Everyone turned to watch 16-year-old Danny Armstrong walk by the barns at last year’s Randolph Fair. With his fingers tucked in the front pockets of his Wranglers, he strode toward his dairy steers. The laid-back smile never left his face, the girls walking on either side giggled when he spoke and he nodded hello to everyone he passed.
“Oh, there goes Danny. He’s such a good kid,” people thought.
At this year’s fair, the picture is the same: Danny smiling and strolling and laughing and wearing that tattered Confederate flag hat.
But now when he walks by with his hands in his pockets and the girls trailing, people whisper, “Poor Danny.”
Danny doesn’t want to start his junior year of high school. The 2003 fair just ended, and those lingering effects of not enough sleep and too much fair food took their toll.
Just as he settles into a routine of early morning chores at his family’s small beef farm in Suffield, then school, evening chores and homework, Danny’s head begins to pound. Motrin and Tylenol take the headaches away at first. But soon nothing can cut through the blinding ache.
He throws up from the pain, he comes home from school every other day. Then it is every day.
A CAT scan confirms what they suspected. A tumor the size of a golf ball rests on his brain.
A surgeon opens Danny’s skull for the first time Nov. 4, 2003.
Danny and his parents, Carol and Jim, wait. And wait and wait. The doctor is late and Danny knows it means bad news. He remembers the doctor’s earlier words. “The worst case is it’s cancerous. We can do chemotherapy and radiation and get through it. We can get through it.”
Danny takes this to heart and gives himself a pep talk. “I’m going to live no matter what. I hope it’s not cancerous, but if it is, I’ll live. I’ll be OK.”
But the doctor comes in smiling. “It’s benign,” he says.
The family hugs, the doctors and nurses hug. And everyone sighs with relief. The worst is behind them.
A week after his surgery, Danny sits at home with his glorified hunting dog, Daisy, tucked under his arm and re-reads every card he’s received. Stacks of them, from family, friends, strangers, second-grade classes.
The women who work with his mom in the local elementary school’s cafeteria, bring casseroles and soup and roasts every night for dinner. Danny smiles and jokes with his best buddies, Kurt and John, and they talk about hunting and fishing and mud and big trucks.
But the next week Danny is back in the hospital, prepped for a surgery the family didn’t expect.
Doctors describe the tumor as an egg. The shell is entangled with nerves and can’t be removed safely. But they still have to get out the “yolk,” the bulk of the tumor. And they didn’t get it all in the first surgery.
Danny and his parents come home from the hospital Thanksgiving Day. The house is empty but it smells warm and festive, a turkey bakes in the oven and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie wait on the counter. Candlelight flickers from the center of the table and six place settings surround it, for Carol, Jim, Danny and the 15-year-old triplets, Marcy, Joe and Cody.
A poem sits nearby.
Along with this dinner we’ve attached a letter,
In hopes that it will make everyone feel better. …
We need to give thanks to our doctors, nurses,
family and friends,
Because without them this situation would
have been harder to mend.
For everyone’s thoughts and their prayers,
It was faith that got us through and the help of
everyone out there. …
We’ve brought this dinner for you to enjoy as a family,
From the Knapps, Titkoes and Hornings, we say,
“Welcome home, Danny!”
Hours later, Danny walks back into Akron Children’s Hospital. Liquid seeps out of his brain and through his incisions, matting the back of his wavy brown hair. The pressure in his head escalates and he thinks it might explode.
Ventricles in the brain usually drain cerebrospinal fluid into the bloodstream. But the fluid around Danny’s brain isn’t draining. Instead it is building up and the liquid needs somewhere to go.
Danny needs a shunt, a flexible tube pushed into his brain that will drain the liquid into his stomach. From there, this liquid will be absorbed into the bloodstream and the pain in his head will end.
Surgeons drill into the right side of his brain and snake the tube through his body.
Doctors assure the family this isn’t an unusual procedure. Danny will be fine.
Vicki Knapp has known the Armstrong family for years. Her son T.J. is friends with the triplets and the parents chat as they shuffle kids from house to house. But that casual friendship changed the day Carol found out about Danny’s tumor. She was going to spend a lot of time at the hospital and asked Vicki to please watch over her family at home.
Take-charge Vicki did more than that. She organized dinners, helped with homework, bought groceries and came to the hospital.
So the morning she hears Danny is in intensive care again, she rushes to the hospital and puts her life on hold.
Infection ravages Danny’s already weakened body. It lives inside the narrow tube, the shunt, connected to his brain. Heavy antibiotics aren’t helping.
This December morning, surgeons insert another shunt. This time it is in the front of his brain, and instead of hiding it within his body, the tube sticks out of his head and drains into a bag at his side.
But all the prodding in his brain, the swelling, the irritation, the nerve damage … it is too much. His expression goes blank, his face falls, his emotions disappear.
Danny’s body lies in that hospital bed. But the rest of him, his personality and his mind, vanishes.
Carol moves into the hospital. She sleeps on a fold-out couch next to her son. She feeds him, pushes his wheelchair, weeps, and monitors his bag of brain fluid.
Country music drones through the radio. The same people come each day.
Doctors close visiting hours to only the closest family and friends so his blood pressure stops skyrocketing.
Christmas passes and Danny doesn’t know it. His friends bring four-wheeling magazines and read to him. They tell him how they’ll take him mudding soon, but he doesn’t respond.
On the rare occasions he talks, he asks for his dog. Carol doesn’t have the heart to tell him Daisy ran away the day after Christmas. And even if she did, he wouldn’t understand or remember.
After Carol’s birthday Jan. 19, the infection is gone, doctors remove the shunt from the front of Danny’s head, and place another shunt in the left side of his brain. This one is permanent and hidden inside his body.
Vicki and Carol and Jim insist Danny will recuperate better at home. He needs stimulation and other people around him and his own bed. He isn’t improving here, maybe he will at home.
Vicki threatens to break him out of the hospital if he has to stay one more night.
At the end of January, they take Danny home. It’s like bringing home a newborn baby.
Danny needs 24-hour care, eating, showering, going to the bathroom. He wakes up every two hours. He needs antibiotics through an IV twice a day. He paces the house in the middle of the night and can’t be consoled. But although it’s like taking care of an infant, Danny is a grown boy. Carol can’t sit him a crib. He’s strong and if he refuses to lie down at bedtime, what can she do?
Like any “new” mom, this schedule takes a toll on Carol. She’s operating in a haze, too. Grandpa Jim Armstrong takes over Monday nights so Carol can sleep a full eight hours, and Vicki stays on weekends.
The whole family takes turns teaching him to do the most everyday things. Forty-eight hours with him seems like two months. It is all about repetition.
“Put the fork to your mouth, Danny. OK, now again. Put the fork to your mouth, Danny.” The same thing for each bite, for every meal.
“Turn to Vicki when she talks to you, Danny. Look at Vicki.” The same thing for each visitor.
“It’s bedtime, Danny. Get in bed and close your eyes. It’s bedtime, Danny.” The same thing each night.
The farm owners where Danny worked over the summer bring soup for supper.
“Here’s Linda. Say ‘hi’ to her, Danny,” Carol says. She takes Danny’s chin and pushes it toward Linda.
Danny’s face remains blank and as soon as Carol lets go of his chin, he diverts his eyes.
Linda and Carol both cry and hug each other. Linda cries because of shock, this boy looks like Danny but he isn’t the boy she knew. And Carol cries because she thinks Danny may have tried to smile.
Everyone goes to West Virginia to visit Carol’s family for Valentine’s Day weekend, and Danny makes eye contact for the first time. They begin to believe what the doctors said all along: Just give it time.
But his emotions start to surface, too. And the first one is anger.
When Carol tells him to look her in the eyes, he lashes out. When she tries to wake him up, he yells and hits.
It isn’t that Danny is frustrated. He isn’t coherent enough to be frustrated. He’s just mad. It’s the only emotion he knows.
Friends and family fill the house every night. They crowd the kitchen, with its apple basket wallpaper and red countertops, and take turns bringing lasagna and hamburgers. They’re loud and they laugh and talk and they stay even when Danny disappears into his room.
And Carol hopes they’ll stay forever because it feels almost normal with the house so alive.
Danny’s school sends a video, and it pans from student to student who each tells Danny how much they miss him. At the end, the vice principal stands before a crowded auditorium in tight jeans and a cut-off shirt and does a miserable karaoke version of Hard Workin’ Man.
Classmates raise money through raffles and hand it over to the Armstrongs. How can Jim and Carol possibly say no when the kids have worked so hard and just need to feel like they’re doing something?
Friends rally around the family. They cry and miss work and stay up late with Danny and neglect their own families.
Carol leans on a nurse from the hospital. The woman isn’t necessarily supposed to keep in contact with Danny. But Carol needs her more than anyone.
Vicki keeps reminding Danny of the neurosurgeon’s promise, “You get better, Danny, and you can take the doctor’s Hummer to Homecoming.” This makes him smile, and Vicki knows if Danny ever gets his hands on that vehicle, he’ll take it mudding with his buddies instead.
Danny never asks about his dog, Daisy. But he stands at the open back door, stares into the yard and waits silently until someone tells him to come back inside.
Another dog, Rebel, a black and white bird dog, sits at his feet. Carol and Jim bought him when Danny came home, hoping he could bond with the puppy. So far, Danny has never acknowledged him.
New moms cherish a baby’s first smile, its first laugh. But these take on a special meaning for Carol. She already knows how beautiful Danny’s smile is, but she just isn’t sure if she’ll ever see it again.
Everyone misses his smile the most. That constant, wide, genuine smile.
April 7, Danny’s birthday, he grins in front of everyone who crowds into the kitchen to celebrate. Carol made a cake and they eat pizza and sloppy Joes and Danny even jokes with his friends.
But Danny’s memory isn’t back. He asks his mom what’s for dinner, and minutes later asks again. He can’t remember how to get to his grandpa’s house. He can’t figure out where he’s been the last few months.
Carol pushes him to go to school for lunch, history and a weightlifting class. He’s been gone for so long, she thinks being at school might stimulate him. At night Carol reads his school work to him because his vision is still blurry.
Danny dreads the checkups at the hospital. He just knows they will find something wrong and keep him there again.
But each time the doctor says the tumor won’t come back and he is fine. Except he isn’t. Danny is fooling everyone.
Yes, Danny does everything his mom taught him. He smiles, looks people in the eyes, eats, socializes. But he does them because he memorized the motions. Danny’s mind still swims in confusion.
Then it is early summer and Danny wakes up. He takes a nap and when he opens his eyes, he remembers. He remembers he’s been in the hospital. He remembers that the woman taking care of him is his mother, and he remembers what the word “mom” means. A haze lifts from his memory, and although he doesn’t remember much of anything from the last five months, he feels awake for the first time.
They all gather around the kitchen table and it is like catching up with an old friend.
Danny asks how many surgeries he’s had. He remembers only the first two, although there were seven. And he asks how long he was in the hospital. But he can’t ask much more because where would he begin? He doesn’t even remember enough to know what pieces might be missing.
So everyone asks him questions instead.
Do you remember Vicki massaging your feet and arms in the hospital? You hated that scented lotion.
Do you remember New Year’s Eve? Your dad wanted you to feel like you were celebrating so he took you down to the hospital parking lot. You could see the fireworks exploding out of Canal Park.
Do you remember going to the Lake High School girls’ basketball tournament? At halftime we walked down to center court and everyone crowded around you.
Do you remember playing those card games? War and 31 and Chase the Ace?
Do you remember playing us in basketball games at the new rec center?
Danny answers “no” to every question. He doesn’t remember any of it. Nor does he remember his birthday party or ever being at school those last few weeks.
He laughs, not sure what to think. It’s like listening to someone else’s life.
His family sits back, astonished. How could his brain have been so manipulated?
Before they can recover, Danny asks, for the first time, “Where’s Daisy?”
Danny worries his neighbors won’t let him work at their farm again this summer, but they do. He comes everyday with that smile shining, but this year he’s nervous. He asks repeatedly if he’s feeding right, and sometimes he skips a chore because he’s afraid he’ll do it wrong.
He picks a 4-H dairy steer and hopes he’ll be ready by August.
Frustration sets in. He gets mad when he forgets something he knows he should remember.
He puts on a St. Vincent-St. Mary T-shirt. “Where did I get this?” he asks his dad. “The basketball team came to see you in the hospital,” Jim reminds his son again.
Danny used to be so confident but that’s missing now.
When he feeds his family’s beef cattle, he likes to have his brother Joe with him. And he prefers to have his buddies nearby in the evenings. He just doesn’t want to be alone.
The word is out that Danny, the real Danny, is back. He goes in for a routine MRI in July, and the doctors and nurses line up to see him. Nurses, ones he doesn’t even remember, cry when they see him smile.
Danny reminds his neurosurgeon of his promise to take the Hummer to Homecoming. In fact, he might already have a date.
And he tells them all they’re like a family to him. He tells them he wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.
His mom says that’s because he doesn’t remember what the last year’s been like.
Danny looks the same this year going into the sale ring at the county fair. His body is healthy again, he wears those same Wranglers, and the young girls eye him from the crowd.
Except now he doubts himself and nerves he never had before surface at the worst times. Like now. His face is white, his smile is a grimace, and a puckered red scar stretches out of his hairline and onto the back of his neck.
He clenches the halter strap, takes a breath and enters the ring.
He makes a circle, then another, exhales, loosens his grip and smiles.
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