By David Baumann

Daniel Morris’s mother and I, unknown to each other, worked out the date when her son would be gone from the world for the same number of days he was in it. That date is March 29, 2011. Daniel died on June 18, 1993, at the age of 17. As she and I commemorate that date and remember, it seems a good time to share this story with a wider audience.

Dan became remarkably popular as he grew. He was almost always present at the dances, parties, and concerts which comprise a part of the lives of teenagers. It is the springtime of life, when young people strive for independence, a time of developing a vision of what the world should be like and finding their place in it. They enjoy the open spaces of youth, abundantly filled with excitement and health.

Dan played football. During 1990, when he took the field with his teammates, he realized that he was more sluggish than he ought to have been, and he did not have the endurance he expected. A few weeks after his 15th birthday his parents took him for a medical examination. After some tests, he was diagnosed with leukemia. After a few months of treatment, his leukemia went into complete remission. He was once again strong and healthy.

At one point, his mother spoke to me about making a gift to the church as a thank -offering for Dan’s continuing remission and recovery. The plans were quietly dropped when his symptoms returned the following month. The next day it was confirmed that his leukemia had returned, more than two years since he had gone into remission.

Each time he went into the hospital, and occasionally when he was sick at home, I came to visit Daniel him and bring him Holy Communion. We talked about faith and illness and suffering and God’s love. Dan quickly grasped the difficult but powerful reality that in suffering of any kind the loving presence of God can come in a unique way. He actively sought the light in the time of his darkness. I was constantly amazed at his growth in wisdom and even sanctity.

Now and then, in the hours after school had been dismissed, there came a knock at my office door, where I was working. Dan would be there alone, and ask, “May I go into the church?” More than once, when I closed down the office at the end of the day, Dan would still be there, with the lights off and the interior of the church naturally illuminated by the rays of the declining sun coming through the large window over the west doors. One can only conjecture if he ever pictured a day when his casket might be placed there.

From the conversations he and I shared, it became abundantly clear to me that the seriousness of his illness inspired and nurtured a profound, almost mystical, faith in him. I became awed as his knowledge of God grew to astounding measure. As the light grew in him, it illuminated others – most especially his friends. Though Dan did not set out to talk about God to others as a mission in life, his attitude was a convincing testimony to the faith that was growing in him with astonishing rapidity. During his last weeks, it was Dan’s expressed wish that his friends would come to know the peace and truth which God had given him. His best friend, Jon, said that the faith of many was strengthened by Dan’s attitude.

His ordeal brought their entire high school community closer together. As I came to know and observe them, the maturity and faith of all the young people was supremely moving to me. It is easy to find news of gang violence, drug use, and pregnancy among today’s teenagers, but there is also immense, impressive, unselfconscious goodness, not far from the surface.

In the young people who are Dan’s friends I saw tenderness, compassion, humility, wisdom, unsullied idealism, empathy, love of beauty, and a capability to endure loss and make sacrifice. These qualities in the young are surely almost always underestimated.

As Dan grew in his understanding of mature Christian commitment, he conformed his interests and lifestyle more and more in accordance with Christian profession. On one occasion when he was in the hospital, he asked his friends to go to his room at his home and remove and destroy certain posters and compact discs, as he had concluded that they were incompatible with his relationship with Christ. His conviction on the matter was strong enough in him that he could not wait until he got home himself to perform the task; once the direction had become clear to him, it had to be acted on right away. He felt that to delay was to move away from God.

His innate kindness deepened as his illness progressed. Although he looked and talked and acted in an ordinary way, there gradually grew around him an aura of what I can only call holiness. He had always drawn people of all kinds to him as a magnet draws iron, but in his last months this quality increased dramatically. The small children in the cancer ward at the hospital were glad to see Dan whenever he was admitted. He spoke gently to them and often held their hands when they needed injections. A number of the nurses bonded with Dan; one even came in to see him on her days off, and occasionally joined in the family prayers by his bedside when I was present.

One night, in the presence of his mother — who, as usual, was staying overnight — Dan’s heart suddenly stopped. It took 45 minutes to get it started again. By that time, his brain had lacked oxygen for so long that it was severely damaged, and he was in a coma. He was moved to the intensive care unit and kept alive on a respirator. The following morning, I was called to administer the last rites. Three days later, I was called again and asked to be present for the termination of the life support system and to offer prayers for the dying. The time of Dan’s departure was at hand.

When I arrived at the hospital, I was stunned to see that between 100 and 150 young people were present on about four hours’ notice. The Morrises had informed a few of Dan’s closest friends, and within the short space of time, many dozens of telephone calls had been made. Wherever they were, all these teenagers had dropped what they were doing and hastened to the hospital. Dan’s friends filled the hallways of the entire floor, standing in lines, sitting in groups, and taking turns going to his room. It was a moving and impressive testimony to Dan; more than that, it was a stirring example of loyalty and dedication of the teenagers, most of whom were probably experiencing for the first time the death of someone they loved.

After the respirator was removed, Dan lived for a few minutes short of 24 hours. His parents, a few people from the church, and a few of his friends were present when he died. His mother told me: “The moment of his death was miraculous to behold, and I was standing over him to see it. He opened his eyes for the first time in five days. There was wonder and amazement in his eyes, and his face had the biggest grin you can possibly imagine, like someone realizing that they have actually won the lottery, or something else totally unbelievable. His breathing stopped then. It was truly a moment never to be forgotten.”

In all the unrelenting turmoil in the Church and world, I remember that the saints of God lived in such times as these. I feel immensely privileged to have known one of them.

The Rev. Canon David M. Baumann, SSC, is rector of Blessed Sacrament Church, Placentia, California. This article was first published in the March 27, 2011 issue of The Living Church.