Most "truth is stranger than fiction" stories have to do with some inconsequential oddity, like the story that first attracted the attention of the Books editor of the Huffington Post about my crazy literary agent. But when a "truth is stranger than fiction" story involves the death of a close friend, it's hardly inconsequential. Particularly when the difference between life and death is as simple as a glass or two of water.
This true story took place as 2014 was coming to an end and the New Year was upon us, though a similar version of the story took place around the same time every year. My friend, whom I'll call Danny, got sick - usually some form of respiratory flu - almost every January. According to another mutual friend, Christmas was hard on Danny, owing to a historically strained relationship with his now late father and a predictable seasonal depression associated with the holidays. Danny almost invariably got sick during or after the holidays, and this year was no different. Except that this year he died.
Danny was a locally renowned guitarist who had been playing the same coffee shop every Saturday morning with various other players for over fifteen years. On this particular Saturday morning, January 3rd, the drummer and me had set up our gear and were awaiting the arrival of Danny and his co-guitarist whom I'll call Bob. We got a text from Bob that he was on his way, then, minutes later, got another text from Bob telling us to pack up our gear and to get over Danny's house right away. When we arrived, the police and the coroner were in the house and Bob, along with a couple of Danny's girlfriends, were sitting on the front porch. "Our friend is gone," said Bob. "Danny is dead."
At age 57 our friend had died from...from what? The flu? People in San Francisco's North Bay don't die from the flu. Perhaps the ancient and infirm, or the tiny and weak, but not Danny, who at 57 was solid muscle from head to toe. A committed footloose and fancy-free bachelor, Danny was the envy of many of his cohorts: he was tall, thin, muscular, hirsute, had crystal eyes of polished blue steel, flashing white teeth and a boyishly crooked smile that melted the hearts of almost every woman he met. He loved margaritas in mason jars and the smell of freshly cut vintage barn wood, preferably Douglas Fir. As one girlfriend, a songwriter, put it, he was "vintage": a collector of vintage Fender electric guitars, vintage Fender amplifiers, and vintage single-speed fat tire road bikes; he even drove a vintage thirties GMC pickup for many years. He was a semi-retired mountain biker, relentless hiker and in his last years didn't own a working vehicle besides his old street bicycle. He built amplifiers, based on the specs of the Fender classics, that local stars snapped up as soon as they were finished. People like Danny don't die from the flu.
So what happened? We theorized about possible causes, ultimately agreeing that it was complications from the flu or perhaps pneumonia that had resulted in asphyxiation. But breathing, it turned out, was not the problem. As it was described by the coroner shortly after the autopsy but before the toxicology report, Danny's lack of body fat meant that he had no place to store the energy, and the fluids, needed to continue producing the electrolytes that fire the heart. At some point in his illness he either got so weak, or so delirious (there was no evidence of fever) that he simply forgot to force the fluids that we're told to force every time we get the respiratory flu, even if all we can do is suck on ice chips. As a result, Danny went into cardiac arrest and died.
The idea that someone who was as popular, well-liked, and social as Danny could die from dehydration in his own bedroom is, indeed, a truth that a fiction writer would have a hard time convincing his/her readers could happen (except maybe Dickens). He had a renter in his small three-bedroom house that was there that night. He had girlfriends texting him, offering to bring food until his responses became incoherent and then stopped altogether. But he was also adamant about his privacy, and when he got depressed or sick he could spend days alone in bed, not seeing or talking to anybody. Although I didn't even know he was sick and expected him to show up bright and bushy tailed Saturday morning at the coffee shop as usual, I also knew how he could get when he wanted to be left alone. Now, knowing how easily his death could have been prevented, an entire community is devastated with regret for not having the courage to piss him off and save his life.
Sometimes there is simply no making sense of the randomness that can so easily and quickly end our fragile lives. Perhaps the best we can do in the face of a tragedy like the one that befell our friend Danny is to share the story, with the hope that it will cause us to pay closer attention to those that choose to suffer alone. It could come down to something as simple as bringing them a glass of water.