Lunch at the Oxford Hotel
Downtown, David and I hike the Sixteenth Street Mall to LoDo. We’re on our way to the Oxford Hotel for lunch. I can see that he is wilting in the high-noon sun, and I suggest that we hop the shuttle to lower downtown. David is indignant. I am a heretic. We plod on.
Having crossed the Sahara, we arrive, parched, at the Oxford Hotel. I take a quick step ahead of David to open the door for him.
“Don’t open that door for me-you make me feel like an old man! No, you make me feel like no man at all. I should open the door for you.”
David’s wanting to retain his image of himself as a chivalrous man presents me with a difficult dilemma: How to preserve his self-esteem, protect him from the embarrassment of not being able to open a too-heavy door, and pay him the respect he is due.
“Sorry, David,” I offer. “Not trying to make you feel like an old man, but you are a few years older than I am, so when I don’t open the door for you, I feel disrespectful.”
“Well, I see what you mean, just don’t make a habit of opening doors for me,” he grins.
Years ago, David would meet friends at the Oxford for lunch. Now he asks the waitress, “Have any of the fellas been in?” These are fellas who retired and left downtown Denver years before our waitress was born. David seems confident that if he persists with names and associations, the lights will come on for our eighteen-year-old friend, and they will discover acres of common ground. Though young, our waitress is savvy enough to remain securely behind the mask of her waitress character, beguiling David with smiles and keeping the dialogue simple. Her repertoire of “Yes sir,” “No sir,” “I don’t know sir” sees her through.
Ten men are seated at a nearby table. We can hear their congenial, easy-flowing repartee. David watches intently, wistfully. He thinks he recognizes several of the men, then decides he doesn’t. Still he puzzles, “I don’t understand why they don’t invite me to join them.”
Give That Man a Dollar
Like other large cities, Denver has a homeless and indigent population. Regardless of our destination, we see members of this sad multitude inhabiting urban corners, their humbling stories condensed to one-liners scrawled on tattered cardboard. David is perpetually dismayed by this troubling sight. His typical response goes something like, "Oh no! Look at that poor guy. He needs help. Quick, hand him some money."
Nearly childlike in his innocence, David sees only the immediacy of another human being in distress and feels compelled to help. We have many philosophical discussions about this wrenching problem - the fact that some of these people are mentally ill, many are substance abusers, and others are just scammers. We talk about how our money won't feed, clothe, or shelter those who are addicted; it will simply support their addictions. We also agree that mental instability, addictions, or whatever reduces people to begging on street corners doesn't make them undeserving of our compassion - that their problems are not only enormous for them individually but also for the society that harbors them.
In the end, I am always the curmudgeon who resists handing out the money. Instead I offer flat, intellectual words like "David, this is a social problem that won't be solved by dollars doled out to every needy person we see."
But as we sit at red lights, I avert my eyes from the eyes of the beseechers just outside my car door and wait uneasily for green lights to flash us on our way to beautifully appointed, air-conditioned restaurants where delectable food awaits us.
It is a blistering summer day when we see a man holding a sign that reads, "Let's face it, I need a beer."
Jubilantly, David hoots, "Hey! There's an honest man! Give him a dollar!"
It is my bias that mentally impaired people are at such a formidable social disadvantage that at least their grooming should be impeccable. Few people, it appears, share this view. I have noticed, for example, that haircuts for the mentally challenged population tend to be carelessly performed, utilitarian necessities. I wonder if there is a pervasive bad-haircut conspiracy. A guy begins to lose his mental edge? Give him the bad haircut. He’ll be easily spotted in a crowd. We can all glance sideways at him and contemplate his oddness. And if he is still alert enough, he can notice these sideways glances and busy himself with uneasy wondering about why people look at him furtively.
After David’s first hack haircut at Willowglen (the assisted living facility where David now lives), I take him to his regular barber. This marks our first outing since his move. We pass through locked doors into a world free from regimen, a world unobstructed by high walls, a world blessedly free from the formulaic, plastic perkiness of some well-meaning interior decorator whose efforts to visually euphemize the face of sadness are the more melancholy for the attempt.
"Wait! Where are we going in such a hurry?" David questions anxiously.
"You have an appointment for a haircut with Dick. Isn’t it great to be out in the world on an escapade together? Just like old times, huh, David?'
"But I don’t have my suitcase! We have to go back."
"David, you won’t need your suitcase at the barbershop."
"How would you know what I need?"
"You’re right, David, I don’t always know what you need. You will be at Dick’s for only twenty minutes, though. I’m guessing that you won’t need your suitcase."
"Will we go directly to the airport from the barbershop, or can we pick up my suitcase after my haircut?"
"We aren’t going to the airport today, David. We’re on our way to Dick’s barbershop."
"Well, I can tell you right now, you’re going the wrong way. Hey, where are you taking me?"
"I know why you think I’m going the wrong way, David. We’ve never taken this route to Dick’s before. We’re almost there."
"How long have we lived here in New York?"
"We live in Denver, Colorado, David."
"You’re wrong about that, but I don’t want to argue with you."
"We have both traveled to New York many times, but neither of us has ever lived in New York. We live here . . . in Denver."
"We live in Denver? Well, I’ll be damned! Gosh, I’m glad we’re together. I’m learning things I never knew before! But are we going to miss the plane? Say! What about my suitcase?"
"Here we are, David."
"My God! This is where I get my hair cut! How in the hell did you know I was coming here? How did you find your way here?"
"I made the appointment for you, David. We’ve been here together many times. I know the way."
"Will you wait for me? How will I get to the airport?"
"While Dick cuts your hair, I’m going to the bank. By the time you’re finished, I’ll be back to take you home."
"Home? Do we have time to go home before we go to the airport?"
"I’ll be back in plenty of time to pick you up, David."
After his haircut, we drive down Sixth Avenue, away from the barbershop. He sees the landmarks, familiar for so many years, and he starts to cry.
"David, do you have a problem?" I ask gently.
"Yes, I have a problem!" he wails. This is my home! I never see it! I’m not here! I miss this place! Wow! What a maneuver! Did I ever tell you you’re a hell of a good driver, Dear?"
I have dicovered that with David’s dementia-related torment has also come the relief of easy distraction. In the fraction of a fleeting moment, he can leap from melancholy to glee. And yes, David has always appreciated my driving. For him it’s part of the adventure. "Riding with you, Darling, is the next best thing to driving myself," he frequently applauds. I suspect that my assertive (some say rowdy) style of driving allows him a vicarious pleasure - perhaps a feeling that he himself is teasing the limits.
In Maudie's Bed
Just before dinnertime one evening I arrive at Willowglen. David is not in his room. Systematically I begin looking in the nooks where I often find him. He seems to have vanished. I enlist the help of a staff member, and we begin checking the rooms of other residents.
Dinner is well under way, we've opened many doors, and still David eludes us. I try to calm myself, but my anxiety is rising. Behind one of the few remaining doors, we find David asleep in Maudie's hand-carved, antique bed - sans Maudie. Slack-jawed, he rasps rhythmically, contentedly, under her down comforter. David hasn't lost his penchant for the aesthetically pleasing. He has inarguably chosen the most elegant bed at Willowglen for a late-afternoon siesta. His neatly folded clothes lie on a nearby chair; his socks are tucked into his perfectly parallel shoes under the bed.
Thankful that Maudie is at dinner and oblivious to her intruder, I urgently coax David toward consciousness and hurriedly help him dress. Initially he is resistant, but as we scramble I persist in explaining that he has been sleeping in Maudie's bed. Eventually he gets it and responds with hearty guffaws interspersed with nonsensical sputterings. As we laugh together, David affects the stealthy demeanor of a cat burglar. Taking his cue, I join him and we hunch furtively out of unsuspecting Maudie's room.
Although David's verbal skills often fail him, his sense of humor and his ability to laugh at himself remain. My heart sends a silent message, David, I know you're in there.
Countless times over the years David said to me, "I'm too old for this! How the hell does a guy get out of here?"
On the evening of October 1, 2002, David found his way "out of here." The day I've longed for and dreaded has come and gone; I'm thrilled and heartbroken. I've lost a precious friend, but my friend has been liberated. I can’t feel anything but joy for David. My sadness is all for myself.
David settled easily into eternity. Even his passing was vintage David - marked by grace.
Denver Post: David Touff remembered for retail talent, philanthropy
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