Oh oh, Daniel my brother, you are older than meDo you still feel the pain of the scars that won’t heal?Your eyes have died, but you see more than IDaniel you’re a star in the face of the sky
-Bernie Taupin/Elton John
My brother Danny was eight years older than I am.
Random memory—we are “sword fighting” in the front yard of our childhood home using Whiffle Ball bats, pretending we are swashbucklers from the days of the Three Musketeers. With one hand on hip, we thrust and parry across the yard and down an embankment. Unbeknownst to us, buried in that embankment is a wasps’ nest, which we step on. Wasps don’t like that.
Hundreds of the winged devils fly out and a large brown cloud of evil surrounds us. My brother, being 16, has the good sense to bolt and step inside the nearby open garage door. Being 8, I stand there like a dolt as the wasps repeatedly sting me and I scream like a banshee.
“Get in here!” my brother yells, but I remain frozen in fear as the wasps continue to take out their wrath on me. Stepping from the safety of the garage, Danny grabs me by the arm and yanks me inside. I sob and shake—in so much pain.
I had no real allergies to bee stings, but I was stung so many times that my parents thought it best to take me to the ER…just in case. The doctor said I was fine, but just barely. I had been stung more than 20 times, they said. But if the wasp onslaught had been allowed to continue, I could have been in serious trouble. My big brother had risked his own well-being and rescued me. That sort of selfless behavior is not something you normally see in 16-year-olds. But looking out for me would be something he would continue to do for the rest of his life.
I don’t know if he remembered that wasp story. He passed away on Nov. 7, so I won’t get the chance to ask.
Danny had battled a litany of diseases for a long time—Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure. Unlike the wasps, he couldn’t outsmart them.
Even though we were separated in age by nearly decade, we remained close. In the early ’90s, I moved to L.A. but we chatted on the phone several times a month, so we could keep up with each other’s lives. I came back East every Christmas, so I always spent the holiday with him and his family.
We weren’t just brothers—we were friends, despite some very perceptible differences that became more and more apparent as we got older. He was a Republican, I am a Democrat—but since he loathed discussing politics it seldom came up. He was a diehard Yankee fan and I am a bleed-blue-and-orange Met fan. He did love to talk baseball, so in that milieu I was frequently mocked. He was sensible and pragmatic; I am idealistic—more of a dreamer. In high school, he was a star on the football field; I found success playing baseball. In high school, his nickname was H.D., which stood for Handsome Devil. My nickname was, er, not that.
But we did find common ground. We were both huge New York Giants fans and some of my fondest memories are watching the Giants’ last two Super Bowl victories over the New England Patriots with him. Our victory celebrations were placid and laid-back. We had mellowed over the years. Back in the day, Danny used to put his face inches from the TV screen and loudly berate the coaches, the players, the refs, the announcers, the cheerleaders, the commercials—whoever or whatever was the target of his ire.
Danny, like me, did not suffer fools lightly. He had no time for nonsense when there was a job to be done. Back in the ’80s, he decided to run for school board, simply because he had an altruistic nature and thought it would be a good way to contribute to the community. He was blissfully unaware of the malicious backroom scheming that could take place, or the critical vitriol often spewed forth by the school district constituents. He finished his one and only term, got out and did not look back.
Instead, he found that the best way to give back was through his love of sports. He became a coach. He coached Little League for 11 years and founded the Pawling Youth Basketball League. Even though he couldn’t skate, he became a Youth Hockey coach because his son wanted to play. He did that for nine years and now his son, my nephew, continues in his father’s footsteps as a coach. Danny also coached youth soccer—a sport he knew absolutely nothing about and once told me that it was like “trying to herd kittens.”
For some of these coaching jobs, especially hockey, he would have to get up before dawn and drive hundreds of miles in sometimes dubious weather. While I found that concept appalling, he couldn’t think of anything he’d rather do more.
But that was Danny—always looking out, even for his little bro. It started with the wasps. A few years later, he got me my first real job—a bank teller. He was vice president of the National Bank of Pawling (now Key Bank) and hooked me up with the position, working summers, after school and on Saturdays.
I was a terrible bank teller. Just awful. I knew it. He knew it. His bosses knew it. But they let me muddle through because I was Danny’s little brother and they loved Danny.
After I graduated college and was back home, he invited to me to join his summer men’s slo-pitch softball team. I was much younger than all of my teammates, so it could have been intimidating. But it wasn’t. Because of Dan, they all embraced me and made me one of them.
But it wasn’t just me he impacted. At his funeral, you could see first-hand the lives he had touched. Our 90-year-old aunt (my dad’s sister) came down with her son all the way from Malone (a town right on the New York/Canadian border 300 miles from here). Cousins from Virginia and North Carolina surprised us by making the trek, even though they hadn’t seen Danny in 20 years.
Danny had attended the University of Rhode Island on a football scholarship and became a member of the fraternity Phi Gamma Delta. He didn’t graduate from URI—an injury took away his scholarship and he was only there a couple of years. But through the decades, he would frequently regale us with hysterical tales of his exploits with his frat brothers, many of whom he kept in touch with all this time.
At his funeral, five of those fraternity brothers showed up, coming from places as far away as Tennessee and Massachusetts. They had met Danny 50 years ago and spent just four semesters with him, but he had remained a part of their hearts’ neighborhood. They had to come and say goodbye.
“Danny didn’t make acquaintances,” one of them told me. “He made friends.”
I am so grateful I got to be one of them.