I still remember the first time I saw him.
He was 3 years old, with a headful of dark hair and the biggest, most startling blue eyes I have ever seen.
He was wearing a tiny homemade bat costume for a Forum story on “easy,” last-minute Halloween costumes.
There were several kids there that day to model Halloween ensembles, but it’s safe to say "Mr. Blue Eyes" stole the show. Not only was he adorable, but — even back then — he had a charisma that made him the center of attention. As I got to know him better, I realized this dynamism was mixed in with a sweetness and a very real sense of wonderment at the world around him.
His mother, “Penelope,” and I soon became great friends, bonded by our goofy humor, love of all things artsy and nostalgia for Pat Benatar. We both had the tendency to dream too big, so we would excitedly launch into massive cake-decorating and craft-making projects together, only to find ourselves delirious at 2 in the morning, with mountains of dishes to wash and buttercream in our hair.
This must be where Dirk got his love for creativity. He was forever inventing things, dreaming things and asking questions, with those huge, blue eyes lasered in on you as you stumbled for satisfactory answers.
Penelope came to work every day with Dirk stories: how he put on his hockey equipment for the first time, and then purposely crashed into walls because he figured he was invincible; how he didn’t have a mean bone in his body and was kind to kids that others picked on; how he participated in team sports like soccer, but sometimes decided he would rather watch butterflies or clouds shaped like pirate ships than play.
By now, he had a curly-haired little sister. Penelope asked me to watch them from time to time. Dirk and company kept me hopping with their nonstop energy, but they were so much fun. I made a few rookie mistakes, such as filling their glasses to the top with milk or letting them play with markers in the living room. (“Look mom! Now we have a polka-dot sofa!”)
Fortunately, my friend always forgave me.
Now, our all-night bakeathons were for Dirk. We made ridiculous amounts of kuchen to help him celebrate his German heritage for multicultural day at school. We piped elaborate monster cupcakes for Halloween. Always, Dirk was beyond excited about our adventures. Cool! Just wait till the kids at school tomorrow see this!
After I got married, my then-husband and I occasionally watched the kids. Dirk was plagued by night terrors, so I conjured up a myth to help him sleep in a strange house. There was a tiny angel fountain in our guest room, so I told the kids it was magic and the cupids would ward off bad dreams.
Dirk fixed that blue-eyed gaze on me and solemnly took in every word. Indeed, he got through the whole night without a bad dream, so I sent the fountain home with them. It worked for a while, but his night terrors eventually returned. Even so, he continued believing in Santa, leprechauns and anything else that injected some magic into everyday life.
Unfortunately, Penelope and her husband moved away soon after for other career opportunities. We promised to stay in touch, but — as these things go — we saw less and less of each other. I saw even less of Dirk, and his two younger sisters barely knew me. I lost track of them, and sometimes a year or more would pass before we talked to each other.
And then, last week, out of the blue, the text came. “Tammy, call me,” Penelope wrote. “I need you now.”
I called immediately. The news was terrible. Dirk had been killed in a car-train accident. He was just 25 years old.
It seemed impossible. Not Dirk. To me, he was still that little boy. I clicked over to his Facebook to find a strikingly handsome, vital, strapping athlete who played junior hockey after high school. A young man who obviously loved water sports, travel and his family.
Through her tears, Penelope insisted that his heart, enthusiasm and curiosity for life had barely changed since he was 8 years old. If I knew him then, I still knew him, she said. Would I write the story of his life for his funeral program?
I said I would be honored. I’d never been asked to do something like this before, and the weight of the responsibility felt so heavy. How do you capture a whole life, especially if you have just a couple of days to do it? It had been years since I’d talked to Dirk.
I should have known better. His family and best friends painted a picture of Dirk so vivid that I felt like I’d witnessed every stage of his life.
I learned how he used to do his homework and not turn it in, figuring the really important thing was the knowledge he gained. How he inherited his mother’s love for ginormous projects and attempted to convert his sister’s bike into a motorcycle with a chainsaw motor. How he could play any song by ear on guitar and was fascinated by rocks, crystals, bugs and dinosaur bones. How he would laser in on topics that especially interested him, then research them so relentlessly that his family called him “The King of Useless Knowledge.” How he worked in the family business, but always took the toughest jobs because he didn’t want to be called a “B.K.” (boss’s kid).
These tales told me all I needed to know: How he grew up to be a confident, enthusiastic, kind, funny, endlessly curious man — a man who was loved by many and was an honor to know.
I was sorry I didn’t know him firsthand as an adult. But I am glad I knew him at all.
Most of all, I will never forget those blue eyes.
Editor's note: The second half of Tammy Swift's column about the unique stresses faced by farm kids will be published next Sunday, Aug. 18.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.