Good Ole Daniel, by Frank DiBona
Both the doctor and the patient were looking forward to the upcoming appointment. Dr. Vince Riggio had heard about Daniel Coleman almost as soon as he opened his practice in South Carolina a dozen years ago. One of his first dialysis patients, Queen Coleman, Daniel’s niece, spoke so glowingly about him. A few years later Riggio hired a physicians assistant, Darius Singleton who was Daniel’s nephew. Darius told the doctor that his uncle would be his patient “very soon.” He was currently a patient at the Veteran’s Hospital outpatient clinic and he was showing signs of advancing kidney failure. Darius kept him up to date on Daniel’s progress and told him a few weeks ago that his uncle would be seeing Riggio soon. Darius also told him that there were five other family members with various degrees of kidney disease. “You’re going to be the family nephrologist.”
Daniel Coleman had likewise been hearing about the “great” Dr. Riggio for years. At Queen’s funeral he noticed the doctor, one of a handful of whites, of the hundreds in attendance, conversing with many of the mourners, some of them patients of the doctor, others family members. He knew that Dr. Riggio had referred Queen to the Medical University of South Carolina for a kidney-pancreas transplant, the first referral for the two-organ transplant for the doctor, and one of the first referrals to that program. Queen’s kidney failure was well controlled by dialysis but her diabetes had always been uncontrolled. A pancreas transplant, Riggio had told her, would cure the diabetes and end the roller coaster swings of her sugar; a kidney transplant would end her three-times a week sessions on the dialysis machine. Queen was accepted onto the transplant list but, unfortunately, died before a suitable donor was found.
When the doctor entered the examination room, Daniel Coleman and his wife, Claudette, stood to greet him. Daniel was a big man, well over six feet tall and 265 pounds. He wore his weight well so that he did not appear so much obese as just large. He had a slight limp which Riggio judged was an old football injury. Claudette was nearly a big as her husband. Dr. Riggio’s wife, Kim, often remarked how unfair it was that a black woman could be a hundred pounds overweight and still look good, feel attractive, and command the room. If a white woman had five pounds extra on her she felt ugly and wore sweat clothes all day.
Daniel wore a white-on-white dress shirt, open at the collar, with French cuffs and cufflinks bearing the seal of the NAACP. His trousers were black striped, cuffed dress pants, his wing-tipped dress shoes black and recently shined. He had a gold watch and a solid gold ring with the seal of some fraternal organization. Dr. Riggio, in his tan khaki slacks, casual walking shoes, GAP shirt with no tie, and his rumpled white lab coat, felt underdressed.
“Hello, I’m Vince Riggio,” he said, extending his hand to Claudette then to Daniel.
“So, you’re the great Dr. Riggio! Queen and her mom bragged on you forever. I’m not sure if I should shake your hand or bow,” he said with a grin. “I’m Daniel Coleman and this is my wife, Claudette.”
They were on a first name basis from then on, at least when alone. With others around, Daniel generally called Riggio, “Doc” or “Dr. Riggio.”
“Queen passed three or four years ago, I think,” said the doctor.
“It was six years ago,” Claudette corrected him.
“Wow, time flies. I think of her all the time. She was special to me, to a lot of people.”
“She sure loved you, Dr. Riggio,” Claudette said.
Daniel Coleman had a personality as enormous as his body. He had a self-assurance that didn’t need bravado. He was not someone who had to “find” himself. He never knew what that meant. He was the grandson of a slave. His grandfather, Noah Coleman, born in 1860 on a farm less than ten miles from where the Coleman’s now lived, was a blacksmith, a much needed skill. He turned his blacksmithing know-how into a successful wrought iron fence business, his artistic, elaborate, front gates treasured throughout the area. His son, Aaron, Daniel’s father, expanded the fence business, adding barbed wire, chain link, split rail, and picket fences to the repertoire. Aaron’s calm and relaxed personality, his honesty and his competency, allowed the business to thrive. By the time his fourth son, Daniel, was born in 1926, the Coleman family was as close to prosperous as a black family in the Deep South dare dream.
Daniel’s trajectory was not as soaring. “I spent a bunch of my younger days whoring and drinking, Doc,” he told Riggio after Claudette was excused to the waiting room. “I ain’t proud of it, but lucky for me, World War II came along and I managed to get a hold of myself.”
When he got out of the Army, after two years in France and Italy, he went to Hampton University on the GI Bill. He quit after two years, itching to get to work and not enthralled with the rigorous academics expected at Hampton. “I didn’t want to learn all that Shakespeare and calculus stuff,” he told Riggio. He worked for his father and soon knew the business as well as him. Daniel noticed that people in his poor rural area wanted to build and repair their homes but could not afford to buy new materials. He started tearing down dilapidated houses, salvaging as much of the wood, fixtures and appliances as he could, then sprucing everything up to look almost new. Soon Coleman’s Used Building Materials was born. Later the name was changed to Coleman and Sons Building Materials, eventually employing twenty people and enjoying a fifty-mile wide reputation.
During the initial consultation, Dr. Riggio focused in on his statement about whoring and drinking. “Did you ever drink moonshine?” he asked. “I think I drank one of the Great Lakes dry of moonshine,” Daniel replied.
“Well. Daniel, you have high blood pressure, gout, and now kidney disease. I think you might have lead poisoning.”
“Lead poisoning? Don’t you get that from paint?”
“Moonshine is full of lead. Did the VA ever test you for lead?”
Riggio once had a conversation an internist, whose Deep South country ways and thick accent belied his keen intelligence. As a third year student at the Medical University of South Carolina, he spent six weeks on rotation at the prestigious Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. He told Riggio that all of the other doctors thought that he was stupid and backwards because of his South Carolina upbringing and accent. They had never heard of Wofford College, one of the South’s finest, and didn’t think much of MUSC. On rounds with the Big Chief, they came upon a patient with the trio of gout, hypertension, and renal failure. They did not attribute any significance to this and were about to exit the patient’s room when Mark asked the patient if he ever drank moonshine. “By the boatload,” was his response. Mark announced that this man had saturnine gout caused by lead poisoning. The residents and students were dumbfounded. The Big Chief had never heard of this. On rounds the next day the Big Chief told the whole shindig that he was happy anytime he learned something from one of his students. Mark was dead on right about the lead poisoning.
“No one ever looked at me like I was retarded after that,” he told Riggio.
Over the next several months Riggio proved that Daniel had lead poisoning but his kidney disease was too advanced to be reversed. A year after their first meeting Daniel had to start hemodialysis treatments. At the dialysis unit Daniel brought his extra-large personality with him and he was soon the darling of all of the nurses and most of the patients. Anytime Riggio visited the dialysis unit to make rounds, Daniel, as soon as he spotted Riggio, would shout out, “Everybody spruce up. Here comes the Big Boss.” Or, “Here comes numero uno.” Or “Watch out, here come that Mafioso doctor.” One Halloween, Dr. Riggio rounded at the dialysis center dressed as Don Corleone, in a double-breasted pin stripe suit, spats, a penciled-in mustache, and a fedora with a large plume feather. He went to Daniel and told him, with a Marlon Brando gravelly voice, “I have a request you cannot refuse.”
When they spoke alone they would be more serious. The doctor continuously warned Daniel that his blood pressure was too high, but Daniel refused more medication because it took away his “manhood.”
“Y’all might as well cut my dick off, Vince,” he said. “And you can take my balls too. I won’t need ‘em.”
And Daniel’s cholesterol was too high, his protein level too low, his potassium always too high. Daniel accepted these in stride. “You’re doing the best you can do, Doc. But I ain’t giving up my hammocks and beans. Or cornbread. Or watermelon or peaches. They grow them peaches right here in South Carolina. It would be unpatriotic to not eat peaches!” Riggio pretended to shovel bullshit out of the room. Daniel knew it and stopped.
“Listen, if I die tomorrow, rest assured I lived a good life and did everything I wanted to do. It isn’t your fault I have such a hard head. It’s genetic,” Daniel said.
Two years after starting dialysis, Daniel had his first heart attack. He underwent emergency open-heart surgery and had a prolonged, but ultimately successful, recovery. Three years later he had second heart attack but the clogged artery could not be opened. This heart attack damaged a significant portion of his heart. Three days after admission Daniel asked the ICU nurse to step out so he could speak to Dr. Riggio alone.
“I have a request you cannot refuse,” he said in his best Godfather imitation.
“I’ll do what I can.”
“When my time comes, I want you to let me go, my friend. I’m not the kind of guy to live on an oxygen bottle, or in a bed. I really do not want to be kept alive on machines.”
“You’ve been on that dialysis machine for a lot of years,” Riggio said.
“You know what I mean. Let me go.”
“Have you talked to Claudette about this? What about your children?”
“They all think you walk on water. Hell, I know better than that. But they will do you tell them.
“Daniel, you’ll have to tell them yourself. I’ll set up a meeting, tonight, with you, Claudette, as many of your children as can make it, with the nurse, and with the social worker. I’ll explain what you told me, but you’ll have to tell them in your own words, with your own voice. The social worker will get all the papers, nice and legal, and I promise that I will let you go if and when the time comes.”
Daniel’s time came a week later. His ICU room had four generations of family, the youngest a newborn great grandson, Daniel Noah Coleman, III. There was not a dry eye in the room, including Riggio, who sobbed uncontrollably. Claudette and Riggio embraced and kissed each other before they departed the room.
The Reedy Branch AME Church in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, sat on a bluff in a field on the edge of town. It was a wood framed structure with horizontal wood planks, painted white, six stained glass windows on each side, a red metal roof, and a small portico with a matching roof. A plain crucifix topped a tall wooden steeple. Riggio wore black slacks, a black cashmere sports coat, and black tie with a caduceus on the front. Still he felt underdressed. Most of the men had elegant dark suits, many with dark shirts with white collars, most with silk pocket-handkerchiefs. The women donned elegant dresses, ornate hats, and their best jewelry. The crowd, gathered outside the church, could not enter the until the family came out to invite them in. Among the three hundred in attendance, Riggio, his wife, and one other woman were the only whites. Once in the church, they walked single file up the right isle, to the altar, past the family, and past the casket. Riggio thought Daniel looked as dignified in death as he looked at that first meeting years ago. After passing the casket they filed down the center isle and were directed into the pews by the ushers. The organ played quiet hymns until everyone was seated. The congregation rose to its feet as the pastor stepped to the pulpit. He spoke for ten minutes about Daniel, reminding everyone how instrumental Daniel was in the construction of the church, supplying much of the materials at little or no cost, and rolling up his own sleeves to work for hours on the construction. Daniel and Claudette not only raised six God-fearing children of their own but had adopted four other children who they treated as their own. Following these words, the choir sang, Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, an old spiritual, so touching and fitting. Then Patricia Coleman, who also had kidney disease, and who worked at the hospital keeping the rooms and hallways spotless, sang a soulful rendition of Come Ye Disconsolate. Daniel’s eldest son, Aaron, gave the eulogy, interrupted three times by by his own tears. The choir then sang Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There. Finally Patricia Coleman stepped up once again and brought tears to everyone with the slave spiritual, Wonder Where is Good Ole Daniel.
Riggio thought the service was over. But the minister went back to the pulpit with an announcement: “The Coleman family wishes to recognize the presence of Daniel’s beloved Dr. Vince Riggio. Your presence here honors us, doctor, and Mrs. Coleman requests that you come up here and say a few words.”
Riggio could feel the blood drain from his face, the weakness in his knees as he started to stand, holding the back of the pew, and the lump gathering in his throat. He walked slowly to the podium, stalling to gather his thoughts. He had thought that the service would be more of a viewing, with friends and family passing by the casket and paying their respects to Mrs. Coleman. He never expected such an elaborate service. And he never expected to be part of it.
“Reverend Johnson, Mrs. Coleman, to all of Daniel’s family, his children, Darius, who used to work with me, Patricia, who I knew from before but never knew what a beautiful powerhouse voice you had, to the many of you out there I know, and to those of you I have not been blessed to meet yet, it is my honor to speak to you. I was blessed to know Daniel.”
He was not sure of what to say next. He liked Daniel, loved him in a sense, but had not appreciated how big of a man he was in his own community, in his own family. But he did not want to say that. He tried to say something of his admiration of Daniel.
“ Most of us never get the chance to meet great people. Not me. I knew Daniel. I could sense the wonder of this man from the first moment I stepped into the exam room that first time I met him. I learned some things about him today that I didn't know before right out in front of the church.” Riggio realized how awkward that sentence was as soon as he said it. He had to get some rhythm or he would put these folks to sleep.
“I learned that Daniel gave ten percent of every penny he ever earned to charity, especially to this beautiful church. He never told me that. I learned that Daniel spent hours with a hammer and saw building this church. He never told me that. Claudette, you are such a strong woman. Daniel told me that often. He told me about some of the adversities you had to confront and how you faced every one of them head-on. You and Daniel were lucky to be together, both such strong, beautiful, people. Daniel spoke to me a lot about Noah, his grandfather, the last slave in the family, and Aaron, his father, who went before him. He beamed with pride over his children, his nieces and nephews, and all of his friends here at Reedy Church.”
Riggio paused for a moment and whispered something to Rev. Johnson. Soon someone brought him a glass of water. As he waited for the water to arrive and then as he sipped some, something struck him about the song Patricia had sung, Wonder Where is Good Ole Daniel.” He had thought of it when she was singing but he had no idea then that he would soon be at the podium.
“Patricia, you sang that beautiful spiritual, Wonder Where is Good Ole Daniel. It made me cry. But to tell the truth, Patricia, I don’t wonder where is good ole Daniel. I don’t wonder at all where is good ole Daniel. I know where is good ole Daniel.”
Someone in the audience shouted, “Amen.”
“You out there, his friends and neighbors, you don’t wonder where is good ole Daniel. You know where is good ole Daniel.”
Now he heard a dozen “Amens.”
Riggio looked at the audience. There were about ten people out there he knew by name. He repeated the same phrase with each of them. The amens became raucous. He heard a few, “That’s right!” and some, “I know where he is.”
“Reverend Johnson, you don’t wonder where is good ole Daniel. You know where is good ole Daniel.”
Riggio paused for a few seconds, wondering how to end this. He saw Claudette Coleman in the first pew, tears in her eyes, fanning herself.
“Claudette, I know you, of all people, don’t wonder where is good ole Daniel. You know right where he is.”
“Goodbye, my friend, Daniel. I know where you are. I feel you smiling down on me and all of us gathered here. Someday, not right away, mind you, but someday I hope to see you there myself, to gaze upon your gentle spirit, and to hear your precious voice once more. Amen.”