PLATTSBURGHI first met Dayl Willette 16 years ago in Plattsburgh, New York. I owned a small business in town and he worked at one of New York's largest maximum-security correctional facilities, famous for housing convicts like Charles "Lucky" Luciano (a founder of the mafia in America), Tupac Shakur (the doomed rapper), and serial killers Joel Rifkin, and David Berkowitz (the "Son of Sam" murderer) among many, many others.
DANNEMORAThe social ecology of prison life dictates that guards and prisoners necessarily hold one another with a wary and suspicious eye, with good reason from both perspectives. A prison is almost by definition, a tense and hostile place to work or live, but the pay is good for the locals and the benefits are great, so there is no shortage of applicants for the civil appointments when they are available.
Young men raised in the rural and sparsely populated areas of upstate New York find it difficult to find comparable positions without leaving the small towns where they grow up. Family connections run deep in such places, and the values instilled would be familiar to those that built the 60 foot concrete walls of "Dannemora" over a hundred and forty-two years ago. Work hard, play fair, pay your bills, do right by your family and be a good neighbor; pretty solid Americana, and useful stuff for a state government seeking to man a civil administration capable of housing 2,700 inmates.
So Dayl Willette worked in a prison, as a guard.
A CHANCE MEETINGPeople have two good eyes generally, and I kept both of mine wide open most of the time. I see what I see. We are also equipped with two kidneys, and many other serviceable parts that are not paired; back then, all of Dayl's parts functioned perfectly well as did my own.
So with my goodwideopeneyes I took note of Dayl Willette, whom I first became acquainted with from an intermittent friend who knew him and pronounced him a "really nice guy". I knew nothing about him, so I was open to the possibility of his being a "nice guy". It was of little consequence to me; I saw him infrequently, mostly at night spots populated by locals on the prowl.
Plattsburgh, New York, is a small college town where the weekend social life consists largely of carousing around familiar clubs. One Saturday night I saw, not Dayl Willette, but two very pretty women, obviously from Canada dancing in my favorite dew-drop-in. One in particular caught my attention and I decided to meet her. I did what was necessary to make that happen, and was invited to sit with her briefly and she introduced me to her companions between dances.
Dayl Willette sat at the table across from me with this stunningly beautiful young woman who spoke no English but communicated warmth and laughter through the two aforementioned, generally available, two good eyes that people have, which in this case, were huge and brown.
I left after a few moments suitably impressed both by the stylish ladies, and also by Dayl Willette's apparent verve for the French language; I was certain this must have played a role in his gaining the attention of such an attractive young woman.
INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONSPlattsburgh's proximity to the Canadian border assures a lively international exchange with French speaking "Québécois" mostly from nearby Montreal. The locals do not generally bother to learn French to facilitate interactions, so Quebecers acquiesce to the need to speak English to the Americans. The young woman did not, in this instance, speak English to me or to others, instead she had her good friend interpret for her in our brief interaction. It was a good show all around, pretty women and prowling men in a small town on a Saturday night.
Dayl had made an impression on this girl in a most positive way. I figured he obviously spoke French, and spoke it very well. I later found that Dayl could drawl a barely legible "bonjoor" and this only with the help of a tape machineand the beautiful young black girl from Quebec/Haiti spoke no English at all. They had been conversing on the phone with the help of an international dictionary for some 6 months or more, inspired by a force beyond reckoning to communicate the yearning of their hearts and souls desire.
The important part for me was I had acquired the phone number of the woman I meant to meet that night and I called her as soon as possible. Her name was Carol, and her best friend was Caroline. Carol was warm, voluptuous, and serene in the manner of Juliette Binoche and I next met her at Dayl's house.
HOMELIFEDayl lives in a modest but very nice, three bedroom, end of cul-de-sac, one story, clapboard affair on the edge of town. I visited his home for the first time on a Sunday afternoon. Carol was there visiting, and was gracious, charming and attractive, and her friends were as nice as I had been told they would be. As I began to learn more about them I knew these were special people.
Caroline was as pretty as she seemed that first night, and Dayl was a straightforward friendly man with clear eyes and a gentle manner. He played hockey and was one of 13 siblings. His brother Daryl, also lived with him. He had been hurt in a car accident, which injured him badly enough to permanently confine him to a wheel chair. Dayl had outfitted his house with an accessibility ramp to facilitate egress. Daryl was a computer expert, and a friendly man who shared his knowledge generously.
Carol had a son, about nine months old. Dayl held the little boy like a father himself, unembarrassed and affectionate, he looked like a Gerber dad ready to change a diaper or dry a tear while accommodating a new guest with football small talk. As I relaxed in his house I became aware of details and particulars that fleshed out my impressions of the brothers Willette and the sisters-in-arms, Carol and Caroline.
CHARACTERDayl is a local, born and raised in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains; he comes from a very large familyhe has not traveled widely and he is not especially opinionated, although he developed strong views about what is right and wrong. He is a union member, a self-reliant guy and someone that friends count on. He is easy going around strangers and keeps an immaculate, large back yard. In a word, he's a "citizen", but like others we sometimes misjudge for various reasons, he is not a streotypical anything. He is not a judgemental person. Daryl (his brother) was also easy going, friendly, and exhibited no overt bitterness about the terrible consequences of the accident that had left his legs paralyzed. He wasn't unaffected of course, but seemed accepting of the cards fate had dealt him. He was stoic in an admirable way. So it was an interesting group I met, and at the center of it all was Dayl Willette. These introductions were to lead to friendships, mutual, long lasting, supportive and respectful.
As a host Dayl offered simple comments here and there, a beer or a smile where needed or appropriate and a relaxed living room that overlooked the pine and oak trees of his large back yard. I felt I already knew these people.
FAMILYOver the next six months I visited the cul de sac house often, whenever Carol came to town to visit in fact, and sometimes even when she didn't. Caroline and Dayl had opened their world to me completely and became my surrogate family. When they married the next year I came to their house even more often. Caroline had begun to learn English. Carol moved to Georgia, and Daryl moved out. Dayl and Caroline began planning for their family; soon their first daughter, Sarah arrived. After a couple of years their second daughter Jamyla was born. Pets of all kinds began to appear, Kals their first dog, had to make room for Bennie Boy the cat, then Fluffy the cat, then hamsters and ferrets and rabbits and more dogs on and on until the place was filled with furry somethings of one kind or another all basking in the love and indulgence of the family Willette.
Caroline is Catholic, so her daughters were christened into the faith, with magnificent little white gowns, holy oil, videos and photos and anointings amidst the gathering of their growing circle of friends from the little town. Catholic school followed; Dayl's big, neat, back yard began to grow playhouses, pools, trampolines and assorted swing sets. Christmas was always special of course; so were Thanksgivings and birthdays and all the assorted holidays which produced pictures for their walls and mantles. Dayl still worked at the prison, a swing shift, and Jamyla would stay up as long as she could to make sure she could see her dad off for the night. The cats planted themselves squarely on his lap whenever he took time off to visit with his friends in the living room. After 13 years I heard him first mention retiring one day and perhaps moving to the warmer climes of the Island where Caroline was born.
HAITIThey visited her native country several times. Haiti is a complicated place, with a rich history, a storied past and a desperate economic situation. Caroline's extended family came to know and love Dayl too. They visited the magnificent beaches of Haiti, and the carnivals and fairs of upstate New York; they shared dinners and family stories with the extended family of 12 siblings on one side and 5 on the other. The family bonds were welded tight and sure, in the ways of small town America and first generation immigrants.
They had a few desperate moments too. Their car was hit by a large truck. They escaped with serious but non-life threatening injuries. Another time, while visiting Haiti, thugs accosted and surrounded them, terrorizing Caroline and her sister as they placed guns against Dayl's head and threatened to shoot him. I learned about this incident years later, because Dayl doesn't talk about himself much. He is not the kind of man to cast a spotlight on events in his life. He did talk more and more about the coming retirement though, and what he might choose to do as that possibility got closer and closer. I left Plattsburgh and moved to Las Vegas. I visited from time to time when I could and often stayed with the family when I did so. More years passed and the kids became ice skaters, ballerinas, actresses, musicians and all the other wonderful things that childhood allows.
Dayl aged well. He never gained weight like so many of us do as he got older. He kept his pleasant disposition, but he did begin to tire more easily. I spoke to him less frequently; I still lived in Las Vegas, but on trips home I stayed at his house. He still worked on his yard, visited amiably and took joy in his children. But he looked pale, and sometime in the fall of 2005 I first began to comprehend something about Dayl's serious hereditary condition, a certain progressive form of PDK that attacks and eventually renders the kidneys useless. I was stunned to learn it was an imminent threat; I remembered being vaguely aware of something that might happen sometime in the distant future, and like many other terrible eventualities it could be life changing, but I put it out of my mind, (and Dayl never brought it up). Then in 2006 I first heard of the possibility of dialysis, a term that clarified the suspicion that something ominous, serious and threatening was entering center stage in my friends lives.
A SERIOUS MATTER
I looked up the term "dialysis" on-line and became aware of the implications and the hope that the treatment offered. Dayl was five months from retiring, then four, three, and... finally it was here, he did it. For service of 25 years on the job, he earned a pension, and the hope of spending more time with his family, and perhaps traveling beyond the mountains of his youth, seeing the rest of the country.
But then everything changed. He started kidney dialysis treatments five days after his retirement.
HOPEI now know how lucky he is; people born with this condition a generation earlier had no hope. Science and technology have come a long way. A miracle really, but still, there is always hope for something better. He spends three hours at the local dialysis center twice a week. There is time to think, sitting in the chair as his blood enters the machine that cleanses it and returns it to the catheter implanted in his chest. He feels better after each treatment, but as the week goes on he becomes more tired again until the next visit. I asked Dayl how he feels about it:
ACTIONThis is about my friend, Dayl Willette, and his family. You probably know of someone else that has the disease. Please read more about what can be done and consider the benefits of becoming a doner, there are many wrongs to be righted in life of course, and many courses of action have merit. This one is easy enough, though, being a doner offers others hope when you are done with your part on the great stage of life. It is in reality, the very gift of life itself.
How to Be an Organ Doner
Alvin (To contact Dayl or his family, email Dwilleboy@aol.com)