In what to date remains the worst year of my life, a few people stand out in stark relief. The summer of 1972, my mother relocated to Florida to live closer to my brother who had plans to start college in Sarasota. She found an apartment in a complex that boasted a pool and a clubhouse she hoped would entertain me and I suppose they did. What she didn’t bank on was the rat pack of kids I would run with: kids who smoked cigarettes, apparently unaware how ridiculous thirteen-year-olds looked smoking; kids who rode mini-cycles with the ferocity of hardcore bikers; kids who swore and swaggered yearning to escape the humiliations of adolescence. In that mix, I found Donald, a boy inching toward manhood in his green and black plaid lumberjack shirt, Marlboro rakishly dangling from his lips, sweetness written across his face as visible as the whisper of whisker dreaming its way into fruition. While the other kids liked pranks and listed toward vandalism, Donald simply radiated kindness in his ineffable way.
He was safe and gentle, and unlike Dennis or the other boys awash in hormones, he sought no accommodation from me, the easy mark—the disembodied thirteen-year-old floating outside a body and a narrative so foreign both went unclaimed.
When Dennis shot a songbird for no reason and it fell with a thud at my feet still fluttering its shattered wings, Donald thwacked it with a shovel to spare it from suffering. In that moment I cursed the very maleness to which I had aspired, Donald seemed to notice my horror. Perhaps that occasioned the merciful hoist of the shovel the one afternoon I fled from the pack wanting nothing more to do with them.
My brother never made it to Florida. He died two weeks before the semester began, his Porsche colliding with a tree, erupting in flames. So there we were, my mother, my four-year-old-sister not yet diagnosed with autism, and me—longing to vaporize as quickly as my brother had since I could not bring him back.
It’s no wonder I quit washing my hair and started smoking the Marlboros I hated to inhale. That my grades plummeted surprised my mother but not me. Though I know my mother noticed my unraveling she had her own immeasurable loss to cope with and two daughters to support. Why none of the teachers at my tiny private school didn’t pull me aside and inquire what was going on mystifies me still. But Donald noticed. Later I would come to find he felt as invisible as I did. Perhaps the inconspicuous have a gift for noticing each other. And into that warp of sadness and dissolution Donald wove quiet companionship. Sure, he showed me how to jimmy the cigarette machine so that hardpacks tumbled out— the tobacco jackpot paling in comparison to his outpouring of kindness day after day.
I do not recall the letters I wrote to him after we moved the next summer but I remembered Donald and carried him with me across the decades. Periodically I wondered what had become of him and where he landed in the trajectory of his life. I don’t know what crystallized the moment Saturday night when I carried my Iphone to bed and typed Donald Brenner into Facebook but I felt compelled to find him.
Four men with his name popped up. The first looked nothing like him. The second did. The third was too young and the fourth I didn’t even click on. I sent a message to the second Donald Brenner and by morning he had “messaged” back.
Forty-two years later, he was as pleased to hear from me as I was to find him—because lo, these four decades later, what had felt to each of us like a glass lump deep inside, had appeared to the other as radiant light, shimmering out of a black hole, defiant and divine. Starlight travels for eons to eyes that apprehend it now and such is the journey of kindness—past particles lingering on our fingertips luminous as the sun.