CHICAGO — The disarming smile of a 4-year-old boy with a buzz cut brightens an otherwise drab newspaper page, where whole lives are summed up in three inches of tiny newsprint.
Danny Stanton's death notice first makes you wonder how he died. But the eight haunting, final words make you want to know how he lived: "Please go and enjoy your life. Danny did."
A preschooler wise beyond his years, Danny was a pint-sized neighborhood ambassador. He high-fived elderly strangers, made small talk with a lonely relative, befriended shy kids and impressed boys twice his size on the baseball field.
Most of all, says his grief-stricken dad, Mike Stanton, Danny was always giving hugs, and never hesitated to ask for one in return.
"That's just how he expressed his life, and how he gave it. How he just let you in was so beautiful," Stanton said.
So when Danny died of a seizure 14 days before Christmas — after frantic attempts by his parents, neighbors, paramedics and doctors to revive him, after all the medical tubes were disconnected — Danny's dad lay down on the hospital bed. And he tightly hugged his little boy in return, as his body grew colder and colder.
"I kind of lost track of time," Stanton said. "I could have laid there with him forever."
Gray-haired priests and policemen dabbed their eyes, and children wept along with adults at Danny's standing-room only funeral, where more than 300 people crowded into the same Roman Catholic church where he was baptized. They all gathered to honor a little boy who in four brief years seemed to instinctively know the essence of a life well-lived.
"There was this otherness about him," said Julie Marske, his preschool teacher. "It's like he knows something that we don't.
Danny loved sports
Every neighborhood has a house where all the kids gather. The Stanton's two-story brick house in Chicago's northwest corner is that one. With a basketball hoop out front, a wooden swing set in the back, there's always something going on at the Stanton's.
Family friend Mary Duffy says it's a place where they raise kids, not grass. The Stantons had four, ranging from age 8 to almost 2, all cherished in their own way, but none quite like their second youngest, Danny.
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Danny loved sports — soccer, kickball, football — but was stunning at baseball. He was too young to join a league but eagerly filled in playing fast-pitch with 7-year-olds when they were down a man, and the big kids always welcomed him into their games.
Watching the smallest boy on the field hit and run the bases in a winning championship game this past summer, parents were awed by Danny's talent, which was advanced beyond his age. "Everyone just sat there thinking, what is going to become of this little boy?" Duffy said.
Danny was buddies with Mary's son, Charlie, the same age but extremely shy. During one of the regular kickball games outside the Stanton's home, Danny noticed Charlie on the sidelines, grabbed him by the hand and brought him into the house.
"Danny thought, 'Well, he doesn't want to play sports, here's all my action figures,' and laid them all out in front of him," Duffy recalled. "Danny created that environment for him. Danny figured it out."
His charity didn't end once he left the ball field, or a neighbor's yard. He seemed to sense when people around him needed a hand, even the grown-ups. Danny loved to help next-door neighbor Betty Lazzara carry in her groceries.
"I'd always try to give him a light bag," Betty said, "but Danny would say, 'I can carry that gallon of milk'" and would lug it into her house. He knew a treat from Lazzara's snack drawer would be waiting — fruit roll-ups or Gushers were his favorites — and Danny always asked to take home enough for his brothers and older sister, too.
‘I just want to learn’
He remembered details about the lives of people he met. He'd call out to the older neighbor across the street, "Hey Jim, are you going golfing today?" And when he'd see older men at the local YMCA, Danny would give them a smile and a high-five.
"You were good to go when he smiled at you," Lazzara said.
On his first day of preschool this fall, Danny folded his hands and told his teachers, "I just want to learn."
Preschool's most important lesson is how to socialize. Danny already had that down cold. He got along with all the kids and seemed to make the most of every day.
"You never had to entertain Danny. He was content being by himself, or with people," Marske said.
The preschoolers keep journals, dictating to the teachers about the topic of the day. Danny's last entry was about what he was thankful for at Thanksgiving. Other kids said, "food," or "Happy Meals." Danny talked about his family.
"I'm thankful for Mom, Dad, Tommy, John, Mary Grace. I'm thankful for my toys. My mom and dad help me when my brother tackles me."
The Friday night before Danny's fatal seizure, the Duffys were over with their two boys to watch a Christmas special on TV. Mary brought a big chocolate castle cake, and Danny and the other kids playfully tore off the towers to eat first, then ditched the TV special and clamored downstairs to build a fort in the basement.
There, they discovered a hidden bag full of unwrapped Christmas presents, including the one Danny wanted most of all.
Danny came upstairs, and with a twinkle in his eyes, playfully announced, "Hey Dad, I'm glad I'm getting that remote control car for Christmas."
The next morning, Danny was gone. His parents found him in bed, his lips already blue.
He'd had occasional seizures for two years, always at night, always while sleeping, always frightening. After the first one, he slept in his parents' bed for six months. Doctors did tests, put him on medication, found nothing else wrong and said he might outgrow the problem.
Seizures, electrical disturbances in the brain, affect roughly 1 percent of all children. Dr. Douglas Nordli, an epilepsy specialist at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital, said most otherwise healthy young children do outgrow them; deaths are extremely rare. Causes of these sudden, unexpected deaths are uncertain; it may be that brain signals for proper breathing get short-circuited, or the heart rate becomes too faint to get blood to vital organs.
"Danny's day-to-day behavior gave no indication of anything wrong with him," Mike Stanton said. "How many seizures did he have that we did not know about? We checked in on him thousands of times while he was sleeping."
Danny's death hit his little storefront preschool hard.
Each day, the teachers ask the class which students aren't there. "Danny Stanton," one student said. The teachers nodded, and added that Danny wouldn't be coming back.
That got the children's attention. Then came the words, "Danny died." As young brains struggled to process this news, one little girl said, "My cat died." Others asked, "Why?"
"We said because his heart stopped working," said teacher Deb Phillips.
His teachers asked each child to tell what was special about Danny. Some said they'd liked playing with him. Some said they liked to eat snacks with him. One child said, "I loved him."
Everyone's thoughts turned to the garden, a once trash-strewn vacant lot nearby that the school has been planning for a few years. It will be a place where the preschoolers can plant herbs and vegetables for homeless shelters; the first seeds are to be sown this spring. Now, plans are in the works for a big sign to post above the garden gate. The exact words aren't set yet, but Marske says perhaps it will read simply, "Danny's Garden."
"It will be this living place, where everyone can see" and remember Danny, Marske said.
There will be a place at the Stanton's Christmas table for Danny. And his family plans to start a foundation offering guidance for parents of children with night seizures. Its name will be "Danny Did."
It was his father who wrote those words on Danny's newspaper epitaph.
"It just came to me," Stanton said. "That says it all."
At their son's funeral, Mariann Stanton stood at the altar with her husband, a few feet from the small white casket. His friends left a soccer ball, football, baseball mitt and drawings in his honor. With haunting, palpable grief etched in her delicate face, she spoke to Danny through sobs, asking how she's supposed to get up in the morning when he isn't there anymore.
Father Kurt Boras told mourners there are no answers; "All we can do is hold onto each other," he said. Boras also said he's never been much of a hugger. But there he was after Mass, embracing people leaving the church.
"Danny got it right," the Rev. Gregory Sakowicz said in a eulogy. "He taught us how to live."
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