By Kevin S. Giles
Death came too early for my old friend. I knew the news was true. Yet, when I heard of his passing, I searched online for his obituary and read it again and again to convince myself it wasn’t another of his fun-loving pranks.
The truth is that I lost David six years before he died. I lost him as he struggled over his mortality, defying the cancer he knew would kill him. I lost him because he drifted into a pool of bitterness and resentment after devoting a decade to his life’s work, an esoteric multi-generational novel that even he acknowledged left readers confused and indifferent. I lost him because he pushed me away in anger. I lost him because I let him do it.
Long friendships should tolerate misunderstandings big and small. Ours did until, one day, it didn’t.
The falling-out occurred soon after David’s last visit. He arrived at our house under the influences of an angry mood and a crushing head cold. He had been beaten up at a motel during a robbery. David was an PhD intellectual whose creative humor entertained me greatly over the years, but this time was different. Bitter over relationships, he lashed out at friends and family. He spoke in cult-like fashion of his discovery that he descended from the grand master of Knights Templar, Hughes de Payen.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
A month later David sent me a story he had written that he wanted to submit to a travel magazine. It was the first installment in what he intended as the legacy of his many adventures overseas. He named himself Mysterious Stranger Number 44 — recalling Mark Twain’s last, and then unpublished novel — to avoid constant use of the “I” word.
Trouble began when I didn’t immediately respond. I had my reasons, which involved work and family, but he took the delay as an affront. Subsequent emails took me to task for what he perceived as failing to appreciate his writing while he had indulged in mine.
Frustrated, I responded: “I’m having a hard time understanding why you’re overly aggressive and confrontational at times, out of character for you, and doubt our friendship. If I don’t measure up to your expectations, please rule the friendship dead and we’ll both move on. Like everybody else I have significant stress in my life. The last thing I want to hear from my friend of the ages is that I failed him.”
The second to the last e-mail I received from David arrived with an olive branch. He would try harder, he said. He admitted to mixing alcohol with depression drugs, and to blackouts, and said he didn’t remember sending me offensive emails. He wrote: “Thanks again for being an understanding friend. It would be awful to lose you. Love, David.”
Then, five days later, came his final email. It took an abrupt turn in tone: “You are fortunate I have only put in draft form an email that perhaps would put a dent in your sleep-filled pillow. In 100 years, I promise, you will be consigned as a dullard. As I have told you, I am directly related to royal family, re the Canterbury Tales. Are you numb to literature and history?”
In a display of contemporary hostility, he unfriended me and my family on Facebook. I gave up and we never talked again. Years passed and then he died.
We had known each other for 40 years.
I met David in Australia in 1974 at Brisbane’s largest newspaper. I started working at the Courier Mail a few months before he did. I was assigned to the newsroom’s trade and finance department where I edited business stories. One afternoon, the gruff chief of staff walked in, gestured to the handsome brown-haired man following him, and simply said, “I think you two speak the same language.” Turns out we didn’t. I was a Montanan and David, an Oklahoman. Still, we were alike in many ways. We struck an immediate friendship. We shared a passion for journalism, a thirst for Australian beer, and a camaraderie over our coincidental travel to Down Under.
David had a contagious sense of humor and shared my inclination toward challenging the status quo. One afternoon we talked our way past social convention into the Yeronga Bowl’s Club across the street from my flat. Mostly elderly people in white uniforms rolled balls across a manicured lawn under an unforgiving sun. We soon joined the bowlers in the clubhouse bar, engaging them with real and imagined stories of life in America, until we got too rowdy and the manager, noting we weren’t members, strongly encouraged us to leave.
A few months later David left for yet another job in Papua New Guinea. It was my first inkling that he was a genuine vagabond, never inclined to stay anywhere very long. Over the years, I regaled my daughters with news of the latest world-trotting adventures of their “swashbuckling uncle,” but it troubled me that David mostly traveled alone.
On one of his final visits to my house (back in the United States), David disclosed a recent diagnosis of skin cancer. He had spent years on the beach in Australia and the sun had done its damage. The doctor had wanted to start immediate treatment. David defied him and left on another world journey. He felt inclined to gamble with his mortality. He told me his cancer would go away.
In the spring of 2016 a friend in Australia told me she had read David’s obituary in the Courier Mail. I searched online for confirmation. The obituary described him as an “intrepid journalist,” just as he often referred to himself. He died in Oklahoma on an April afternoon. Peacefully, the obituary said. Peacefully, in ironic contrast with his chaotic life in which he seemed to be searching, always searching, for fulfillment. The facts presented in David’s obituary were accurate but failed to tell of the grand parade he had left behind. He was a true character, sometimes larger than life, attuned to the good and bad of it all. He was a university professor, a visionary, a complicated man increasingly prone to swings in mood and temperament toward people closest to him. He was in fact the dutiful intrepid journalist he wanted us to remember. Knowing David as well as I did, I could see the empty spaces between the lines in his obituary. I saw missing faces and places. I saw the tracks of his tears. I saw a lonely life cut short.
He had written in his travel opus, oddly entitled “Human Hedge Fund:”
“Yet there is a difference between being alone and being alone. Moreover, being alone without an obvious purpose for travel is unusual – if not apparently aimless and expensive. For The Stranger it has created an ever-hovering ambient dissonance. Several times in recent years he felt, finally, the itinerant journey would end.”
I had as many deep conversations with David as with anybody in my life. We made memories overseas, far from our native land. He supplied imagination and excitement and adventure and I loved him for it.
Friendships sometimes roll away like tumbleweeds in the wind. We feel the wind in our faces but turn our backs when it chills us and we walk away. Perhaps when David blew onto the long road of my life, he was destined to land just a short while before sailing away, leaving nothing more than my own regret at watching him go. Should I have tried harder?
I always will wonder.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)