The most striking thing about Dontrel was his voice. It came from his barrel-chest and passed through a sandpaper larynx, booming and gritty. Like a combination of James Earl Jones and Redd Foxx. A preacher’s voice.
I picked him up from his large brick home in one of the pricier neighborhoods in Chesapeake. He was going to pick up his Land Rover from the Porshe and Audi dealer. Dontrel clearly had done well for himself.
He’d made his money in the painting and contracting business. He isn’t ready to retire exactly, but he’d decided the hard-work and long hours he’d gotten used to wasn’t worth it anymore. It was time to start taking it easy. Work a little here and there. Take life a little slower. Appreciate people.
He asked about me and my family. I told him my oldest daughter is twenty-one and engaged to be married in November.
“Well. Twenty-one. You’re a blessed man. I lost my daughter when she was twenty-one.”
“What? That’s terrible. What happened?”
“She was diagnosed with lymphoma. Seven months later, she was gone.”
The cheery, convivial tone of the ride had suddenly changed.
“I’m so sorry, Dontrel. I don’t know how you could even cope with something that awful and sudden.”
Dontrel is a man of strong faith and is part of a tight-knit church community. They rallied around him and the rest of his family. It was a hard time, but he believed that God knows what he’s doing even if we can’t figure it out.
“It was just her time, I guess.”
We both agreed that in times of tragedy our faith in God and his higher purposes are essential.
“I don’t even know how people can make it without faith in God,” he said.
His daughter had loved her father dearly, and that was both painful and extremely comforting.
“I was her prom date,” he said proudly.
“She asked me to take her. I told her I’d buy her a dress and everything, but that she should go with someone else. She told me she didn’t want to go with anyone else. She wanted her daddy to be her date. So, I went and we had a wonderful time.”
About a year after her death, Dontrel’s wife found an essay their daughter had written for school several years before. It was all about her daddy.
“She wrote that I was her hero. That I was born with nothing and built a successful business through hard work. She said she was proud of me and proud to be my daughter.”
“That letter must mean a lot to you,” I said.
“Oh, yes. I take care of it. I get it out every now and then and read it again. I’m glad I have it.”
The conversation shifted to less weighty topics before we arrived at our destination, but I wasn’t able to shake the experience. My heart was heavy for Dontrel, but I was also in awe of him. He has weathered a tremendous storm and come through without bitterness or regret.
I’m glad I haven’t had to walk in Dontrel’s shoes. But I wonder. If I had to, could I do it with equal grace?