight. (What does he look like now, wherever he is? I have this image of him throwing his shoulders back, standing to his full six feet, and then, free of that blasted wheelchair, breaking into a joyous sprint.)
Yes, D was a warrior. Not the kind that kills to protect, but the kind that shields others who don't even know they need protection. He's not the only one: there are others deployed around us. Their placement in our lives is not an accident. Anyone the world calls weak, helpless, useless...that's our clue. We'd better take a closer look, because they know something we don't know.
Lisa is a small woman with quiet dignity, a delicious sense of humor, a great heart, and Down Syndrome. When I became her neighbor several years ago, her parents invited me to be her friend. I thought I was looking out for her; she knew it was the other way around. On long winter afternoons, we would sit in her apartment, belting out her favorite songs in two-part harmony – one of her best pastimes. Or baking gingersnaps. Often as not, she'd present them to me afterward, arranged on a plate with a card whose message was customized for the moment, and might include a line from one of her favorite songs: "Dear Maureen these cookies are for you Rejoice in the Lord Always is the song for you to sing love from Lisa."
Such love, unselfconsciously given, is the truest love. And any time spent with someone who has it is rescued time, pulling one's soul, as it does, out of the black hole of the self that always takes, because it's too empty to give. It is also the purest strength, shining as only it can, through perceived weakness, limitation, and inadequacy.
At Duane's graveside, surrounded by over three hundred of his friends, our family was standing amid the flowers and candles under a rare November sun, when another warrior marched up and confidently took his place between my parents. Born with Noonan Syndrome and severely disabled, Alan has been carrying his torch high for fifteen years, so you couldn't pull out any trite phrases about torches being passed to a new generation. But I could almost hear D saying, as a soldier transferred to a higher unit might say to a younger comrade, "Go get 'em, tiger. Crack some more hearts open."
Duane has returned to his Commander, mission more than accomplished.
Time to sign up, soldiers.
This is the final article in the series. Go back to the series listing page.