What follows is 3,000 words of morbid, personal dreck. It’s a story I’ve needed to tell for four years now, but I’m publishing it here, only so that. . .
Well, I’m not sure why, other than I want it to be public. Yet I don’t necessarily want anyone other than my friends to read it. I guess what I want is something like the pride one must feel after having some small thing catalogued in the Library of Congress. You don’t need anyone to read it, but you sure feel better knowing it’s there.
You may, if you choose, read it. But don’t.
This one is just for Deb and Kat and Jay and Laura and Nancy and Mel and Ed and Adam and Bekka and Don and Other Dave and the Twins and everyone else who was there those six godawful months.
Four Years Later
Had I known at the beginning of our friendship he’d be dead in three years, I still would have jumped in with both feet. David Frederick was just that fun. And “fun” doesn’t even begin to cover all that he was.
He was my best friend, my big brother, my older self. Dave was what I wanted to be – and knew I could be if I watched him long enough and tried hard enough. And Deb…
Deb is not the woman I wanted to love, though love her as a friend I always will. But when she watched Dave cook, when she touched his face after a corny line, when they danced… she adored him. He adored her. That’s why he cooked and danced and said all those corny things. Well, Deb’s not my woman, but I want what she gave to Dave. I want to be seen as she saw him. Deb & Dave convinced my jaded self that soulmates are real.
I just wouldn’t wish her mourning on any woman I know. Not over me. Not over anyone.
He got sick four years ago, nearly five. The same flu most everyone gets at some point during the cold months. Lots of coughing, loss of color, low energy, and when he drank his vodka – and Dave always drank his vodka – he’d lose his voice.
The coughing went away after a couple-three weeks, but he didn’t get better. You know, better. Seeing such an alive guy staying home because it was “easier” was just wrong. So he finally relented to Deb’s badgering and went to the doctor.
Diagnosis: Anemia, with an opportunistic fungal infection on his vocal chords.
Nothing fun, but nothing dire, either. Just some weird, unpleasant medicine to get rid of the fungus, and a we’ll-see-you-again-later on the anemia.
A month later, he still wasn’t better. Oh, the fungus was gone and he could still speak after four Citron martinis – as well as he could ever speak after four Citron martinis, that is. Back to the doctor. More tests.
The dreaded c-word. When he told me, I kept my poker face, but my insides went away. Deb sat there and held his hand.
The prognosis was good. Some mild form of leukemia, he said. He’d do chemotherapy as an out-patient. I’d never heard of such a thing. What he’d get is a tube in his side, and a Walkman-sized drug dispenser. We joked about how much Absolut Citron he could mainline through it, and I asked if I could get one, too. Glasses were raised, eyes were wiped, and all was well.
I mean, they don’t let you stay at home if you’re dying.
He went in for the last batch of tests before they installed his Drug Walkman, and decided it would be best to skip it, and keep him there at Penrose Hospital for a real series of chemo treatments. Deb, who was older than Dave but always looked younger, for once looked her age.
Me? I was as impervious as Dave’s bone marrow wasn’t. Damnit, I knew he’d beat this thing. My god, he was 41 years old, otherwise in perfect health, and full of spirit.
The only time I got upset, was a week or two before he went in the hospital. I stopped by Deb & Dave’s place to hang out, drink, tell the old tales, and lend a shoulder if needed. Discovered the two of them had wasted the day and night playing on the Nintendo. The next night, out at Old Chicago, I took Dave aside and read him the riot act.
“Look, I know you’re going to get over this. But there’s a chance you won’t. And if I see you waste another day on the bed like you did yesterday, cancer is gonna be the least of your worries. Fuckin’ live, man. You’re too good at it.”
We hugged it out and that was that – there weren’t many more wasted days before he checked into Penrose.
He checked in just days after his 42nd birthday. If you knew Dave, you’d smile at the memory that his birthday fell on April Fool’s. The party was a good one – as befit the man better than the situation. Long after most everyone else had left or passed out, we hung out on the sofa, nursing our nth Citron martinis. And he told me he was scared. Really goddamned frightened.
But who wouldn’t be? That’s what I told him. I also told him what I knew, just knew: that he was gonna beat this thing. Deb looked more like Dave than she did like me – uncertain at best. But I didn’t know what to tell her, other than what I was already telling Dave.
“It’s all gonna be alright.”
I just knew it.
Dave was less certain. He told Deb, “If the time comes it’s time to stop fighting, you have to tell me.”
Two weeks later, he looked like he was already dead – but that didn’t stop him. Not Dave. I won’t tell you what chemo does to a person. Either you’ve seen it and don’t need to be reminded, or you’re innocent and wouldn’t believe me if I had pictures.
But I still knew Dave was gonna win. Several times a day, he dragged his IV tree down the hall to the service elevator, down six (nine? Ten? Memory gets foggy on certain small details) floors, and out to the sidewalk where he could smoke his Marlboro Lights. After four weeks, he’d badgered his doctor into letting him have one, just one, smuggled Budweiser each evening.
Deb, who worked for the local school district, had taken a sabbatical and practically lived at the hospital. Me? Secure in the knowledge that Dave would be OK, I hardly visited at all. I remember being there when the news stories started coming in from Columbine, pissed that Dave & Deb were paying attention to the TV instead of to me, who had finally bothered to pay another visit.
Hell, everybody took better care of Dave than I did. Jay, his nephew, set up and installed Dave’s computer in his hospital room, so he could keep in touch with his many online friends. Kat, Jay’s bride, took care of Jay and Deb. Dave’s sisters, Nancy and Laura (who practically moved here from California during), were there doing everything else. Melenie, everyone’s Jewish mother, came down from Denver at least once a week, with chicken soup in her soul. No one took care of me – because I didn’t need it: Everything was gonna be alright.
And, damnit, I was right in what I knew – after a few more weeks, the cancer was gone and they sent him home to recoup.
Dave came home, but I wasn’t. Mom had developed some health problems, so I spent all of June back in St. Louis, taking care of her full-time. When I got back, all was back to the new normal: Dave still wasn’t able to work, but he’d at least grown some fuzz on the top of his head. We goofed off and drank wine and spent a lot of time talking about not much. I told him that chemo hadn’t done a thing for his receding hairline, but that I was sure Deb could at least paint some eyebrows on him.
Deb, being on summer vacation, stayed home and played nurse. She was 50. She looked 60. A few months before, she could easily pass for 40. Dave looked like a guy who’d dodged a bullet, but had landed in hot ash. But all was well, just as I knew it would be.
Then it came back.
I know now a lot more about leukemia than I knew then: If it comes back, you’re probably going to die. And if the diagnosis is Refractory AML, then you’re going to die, period, full stop.
But Dave hadn’t given up. He told me, point blank, his odds were one in four. “You’ve beaten the odds your whole damn life. You’ll beat them this time, too.” Besides, they were going to do a stem-cell transplant on his marrow. Stem cells, people! That’s all like cloning and shit. That’s Star Trek stuff, and it works. Right?
I just knew it would.
Middle of August, they sent Dave up to St. Luke’s in Denver. Fabulous facility, and on the leading edge of stem cell transplant technology. Nancy had already checked out as a donor, so all the pieces were in place. All they had to do first was kill off every single last bit of bone marrow in Dave’s body.
They do it with radiation. They pack you in rice and shoot gamma rays or X-rays or something until you’re nearly as dead as yesterday’s lunch. Why rice? It has the same density as flesh, so you get radiated evenly, all the way around.
I drove up to visit, just once. “Hey, you’ve got a better tan than me. I’d like to get that dark, only without all the cancer and baldness.” We were still joking, because we knew everything was gonna be alright. I did, anyway.
The transplant procedure is simple, but I’ll simplify it even more – because that’s as best as I ever understood it. Once all the marrow in your bones is radiated away, they bring your donor in. Nancy gave a big old blood sample, and they stuck it in a centrifuge to get all the good bits out. Then they stuck two tubes in Dave, one in each arm. In with the good bits, out with the bad. The stem cells from Nancy’s blood should find nice homes in Dave’s empty bones, and start producing healthy marrow.
And goddamn if they didn’t do just that.
The transplant took, as they say. Before long, Dave’s body was producing healthy marrow which, in turn, was producing healthy blood. His body was no longer killing him. Everything was alright. I went back to being carefree and irresponsible even faster than Nancy’s marrow went to work in Dave’s body.
Trivia time: If someone had tested Dave’s blood for gender, he’d have shown as “female.” More jokes ensued at Dave’s expense.
Tuesday, September 21, 1999, the cancer returned.
Remember from high school geometry the “asymptotic curve”? A formula for one is X=1/Y, if memory serves. What an asymptotic curve does is rapidly and endlessly approach zero without ever getting there. It’s like being on standby for a flight home on the day before Thanksgiving. Well, if you chart how radiation kills off bone marrow cells, it’d look like that.
The first 95% are really easy to kill. Hell, the first couple doses probably do the trick. The next four percent take a couple of weeks of radiation therapy. The last 1%, maybe less, you just can’t kill without killing the patient. Refractory AML is so pernicious, that even a surviving fraction of one percent is enough to bring the cancer back.
Dave was the one who told me. His voice was weak, but clear. Just the facts, ma’am. “Everything is gonna be alright” turned out to be a myth. What “I just knew,” was just shit.
“So now what?” I asked, talking to Deb this time.
“There’s an experimental drug out of Boston, and the doctor thinks Dave is a perfect candidate.”
I hung my hopes on “perfect candidate” for a couple days.
Thursday, September 23, 1999. I’m online, chatting up some girl in whose pants I’ve taken a current interest. Deb IMs me:
Deb: I’ve been trying to call you.
Me: What’s up?
Deb: Boston won’t let Dave have the drug.
Me: So now what?
Deb: They’re sending him home.
Me: Then what do they do?
I didn’t get it, and to this day I can’t believe Deb managed to type what she did:
Deb: They’re sending him home to die.
I told Deb I’d get offline and call her at the hospital. “What do you need? When are you two coming home?” I sounded like, or at least tried to sound like, someone planning for nothing more serious unexpected company. Deb told me what they were missing at the house, so I ran to the store and got what they needed.
I called Mom. “They’re sending Dave home.” She didn’t get it, just as I hadn’t: “For what?” “Mom, they’re sending him home to die.” And for the first time, I cried. As if telling someone else made it somehow more real.
Friday, around lunchtime, they came home. I’d already gotten everything put away, and had just sat there. I don’t know what I was thinking, if anything. When they came in, I made like it was my house and that the unexpected-but-very-very-welcome guests had arrived.
I just wanted to make it easier; I’m just not sure for whom.
Saturday night, everyone gathered at Deb’s for a . . . a party? A send-off? A pre-wake? I don’t know what it was, but everyone came to pay their respects to the soon-to-be-departed.
Nancy’s estranged husband proved the only boor: “So what’s it feel like to be dying?”
Goddamn him. I hated him for asking that. I hated myself even more for wanting to hear the answer. Goddamn me, too, because I perked up to listen.
Dave, bless him, didn’t elaborate. He also didn’t berate the question or the questioner. Damn us all: none of us did, or at least not out loud.
Deb just. . . I don’t know what she did. I don’t know how she’d done what she’d done for six months. Right then, though, I think she just existed, and that only barely. All of us were numb.
The next few days were a blur. I was there, finally, day and night. So was Deb, of course, as were Jay and Kat and Mel and Nancy and Laura. The doctor said Dave had about six weeks, and we weren’t going to miss any of it. Although I did forget, every night, to pack an overnight bag. I didn’t do it on purpose, of course – but I don’t think I’d have slept at all if it hadn’t have been in my own bed. Still, I should have been there.
Dave decided to make good on his few remaining weeks. We discussed plans for a final daytrip through his beloved mountains. He wanted to see the eastern prairies one last time, too. All of us encouraged him, but none of us expected him to be able to do any of it.
Wednesday, just six days after Dave had gotten his six-week notice, I awoke to the sound of the phone. It was half past noon, and I heard Jay’s voice: “Dave died at 12:06.”
“Son of a bitch,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”
Later, I heard what had happened while I slept.
The night before, Jay and I had changed the sheets and Dave & Deb’s bed, complete with a moisture-absorbing pad. Part of what sucks about dying is that your bladder control becomes sporadic. We tucked them in around midnight, and then I’d gone home.
Sometime late the next morning, Deb woke up, but Dave was still in the sleep-but-not-sleep of the dying.
She held him.
She kept her promise.
She said, “It’s time to stop fighting.”
He said, “OK,” and drifted in and out for a little while, there in her arms, until he did die.
OK, everything is gonna be alright.
And eventually, it was. Except for Deb – she never recovered from having the one she adored (and who adored her), die in her arms. Over the next couple of years, she forced us each, one by one, out of her life. I was out first, having been the most obvious, most blatant, reminder of Dave. But I couldn’t resent her for it, and I couldn’t hate her the few times I tried. Can you blame her? I can’t.
The other survivors have become the closest friends a man could ever hope to have – a surrogate family in every respect. So close, that they have accepted my bride as one of their own. Melissa never knew Dave, never saw what we saw, and didn’t share what we shared. But the Dinner Party Gang, as we’ve come to be known, took her in as I did – as a family should. And also because she looks at me sometimes the way Deb looked at Dave. My brother, it seems, taught me well.
That’s why I’ll never regret having jumped in with both feet.
There are countless details from the story that I missed. Dave’s Golden Retriever, Stella, mourning like the human people. My attempt to bribe Dave into surviving, by telling him that each bottle of his best wine we drank now, I’d replace for him in 12 months. Dave reconciling with his 19-year-old daughter. The way Laura became our new Dave, even if she won’t drink vodka martinis. The night Mel, the woman we all cried on, let herself cry on my shoulder. And how important that made me feel. How her husband, Ed, went from becoming “Mel’s husband,” to a man close to my heart – and their kids, just as close. The night Jay punched out a fence in despair. Fill in details from your own losses, because I’m sure they’re not much different from the other details I haven’t mentioned.
My best friend, my brother, my older self, received his death sentence at 41, and was dead six months later. My father died at 41, 20 years ago come February. Today, my best man is 41 and suffering from a severe kidney condition. I’m 34, in perfect health, yet sometimes morbidly wonder if seven years is all I have left.
But everything is gonna be alright.
I just know it.