Dave Stewart left this world on Monday morning holding tight to his sister's hand. She was one of the few friends he had. Before he lost consciousness in a Ocala hospice, Francesca and I got to tell him goodbye. Both of these things were small miracles as Dave, being a lifelong loner, could have easily slipped away far from anyone.
Dave was only comfortable when he kept some distance. We never knew exactly why. He loved being independent, free of any encumbrances. A rolled-up piece of foam rubber in his rusting vehicle meant he could live anywhere. In a pinch he could bed down for the night in the back of his truck.
When he began his descent last week he was typically staying in a friend's vacant house in North Florida. After a massive stroke, it took three days for someone to discover his still-breathing body.
Dave with his niece, 1980
The hobo handyman lived life on terms which would have sent most of us to the nut house. He could fix or paint anything. He charged half of what everyone else did but only showed up when he felt like it. Many found this to be a less-than-endearing quality. We called it "being Dave".
He spoke his mind to the point of often getting in arguments. If you asked him to paint your house "Key West Pink" he might have said, "I won't paint your house that color. It's ugly and you'd soon regret it". Things like that did not make his life easy.
In the thirty years I knew him he never lived anywhere for long. Always on the cheap, he'd house-sit, camp, or rent small rooms. For a year he lived in a house for sale on the edge of the Everglades where, he said, the mosquitoes were too thick for any sane person to live.
He spent much of his life living and working in Coconut Grove. With his weird ways he fit right in. He once lived near Burger King in a cottage that had no electricity. He was fine with that. Selling organic socks at the Grand Avenue farmers market helped pay the next-to-nothing rent.
Dave chose to be dirt-poor but was smart, talented, and trustworthy. After our house fixer finished a day's work we'd invite him to dinner and we'd laugh for an hour. He house-sat for us as well.
We loved his stories and great sense of humor. He could do a decent Katherine Hepburn impersonation. When we called him, often "Katherine" would answer. Did your handyman ever do that?
His occasional health problems would often become serious. He refused to go to doctors and dentists because "they cost too much" and the lines for the free ones were too long. He usually looked healthy, a handsome guy with strong mid-west features and a thick, cowboy mustache that hid his extensive dental problems.
He hid why he developed his unusual lifestyle as well. We know he grew up in Ohio, attended college, and came south in his mid-twenties. I never knew him to be on speaking terms with his mother. He said, "She was never nice to me". When I asked about his dad he would change the subject. I assumed there was some unsavory story reflected in his sad blue eyes.
Dave Stewart loved his friends, his sister and his nieces but had no desire for romantic relationships. If he had ever had one, he never mentioned it. He was happy enough being Dave, a free-spirited Coconut Grove character.
Some got to know him fourteen years ago when he worked at Shell Lumber and Hardware. His boss told me he was a good worker but eventually found the eight-to-five life too restrictive.
Four years ago "being Dave" got more difficult. "Rents are getting crazy here," he said, "Even rooming houses are charging over than $100 a week". He was about to go north when he woke up one morning feeling dizzy. He drove himself to Jackson hospital and headed for the emergency room. When they released him two months later -after extensive by-pass surgery- he marveled that his dusty truck was still where he'd left it and that the engine started.
He nearly died then but he seemed okay with that. The experience got him off cigarettes and into alternative medicine. It worked for a while but Miami got too expensive. A friend of a friend offered him a place to stay by a lake in North Florida. In exchange for chores, he could live in one of her vacation houses.
When he moved north three years ago he stopped by to ask if we could store his furniture. We were happy to help. He had only a stool and it sits in our attic.
He took his bed roll with him.
Dave returned to Miami occasionally to visit his doctor. He was told he needed more bypass surgery, and that he could get it for free, but Dave would have none of it. He told us last year, "My bag is packed and I'm ready to go". We asked him not to leave too soon.
An e-mail last Saturday told me he had left us. A massive stroke had left him brain dead and he would soon be taken off life-support. The news left me limp. Why had I put off calling him these last few months? There were things I needed to tell say.
I called his cell phone number for no rational reason. Maybe, in some unexplainable way, he would know I was trying to reach him. I left a message saying the things I had wanted to say before he died. It was the best I could do. I took great comfort in hearing Dave's deep voice once more. For the briefest of moments it seemed like he was still with us.
When I heard his relatives could not be found I located his sister's phone number. I called her Sunday night expecting to have to tell her that her brother was dead or close to it. When Susan Berge answered I learned she had gotten the news that morning and flown south from Minnesota to be with her brother that afternoon. Dave's nieces bought the plane ticket she could not afford.
She told me, "I'm so glad I'm here. He's in bad shape but occasionally conscious. He can hear me. He talks by squeezing my hand. Would you like to talk to him too?"
Sister Sue put her phone by her brother's ear. Francesca and I took turns telling him how much we loved him and appreciated his long friendship. We also put in a good word for our dog. Pi loved Dave as well. Afterwards Sue told us he seemed to perk up a bit from our call.
We were hoping we might go north to visit him when I called the next day, Monday. Dave's sister told us he had died. She went on to say her brother had gotten a few calls from friends and after the last one, around eleven Sunday night, he lost consciousness for good.
"I held his hand all night", she told me, "Around five I woke up and his hand was real cold. He was barely breathing and each breath seemed like the last. At six a.m. he left us."
Hopefully he took his bed roll with him. Dave never needed much to get by.