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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Against All Odds, a Beautiful Life

From left to right,Timothy Mannion, Timothy Vanover, Rocky the horse and Kindoo Mannion-Vanover slowly
lead the funeral car from their home to the church as they mourn the death of Maurice Mannion-Vanover.
Some things we know for sure — a little boy dealt a seemingly impossible hand, the two gay men who decided to give him a home and a life, the unlikely spell cast by the only horse in Montclair.
Beyond that, well, it was what you could never quite know as much as what you could that drew 500 people, friends and strangers, to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Saturday to ponder the lesson in grace and resilience, the parable of good lives and deeds outside the prescribed lines, in the remarkably long and way-too-short life of Maurice Mannion-Vanover, dead at the age of 20 on Jan. 14.
Few people begin life with so many strikes against them as Maurice had when he was born with AIDS on Sept. 11, 1990, to a crack-addicted mother in a hospital in Washington. There were physical and developmental issues severe enough that his twin sister, Michelle Reed, lived only 20 months. Deserted by his parents, he got his first break in 1993 when two men, intent on caring for a baby with serious physical needs, agreed to take him in.
The two, who came to be known as the Tims, Tim Mannion and Tim Vanover, were told he would probably live six months. But, to everyone’s amazement, he began to thrive. He gained weight. His T-cell count steadily increased. In 1996, they adopted him, becoming the first gay couple in Washington to adopt a child. A year later, they adopted a second son, Kindoo, eight years older. When Tim Vanover got a new job in New York, they moved to Montclair in 1998.
Eventually, the family of two white gay men and two black children became two men, two children and one horse, Rocky, short for Rockefeller. The Tims bought Rocky, a 4-year-old cross between a Morgan and a quarter horse, for $3,500 in 2002 and gave him to Maurice on Christmas Eve.
Montclair, a densely populated suburb, isn’t exactly horse country, but they had a double lot with an old carriage house near downtown. And Maurice had fallen in love with horses, almost transformed by their presence. Atop a horse, seemingly glued to the saddle, the slender child seemed to blossom, his back straighter, his eyes brighter, as if on top not of a horse, but of the world.
To say this was a blessing for Maurice is an understatement. But it wasn’t just for Maurice. Before long, everyone in Montclair, certainly every kid, knew about the house with the horse and the incredibly lucky kid who owned him. And before long, the intersection of Union and Harrison was a mecca for children and a magnet for passers-by, invariably greeted with a wave from Maurice and often a greeting from Rocky, who trotted up to view neighbors each day on their way to work.
It’s not as if everything went smoothly. Far from it. Maurice’s health could be precarious, like the heart condition that almost killed him in 1998.
Maurice Mannion-Vanover,
with his horse, Rocky.
Rocky sometimes got free, galloping down busy Harrison Avenue, where the New Jersey Transit buses go, then eating some of the neighbors’ flowers. And the Tims — stout, outgoing Tim Vanover and thin, more reserved Tim Mannion — broke up, but only as a couple, not as Maurice’s fathers, choosing to live together and continue to raise him.
None of that affected Maurice, who became a fixture in his neighborhood and church, a Buddha smile always on his face, the iPod — full of Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, “The Lion King” — seemingly permanently attached. He graduated from a special-education high school, traveled to Central America, Europe and Africa with his fathers, volunteered at the church food ministry. On Dec. 12, he became a black belt in tae kwon do. He wanted to live on his own and become an elementary school teacher’s aide.
And then on a trip to Toronto in January with Mr. Vanover, he got sick. Then he got sicker. There was pneumonia, sepsis, acute renal failure. “It’s time,” he said several times, seemingly in his normal, slightly Delphic voice. No one knew quite what he meant, but it didn’t occur to anyone it meant that this was all the time he had. But it was.
Making sense of it all goes far beyond the known facts of Maurice, the Tims and Rocky the Horse: the way his beloved dog, Hunter, keeled over and died a few hours after Maurice passed on; the way Rocky took Mr. Vanover’s head with his own and drew it close to him, as if sharing grief in a hug. Before the funeral service, Rocky, the Tims and Kindoo walked to the church in front of the hearse. Maurice’s priest and friend, the Rev. John A. Mennell, recalled his incandescent smile, his cut-to-the-chase greetings, his unerring instinct for doing the right thing, if not always the proper one.
He recalled the day Maurice was helping with the collection plate.
“You can do better,” Maurice said amiably to one congregant. It was the story of his life. You can do better, he said, and without quite knowing it, everyone did.


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