Farewell My Friend

The last time I saw Dave, I took this photo of him and his dad leaving St. Elias Hospital in Anchorage.  Dave came to work as a mechanical piping designer at the engineering firm I was working at, about 2002.  Being next to each other, we got acquainted and became work place friends.  Every morning we would go out and get a cup of coffee together. 
Dave was a character.  His dad, (in the photo) was a hard working & hard drinking longshoremen. Dave also had a younger brother I never met, who was a deck boss on a Bering Sea crabber.  Dave projected a rough persona, a hard rocking, Dodge pickup driving, ex-linebacker red-neck hard ass.  But at his core was a really good hearted and decent person. More sensitive than he let on.
I think that sensitivity was not a good thing for him in his circumstances growing up. He told me a few things about his upbringing, which was rough. But we usually talked about work, current events and mundane things.

He told me stories that made us both howl with laughter.  He told me all through his youth, his dad & uncles would tell them that they were part Cherokee.  They would huddle around campfires during youthful summer nights and listen to the adults tell stories about their Indian heritage.  He said an aunt of his did some research and had verified it. She had cadged a thousand or so from his dad and who knows how much from other relatives and produced some dubious paperwork stating they were part of the Cherokee tribe.  They even received official tribal membership cards and numbers. The paperwork claimed to be official and from the Cherokee Tribal Acrchives in North Bend, Oregon.  Everyone bought into it and the matter was settled in their minds. But not in Dave’s. 

Dave did his own research and even called the actual Cherokee tribal offices in Oklahoma.  The numbers and paperwork were bogus, but the aunt who had foisted this scam on his family was now dead.  His image of her getting over on them, was her laughing from the grave like the old woman in the tub in room 237, in the Shining. 
Dave liked his vodka.  A lot. At first it didn’t affect his work. He was a tough son of a bitch. But as the years rolled on, I began to notice what I call ‘slippage’.  I’ve seen it a before in alcoholics who are stepping up to the varsity drinking team.  A mistaken memory of an event you were present at, or missed pickups on design drawings.  Little things at first. Then the coming in late, or not at all. The smell of alcohol oozing out from his skin. The puffy weight gain.

Dave finally lost his job.   I had moved on by then, to another firm.  We kept in touch via e-mail, telephone, and the occasional lunch.  I was busy, a family and job, a house, a life.  I received a call from a mutual friend who said that Dave was in the ICU at a local hospital.  I went to see him in the ICU. He was in a coma. When I first walked in, I was walking down the corridor looking in rooms as I walked by, trying to find him.  I saw a yellowish and waxy looking old man, propped up in a hospital bed with hoses sticking out of everywhere.  I walked past looking for Dave when a nurse asked me who I was trying to find. I told her and she pointed me back to the room where I had seen the waxy yellowish old man.  I walked in and took a hard look.  Here was a guy who was younger than me by ten years, but who looked like a concentration camp inmate on life support.  What I saw brought tears to my eyes.

I and others frequently went to see him.  After about a week, he came out of his coma.  Everyone, including the doctors thought he was going to die, but here he was talking to us.  He spent almost a month in that ICU.  He slowly got better.  Eventually he was moved out to a regular room.  One doctor even told him that he hoped Dave appreciated the gift he had been given because they gave him a ten percent chance of leaving the hospital alive when he came in. 
He did leave the hospital alive though. The photo above was taken the day he and his dad walked out of there and went back down south, to Oregon.  I kept in touch though e-mail and the occasional phone call.  He was doing better and slowly getting his life back together.  I was busy with my life.  The river of time ever flowing on.  I wanted to fly down next year, rent a car and drive to southern Oregon to visit him.

 Today at work, I got another call, from the same mutual friend who had told me a few years back that Dave was in the hospital.  Dave had died.  Dave had been drinking again.  He didn’t know if he been back on the drink for a while, or if he had just started back on that night, but his brother came over in the morning and found him dead. Given how ravaged his body had been before, I suspect it wouldn’t take much at all to put his system into a tailspin.

I know a lot of people personally and professionally, but I have very few friends.  Despite the distance, I considered Dave a friend.  Though we were vastly different in many ways, and in most circumstances would not have gotten to know each other, we did. He was at this core a good person. That’s more than many more accomplished people can claim.

I especially remember one winter night when my daughter was small and my wife called me in distress because her car had broken down on the road. She got it off to the side, but was stuck several miles from home with our young daughter and it was dark and cold. I called Dave. No question. He showed up with his truck. I had the tow straps and we got that car safely to my garage so I could fix it.  When the chips were down, he was the one person I called and he came through, like I friends do. 
Tonight I sit here typing this and wishing I had been a better friend.  Time and age accumulate silently, like snow falling in the woods. I was busy with my life and all of the other petty and mundane daily concerns that steal the time of day and cloud our vision.  There are lots of reasons to put off that e-mail, or call, or visit, but life is short and there’s only one shot.  Tend to what’s important.

Dave, I wish you peace and rest and I pray to God that you find the peace that was denied you in this life.  And I promise, I’ll be down to visit. Too late, I know, but better late than never.  Goodbye friend.