By Dave LaBelle
It is a word I find myself using often when covering stories of loss.
When I was told Dan Ripley had left this life, a smile moved across my bearded face.
He was finally free, liberated from that chair, those breathing tubes and that twisted, immobile body which had held him prisoner for most of 35 years. (Dan had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, chained to a ventilator since he was a 12-year-old boy.)
But then sorrow washed over me and my eyes filled as I thought about his family and the pain they were surely experiencing. I feared Dustin, two years younger, and Dan’s constant companion, would be crippled with fear and anxiety. I was wrong. Dustin became a pillar of strength, comforting his parents and helping them cope with his brother’s passing.
I often talked with Dan about this day – when his spirt would soar and when he believed he would go home to be with his God. Still, when that day arrived, the reality of separation began sinking in. I would no longer be able to pop by the house when visiting Kent or Tallmadge and hear him squawk, “Hi Dave.” No more excited talks about sports or life with this joyful, intelligent young man. Unmatched in his love for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Browns, he was looking forward to his beloved Browns making it to the super Bowl (which they almost did last year).
I was introduced to these remarkable brothers when a friend asked if I would help with a family fundraiser by making pictures and writing something about the boys. After the first meeting – as often happens when a camera leads me into someone’s life – I fell in love with the Ripley family and knew we would be lifelong friends.
Dan was looking forward to his 36th birthday and a party complete with cake and ice cream. He loved parties!
Photographing his 30th birthday party, I told Dan I hoped I was alive to attend his 60th.
“I will be here,” he chirped confidently.
Then realizing he might have been a bit presumptuous, he calls to me and gurgles, “Dave, God determines how long we will be here.”
On Saturday, June 26, that day arrived.
Dan didn’t wake up.
I visited the family one week after Dan’s passing. Dale was welcoming as always, eager to share, and Debbie was her quiet, gracious self.
Dustin whispers “hello Dave,” above the incessant barking of two small dogs.
I remembered Bandit but not the other dog. It had been several years since I had seen the family. They quickly share how difficult and even more confining the past year has been not being able to take the boys out because of the virus.
I ask Dustin how he is feeling.
Inseparable, the brothers sat side by side watching television day after day, year after year, sharing many late night and early morning conversations, and sleeping in the same room just a few feet from each other.
“A little better,” he says. It is difficult to hear his quiet voice above the hissing rhythm of the ventilator.
What do you miss most about Dan?
“His smarts. He was really smart,” he gurgles.
“Yes, he was,” Debbie whispers, fighting back tears.
“We learned a lot after Dan passed that Dustin knew that we didn’t know,” she shares.
“Nobody knew that they had talked about what Dan wanted, that he wanted a party.”
Then adds, “He didn’t want calling hours.”
“Dustin has been a real champion, he has really stepped up, Dale inserts. “He helped us with all of the arrangements, even went to the funeral parlor.”
I can’t imagine how different everybody’s life is going to be going forward.
Dustin says he noticed “even Bandit misses Dan.”
The last weeks of his life
Dan had spent 12 days in the hospital with pneumonia, and had only been home two days. He never wanted to go to the hospital, separated from his family and the security of his chair.
“Friday, he had far away eyes, while watching the basketball playoff game,” Dale said.
“I told him Friday night we will see each other again and it won’t be in 35 more years.”
Then, his voice cracking, “He went to sleep and we couldn’t wake him up.”
As I left the house, Dale came out and tearfully shared his son felt bad for not being able to spend Father’s Day with his dad because he was in the hospital.
“He told me, ‘Happy Father’s Day, Dad.’”
Wiping his eyes, he smiled. “He will be missed but I’m sure he got his wings.”
What courage looks like
Dan taught us all many lessons about faith, courage and optimism. But there is one lesson, one photograph I wish to share with you that reveals this amazing young man’s honest view of life.
With his blessing, I made this photograph of his twisted, deformed body. I wanted others to see the road this intelligent and loving young man endured. And then, realizing how shocking the photograph was, I showed the picture to Dan on my laptop screen and asked if he still felt comfortable posting this picture.
“I can’t believe I lived this long, with this disease,” Dan said, his eyes widening. “I am thankful I lived this long.” Then added, I am amazed how my body looks, how terrible this disease is.”
I asked again if he felt comfortable sharing the image. He answered immediately. “Yes, I want people to know about this disease.”
While each person is unique, there are those we encounter whose lives inspire us and become a part of the fabric of who we are. Though his time on earth was relatively short, Dan taught us a lot about faith, courage and optimism He was truly a loving, teaching son, brother and friend.
As Dale admits, “He carried me a lot of times.”
When I think about Dale saying his oldest son “got his wings,” the first line of Albert E. Brumley’s famous gospel song fills my heart.
“Some sweet morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away…”
As I mentioned, Dan loved parties. In fact, while preparing for his memorial service, Dustin told his parents Dan had told him, sensing his time was short, he did not want a typical funeral service where everybody stood around weeping. He wanted them to have a party. On hearing this, Dale and Debbie changed the services to accommodate Dan’s wishes.
If you want to know more about Dan, Dustin and Ripley Family, please look at these earlier stories. Here are the links:
You can also contact them:
207 East Avenue
Tallmadge, OH 44278