Dave did not perceive himself as amazing, inspirational, brave, or any of the many positive adjectives people used to describe him. He was much too humble for such defining words. ALL part of what made him exactly those lovely words! His modest perception was also why it took everyone he knew decades to talk him into writing this failed autobiography. However, he found so many people in his life to be as he was described; amazing, inspirational, and brave. Among the many strangers who stopped to talk to Dave when he was sitting outside our house was Denise, a woman he found to be all these things.
Like many days when Dave was outside, my mom would or ask me to check on him. I poked my head outside as he was just ending a conversation with a dark-haired woman; I only saw the back of her from my vantage point. She was heading up the street on foot. She crossed Arrowhead and entered a house above the school, a short block above ours. I wondered aloud who she was like I had asked about so many other people he chatted with on the sidewalk. I was surprised that he actually knew her “That was Denice, she has lived up there for a few years and walks by just about every day.”
I didn’t expect him to tell me more, but he went on to tell me how he came to know her. He had seen her walk by many times. The first several times they crossed paths, there was no interaction. Sometimes Dave was on the north side of 25th street where she always walked, and sometimes he would be on our side. It really depended on where he was in his sun exposure gathering for that day because he moved around based on the desire for warmth or shade. One day as she was looking his way, he nodded at her. Their exchanges then grew to friendly nods on her trek coming home or going somewhere. As time would have it when two people live in proximity to each other, more path crossings led to an actual greeting initiated by Dave, “Hi, I’m Dave. I see you walk by all the time, it appears we’re neighbors, what’s your name?”
Not long after that introduction, the elephant in the room conversation occurred with the “Hey, what happened to you?” question answered. Envision Dave wearing arm and white fiberglass leg braces, with his legs straight out in front of him. Unlike most people who sit in a wheelchair with their legs bent, for whatever odd reason, having his legs out straight helped control his muscle spasms best. Most people would have a hard time telling the difference between a cast and the leg braces. To most of the world, he looked like he was recovering from having every bone in his body broken, something recent that he may recover from. Plus, people are curious creatures concerning anything out of the norm.
He described her as “‘Amazing. She has had an incredible life!” These words coming from my brother, who had so much grit and heart, had fucking bolts in his head once upon a time, drove his wheelchair to college for years practically in snow, if we had snow, and definitely in the rain… I doubted that anyone living in San Bernardino in our neighborhood on Arrowhead Avenue had lived an incredible life by comparison. Call me, jaded; I said, “Go on…” Taunting him to impress me, and of course, he did.
I love an underdog story of triumph. I also have grown to understand and appreciate that quote by Brene Brown, “Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And if we’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring us to our knees.” I am still not immune to my brother’s story as some parts of it or all of it has brought me and everyone we know to their knees at some point. Denise’s story is worth paying attention to. Her story conveyed through Dave that day, long before I met her intrigued me; she kept a strict code of confidence and couldn’t tell him all the details of her life before living on Arrowhead Avenue, but she alluded to some interesting experiences.
She grew up in another part of the gritty town of San Bernardino, but she considered where she came from to be the rough side. She followed a life path common to so many young people when their guidinglight is absent, having to work three jobs to survive. Her experience pushing the limits of the law, rippin’ and runnin’ with her friends was on a wilder level than anything we had ever known on Arrowhead Avenue. The continuum came to mind that someone always has it or perceives things better or worse than us, as I looked across the street at the unloved looking house and ridiculously overgrown yard of our neighbor who lived in my FBFFs former house while Dave spoke, I was internally reminded to be grateful that our neighborhood might be better than others.
Denise and Dave grew to be much closer friends after Sven and I had moved out. I didn’t get to know Denise, unfortunately, until after Dave was gone. She was an important part of Dave’s story. I knew I had to know her. I found her among the crowd at the end of Dave’s Viking Funeral, introduced myself, thanked her for taking such good care of my family because in helping my mom take care of Dave, she was taking care of my mom too. I asked if I could interview her for this book. Not surprisingly, her eyes were red from crying; she nodded yes, we hugged. I didn’t call her for years because I just wasn’t ready yet.
When I did call her, it was like we had just agreed to talk the day before, like reconnecting with a well-known friend. We met for lunch the first time; she is really lovely, her eyes had had a few years to recover from that night of many tears. I so enjoyed her easy manner and bright awareness of the world around her. She is one to maintain a very full schedule of the demands of helping someone, advocating for them, offering guidance, somewhere. I appreciated her making time to get together.
She described seeing and meeting Dave as he had presented meeting her to me almost two decades earlier. She confessed that initially, she didn’t know what to make of Dave, and was cautious, not because he was in a wheelchair, but because he was the first white person who had ever talked to her in a friendly manner. That right there is heartbreaking in and of itself on every level that exists. She couldn’t believe how kind he was and how he made her feel seen and perfectly accepted in the world.
Their life stories slowly disclosed over time, chatting it up between Point A and Point B on the corner of 25th and Arrowhead. In those first ice-breaker conversations with Dave, she shared that she walked by daily on her way to E Street two blocks away to catch a bus to get to either her church or a community center to serve as an advocate for victims of domestic abuse. Dave shared that he was attending college at Cal State toward a Master’s degree in counseling.
She repeated the details of what Dave hinted at with me, what he described as difficult sacrifices and changes she made to her life. To me, she alluded to having been “In some trouble before moving over here.” She described one of her life-changing events as getting arrested for possession of drugs and the second, landing in front of the right judge who gave her the option between rehab and jail. She chose rehab. While in the program, she was naturally homesick and missed her friends. The only visitors who came to see her were her family. She grew to appreciate them more as her time in recovery continued and chose to redirect her focus to her family from that point on. As part of her probation and sober recovery, she was not to associate with anyone from her former party life, so that basically meant ALL of her lifelong friends.
She was a young adult, maybe not even 20 yet, she had children that she loved more than anything and wanted them to have a better life than she had lived up to that point. Her arrest and brief separation from them was a terrifying wake-up call; she knew she had to make changes. She kept her probation provisions and chose to move away from her neighborhood, her family home, everything she knew, cut all the ties to her former life. She didn’t say these words, but I felt the effect through what she didn’t say. It was devastating and scary, completely changing everything about her life path and, subsequently, that of her children. A few lunches later, she confided, “I knew I would have died or hurt someone to the point of no return if I continued on the path I was on. I did not want that path for my life or for my children.”
She owned a custom lowrider with hydraulic suspension, and an impressive purple airbrushed finish. She and her ride were well known in her former life and community. People she didn’t know, knew who was in that ride by sight. Her persona exudes strength and a heart of gold, but I am pretty sure she was a well-respected badass.
In the first years after her move to our neighborhood, she stayed away from her former life. Still, she would occasionally drive by the parks and places she knew her friends would be gathering to feel a part of something familiar if even from a distance. They, she included, knew it was the closest she could come to be with them, driving by, hitting the hydraulics switches in her badass ride, gas hopping to attract them to see her, for a moment. Everyone waved and cheered at the hint of her, their girl. She drove away and parked her ride that represented her former life in the driveway of her new life on Arrowhead Avenue across the street from a Catholic school in a nice neighborhood.
Back in those early days of building the foundation of their friendship, Dave was moving a little beyond just listening to her life story and began asking her questions that would, in a very gentle and successful way, be a manner of counseling. He asked, “What do you think you want to do with your new life?” She deflected him off with comments such as, “I’m a mom now.” as if that were her last task in this life.
Subsequent conversations between them on the sidewalk, not every conversation, but some circled back to his question, and other responses rose to the surface, “I didn’t graduate High School.” That incomplete mark for many, is a source of blinding negative self-belief, of shame that is impossible to ever fully recovered from. Education, further education is a big conversation with anyone, but that added feeling of not belonging forced on people by a judgmental society can be impossible to shake.
Missing that first big life benchmark of perceived success in our society may be one of the deepest papercuts to damage to the human psyche, and with it, self-esteem quietly sinks. The judgment of others, of society, and the worst–in one’s imagination it is deemed that only those who cross this line, high school graduation, are worthy of a moving forward to launch into what is next, the good life. The rest of you are essentially told to remain behind on the planet of doom forever.
Rising from the internal bleeding of that self-inflicted infected papercut, from the self-doubt, wanting more after accepting that construct that you deserve to be left behind, is a deeply fearful prospect. That fear builds a wall, brick by brick, enclosing anyone from escape or seeing beyond it to any positive future. That shrouded view, the conditioned disappointment of not being able to get ahead, feeds that same fear of not daring to have great expectations.
What Denise didn’t know, that Dave knew, was that our dad, the man who owned the beautiful house on Arrowhead Avenue, was once likely on a path of self-destruction, given that he was raised by veritable wolves. But he met one person, that swim coach in middle school, who shifted his trajectory in life for the better and forever. One coach, one small success in the pool, forged an entirely new path. That success grew into self-confidence outside the pool; with it, bravery to try other things that resulted in new successes. Those successes constructed a beautiful charisma, with that an ability to attract and maintain lifelong friendships. Those friends proved to be among the most important people in his life; they lifted him in the worst of times when my mom needed him to carry her. Ultimately his entire future was erased and redrawn with such a strong foundation so as not to repeat the predestined spectacle of the shitshow life lived by his parents. Dave knew that anyone could rise above the tide if given the chance and direction.
Dave already saw her choose to leave her car and walk a distance to or from the bus stop every day. He understood what sort of grit she had to have to make tough decisions, even though she minimized that difficulty to an easy response, “I’m a mom (now),” simply doing what she had to for her children. He knew she had more going behind the spark in her eyes and fire in her heart to think, do and give.
She continued to deny her ability to finish her education. Dave wove the steps she needed to take to obtain her G.E.D. into the conversations now and then, which could lead to her attending college, just as a consideration. She then presented a new fear, “I am way too old for school!” Dave had a gentle response, “I will be 40 when I finally graduate with my Master’s. At some point, the thing that motivated me to start and keep going school, and it has taken me a L-O-N-G time, is that I am going to be 40 someday, whether I have a degree or not. I decided I would rather be 40 with the degree, than not.” She hadn’t thought about how old he was in comparison to herself; she had to be in her mid-twenties. Hearing his logic made her stop and evaluate the gravity of his words, but she wasn’t quite ready to fully consider this possibility for herself.
These conversations and their friendship grew over several years. He stopped by her house up the street and came to know her family, her kids, her husband. She told Dave secrets of her past life, and Dave took them to the grave. In some aspects, Dave was a total gossip girl for the silly dramas of life, but when it came to anything sacred, shared in confidence, he zipped that shit up, tight. A true counselor before it was official.
After our dad died, my mom and Dave went the route of live-in caregivers to help her care for Dave. The first two did not work out for long, less than two years between them. Dave began asking around if anyone knew of anyone who might be available to help. It turned out that Denice did know someone; she ended up becoming his part-time caregiver. Because she lived so close, she just crossed the street and could easily help my mom with Dave’s personal care in the mornings, baths, and changing the sheets. Denice’s teenage son Pancho ended up helping with the heavier lifting, putting Dave in his wheelchair, in the shower, or helping put him back to bed.
Dave had been a counselor at Valley College for close to nine years when his assistant took maternity leave. He asked Denise if, in the interim, she would like to increase her work hours beyond his morning routine to include helping him as his assistant in the office. She was still also working in her role, supporting women of domestic abuse, but was happy to help him.
She laughed as she described her first lunch with Dave at work. They went across the street to a sandwich shop called Diane’s; they situated themselves at a table. They placed their order, a couple of sandwiches. Their food arrived within a few minutes. Denise instinctively unwrapped her sandwich and began eating. She described looking at Dave, “He just sat there, not eating. I was worried that something was wrong and asked him, ‘Aren’t you going to eat your sandwich?’ Dave laughed his full-bellied barking seal of a laugh, ‘Well, yes, but you know you are going to have to feed me? Remember…?’ He held up his arms with their braces just a few inches, because he could move a little, just not consistently or remotely accurately enough to feed himself. ‘I’m paralyzed over here.'” She about spit her food out, at his funny response, and was surprised at how spending time with Dave was so chill, and left her completely unaware of his physical differences, “OH-MY-GOD! DAVE!!!! I AM SO SORRY!” she shouted. They both laughed as she unwrapped his food, and they finished their lunch with alternating bites of their sandwiches.
Her time on the college campus dissolved her fear about how odd it might be to go back and get her G.E.D. or possibly even…attend college. There were ordinary people all around her, some older than her, moving their lives forward. I am sure no one is surprised that Denice successfully completed her G.E.D. and ended up attending College while Dave was still working there.
Dave adored Denise and her family. He appreciated her help, respected her hard work ethic, her struggles, and choices that made her who she was now. He was that person who saw so much in everyone and gently helped them see it too. He was excited for her future.
She was working on her A.A. when he left the building(s). She was so grateful to Dave for talking to her, for listening to her for years, for indirectly encouraging her to try. For opening up her awareness of those who are physically challenged. For his kindness and friendship to her. She knew she was a good mom, was committed to being present, made sure her kids stayed in school, and she was sober before she met Dave, which was all-important and great. But she grew in her motherhood from pushing herself further than she thought possible; beyond the limits of a shitty high school experience, SHE was attending college. Dave helped her break down those self-imposed barriers in her mind to find that grit, and she was so grateful for knowing him.
Denise was with my mom that morning when the two of them entered Dave’s bedroom to start the morning routine and found him unresponsive, that day that he woke up dead. We can be modest in recognizing the parts of ourselves that are defined and experienced by others as amazing, inspirational, or brave; I am so grateful that the arc of Denise and Dave’s life stories intertwined briefly on the sidewalk at the intersection of Arrowhead and 25th Street. Denise’s amazing, inspirational, life and bravery made Dave’s life profoundly richer for knowing her.