Songs for Smiler McGee by Jon Dahlander
After an on again, off again, presence in the music scene spaning more than 17 years, Jon Dahlander has returned with is stunningly beautiful solo piano album, Songs for Smiler McGee written and composed as a tribute to the son he and his wife a loved and lost.
In the 14 years of Jared’s fragile life, he earned the nickname of Smiler McGee amongst several, and in this delicate collection of songs without words, his father pays tribute to a life that bought joy, love, pain and happiness. Each of the pieces is uncomplicated but intricate, cathartic in a reflective style and appealing in their pure nature.
Characteristic of the years of caring for a medically delicate child, where the days are filled with challenges, the album is reflective; not in a sad way, but in one of acceptance and joy.
Titles to the tracks give an indication of the gentle nature of the works, with pieces such as Angel Daydream which has a nice little up-tempo aspect and Origami’s Dream, reflective of creating a thing of beauty from a something as simple piece of paper or fabric. Odd Jobincreases the tempo to a sense of refreshing busyness, such as is found when in hurry to complete that ‘odd job’., right now.
Be Thou My Vision, is a traditional Irish Hymn thought to have been created in the sixth century by Irish Christian poet Saint Dallan, eventually being set to the folk tune commonly referred to as Slane, a piece in which Dahlander has managed to introduce the very essence of the Irish people and countryside.
With a medically fragile child there is far too much time for tears but in between there is joy, laughter, happiness and peace which has been capture in the exquisite piece Time Between Tears.
Beyond the Moon segues delightfully into the final piece Until Then, which while measured and thoughtful, holds a gracious sense of release and acceptance, an understanding that life gives and takes and yet continues to flow ever onward.
The music of Jon Dahlander has changed over the many years since, as a youngster playing trombone, would practice the piano in the solitude of the music room after band practice. He would create songs without words, never giving consideration to the aspect of one day becoming a musician of note for his solo piano works.
Inside the album cover is a joyful picture of a little boy with his father. Overlaid are the words which are at the very heart of delicately created album
‘Every day is another gift from God
Love those around you unconditionally
Smile as much as you can
Keep all things in perspective
The Sounding Board – Songs For Smiler McGee Review
I never heard of Jon Dahlander until this year. I read his email, more of a letter then a note really, and with each passing word, I knew I had to hear his music. As you read this I want you to know that this review is about music that celebrates a life. Not a passing of one, although that’s in here too. Dahlander, a man with a great deal of talent not only as a pianist but also as a parent, wrote the collection, Songs for Smiler McGee for his son, Jared. The miracle boy passed at the age of thirteen, but the short stint of years allowed his parents to love him enough for a lifetime.
Jon Dahlander had very little time to play in those ensuing years, but now he composes everything in retrospect to the little boy with the grin that inspired Songs for Smiler McGee. Jon’s album is fourteen tracks of solo piano, some sad, some happy, but every track overflowing with emotion. Jon’s music is thoughtful in every sense of the word.
The first track, Light of Day, has an old-timey feel to it as if bittersweet days were the norm. Jon’s composition is a study in black & white rather than in color. There is a simplicity to the theme as if we are witness to an old-time movie. Things tend to fade, but then they come back into focus once again.
Father’s Day is a musical memory of many Father’s Days. It is a primal narrative on how a father shoulders the burdens of his life and how that weight can sometimes crush the spirit. Dahlander must have broad shoulders. His melody draws from the heart the strength that is needed to carry pain beyond imagining. Yeah, it’s right there in the music.
Integrating the elements of what was once called a scherzo, Jon offers the ditty, Odd Job. It is a rhythmic minute and a quarter of optimism. Far Beyond Words is another sad refrain full of meditative moments. Sometimes confusion and pain go above the range of human understanding and it is all one can do to understand and pose the questions. Why does this happen? What is the purpose? Sometimes we never get the answers we are seeking. Jon’s gentle tune is a bit of balm on the pain.
Faith & Grace is Jon’s song about Jared’s two sisters, Ava Faith and Chloe Grace. The melody is sweet, tuneful, and probably the most lighthearted tune on the record. It is a song of not only deep love but also a song of perpetual balance. Along with the memory of Jared, it is an unbroken circle.
A parent’s love knows no boundaries. Beyond the Moon is a love song, plain and simple. It is a “hold them until they stop crying kind of song”. Or a “check to see if they’re breathing” kind of song. As a parent, I’ve experienced the same things. The tune is a happy one, but with pensive bumps along the way. The tune captures the same feel as the opening tune.
The final tune is called Until Then. It is a melodic farewell with a built-in promise. Gone are the hectic memories of rushing to the hospital or putting up with balky machinery, sleepless nights and worrisome days. Until Then is the acknowledgment of a long-awaited peace. It is a beautifully sad piece.
Jon Dahlander lives with his wife Heidi and two daughters in Dallas, Texas. Prior to his seventeen-year absence from the piano, he had released a number of albums back in the late 90’s. I haven’t heard his earlier works, but I can tell you that he has nothing to worry about. His music is sensitive, skillful, passionate and contemporary. Songs for Smiler McGee was a work crafted over a long period of time and Jon’s long hours of practicing in the dark have paid off. He reminds us that – every smile is a gift.
Jon Dahlander’s first album in 17 years emotes his son’s life and death
Two weeks before his son, Jared, was born, Jon Dahlander was at the Lakewood Theater hosting his third CD release party. A self-taught pianist, Dahlander was excited to welcome his first child in 2000 and wondered what kind of music fatherhood might inspire.
Within a month, Jared was back in the hospital. The doctors diagnosed him with “failure to thrive.” They put a button feeding tube in his stomach, which nourished Jared for the rest of his life. That was the first of 20 surgeries and countless hospital visits Jared experienced before his untimely death in 2014.
Throughout Jared’s short life, he never spoke. But he smiled and giggled often when Dahlander wheeled him over to the piano to play for him. “Songs for Smiler McGee,” an album that honors Jared’s memory, was released this year — the first album Dahlander has made since his son’s birth.
“I was trying to nurture my little piano career, but it was impossible,” Dahlander says. “There was no time for piano; there was no time for friends; there was no time for anything except for trying to go to the day job in the morning, go to the hospital at night, and come home exhausted. It was like Groundhog Day over and over and over.”
“We decided, we’re going to live Jared’s life as best we can, and every day we would say, ‘Thank you, God, for every breath Jared took and every smile he gave,’ ” Dahlander says. “When you pray that prayer every day, it changes your life again and allows you to focus on the things that are most important — not just with him but with every person you come in contact with.”
For years, Dahlander focused on being a father to Jared and later to his daughters, Ava and Chloe. In 2007, Dahlander read an article about the music streaming service Pandora and, on a lark, sent the company his music. He knew they were playing it but had no idea how much until he discovered SoundExchange, which tracks online internet plays.
“Out of the blue, I get a check for like $2,000,” Dahlander says. “I thought, ‘Whoa! That’s more money than I’ve ever made for piano stuff!’ ”
He emphasizes that he’s not a virtuoso. Dahlander took some lessons as a child, but much of his early piano education took place at the Ardmore, Okla., YWCA. He was a television photographer covering a story there, spotted their beautiful piano and asked if he could play on nights and weekends. They always kept a door unlocked for him, and he spent long hours practicing in the dark.
It gave him enough confidence to walk into the Polo Grill and ask if they needed a pianist. The manager didn’t have anyone on Sunday nights and offered to pay Dahlander in meals. He enthusiastically accepted.
A few years later, a label offered him a contract to create three CDs, but he turned it down because they insisted on calling it “Afternoon Delight.” The offer gave him the courage to call Dallas-based label Carpe Diem Records, which produced the likes of Pop Poppins, Café Noir and Rhett Miller, before he joined the Old 97’s. Carpe Diem offered Dahlander the same three-CD deal and gave him control over the project.
Knowing that people were listening to his music rekindled his energy to play the piano. Jared was doing better, and Dahlander played for him more and more. The music would calm his son and put a smile on his face.
It was therapeutic for Dahlander, too, giving him a chance to create something and take his mind off of
things. He funneled his emotions through his fingers.
A song on his new album titled “Father’s Day” channels the pain Dahlander associates with the antithetically happy holiday. Fighting tears, he recounts the story of the beginning of the end of his son’s life.
“It’s the one day out of 365 that I get to take a guilt-free nap, and I don’t want to be disturbed during that nap. But on Father’s Day 2014, I was awoken from my nap by Heidi saying, ‘I’m so sorry to wake you up but something’s wrong with Jared,’ ” Dahlander recalls.
They took Jared to the emergency room and learned that his kidneys were failing. For the next two-and-a-half months, Jared was in and out of the hospital until his death.
“You go through a whole other set of emotions,” Dahlander says of his son’s death. “I internalize and try not to lay it all out there for everyone to see, so it has to go someplace.
“I realized I was at this point of starting to come to terms with everything that had happened,” he says. “I was releasing the emotions and releasing him. I can’t hold on any longer. It’s really an important song for me.”
Not all of the songs were composed after Jared’s death. Dahlander is currently the Highland Park ISD chief of staff, but he spent years at Dallas ISD working in the communications office. “Far Beyond Words” came to him when he was the DISD spokesman and two tragic student deaths occurred in a single day.
“In the job, you have to deal with the situation, and you have to help a school community heal, and you have to communicate to everybody what’s happened,” he says. “When I came home, the music had to come out somewhere. Part of it is, how do you explain to a mother her child has died and that awful sense of loss.”
A cover of the ancient Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” was included on the record because it was played at Jared’s funeral. “Odd Job” is a whimsical tune, the kind that made Jared smile and giggle. “Faith and Grace” are the middle names of his daughters, Ava and Chloe. “Until Then” poured out of Dahlander after the funeral of a friend, and once Jared died, it took on a whole new meaning. The opening song, “Light of Day,” is one that makes Dahlander simultaneously happy and sad.
The entire record is one of mixed emotions. Some songs are joyful, some peaceful, and some mournful, but most contain a range of feelings, an acknowledgment that life is not either-or but both-and.
The pain of losing Jared never fully leaves Dahlander, but neither does the joy his son gave him. Children like Jared, Dahlander says, are teachers.
“They teach us what’s important about the world around us, give us perspective about things you run right past because you’re busy doing your day-to-day stuff,” he says.
“We have a choice every day in the way we respond to life. We can go through life bitter or make the most of every day.”
About the Cover Photo
The cover photo of Songs for Smiler McGee was taken of a sunset near Boothbay Harbor, Maine. It’s a special place for our family, not only for its peacefulness and beauty, but also because an experience that started there with our son Jared (Smiler McGee) changed our lives and perspectives forever.
Let me explain.
Leading up to the summer of 2002, my wife Heidi and I were asking ourselves: Should we take up my parents on their offer to join them and the rest of our family on the coast of Maine for a week’s vacation to escape the Texas heat?
While we realized that we were extremely fortunate to even entertain this option, the challenge that we faced was considering whether it was in the best interest of Jared, who was a couple months shy of his 2nd birthday. Jared had already endured multiple surgeries and several lengthy hospital stays. He had been fed by a feeding pump since he was a month old and now needed a trach to breathe.
Every single day was a struggle. Let me emphasize that: EVERY single day was a struggle. The question was this—Was it safe to take him away from his team of medical experts, including night nurses, that we were blessed to have in Dallas?
For weeks, we wrestled with this question. Finally, even though we knew that by saying yes, we would have to lug medical equipment—suction pumps and catheters, feeding bags, special formulas, medicine, syringes—halfway across the country, we decided to do it. After all the time we had spent in hospitals, doctors’ offices and physical and occupational therapy sessions with Jared, we felt we could all use a change in scenery.
I think what ultimately convinced me was that there was this lyric from a song that kept rattling around in my head (this was also less than a year after 9/11) that went, “Maybe it’s time to live.” Staying home would mean that we were allowing Jared’s health to dictate that we could no longer travel—and that we were trapped in our house with no escape except to go to work, the grocery store, church and Jared’s endless stream of doctor’s appointments.
We decided it was time to live.
We made the trek up to Boothbay Harbor in early July. Jared seemed to love the weather immediately and we loved getting out of Texas. All of that lasted maybe one day. Then, on the 4th of July, I took Jared out for a run with me pushing him in his stroller. When we finished, Jared looked like he was turning green. We could tell he felt awful but, because he couldn’t talk, there was no way to know what was causing him discomfort.
We took him to the small emergency room in town and the doctor, while juggling burn victims from fireworks, made the determination that Jared needed to go immediately to a larger hospital—Maine Medical Center in Portland—which is about an hour drive south. That was Jared’s first ambulance ride.
I could go into great detail about the whole experience—and hope to, someday, in a book—but Jared had somehow developed a very painful bowel obstruction that required a 6-hour emergency surgery the next day, which was obviously nerve-wracking to us in a waiting room far from home. Two days later, the wound from his surgery developed an infection, and he endured another 8-hour surgery.
The recovery did not go smoothly and there were periods while we there, now staying at a Ronald McDonald House in Portland, where we felt like he wouldn’t survive—and he almost didn’t. The night before a scheduled 3rd surgery, we got a call from the hospital at 4 am (we had gone back to the Ronald McDonald House at 2 am, with plans to be back by 7) that we needed to come back quickly. We sprinted the half mile there in the dark, dreading during every step the news we were likely to get once we arrived.
Somehow he survived that night but doctors felt he was so fragile that they cancelled the surgery to try to give medicine and food a chance to work their magic. It was a very slow recovery, and Heidi and I both vowed that if Jared made it through this, we would never, ever complain again about changing a nasty diaper in the back of a car, about feeding bags, driving to appointments or any of the experiences we were going through. We decided up in Maine 2002 that every day with Jared from here on was a gift from God and that the gift would continually reveal itself along the way.
After 2 and a half weeks in Portland (and a very forgiving work situation for me at home), Jared was finally well enough to be flown back on a medical transport jet and then by ambulance to our hospital in Dallas, while we flew back on our own. And, while we thought we might be able to bring Jared home a week or so later, more serious medical issues developed—so serious that more surgeries and more days in the hospital were needed.
Some days we saw progress; others we didn’t. The nurses, the therapists, the doctors, the hospital chaplains—they were all so supportive and loving and wonderful—and they hurt for us and Jared when he wasn’t well.
Weeks in the hospital turned to months and finally, one week before Thanksgiving—yes, 4 and a half months after initially taking him to an ER on Independence Day in Maine, Jared was finally released from the hospital in Dallas. After nothing but darkness, it was quite possibly the happiest day of our lives with him. We went to the Dallas Arboretum on one of those beautiful fall afternoons when the leaves are full of color and the air is crisp and clean. Jared would not stop smiling and giggling—and we were beside ourselves with joy.
I wish everyone could feel what we felt that day just once in their lives. To go from July through mid-November without really seeing the light of day is as difficult as anything we’ve ever encountered. To be on the other side of that is an unbelievable feeling.
We had to go to Maine the next year—no matter what it took—not to tempt fate but to go back and tell the doctors and nurses that Jared survived because of them, their love and their expertise. We also wanted them to meet our happy, little guy—not the one who was knocked out from medicine and breathing machines.
We took photos of the sunset up there—lots of them. We took them with Jared and without—because every day and every sunset is worth celebrating and enjoying.
When Jared died 12 years later, we had a bookmark made to give everyone who attended with 5 lessons that we learned from our life with Smiler McGee. Those lessons are:
- Every day is a gift from God
- Love those around you unconditionally
- Smile as much as you can
- Keep all things in perspective
The backdrop we used was from a Maine sunset. And that’s why this photo had to be on the cover of Songs for Smiler McGee.
Who is Smiler McGee?
Smiler McGee is a nickname I gave one day to our special needs son Jared, who is and will always be my number one fan. He loved music more than anything—except for maybe being in a pool or riding on a horse at hippotherapy.
Jared died shortly before his 14th birthday of a kidney disease. He never walked or talked, he breathed through a trach, was fed through a feeding tube and had hearing and vision challenges. Despite all of those things, he made every day with him special and he introduced us to people whom we are still fortunate to call friends.
Jared’s smile was so big and so wide—and his dimples were so awesome—that Smiler McGee seemed to be a fun and fitting name. Plus, when you have a child who can’t talk, you find yourself talking, singing and smiling right along with him. And, oh, how Jared would sing. He couldn’t form words but that coo of his was his way of telling us how happy he was.
When I would play the piano, Jared would get quiet, listen and watch me closely. Better than that, he didn’t mind my mistakes. When the rest of the family would leave the house, I could actually sing to Jared—a phobia I’ve had for most of my life—and he loved it. He gave me confidence and in many ways, since I had to give up creating music for months on end to be in the hospital with him on several occasions, he gave music back to me during the time we were together.
Smiler McGee was a gift in my life who keeps on giving.
These songs, each of which has its own story, are for him.
The Most Successful Piano Man in Dallas
Jon Dahlander, by day a spokesman for Highland Park ISD, has got us feelin’ alright.
BY MICHAEL J. MOONEY PUBLISHED IN D MAGAZINE FEBRUARY 2016
If you know the name Jon Dahlander, it’s probably because you’ve seen him quoted in the paper or interviewed on TV. He was, for years, the spokesman for Dallas ISD. He answered calls from pestering reporters through the turbulent administrations of 10 superintendents. Then, last summer, he left DISD to become the director of communications for Highland Park ISD.
But Dahlander has a side gig of sorts. If you listen to piano music on Pandora, you’ve almost certainly heard his work. He doesn’t have a website or use social media, and he rarely plays in public, but on any given day his songs might get played 50,000 times. More than 12,000 Pandora users have created “Jon Dahlander” stations. At some point in 2016, he will pass the 100 million mark for spins. Every month, a royalty check arrives, “about a car payment or two,” as he puts it. But that’s not the point.
Dahlander took piano lessons as a kid and quit, but came back to the instrument in high school. In college, he played as a way of relaxing. Then he heard the George Winston song “Thanksgiving.” “That changed everything,” Dahlander says. “I didn’t realize the piano could contain that kind of emotion and create an environment with so many textures.”
In the late ’90s, Dahlander recorded three albums with the Dallas-based independent Carpe Diem Records, which had also signed Rhett Miller. The recordings didn’t sell a lot, but it was a nice side job. Then in 2000 his son Jared was born, and Dahlander got busier with work. He put his playing career on hold.
But in 2007, he read about a streaming service called Pandora and decided to submit his albums. A few weeks later, he noticed they’d been added. “If you’re a piano player, you don’t get your songs played on the radio,” he says, “but I felt like there was an audience for them somewhere.” He was right. At work, at home—anyone searching for piano music eventually finds his. “It’s been this snowball,” he says.
Now he’s writing again. The last two years have been prolific. At his new job, school board meetings wrap at 6 pm, where at DISD they sometimes ran till 3 am. He’s had more time, but he has also needed the stress relief that he finds at the keys. His son, a child with special needs, passed away a year and a half ago. The boy couldn’t walk or talk, but he loved sitting by the piano and listening to his father play. Dahlander has written about 40 new songs and hopes to get into the studio to record soon. His new album, inspired by a nickname for his son, is tentatively titled Songs for Smiley McGee.
A Gift Beyond Measure
Originally published in the Dallas Morning News, November 26, 2014
A Gift Beyond Any Conceivable Measure by Jon Dahlander
If I close my eyes, I can still see his face and imagine his smile. Thinking of his dimples or his sweet coos or one of his high-fives brings me a joy that I wish the entire world could experience.
Then, when I open my eyes, I am again faced with the devastating reality that he is gone. He is now a series of memories and photos in frames — so many of which are both beautiful and crushing at the same time.
Our sweet son Jared died this past August just shy of his 14th birthday of a kidney disease. He was — and still is — our angel, watching us, guiding us, smiling, laughing and placing every bit of our lives in perspective.
Jared was born with a genetic syndrome that medical experts were never able to identify. Not knowing what kind of cognitive ability he might ever have or even his life expectancy was like continually walking through the dark in an unfamiliar place. We never knew where we would wind up.
My wife and I did everything possible to maximize his potential — countless physical, occupational, speech, aqua- and hippo-therapy sessions. We traveled to Boston and Denver to track down genetics authorities to try to get a read on his syndrome. We flew back to Boston — twice — to have a hand surgery that we thought might help in his development.
Even just one year ago, Dr. Daniel Sucato and the dedicated staff at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children performed life-changing scoliosis surgery that we believed would give Jared a new lease on life. Despite several long recovery periods, he smiled through it all, amazing us with his courage and resilience.
Despite our efforts, Jared was never able to walk or talk. He breathed through a trach and was fed through a feeding tube. He had both hearing and vision impairments. While every day with him was a challenge, the rewards of his life are treasures that we would not trade for anything. He was a gift beyond any conceivable measure. His smile could light up a room and when he held your hand you knew how much you were loved.
As we approach Thanksgiving, my wife, Heidi, and I are again reminded of the hundreds of heroes that our angel introduced us to during his life. We are also reminded that the community that supported Jared and us is something that rarely makes headlines — but should.
There are people who walk among us every day who quietly go about their work, helping and healing, supporting and giving. They not only did it for us; they do it for everyone who comes in their path, because that’s just what they do.
Heidi and I were both fortunate to have grown up in large families. Our upbringing was very similar. The Episcopal Church was a central part of our lives.
We met at our first jobs after college and started dating a year later. One of the things we always talked about — both before and after getting married — was building a family.
When we learned that Heidi was pregnant, we didn’t want to find out the baby’s gender in advance. With so few surprises left in this world, we would wait to find out in the delivery room. When people asked us if we wanted to have a boy or girl, we would just say that we only wanted a healthy child.
The surprise that we had in delivery wasn’t just that Jared was a boy, it was that he appeared to have some sort of genetic syndrome and that he would likely have medical issues throughout his life. What we had hoped would be one of the happiest days of our lives turned into one filled with tears and fear.
Once we held Jared, though, we realized that this was an angel who was going to need our love, support and protection from the world. I know all new parents feel this way, but we couldn’t help but feel, even then, like he was going to need much, much more.
Act of kindness
Jared’s first year was filled with hospitalizations and surgeries. We spent a lot of time at Medical City, so much so that we knew all of the doctors and nurses in the pediatric intensive care unit. I can still rattle off all of their names.
We stayed in the hospital so long that family and friends stopped coming to visit. They really didn’t know what to say any more and, of course, they needed to live their lives, too, away from a hospital. The days and nights all ran together, and Heidi and I had to just accept that this was our new normal.
On yet another endless day in the hospital, Heidi was visited by Cheryl Vandiver from the Night OWLS (Out With Loving Sitters) ministry at Highland Park United Methodist Church.
Cheryl had been a nurse at Children’s Medical Center for years before being asked by the Rev. Mark Craig to create a ministry to support the parents of special needs children. Craig had witnessed far too often the effect that caring for a medically fragile child could have on families.
We knew absolutely no one at that church. How they found us is still one of life’s great mysteries.
Cheryl explained that, when Jared got healthy enough to get out of the hospital, the Night OWLS volunteers, who include skilled nurses, would take care of him at no charge on a Friday night to allow Heidi and me a night to get out and be a couple again.
The idea of this act of kindness seemed too good to be true. Jared’s care and support was all-consuming, and the stress we were under was often unbearable.
About a month after what was likely Jared’s sixth hospitalization and fifth surgery during the first year of his life, we decided to see if we could actually leave Jared behind at Highland Park UMC. That first Friday, we went to a restaurant almost within walking distance and seemed to stay only about 45 minutes. It was difficult to relax with him out of our sight.
Through time, we started to become more comfortable with the idea that this was a very special group of volunteers who wanted nothing more than for us to have time together or with friends. For 12 years, the kindness of the Night OWLS family of volunteers saved us. Just having one night a month to ourselves was so important for our emotional well-being.
No one believes me when I say this, but it’s true: Without this ministry, it is doubtful that we would have had the courage or strength to consider having additional children.
Through Jared, we learned about faith and grace.
Today, we are blessed to have Ava Faith, now 9, and Chloe Grace, who is 4. And yes, they are thankfully healthy.
I wear a necklace every day that was given to me by the rector at our church, the late Father Jay Hobbs. On it is a medallion of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travel. Legend has it that St. Christopher carried a child through intrepid waters to reach the other side of a river, later to learn that he had been carrying Jesus.
When Father Hobbs gave me the necklace about a year after Jared was born, he explained that he felt that both Heidi and I were on a journey ourselves and that we had been given a job by God to safely carry this child to another place. While he said he didn’t know where that other place would be, his hope for us was that, along the way, the reason for the journey with Jared would reveal itself.
It did, in ways too numerous to count. At every step, Jared introduced us to one incredible person after another. Jared’s teachers and aides in Dallas ISD schools were beyond belief in their love, kindness and care for him.
Keesha Graves is just one example. Keesha had no intention of becoming a special ed teacher until she met Jared. She only took a job as a special ed teacher’s aide to gain classroom experience while she finished her degree. She eventually followed Jared to three schools.
Her experience as Jared’s aide and working with other kids in his class changed her her life. Keesha eventually earned her degree, became a special ed teacher and now chairs the special ed department at Cabell Elementary in Dallas ISD.
Jared loved Keesha so much that all we ever had to do to get a smile and giggle out of him was to say her name.
Jared’s overnight nurses became part of our family and inspired us even more. Mariana Mbah, who moved here from Cameroon in West Africa in 1982 with nothing more than a suitcase, would study each night while Jared was sleeping so that she could eventually own her own home health care agency. We used to joke around with her that she was going to be a CEO someday.
It’s not a joke anymore. Mariana now employs several nurses who take care of 40 elderly patients each week. Mariana proves that, with hard work and perseverance, anyone can achieve the American dream. We would have never met her without Jared.
“Jon, wake up! Something is wrong with Jared. I’ve had to put him on oxygen because he’s de-satting,” meaning his oxygen saturation levels were dropping.
It was Father’s Day this year, and Heidi had been doing her very best to honor my annual request for one, just one, uninterrupted, guilt-free nap. After an hour, she couldn’t wait any longer. His oxygen levels were dipping too low for comfort.
Jared’s issues with his lungs were numerous over the years. I lost track of how many days and nights we spent in the hospital with various bouts of pneumonia. When he was home, he had two different kinds of breathing treatments every day throughout his life.
We had grown used to these issues, and Jared always managed to bounce back. Because of that, we weren’t overly concerned. Bothered, yes — because it meant that we would once again need to find places for our daughters to go while he was in the hospital, but we were used to that.
As we took him to Medical City Childrens for what seemed like the 200th time, I had resigned myself to thinking that he would probably be there for maybe a week. If only we could have been so lucky.
Yes, his oxygen levels were low when we arrived in the emergency room, but his blood pressure was elevated, which was an important clue for the ER doctor on duty. A blood test further indicated that his kidneys were failing. We couldn’t get our heads around that. For a guy who had endured 20 surgeries and countless hospitalizations, none of which were related to his kidneys, renal failure came completely out of the blue.
Various issues put off a biopsy of Jared’s kidneys until Wednesday, then we had to wait a couple of excruciating days to get the results. When Heidi and I were told that the nephrologist wanted to meet with both of us on Friday afternoon, we knew the news wasn’t likely to be good. Even then, because of Jared’s resiliency in the past and our eternal optimism, we just expected that whatever he had would be fixable and that Jared would be back home in a matter of weeks.
When the time for our meeting finally arrived, the doctors could not have been more honest and direct. Jared was suffering from a progressive but painless kidney disease called “collapsing FSGS.”
For most other patients, dialysis might be a short-term option prior to an eventual kidney replacement. Not for Jared. Previous surgeries on his abdomen had left behind too much scar tissue for dialysis to be a reasonable option, and the disease, because of its aggressive nature, would likely attack any new kidney.
There was not going to be a good ending. It was now only a matter of time before this disease would eventually take his life.
During Jared’s last few weeks in the hospital, nearly 100 people came to visit. Because the kidney disease was painless, Jared was able to smile often for those who had helped both him and us on our journey.
Our church, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, surprised us by having a crew of people get together to make dozens of origami cranes, symbolizing compassion, love and courage, that were hung from the ceiling in Jared’s room at Medical City. The cranes added color and love at a time when all of us needed it most.
Jared’s funeral was attended by more than 650 people and is believed to be the largest funeral service in our church’s 55-year history. All of our heroes were there: Night OWLS volunteers, doctors, nurses, teachers, aides, friends and family. It is a day we recall with both great joy and tremendous sadness.
Our angel was called home.
We printed up bookmarks to give to those in attendance because we wanted to share the most important lessons that, in addition to faith and grace, Jared taught us over the years:
Every day is another gift from God
Love those around you unconditionally
Smile as much as you can
Keep things in perspective
Jared was indeed a gift, and we are only beginning to realize that there is so much power in his story. He may have never said a word, but he taught us more than anyone can ever imagine.
As we make our way through difficult moments, we are reminded how blessed we have been to live in a place with so much medical expertise, commitment and, more than anything, love.
We also know that the many people who helped us on our journey continue their work, without fanfare, supporting families like ours when they need it most. To them, we can never say “thank you” enough.
Jon Dahlander is executive director of news and information for Dallas ISD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q&A: Pianist Jon Dahlander
When he signed with local company Carpe Diem Records in 1995, he became its fastest selling artist. And now, thanks to the Internet, people across the world download his music.
t’s not unusual to find neighbor Jon Dahlander taping a segment of the student news program School Zone, one of his many roles in Dallas ISD’s communications department. But many people don’t realize that Dahlander is a talented piano player with fans near and wide. When he signed with local company Carpe Diem Records in 1995, he became its fastest selling artist. And now, thanks to the Internet, people across the world download his music.
When did you start playing the piano?
I started playing at age 5. I took some lessons during elementary school. I quit doing that so I could play the trombone … but I started going back to piano. In college, that was the highlight of my day, finding a room I could play and create.
What do you enjoy about it?
It’s a form of release, expression. So to me, it’s kind of relaxing in a way. I’ve been a music fan since I was 6 months old and heard the Beatles on the radio. The ability to create my own songs is very appealing to me. Some people have journals that they write in; mine happens to be the piano. These just happen to be songs without words.
Why did you major in communications rather than music?
I don’t know. Music is a hard field to really make it in. I just didn’t feel like majoring in music would build my career opportunities. I felt that if I pursued music, it would be something on the side. And that’s how it has been. I didn’t want to be locked into doing music for the rest of my life. I want it to have this special place, rather than being a vocation.
How do people learn about your music?
I’m really not out marketing my music, but right now it’s an exciting time. I’m on iTunes. I’m on an online piano radio station called whisperings.com and pandora.com. There are people throughout the world creating Jon Dahlander radio stations. Someone in has done that and (in) the . And here I am going through life and changing diapers. [Dahlander and his wife, Heidi, have two young children.]
Is your family musical?
My mom played the baritone. My dad is and was tone deaf. Sitting next to him in church is an interesting experience. They are music fans. They go to the symphony. There’s always something playing in their house.
What is the inspiration for your music?
Usually, it’s just things going on in my life, whether they’re good or they’re bad or indifferent or queasy or emotional. And of course, everyone I’ve listened to, from jazz, classical and pop.
Your first three albums, Piano Landscapes Vol. 1, 2 and 3, were solo projects, and recently you collaborated on Luminas, a guided imagery CD to help cancer patients. How was that different?
With the Luminas thing, we taped her narration first. I’ve never worked with someone singing along … I kind of looked at it as a duet. I was also trying to stay very focused on the project, which is to bring comfort to people listening to the CD.
Did you ever think you would be famous?
I think when you start recording a CD, you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someone in got a hold of this, and I started traveling the world playing?’ Of course, that never happened to me and never will. I’m much happier and have a richer life working for the school district and having my family.
Reviews of Recently Released CDs
Last time we saw Dahlander was just over a year ago. He has since left his post in the Oklahoma Department of Education and moved to Dallas. He says the move was for a better day job, but his record company is there and I’ve got an idea where Jon’s true passions lie. The follow-up to his impressive solo piano debut is equally charming and astonishing graceful.
The beauty of Dahlander’s expressive playing is that it rises so far above the excess of sentiment or the strain of purpose given to many of the solo pianists you’ll find lurking sullenly in the New Age section. Like George Winston, Dahlander composes with great concern for the lyric line of each piece, but he’s somehow more carefee than Winston, his hands (particularly the right) lighter and skipping a bit higher than Winston’s contemplative walk. These pieces bask in the sheer joy of being played, even when focusing on someone obviously close to Dahlander’s heart in “The Strawberry Princess” (a touching piece whose melody, I think, plays on Dylan’s “License to Kill”).
The theme of the debut was the ocean; this one focuses on mountains and the wonder therein. His reference points are regional — “Sangre de Christo,” “Arbuckle Sunrise” — and each thought beautifully surmised. Dahlander looks to be a constant source of joy.
Best Buy carried the debut, but if you’re hunting, contact Carpe Diem at (800) 249-1934.
— Thomas Conner, World Staff Writer