An unthinkable tragedy ... the death of a child ... puts everything in perspective
Editor's Note: The original version of this column was published more than a decade ago. This past week, it reappeared on social media and several folks subsequently called and asked me to re-run it. It's a story I wish I'd never had to write, but it's also one of my favorites.
Five More Minutes
It's Monday morning at 6:30 a.m.
I am sitting on the edge of my daughter's bed. A beautiful, cotton candy pink sunrise is filtering through the window.
The air is a bit chilly, hinting at the winter to come, but Scout is warm and snug under a mountain of covers. She looks almost angelic, all curled up with the comforter tucked under her chin.
There are savory scents wafting in from the kitchen and I can just make out the pulse of the shower where my son is already washing the sleep from his eyes.
For now, all is peaceful in our house. It's my favorite time of the day: that blessed half-hour or so before everything erupts into chaos as we head to work and school.
It's a feeling I'm sure many parents experience, 30 minutes of peace and quiet before the start of another busy week.
I lean over and gently kiss my daughter on the forehead. She begins to stir ever so slightly and I brush a stray strand or two of golden hair from her eyes.
In as soft a whisper as I can manage, I tell Scout that it's time to get up and get ready for school. Her eyes flutter open for just a split second, then she snuggles even deeper down into her comforter cocoon.
“Please Daddy,” she mumbles, just barely awake. “Just five more minutes...”
These words echo in my own sleepy brain. Suddenly, I'm wide awake, a catch in my throat and a tear forming in my eye. My daughter's innocent words, her plea for just five more minutes of blissful sleep, have stirred a heartbreaking memory.
It's a column I've been working on, one of the toughest I've ever had to write … this column, as a matter of fact.
I wipe my hand across my eyes and tiptoe out of the bedroom. I grab my notebook and settle down on the couch for a bit.
“After all, what's five more minutes,” I ask myself.
The answer comes quickly and bluntly: In some cases, five minutes can be a lifetime.
Todd and Diane Branning sat opposite me at the TWI Sports Desk. It's been nearly a year since their son died in a tragic car accident.
I can still see the pain in their eyes.
“It never gets any easier,” said Todd in a hoarse whisper. “If anything, it's gotten harder for me.”
Danny Branning was as talented a young man as the Maple City has seen in some years. He was a fearless catcher on the baseball diamond and a gunslinging quarterback on the football gridiron.
Danny's toughness was the stuff of local legend. Stingers Coach Chris Grady called him “The Man” because he could play every position on the field.
Freshman football coach Mike Jurkowski recalls Danny shrugging off a badly broken nose, refusing to have surgery until after the season so he wouldn't miss any games.
Honesdale Eagles baseball coach Don Hiller added: “Danny would do whatever I asked of him. I asked him to be a leader on the field and he enthusiastically accepted. Danny always ran. He always dared to battle. He was motivated to be the best he could be and I believe he succeeded in that.”
Danny was undoubtedly a talented athlete. What most remember, though, are his smile and sense of humor.
“He made everyone smile,” Diane said wistfully. “He was everybody's best friend.”
Jess Flynn, another of Honesdale's top young athletes, had a chance to speak at Danny's memorial service. She echoed Diane's thoughts.
“Danny always knew what to say to make you smile Jess said. “No matter what happened, you could always count on him to cheer you up. Danny loved making people laugh and he had a real gift for it.”
His wake was held at Bryant's and was packed with mourners young and old … people from all walks of life who'd been touched by Danny's smile, his laugh, his sense of humor.
Now, I am by nature a pretty empathetic person … even moreso since I became a dad myself. Seeing young Danny lying there in his Hornet football jersey surrounded by his family and friends … well, that was one of the toughest things I've ever had to view.
It's an image I will definitely carry with me for the rest of my life.
This was a young man with an exciting future stretched out in front of him. Danny was supposed to be at the helm of the varsity football team this fall. He was destined to move up the ranks of the baseball team, too
Danny loved the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. Who knows? Perhaps one day he would have donned the pinstripes or strapped on the helmet of America's Team.
As with all youngsters, the future was wide open until the unthinkable happened.
Danny wasn't the best student in the world, but he was good friend and a hell of an athlete. Whatever his failings (and we all have them, especially as teenagers) he should have had another 50 or 60 years to iron them out.
Danny's death left a huge void in many people's lives. His parents hope that somehow something good will eventually emerge from this heartbreaking tragedy.
“God I hope so,” Diane said. “Maybe if just one kid thinks twice about getting into a car with someone at a party...”
Five More Minutes
Earlier in our conversation, Todd and Diane had laughed at the memory of how their son hated getting out of bed.
It was this anecdote that echoed in my mind that morning before school.
Danny used to plead with his parents for “just five more minutes” … exactly the way my daughter does with me now. It's a connection that is both heartbreaking and poignant.
So, do me a favor all you moms and dads out there.
Someday soon, give your sleepy child that extra five minutes under the covers. Use that time to reflect on how precious any amount of time with our children truly is.
After all, you never have the luxury of knowing when those five minutes are up … forever.