By Amy Palumbo-LeClaire
Special to the Auburn Mass Daily, courtesy of Yankee XPress
Brendan Daley, a forty-six year old twin, has been through a lot. Born on October 5, 1970, with a nameless facial disfiguration (Crouzon Disease was speculated upon though never confirmed) that led to over forty surgeries, more than a few stares, and the immense support of family and friends, Brendan has learned to cope, in part, by not taking himself too seriously.
“I like to joke around. If I’m serious, you’re not going to like me. I sometimes like to have a little more fun than I should,” he said.
For the past twenty-one years, Daley has learned to have a little bit of fun at his place of employment, the Auburn Street McDonalds, his home away from home. “I see so many friends and teachers in town that I grew up with at work, even the Junior High principal who used to snub me,” he joked. “But dealing with the public can test my patience level. Everyone is in a rush these days. Before the restaurant adopted a ‘made to order’ practice I used to have to prepare the sandwiches by hand, one bin at a time. People would holler back to me, but I could only do so much.”
In order to alleviate a brewing Mc-Headache, Daley isn’t shy to a harmless prank. He’s taken off his (former) prosthetic ear and placed it in random spots to scare other workers, pulled it out for selective ‘I can’t hear you’ gags, and climbed through a forbidden Playland tube (many years ago) during a Grand Opening. “I took a leave of absence from McDonalds a while back. My manager told me there are still some things I need to learn before becoming a manager, but he never told me what those things were,” Daley confessed.
Daley’s adventurous spirit began amongst a caring family of seven (two parents plus five children: Tom, Tim, Joanne, Jay and Brendan) in the home he still lives in with his twin brother, Jay, and sister, Joanne, on Burnett Street in Auburn. “There were always friends coming and going in my house,” he recalled. “I can still remember having swimming lessons at Bennett Pool and then coming home to swim at my own pool. My parents just wanted me to be me. They did everything they could do to give me a normal life. I fought and got into trouble with my siblings like everyone else. My mother would threaten that we ‘wait until Dad got home’ but she was the one in charge.”
Nancy Daley, a UMass Nutritionist who tragically died in a car accident on her way to a nutritional fair – the “fateful” trip (1993) of which Brendan wishes he could have dissuaded her from taking – took charge of her son’s education by advocating for his needs. He was not allowed to enter kindergarten in the Auburn Public Schools, but due to her efforts, a boy that was, perhaps, more alike than different from his peers, entered Bryn Mawr School in the first grade. “My mother had a reputation for being a hard-ass. She fought for me to be treated like everyone else.”
Brendan’s Dad, Joseph Daley, who passed away of heart issues only two weeks prior to his mother’s fatal accident, was equally supportive, working two jobs as a pharmacist while taking time off during important moments in his son’s life. “During my surgeries, my Dad would stay with me from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed. He was right there for us, doing whatever he needed to do to help any of his kids. I have his dry sense of humor.”
Daley’s forty-plus reconstructive surgeries, some of which involved borrowing bones from his ribs or legs to use on his face, took place from 1975 – 1985 and came with an alternating two-months in, six-months out hospital schedule. “I had skin grafts taken from my hips. Changing the dressings on those were not pleasant,” he recalled, along with a memory of his first surgery. “I remember waking up in the ICU room. My first surgery took eighteen hours. I had died on the operating table at one point, my mother told me.”
Daley’s surgeries linked him to highly esteemed surgeons. The late Dr. Joseph Murray – who performed the first successful human kidney transplant on identical twins Richard and Ronald Herrick (1954) – was his plastic surgeon out of Boston Children’s Hospital. “He listened to me. He would take my opinion into consideration. ‘I don’t really like the surgery,’ I told him. I didn’t want to be in the hospital for months and miss out on school and friends. ‘I know you don’t really want another surgery, but it would beneficial if you had it,’ he said back to me, and finally convinced me to have the surgery.”
A second acclaimed surgeon, Dr. Paul Tessier, known as The Master of Facial Reconstructive Surgery, came to the US from France twice per year to perform only four surgeries in this country, one of which he saved for Brendan Daley. “Back in the 80’s, when I was in Junior High, I lost the tip of my nose and ear due to a loss of blood supply during a surgery. Dr. Tessier felt so bad. He apologized to me over and over again.”
Not everyone was as apologetic as Daley’s plastic surgeons. He experienced “quiet years” in elementary and Junior High School, during which he recalls how most of the Auburn kids treated him like everybody else. However, there were exceptions—snide comments and stares that have scarred him, exclusions from playing basketball with the rest of the gym class, and a single comment that “stuck” and provoked the whole school, he recalled, to come to his defense.
“What that kid said was so awful I can’t even remember it, but I remember the whole class wanted to kick his ass, including one of my best friends at the time, John Volungus.”
Just as his allies have been there for him, Brendan hasn’t hesitated to take a stand for a friend, especially when that friend happens to be his twin brother, Jay, his ‘Rock and Shock’ Comic Book partner in crime who snaps the celebrity photos posted on Brendan’s Facebook page. “We’ve always been best friends and still are. I remember one time in school when someone was picking on Jay. I said ‘knock it off’ and told him if he wanted to fight, I’d be waiting for him after school. I went back to school, along with a group of friends, but the kid never showed up.”
Looking back at his stubbly growing-up years, Brendan is thankful to have had the freedom to just “be a kid, break bones” and endure what he simply had to endure. “I can’t hide the way I look. I was aware of the teasing and it made me upset and it made me cry but it was a fact of life,” he said. “I had to go through it.”
Daley was the first student accepted to St. John’s High School with a physical deformity, thanks to his Mom, who helped her son “get through it” via her own involvement with the school, along with some advice. “Show me who your friends are, and I’ll show you who you are,” he recalled her saying.
Despite that he recently attended his 25th High School Class Reunion with his childhood Auburn friends (only ten showed up for the St. John’s Class Reunion) he claims to have opened up more at the all-boys school, where he navigated amongst social cliques, participated in Cross Country, worked as a ‘runway model’ for the Annual Spring Show, and accepted a (surprise) award for St. John’s Service. “St. John’s was a family. I was never good at Math until having Mr. O’Donnel, a first-year teacher from England. He was patient and he helped me to understand. You could go to the teachers and kids at St. Johns. They cared about you.”
As far as the less caring parts of his life are concerned—such as the McDonald’s customer who refused to pass money to his hands, the woman at the Clark Street bus stop who told him he was ugly, the children who overlooked him, and the too-soon deaths of his beloved parents—Brendan Daley does not claim to have all of the answers. Rather, he lives his life with acceptance (along with a few liters of Coke) and chooses to “walk away” when necessary.
“Why did God do this to me? Why am I this way and everyone else is a different way? —I used to ask myself. After my parents died, I said to Him – seriously? Now I just accept it. I can deal with stuff because I put a shell around me. There’s the outside of me, and then there’s the inside of me that very few people see. Everyone has a façade. You gotta’ find a happy medium. Today I am at a good place. Tomorrow I might not be.”
This year, Brendan Daley, a forty-six year old man who is learning to find a happy medium, will be spending Thanksgiving Day at his cousin’s house. Along with passing around the mashed potatoes, he has some advice to share and this time he’s not joking.
“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Write to Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org