Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Good As Any, Better Than Most"

 It has taken me six months to work through my grief and muster the courage to write this post. In that time, I’ve written very little; sometimes one just doesn’t have the words. Once the muse visited, however, I worked through the night and well into the next day, to write it. 

This one cuts as close to my heart as anything I’ll ever write for public consumption, so please bear with me. It is my tribute and final gift to a precious, forever friend. 

If you wish to judge, critique, raise your eyebrows or make assumptions... you are more than welcome to take a long hike off a short pier. :) 


"Iowa" Dave Sterner
 David Sterner was the childhood friend I didn’t get to meet until I was thirty-two years old.  His reputation as “the nicest guy in the world” preceded him, and on one brisk, sunny April morning in 2005 I could not believe my good fortune in finding out for myself the truth of those words. 

With a camera and a pen, still fairly unschooled in the ways of the motorcycle world I was covering for the local bike rag, and arriving on just my second assignment… I was nervous as a mouse in a lion’s den.  Nervous, that is, until I met “Iowa” Dave.

That fateful morning, I noticed the “Western Iowa” rocker on his back, walked up to him and introduced myself. When Dave told me his name I instantly recognized him as the guy who had given a lift in his semi, from Florida all the way back to Minnesota, to a very grateful mutual friend who later described him as “the nicest guy in the world”. 

Soon as we shook hands, I smiled and said, “Word has it you’re the nicest guy in the world.” True to the 1% diamond on his chest, Dave narrowed his eyes for a moment and said, “I should kick the ass of anyone who says that.”  His subsequent laughter betrayed him, however; it rang out like church bells on Easter morning, carrying joy on its gossamer wings.  My nervousness vanished, never to return. We bonded over coffee and doughnuts and were instant friends.

The event we were attending was a charity ride, with a subsequent party that lasted until the sun rose the next morning.  Dave teased me relentlessly to leave my cage (vehicle) behind and ride with him on the bike; I smiled and replied that I needed to preserve my "journalistic integrity".  He laughed uproariously at that, and conceded. (Truth was, I love riding more than just about anything else on Earth, but needed my rig as I was working on two different events that day).  

When I returned to the party from covering the other event of the day, Dave and I shared a few beers, shared our stories, sang along with Dago under the full moon, and we shared laughter.  Oh, the laughter. I don’t know that anyone on the planet could laugh, or make me laugh, as he could. I was a little sad to see the sun come up that morning; he was a long-haul truck driver from Iowa, and I lived on a farm with my family near the Canadian border.  The chances of seeing him again any time soon were plenty slim.  I chalked the meeting up to one of the awesome benefits of the job, having a great time meeting some really amazing people.

A few months later, however, while at a regular weekly “Bike Night”, who should walk in but Dave, fresh off the road with his semi parked outside.   He’d been passing through and stopped in to visit with his local Brothers.  He had a great big hug for me and when I asked him how he’d been, he replied, “Good as any, better than most!”  Little did I know that hug was the first of many joyful reunions, and that phrase would greet me countless times in the years to come. We traded phone numbers and promised to keep in touch.

You’ve heard it before, the idea that true friends can go for long stretches of time without being in touch, get together again and pick right up where they left off.  That was Dave and I.  My role shifted over time, from a columnist for the local magazine to working on a project that allowed me to attend various motorcycle club events around the country, events Dave also attended.  The people became like family to me, but David, especially so.

We would call one another occasionally, and could talk for hours at a stretch, on any topic… about our faith (we’d both been raised Catholic), about our beloved families, about growing up as farm kids, about our hopes and dreams and troubles and disappointments. 

Much of what I learned about the biker life came straight from him, and some of my best work, he inspired. He never judged or ridiculed me, and always patiently answered what questions he could, no matter how basic. I once asked him about the black ribbons of fabric hanging from his vest; he explained they were cut from the t-shirts of Brothers of his who had passed.  Caressing each one with a far-off look in his eye, he named the Brother each ribbon represented. For some reason that moment really touched me; it drove home the weight and importance of remembrance and symbolism in a way I’d never before understood.

Dave didn’t enjoy reading all that much, but he loved what I wrote and so I would call him with a new piece and read it to him over the phone.  If he said, “Damn, girl, you’re gonna make me cry…” that told me I was on the right track.  If my words about his lifestyle and belief system could be strung together in such a way that it moved a bad-ass biker to tears, especially one who didn’t much like to read, I felt I was getting it right. 

I don’t know if there ever was anyone more solidly in my court than Dave.  He believed in me, in my talent, in my dreams, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, to encourage me or go to bat for me if needed.  In retrospect, what moved him may have been the depth of the friendship, and the fact that I grasped what mattered to him, rather than the quality of my writing.

When something terrible happened in our shared “family”, which it did on more than one occasion, he was usually the first person I called (or vice versa); if something wonderful happened, same thing.  Over the years we relayed the news of accidents and deaths affecting those we both cared about; we prayed and cried over them, right there on the phone. And we shared the joys, as well… news of births and weddings and career successes and happy news of all kinds. 

Best of all, however, were the few times a year when we found ourselves in the same zip code. The reunions were always joyful and much anticipated. I would grow hoarse, talking so much. And laughing.  Oh, the laughter.

We looked out for one another, Dave and I, and rescued each other when necessary… usually from ourselves, if truth be told.  I once found myself in a situation over my head, texted him for help and he showed up at my side in 30 seconds; he was half guardian angel, even then.

One of my very favorite places on the planet, Spearfish Canyon, I experienced for the first time from the back of Dave’s motorcycle.  He seemed to delight in showing me the beauty of the place; Dave had a somewhat innocent, childlike wonder about him.  And yet, at the first hint of trouble of any sort, he would snap to attention and be off like a shot.  Rumor has it he could be one tough S.O.B., of the sort you really want to have on your team in the event of a dust-up; I was never privy to that but have no doubt as to its accuracy.

Our friendship grew to the point few really ever do. I knew I could call him, any time day or night, for any reason.  If he was busy and could not visit, no harm, no foul; he always called back when he could.  He knew he could call me, too, and often did.  In the years that passed, we each went through our own very dark and difficult times, but neither of us was ever truly alone.  We shared a tendency to want to retreat from the world when things got really tough; that also meant we both knew what worked in building up and coaxing the other back out into the light of day.  More than once, one of us said to the other (usually with a smile), “Do I need to come up there?” Or, “Do I need to go down there and kick your ass…?” There was never any ass-kicking, of course.   There didn’t need to be.  The point was made, and usually, the course corrected.

So many conversations we shared, so many topics, but there are a few that come to mind time and again.  Once, we touched on the topic of forgiveness; Dave said, “I HAVE to forgive, or I just can’t look myself in the mirror each morning.”  I believe it stemmed from the knowledge of his salvation. Knowing that he was forgiven and saved, he couldn’t bear the thought of not forgiving another.  It’s just the kind of guy he was.  And speaking of salvation, Dave seemed to have no doubt whatsoever as to where he would go after his death.  “I know where I’m going,” he said. “I’m saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.” And he said it with enthusiasm, like a rooster announcing the dawn.  In a way, I guess he was.

Dave was motivated most by his love for his family; he would do anything for them, it seemed, and our conversations always included family updates.  It felt like I knew his entire family, even though I met just one of daughters.  When my own daughter fell gravely ill, Dave was a major prayer warrior for her, and called me often during her hospitalization to check on both of us. 

Being the father of daughters, Dave was no stranger to female topics or emotions and was skilled in navigating both.  I could talk to him about anything, and know with complete confidence that it would stay between us and go no further.  There was trust between us; an easy, comfortable friendship like a favorite soft flannel shirt. We didn’t always agree on everything, and neither of us was afraid to tell the other the hard truth; in trying to remember if we ever had cross words, however, I can’t recall even one. Nor do I recall him ever betraying a confidence.  He wasn’t one to say anything bad about anyone, either. Only once did I ever hear him do so, and even then it was for my benefit.

Dave eventually gave up the motorcycle life (temporarily, he thought) to care full-time for his father who suffers Parkinson’s disease.  That, too, was the kind of guy he was.  It got to the point he couldn’t bear to leave his family for more than a few hours, in case he was needed or something happened to his dad while he was away.  We had a lot of visits about that and it was just so ingrained in him, his devotion to family and his desire to keep his father at home rather than in a nursing facility. 

I so admired his selflessness, though truly mourned his loss of the life he loved on the road, of Brotherhood, and especially the fact we no longer had the opportunity to see each other in person. By then I’d been away from the bike world for a few years (not by choice, but circumstance),  and many of the friends made there had drifted away, but never Dave.  He was my friend regardless of the situation, no matter what, and he made sure I knew that. We continued to visit on the phone as always, and texted often.

The last time I spoke with Dave was on his 49th birthday. We always called on birthdays. He was on his way home and eager to visit; I was busy working on multiple projects, and so I cut the visit shorter than usual with an “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, I was too busy, and the next day, too.  

The day after that, Dave woke up in the morning, made coffee, went back upstairs to his bed for a while, and died.

I hadn’t called him back. My friend, confidante, open-24-hours-at-your-service cheerleader and tear-dryer and prayer warrior died and I HAD NOT CALLED HIM BACK.  Because I was busy being busy, meeting a deadline, making a buck.

I’ve had a hard time living with myself, ever since.  Failing to call my friend back went against everything I am, everything he was; it was not an act of the person I thought I was.  And since Dave lived 500 miles away and things didn’t work out for me to go, I missed his funeral, too.  Dave would understand, he would forgive me… but I do not. 

David would want me to write, and would be so disappointed if I did not, but I just could not write anything else before writing about him, and it took me all this time to be able to do it. I needed to do it, in order to move ahead and write about other things, as he would want me to.

Every day, however, I think of my friend, miss him, grieve... Its been as if I were a three-legged stool with one of those legs kicked out from under it; makes it kinda hard to stand upright and do my job.  We didn’t visit every day or week or even every month sometimes, but Dave’s friendship was a constant presence and support in my life, a true and precious gift from God.  When life was cruel, Dave was kind, and I could count on that kindness as surely as the sun rises in the East. The hard part is that life still can be so very cruel at times, and yet Dave’s kindness is no longer so readily available, its not just a phone call away.  I must be very quiet and still now, and concentrate, to receive it.

They say one shouldn’t cry because its over, and instead smile because it happened.  I’m not quite to that place just yet. Not many people, only a very few, get close to me; those who do, matter to me so very much. I defend my friendships with a vengeance and have a hard time with loss, probably because when I do invest in a true friendship, I’m all in; totally, completely, without question or hesitation.  There is little I wouldn’t do for my precious friends-like-family.

In one of his last texts to me, on Thanksgiving Day, Dave wrote, “I thank God for you every single day, you are so special to me.”  It brought tears to my eyes at the time, and the memory of it still does; Dave was just honest and forthright and didn’t care what people thought of him or if they saw his heart.  He didn’t care what people thought of our unusual friendship and was not afraid to stand up for it, or me. This world would be a lot better place, a whole lot happier and more decent, with more men like him in it. Hell yes, I miss him; the world lost a beautiful soul, kind and true, the day he left us. The only good thing about his passing is I no longer fear death; instead, I just know when my number is up it will be time for the most joyous reunion of all, and my friend Dave will be there.

When things are hard or I have news and would normally have picked up the phone to call him, I often look to the sky and talk to him anyway.  In those moments, I can almost hear what he would say in return, and remember the beautiful music that was his laughter. I wonder what its like where he is now, that Heaven we both so looked forward to, and wish he could somehow tell me about it. His description would, without a doubt, be breathless and filled with wonder.  

Sometimes I’m angry that he was taken so suddenly, and sometimes I’m jealous as hell; seriously, who gets to just wake up in the morning, make coffee, lie down and take the fast lane to Heaven?

Apparently, David Sterner does.  

Because he was good as any, and better than most.

Thank you, Dave, for your precious friendship, for teaching me so much about so much; for your patience, for watching my back, coming to the rescue; for showing me Spearfish Canyon; for your unfailing belief in me, your encouragement, for sharing your light and your laughter. For being there. All I have to thank you with are my words, which you so encouraged... and my actions, in moving ahead as you would have wanted.... so here you go.

Rest in peace, David, until we meet again. 

Donec Mors Non Separat