Reflection: Unlikely friendships & life lessons

Almost four years ago I met a man named Dave. Two years ago he died.

In reflecting on our time together I’ve come to realise that despite feeling like I knew so much about him, I actually knew very little.

He did, however, teach me one of the greatest lessons of life.

Dave was 89.

He was the thinnest man I had ever met. You could see his bones protruding from beneath his clothes. He wore knee-length beige shorts that had been perfectly ironed with white socks folded neatly just below his knees. He had a hunched back and a deep, croaky voice. There was something about him that scared me. But then he smiled. His eyes danced and when he laughed — a deep belly laugh — his face lit up and the room filled with love and warmth.

I believe that for some reason beyond both our beings, we were destined to meet.

I was 27 and working for a weekly newspaper in Queensland when we first crossed paths. I was trying to finish the copy for an advertorial at 3pm on a Friday when Dave called to (very specifically) speak to me. I listened halfheartedly, struggling to understand his raspy voice.

“You have written a letter for the council?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, almost exasperated. “How can I help?” I asked.

“I need you to post it for me,” he replied. I spent a few minutes offering Dave the addresses for the local council, post office and various email addresses that he could use before I gave up, and in my own exasperated voice, asked him where he lived.

“I’ll pick the letter up after work and post it for you.”

I figured, the town wasn’t that big. Picking up a letter and posting it would be quicker than battling through another 20 minutes trying to explain that he had rung the newspaper, not the post office, and that we don’t run errands for people. Laughing with a colleague, we joked how the full moon (combined with the lack of rain) had brought the more interesting people out.

Strangely enough it’s now when the moon is at its fullest that the grief I feel for Dave is at its greatest.

Dave’s house was set back from the road. His front yard looked more like a nature reserve than a residence. The garden was filled with overgrown native plants that had long cared for themselves rather than relying on any watering system or human input.

When I got to the house I couldn’t find the front door. Peering through the windows I could only just make out a few couches in the darkened rooms and possibly a billiards table covered with a sheet. Around the side of the house a cracked pathway led down to an in-ground pool. From where I was standing it looked empty. The once dark blue tiles were sun-bleached and rusting.

I knocked on the door and waited. I bargained with myself: if he didn’t answer in 15 seconds I could leave. Technically I had delivered on my end of the deal. I looked through the window again. There was no sign of movement. I knocked one last time. Just as I turned to leave I heard a voice call. The door rattled and slowly opened.

“Hi,” I greeted the darkened figure behind the screen door.

“Hello,” he replied. “You’re here.” He sounded equally surprised and delighted.

He pushed open the screen door and stepped on to the veranda. It was almost as though his small, frail frame was balancing delicately on his thin legs. I was engulfed by guilt. Three minutes ago I was begrudgingly walking up a driveway thinking: ‘honestly, how hard is it to post a letter?’ when this man just needed a hand.

“I am,” I said. “I’ve come to pick up your letter for the council.” Nodding, Dave held the door open for me.

“Would you like to come in?” I glanced into his house. The blinds were open but the rooms were dark.

Nooooo, I felt like saying. There was something so eerie and unsettling that the urge to run away was almost as consuming as the guilt. I looked back at him. His eyes were filled with so much kindness that I took a step forward in to his lounge room, ignoring the uneasiness in my stomach and reasoning that, worse come to worse, I could out stride him in two seconds flat. This was, after all, technically no different to any other interview I go to every other day.

I asked him again if he had his letter. He directed me towards a set of lounge chairs.

“Did you bring a pen?” he asked. I rummaged around my bag and pulled one out.

“Paper?” I shook my head.

Sitting on the edge of the couch, I watched as he limped across the room to an inbuilt book shelf and scooped up a stack of paper. Turning back to the couch he shuffled unsteadily across the room and handed a piece to me. Sitting on the next couch he slowly arranged the other pieces of paper on his lap and looked up.

“You’re the second journalist who has come,” he told me, somewhat earnestly. “The first one was from the other paper. A young lass, like you. She listened for a while, asked some questions, but I knew she wouldn’t do anything.”

“Really?” I asked.

“She said she’d be in touch as she was leaving but she never did. Rita said to leave it.”

“That’s no good,” I replied anxiously, hoping that I too could leave sooner rather than later. “Do you have your letter?”

“The letter! Yes. I wanted to write to the, the, the, what are they called?” he looked at me.

“Local council?”

“Yes them, the local council. Can you help me?” Before I had a chance to draw breath he was telling me about how, when he was younger and living in California, he was one of the first people to work for a private engineering company that were crafting a coding or operating system that would revolutionalise certain aircraft.

I looked at him, slightly confused.

“Would you like me to help you post the letter? Or put it in the newspaper?” I asked, bringing him back to our initial conversation.

“No, I need you to help write the letter. I can’t write. With my arthritis, I can’t hold the pencil.” He held his hand up and attempted to clench his fingers, wincing slightly each time he brought them in to a rounded fist.

By this time it had started getting dark outside.

“How about I come back on Tuesday afternoon?” I countered, picking the day after the newspaper print deadline when there’d be time to figure out what do about his ‘letter’. “I’ll bring my laptop, we can type it straight out.” His head dropped and he nodded.

“I promise I will come back. Three o’clock on Tuesday. We’ll type up a letter to the council,” I said. I hoped he could tell I was being sincere. He looked up and as much as it broke my heart that he thought I was trying fob him off, he agreed.

Over the next four months I visited Dave regularly. I normally negotiated that we sat outside. There was something about the inside of his house that scared me for no explainable or rational reason. And with my laptop in front of me, I would type the start of the letter: To whom it may concern.

Dave would dictate, generally only one sentence of the letter before he got sidetracked sharing little stories from his past. As much as he may have wanted to write a letter to council, potentially to be published as a Letter To The Editor in the newspaper, I think he really just wanted a friend to talk to. Someone who’d listen.

None of Dave’s stories were in chronological order. In any hour we could recount moments from five different decades and neither I, nor he, would quite know which was the earliest or latest occurrence.

What I did learn was that Dave was born and raised in America. He moved to Australia as a young lad, fell in love with a lady, married and had three children. Unfortunately, their marriage ended when the children were young. Over time he lost contact with them. Eventually he met the love of his life, Rita, at a party. He hadn’t had eyes for any other woman for a while when he met her. She was a tough cookie and they both played hard to get; but she said it was his accent that made him too hard to resist. They went on to have a son.

His career was harder to pin down. I believe he was a mechanical engineer to some degree and worked within the aviation industry. He used to tell me with great pride that some of the smartest and hardest working colleagues he had were women.

Unfortunately, Dave’s body gave out long before his mind. Quite often he sent me home with succulents in jam jars or other odd specimens he had grown in the garden. He was constantly working on different projects in the backyard and using the kitchen for his experiments.

Dave was incredibly clever. He loved current affairs, politics, academia and science. He had old sketches of operating systems he designed. He was a hoarder and had folders full of newspaper clippings on his favourite subjects by his favourite journalists.

But it was Rita that he missed more than anything. I think she may have passed away three years earlier. Dave said she had been ill and later suffered a stroke. After that, he said, she was never the same. I believe he cared for her in the last years until she passed on.

I learned he had carers who visited at least twice a week and drove him crazy by trying to clean up — effectively moving the large stashes of newspapers he kept in an organised mess that only made sense to him. He received Meals on Wheels but didn’t always like what was on the menu.

He was grateful, loving, humble and happy.

The nurses told him that next time he had a fall he may not come out of hospital. The way he always had new bruises on his limbs scared me. Every time I left I made him promise he’d be careful not to trip or hurt himself.

Just before I moved overseas I gave him a bag full of random little gifts I would have given my Pop for his birthday. He gave me a tiny book that Rita’s mother had given her in April 1929 filled with quotes about happiness. We both had tears in our eyes when it came time to say good bye.

While I was overseas Dave and I exchanged a couple of letters via post, though not as many as I should have sent him. When I got back to Australia I called him to say hi. He asked me when I was coming home. I told him I was living interstate and promised I’d come visit as soon as I started work again. He laughed with happiness.

The next time I called he didn’t answer. I left a message on the voicemail of his home phone and continued on. But then he didn’t answer the next time I called. Or the time after that.

A part of me started to worry.

I called Meals on Wheels to see if they could check on him, but they said they weren’t able to disclose customer information. I called both the hospitals but neither of them had any patients by Dave’s name.

When I finally tracked him down he was in the rehab/special care centre attached to one of the private hospitals in the next town over. Turns out he had taken a fall. I swear on the phone he told me he had broken his hip and a vertebrae and that they’d taken him to the local hospital, flown him to the city, then brought him back again when he was stable. “So many hospitals!” he had declared. In the end I don’t think he broke a hip or vertebrae. Just his femur. Though I don’t doubt it felt like his whole body was broken.

Each time I called he was in good spirits — though deep down I think he was putting on a brave face (or rather a brave voice). I made plans to visit in November.

The week before I went to visit I rang to check it was still OK. His friend told me he had passed away three days after I last spoke with him. They had met with the doctors earlier that day to discuss the possibility of Dave being moved into a care facility as it was unlikely he would go back to independent living. That night he passed away.

And just like that Dave was gone.

I have a million and one regrets. Most of which are that I never tried harder. I didn’t visit him quicker. I didn’t write more letters. I didn’t call more often. That, on that very first day, I hiked up his driveway thinking ‘why, at 5.30pm on a Friday, am I even here to pick up a damn letter from a stranger?’.

I regret never saying good bye. That he died alone. That I never even really got to understand his life.

Then I feel happy knowing that after all these years of missing Rita, and loving nothing but the memories of the fullest life they lived together, he was finally back with her.

I believe that Dave and I were destined meet. He taught me the harshest of lessons. I’m reminded of it every time the full moon crosses the sky and I remember his smile.

Life is too short, too precious, not to prioritise the people you care most for.

I think back to all the time I had to visit him between when I returned to Australia and when he died. I didn’t make that trip a priority. I waited until it fitted with my schedule. Until it was easier. Less expensive.

I was selfish and a little bit ignorant.

In the end, I broke my own heart and never got to say good bye, or thank you.

Thank you, Dave, for grounding me, for sharing your stories and bringing a spark to so many lazy Saturday afternoons.

As much as I will always love our short friendship, I still can’t re-read the letters he wrote while I was overseas. They made me cry when he was alive, let alone now. Maybe one day. Instead I have a favourite quote from Rita’s book that summarises my memories of Dave so perfectly:

All who joy would win
Must share it — Happiness
was born a twin - Byron.

Til next time, Dave xx

Jade Martin