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646: The Secret of My Death

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Graeme grew up in a working class town north of England. And when he was 11 or 12, his family moved into one of the first houses in a new development that was being built. It was kind of hitting the jackpot for him at that age. Because all around everywhere were homes under construction, which-- I remember this from construction sites in our neighborhood when I was a kid-- was so incredibly fun.

Graeme

This became my new playground.

Ira Glass

This is Graeme.

Graeme

So I would climb on the scaffolding, do a bit of kind of amateur gymnastics, but also build stuff. And the big thing amongst us kids was lighting fires. And there was tar paper was one thing that burned very nicely.

Ira Glass

There was actually all kinds of trouble get into. Bricks and boards to play with and wet concrete to write in. They'd find food the workers left, and cigarettes, which they would smoke. Once they found a porn magazine.

And one day, Graeme was there alone, and he had this great idea. He put together a little makeshift seesaw-- or as he calls it, a teeter totter-- with a plank of wood balanced on a brick at the center. He put another brick on one end of the plank. And his idea was to drop something really heavy-- really, really heavy-- onto the other end of the plank from a great height to find out just how far he could send that brick catapulting into space. So to accomplish this, he set up his teeter totter by some scaffolding.

Graeme

So I climbed up on the scaffolding. And I carried up this kind of massive piece of curbing stone. I'm guessing around 25 pounds.

Ira Glass

So you are how high up?

Graeme

Probably at the sort of second floor window level. So what? 15 feet, 12 feet.

Ira Glass

He carefully tries to line up the stone directly above the near end of the seesaw below down on the ground. And then he dropped the stone.

Graeme

It landed perfectly. I really had lined this up pretty well. And the brick launched. And the following few moments are probably the most vivid memory I have of my childhood. I was obviously watching to see what the brick would do, because that was the experiment really, to sort of follow that in its journey.

Ira Glass

But the brick, it didn't move at all like he thought. He thought it was going to arc into the air like a rocket. Instead, it just seemed to be getting bigger and bigger.

Graeme

I now have an image in my head of this brick just getting larger and larger as it headed right towards my face. I even remember very vividly that the construction of the brick had three circular holes in it. And I can still picture them now as they headed towards me.

Ira Glass

In a kind of slow motion way?

Graeme

Yes, very much so. I feel like that memory is minutes when obviously, it was just not even a second. So I, I believe, instinctively jerked my head back as this brick came directly towards my face. And I have a very clear memory of the kind of sound and the wind. And even, I believe, the brick, as it flew past me, flicked my fringe.

Ira Glass

The fringe of your hair?

Graeme

Yeah, and it sort of whistled as it went. Even when I throw my dog's ball now, which has a little whistle device in it, that memory comes back to me.

Ira Glass

This moment was stunning. Like nothing like this had ever happened to him.

Graeme

And I remember having to sit down for actually quite a few minutes to recover. I really felt like, probably for the first time, that I was inches away from death. And I remember walking home in some state of shock afterwards.

I used to wonder if the brick had actually hit me and killed me, maybe I'd fallen off the scaffolding or something. I used to wonder whether the crime scene investigators came to look, what would they make of the whole setup? Would they even understand what had happened?

[LAUGHS]

Graeme

You know?

Ira Glass

(LAUGHING) Right. Like you got hit by a brick. Like where did it come from?

Graeme

Yeah. This dead child, who laying in a building site-- there was the teeter totter there, but I even had this sort of vision of what if my body fell forward and destroyed the little structure that I had made down there? And how did I get hit under the chin with a brick? And where's the brick? What the forensics would have made of the whole set up.

Ira Glass

That's the thing, right? Your own death, that is not bad enough on its own. There's the whole question of the forensics afterwards, what people will make of it. It's weird to think that they'll stare at the scene of your death, look at the objects scattered around you, and get it all wrong, and get you wrong.

That's the bigger thing, right? The bigger question after you're gone isn't just how it happened, but you, your motives, your state of mind, what to make of you, and your whole life, your good qualities, your bad ones.

Today on our program, we have three stories of people who embark on this kind of forensics for beginners trying to understand somebody's death, bumbling their way through whatever scraps of evidence they can get their hands on, old text messages, handwritten notes, stuff that, frankly, seems so puny compared to the task at hand. WBEZ Chicago, it's "This American Life." I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Dear Dealer

Ira Glass

So we begin today with a woman whose sister has died and she has questions. The woman's name is Nadia Bowers, and she wrote this to somebody who she thinks might be of help. Quick warning for people listening to the podcast of our show, we've unbeeped some curse words in here. If you prefer a beeped version of today's program, it's at our website. Anyway, here's Nadia.

Nadia

Dear Dealer. Hey, man. What's up? I'm saying "man" because that's my guess as to what you are. All the people blowing up my sister's phone offering and seeking drugs were men-- Brian, Jerry, Eric, and my personal favorite, baby Jesus.

I can make a graph charting the meeting of particular men with misfortune for my sister. It's a safe bet you're just another data point, one among many, part of a pattern. But distinguished because you're the last data point. You're the one who killed her.

And Dealer-- it just seemed like the right title for you since I don't know your name. We can be informal here, right? You don't have to call me Miss or Mrs. Definitely don't call me Ma'am. My sister called me Nad.

My sister's Sasha, who I believe you knew. What did you call her? I hope you didn't call her Sash, because that's what a lot of people who loved her called her, and I find it hard to believe that you loved her. Did you know her well enough to care for her, or did you hardly know her?

When we were little, we sometimes called one another after the food we give our cats. She was Tender Vittle, and I was Chef's Blend. Did you even call her by her name? Or was it Lady? Or maybe you had a nickname for her like purple, the color of her car, the one she was found in.

Keeping with our informal tone, I won't call you Mr. I'll just call you "my man," because that is what you are. You are my man, the one I want to talk to, the one I'm seeking, the only one who knows some very important things about how my sister died. You are quite possibly the last person who saw her alive, and I'm a little jealous. As for me, you don't have to call me by my name. You can just call me "The Sister."

I think about you all the time, almost every day. I feel like I deserve to know you, like I deserve the have at least five minutes of your time, five minutes alone with you. This is me tying you to a chair so we can think about some things together. Are you still alive? I feel like you are, and I'm angry about that. But then if I learned who you were and that you were dead, I might be angry about that too. I think about hurting you. And when I imagine the violence I could commit, it alarms me.

It's important to me that you know some things. I want you to see who you messed with, know who you destroyed. Sasha was the valedictorian of her high school class. She studied psychology at Yale. She was bold. I was her apprentice.

She gave me my taste in music. Riding around in her Ford Escort, she'd slip in a cassette, explaining the difference between Funkadelic and Parliament. One of my most prized possessions is a cassette tape where we taped ourselves on mushrooms sitting in my room. I was a senior in high school. She was home from college for Christmas vacation.

Sasha

Stop it. What are laughing at?

Nadia

Nothing.

[LAUGHTER]

Nadia

That's Sasha asking me what I'm laughing at. "Nothing," I tell her. We stared as my grandmother's watercolors on my wall started to blur.

Sasha

Oh my God. It's like-- you know what it looks like right now? It really looks like it's like all these different planes, like these different [? dominions. ?]

Nadia

We burned Nag Champa incense and cracked ourselves up about things we called social experiments. These were basically fantasies about ways we could be completely inappropriate in situations where certain contained behavior was expected, like the public library.

Sasha

And if you [INAUDIBLE] like the library, and I pulled all the books off the shelves.

Nadia

I [INAUDIBLE] like-- [SCREAMING]

Nadia

That's me screaming.

Nadia

Strange, they're like weirding out or something. Like what are doing? What are you doing? What do you mean? Huh? Huh?

[LAUGHTER]

Nadia

When I listen to the tape, I hear a self-assured Sasha. She's in control. I'm her little sister, overjoyed to have her full attention, trying to impress her with my wisdom, and also be her court jester. Sasha tells me a story about this horse she knew that she called a total bitch.

Sasha

She's just full of snot.

Nadia

--not safe to have around people. And then this girl from the Special Olympics showed up in the barn and threw her arms around the horse's neck, and the horse stayed calm.

Sasha

It was like right on her shoulder, and everybody was like [GASPS] waiting for it to take a bite out of this chick. And it was like she knew. She just like sat there.

Nadia

Did she bite people?

Sasha

Yes.

Nadia

Oh, yeah. That's why it was so cool that she didn't.

Sasha

Right! [LAUGHS] You idiot. [LAUGHS] Oh.

Nadia

That is so--

Sasha

I bet she did kind know that this wasn't the right time to be an asshole.

Nadia

Is there ever a good time?

[LAUGHTER]

Sasha

No, I didn't--

Nadia

"Is there ever a good time to be an asshole?" I'm asking her.

I've done the math. And as of March 11, 2018, at 6:49 PM, I have lived longer than my sister. I have walked the earth more seconds than my big sister, who was born 2 and 1/2 years before me. This does not make sense. You have knocked the universe off course.

My husband would say, "Take it easy, Encyclopedia Brown," as he watched me walk around with her phone trying to reconstruct her last days, reading texts, listening to messages, making notes. Trying to figure out who you are, my man. I was hoping to finally understand the part of her life that she refused to share with me at the end.

It infuriated me that she kept getting texts after she died, like this one from Brian. "Hey, any of the shirts around?" My hand shaking, I responded, "You should fuck off. This is Sasha's sister, and she died. Go get your drugs somewhere else, you piece of shit." Or this one from Franky, "Any news? Got Sleepies." When there was no response, he wrote, "Must be dead." I wrote back to Franky. "Actually, she is dead. Fuck off. This is her sister. You'll have to fucking get your drugs somewhere else."

So my man, are you one of the guys she talked to and texted with on her last day? Are you the ex-boyfriend who kept harassing her, the one who introduced her to Oxycontin? That guy? Are you the friend who told me how sorry he was that Sasha died, and that it was a hot day, and maybe her windows were rolled up, and she suffocated during a nap in her car? Are you one of those friends I ran into who didn't have the decency to show up for her memorial? One of those people? Were you feeling guilty about something?

Here's something that's been eating at me for a while. I read that you actually don't mind when people die from something you were selling because it tells the hardcore users that the high is really powerful. The high of heroin mixed with fentanyl-- fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, 100 times more potent than the drug given to my father when he was dying from cancer. So a death from this stuff is like a calling card, is that true? Did my sister's obituary bring in business for you?

I have a friend who's a Jehovah's Witness. And she told me that in the Resurrection, I'll be able to hold my sister like I used to and speak to her like nothing happened. I like this idea, but I can't get myself to believe it. Her body was burned, cremated at 1,800 degrees. I don't like picturing that, but I do.

Aside from my own body, hers is probably the other female body I knew the best. Lean, taut, muscular. She rode horses. She was fearless, always wanting to ride the ones that were trouble. She could lose her saddle and gallop at a flat run like a wild woman, gripping the horse's mane with her hand. Her leg muscles were iron cables. She used to put me in the vise, a move inspired by our love of the WWF wrestlers. She would wrap her brawny legs around me and squeeze until I almost couldn't breathe.

My mother always called Sasha "the daughter with a bleeding heart." At one point when she was working in New Haven, you would walk down the street with her, and she knew all the homeless people by name. If you were driving with her, she would jerk the car to the side of the road, get out, leaving the car door swinging open, and call to the man or woman to see if they were OK, if they needed anything. That was her life's work.

She was actually a clinical social worker with two master's degrees in social work and public health. For the last five or so years of her life, she had trouble keeping jobs. She had trouble committing to anything.

"The daughter with a bleeding heart." Her autopsy report says that her heart weighed 360 grams. When I had to identify her body, the edges of the sheet she lay on were pink from her watered down blood, the watered down blood of her compassionate, bleeding heart. They should have cleaned up better, cleaned her up better. Though I caught myself thinking how perfect her eyebrows were.

How old are you? Were you my sisters age? Younger? Did you know she was 44? Maybe that seems old to you, but it's not. She looked older since she started using.

But before, before, my man, she was gorgeous, sexy. She probably met you at your place, or the Taco Bell parking lot in her filthy car, baseball cap, picked at skin, too much eyeliner. So maybe you could never imagine that, but she was. Ask anyone who knew her.

Ask the multitude of men who knew her. Ask the ones I would like to line up against a wall execution style and actually execute. Ask her first mind fuck of a boyfriend at age 14, and the obsessive one that followed in high school. Ask the professors, married men, random men, apparent friends, the one who first gave her crack then Oxycontin. Ask her coach who slept with the young women on his team and pulled her into a coke-fueled party scene while she was still a teenager. He denies all this today.

I find myself fixated on the men. They circle her memory like these loser, dead beat ghosts or something. How dare they have the nerve to be alive.

A year after Sasha died, after visiting her grave on a summer day, I drove through the center of our hometown. By the town green, there was a cluster of boys and girls not yet high school age. The boys were on their BMX's doing tricks, riding down a little hill. The girls were all clumped together watching these young peacocks strut their stuff, knowing their job was to sit there and be impressed. They were nearly silent, whispering among themselves while the boys were having all the fun. I drove by them and shocked myself by rolling down the window and yelling, "Girls, get a backbone. They are not that cool." I worried what my sister's death was doing to me.

What was your day like today, your day as a dealer? There's so much heroin and fentanyl on the streets these days, I'm pretty sure you're crushing it, as the kids say. On the radio, I heard the chief medical examiner for Connecticut actually get choked up about how they need to build new buildings just to keep up with all the dead bodies from overdoses. A grown man who sees dead bodies for a living cried. You, my man, are powerful. Is that how you feel?

A few days before she died, Sasha sent me a silly text. There had been an incident about a week and a half before at my mother's house, where she had been hosting a cookout for friends. Sasha showed up in bad shape, slurring her words, fighting off drowsiness. I forbade her to use some combination charcoal gas grill because I thought she was going to blow us all up. There was a fight. She felt wrongly accused and was crying a lot. I tried to get her to talk to me about what was really going on, and that went nowhere. My mom confronted her with some hard evidence, a text I saw ding on to her phone.

Sasha did this thing when she knew she was caught. She would stare hard into your eyes while she sized you up. What did you know for sure? What could she convince you of? What could she get away with admitting without completely throwing herself under the bus? Eventually she just sort of faded away into the next room, trying to clear the table, but knocking things over instead.

I was still holding a grudge about it, but I was happy to get her innocuous text asking if I remember the drawing in our middle school French books that went with the word "faible," meaning "weak." It looked like a man with no bones making a face like he had just eaten something distastefully bland. Growing up, my sister delighted in imitating the man, "Faible," and making me crack up. She did it so often, it was such a staple in our repertoire, that I thought it was odd that she would even have to ask if I remembered.

But this was our pattern. There would be an incident. Then after things subsided, she would reach out, and we would both be happy to not have to deal with the larger issue. But each time, I knew I was being roped into denial. I was less willing this time, and I held out on writing her back. I wanted to punish her a little more, show her I wasn't a pushover. But this thought came to me strongly. "You don't want that to be the last text she ever sends you. Read the subtext. She may need you. And you need to let her know that you love her." I never texted Sasha back. I waited too long.

After she died, I looked at the texts in her phone from the night of that cookout, the night we fought about whether she was on drugs. She wrote a friend, "How do I not hate my sister? My family truly hates me. I don't want to talk anymore." Her friend wrote back, "Damn. Nadia, the fucking narc."

Seeing the word "hate" in association with me knocked the wind out of me. I wanted to yell at her, "No, you've got it all wrong. I'm the one who loves you, not those people." But by the time I read that, she was already dead.

On July 31, 2015, the day she died, she had just seen her drug counselor. After our dad died and her addiction blossomed, he became the father figure in her life. She was working in his garden. Toward the end of her life, she created gardens for people just because she loved it. It gave her a place to put her anxiety, her manic tendencies. He called to her saying he had to go and was she OK. She waved him on, "I'm fine. I'm fine." This was maybe 3:30 PM. I'm glad that she saw her counselor that day. They loved one another very much.

At 4 o'clock, she has a 47 second outgoing call to Alan. At 4:02 there is an incoming call from Alan for 54 seconds. At 4:08, she calls Gary for one minute, then Gary calls her back at 4:20, and they talk for 42 seconds. At 4:27, she calls Gary again, and they talk for 41 seconds. At 4:39, she has an outgoing call to Tim for one second. At 4:40, she has a call out to Jerry for one minute.

Are you Alan, Gary, Tim, Jerry? Were you the last one to talk to her? Did you see her too? Were you with her? Both her windows were rolled down. Had someone been in her passenger seat? Were you with her when she died, and you got scared and ran? Tell me what were her last moments like? What was she saying before? Did you watch her die?

My mother worries that she wanted to die, but I don't think so. How long have you been cutting heroin with fentanyl? I don't think Sasha saw it coming. You sucker punch people, you know? She had meetings coming up written in her day book about possible work. She was trying. In an email reconnecting with a beloved former colleague two days before she died, she said, "Hi. Surprise, surprise. Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. LOL."

Her autopsy says 6:54 PM as the time of death. Sometime between 4:40 and 6:54, Sasha inhaled the drugs that killed her. She hated needles. She was found in her car in the parking lot of a seafood restaurant off I-95. The detective on the scene happened to be an old high school friend. He told me that he thought she had probably used, felt sleepy, and needed to pull over.

The restaurant is on the water. I was happy that maybe she was seeing water in those last moments. There's an off track betting place next to the restaurant with galloping horses painted on it two stories high. Maybe she saw the horses. I just wonder if she knew what was happening, or did she really just think she was going to take a little nap? I don't want her to have known what was happening. I don't want her to have been scared.

If I'm going to be honest here-- am I going to be honest here? Maybe I don't want to believe that you deserve my empathy. I don't want to look you in the eye because you may not look much different than my sister. You may be like her, someone who can't be around their family that much anymore, because pretending is so hard. Seeing Sasha trying to dry the wineglasses we used for Thanksgiving while she nodded out, pretending that she still had one foot in our world, was one of the most heartbreaking things I have seen.

You may look like that. You may be sick, needing to get high just to maintain some equilibrium. You may have been her friend. I may have even met you. You may have called her Sash. You may have loved her. God help you if you loved her.

To be fair, my sister dealt too. As I was writing this to you, my husband offered me a gentle reminder of this fact. It was mainly so she could use. There's long hand addition and subtraction in the back of her day book with people's initials, how much they owed or paid her, how much she owed and paid in return. It's chump change really, written a few times as "Me, free." Drugs were her pay. This was not high rolling dealing. This was survival.

When my husband reminded me that my sister was dealing too, I quickly defended her. "Yeah, but she never killed anyone." He said again gently, "You don't know that." I was stunned. It's true. I didn't know that. And the fact is she could have killed someone.

My worst fear when she was alive was that she would be driving around high and kill someone. The idea of her killing someone kept me up at night. I often thought about having her followed, so curious I was about what her days were like where she would go. I was once driving to visit her and my mother thinking about how I could spy on her when there was a traffic slowdown on I-95 a few exits away from our hometown. On the radio, they said there was an accident up ahead. My mind went to my sister. Had she caused it?

I pulled up in the traffic jam right behind a purple car. I gasped. It was Sasha. Here was my chance to play detective. She moved to the right lane, and the middle one I was in began to pull forward. I was at risk of being seen, so I decided to not try to hide. I pulled up next to her, ready to make a stupid face and stare at her until she felt my presence. To my horror, she looked half asleep. Her head was back, her eyes at half mast. I couldn't believe she was able to drive a car. My heart started racing and I pulled in behind her as if that might shield other cars from her.

I followed her all the way home to her house, trying to steer her car with my body like a bowling ball headed for the gutter. She was still living in her own place with an ex-boyfriend turned best buddy, not yet evicted, and forced to live with my mother during the last year of her life. I pulled into her street and watched her drive into her driveway. I wanted to follow her in, barge into the apartment that she never let me enter. But I froze, because I didn't know what I'd do once I was inside. Deliver some Joan of Arc, Oprah, Hulk Hogan speech? Like she'd go for that? So I did nothing. I told myself "She's going to an outpatient clinic. She has a therapist, a drug counselor, all these professionals helping her."

But unfortunately, she also had you. And here's the thing, my man. I need you too. I know that. I know what I'm doing here. Because of you, I get to say, "If it weren't for that guy." Because of you, I don't have to blame her. Because of you, I can nod my head when people tell me there's nothing I could have done. But I don't know if that's true.

I did try. My family tried interventions, honesty, confrontation, rejection, love. She once told my parents that out of anyone in the world, she cared most about what I thought of her. I ache at the possibility that if anyone in the world could have saved her, it was me.

But to save her, I would have had to go to her, live with her, make it my life. I would have had to physically remove her from her life and stand guard at the door holding a shotgun. I would have had to somehow wrestle her denial, get her to finally go to her knees and raise the white flag. But I got engaged. I got pregnant.

Today, whenever I tell somewhere about my violent feelings towards you, they inevitably say, "Well, if it wasn't him, it would have been someone else. If it wasn't him, it would have been some other guy." But my question is, why did it have to be anyone at all? Why should my comfort be that there would have been another one? That all we can expect from life is a game of whack-a-mole but with shitty people?

I can't accept that because you know what, man? It was you. And yeah, I'm raging at you so I don't have to rage at myself or my sister, to save myself from falling into a sad heap on the ground. So yeah, I'm using you. I don't care. None of this is fair, my man.

So fuck you. Fuck you because you're still here and there will never be another her. Fuck you because I will always think about you. You are my dealer now, man. You dealt me a life without Sasha. Because of you, I'm going out to do this alone. And I'll never let you forget that. Yours forever, The Sister.

Ira Glass

Nadia Bowers, she's writing a memoir about her sister. Coming up, the problem with having a Facebook account after you're dead that you have never, ever, ever thought about? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Commento Mori

Ira Glass

This is "American Life." I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "The Secret of My Death," stories of people who die and the stuff about them that is hidden, and the stuff about them that is uncovered after their deaths by people on a mission to figure them out. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program, Act 2, "Commento mori."

Is that act title too obscure? I was hoping it would be a kind of a play on "Momento mori," which is like a moment of awareness of one's own death. But even I know maybe that's too obscure. But anyway, a lot of this story happens in the comments section of Facebook. So you know, commento mori? Anyway, Stephanie Foo explains.

Stephanie Foo

After someone you love dies, suddenly even their most annoying traits in retrospect seem endearing. Blake Burkhart's friend was this guy Dave Maher. They were both comedians in Chicago, met in their 20s in the comedy scene. Blake was drawn to Dave because he was this extroverted weirdo, loud and absurd. He was also a problem drinker and constantly high. He even had a bit about being so stoned he couldn't order food at the movies. And he had this laugh.

Blake

I remember that kind of bugging me. Like he [LAUGHS] he would just start talking real fast like, "Oh, hoo hoo hoo!" [LAUGHS] It's hard to do an impression. But he'd be like, "Come on, Blakey boy! Oh hoo hoo hoo hoo, come on!" And he'd grab me and shake my shoulders and stuff if he was excited about just the dumbest thing, like a new joke he wrote. [LAUGHS]

Stephanie Foo

Dave saw himself as this in your face, brutally honest, iconoclast. But Blake says thinking about it now, he can't really remember any actual instances of Dave being much of a rebel. He just remembers Dave as being disarmingly nice.

Blake

To me, it was almost a little bit annoying how kind he was, because it made me look bad in comparison. And we were always together.

[LAUGHS]

Blake

But yeah, he would go up to people that he had only met once or twice and say like, "Hey, how's it going? How are you today?" And you could tell he really meant it.

Stephanie Foo

On stage, you could often hear this earnestness in Dave's comedy, this almost childlike excitement about ridiculous stuff.

Dave

I heard a song played on church bells recently, you guys. And it just was like-- you know when you just hear something, you're like, oh! Something shifts inside you, you know? And I heard this song, and I just want to do my best to replicate it to see if it affects you guys in the same way, OK? Cool. Ding dong, ding dong. Ding, ding, ding, ding, bong, bong, bong, bong, bing--

Stephanie Foo

That's a recording of a set Dave did on October 10, 2014.

[LAUGHTER]

Twelve days later, Blake got a call that said Dave was in a coma. It was sudden. Dave had been a diabetic, and somehow, his blood sugar had gotten so high that his body shut down. His kidneys were failing. Blake visited him in the hospital. It was jarring.

Then after three weeks of doctors trying to jump start Dave's body, they told his family it was probably best to take him off life support. They invited his friends to the hospital to say goodbye.

Blake

When I found out he wasn't going to be coming out of the coma and was going to be taken off life support, I just said, "I can't go. There's no way I can see him like that, knowing that I'll never be able to talk to him again."

So instead, I went to my house, where, at the time, I was living with four other comedians and all friends with Dave. And I said, "I'm going to go home, and everyone should just come over tonight after you go see Dave." We just made a whole night out of it, and just kind of made basically a wake for Dave, and just kind of waited for the news of him officially passing.

Stephanie Foo

How many people came?

Blake

Oh, it was at least 50, 60 people.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, wow. That's a lot.

Everyone knew Dave was going to be taken off life support that night. And finally, a Facebook post confirmed it. "Rest in peace, Dave Maher." Then his 1,700 Facebook friends began to post eulogies of him to his Facebook wall.

"Thoughts and prayers." "I had a gigantic crush on Dave," one admitted. Another said, "Let's all be the most Dave Maher versions of ourselves." Blake's post kept it simple.

Blake

I wrote, "I love you, dude."

Stephanie Foo

Had you ever told Dave "I love you" to his face?

Blake

I don't know. I don't think so. When you're faced with actually losing them, you kind of realize it more. Unfortunately, that's how it works, so--

Stephanie Foo

Two weeks later on Thanksgiving Day, there was a post on Dave's Facebook page from Dave.

Blake

Oh, man. It was this-- it was-- it's so hard to explain.

Stephanie Foo

"This is Dave Maher. Spoiler alert." You're alive?

Dave

Yeah. "Spoiler alert, I'm here."

Stephanie Foo

His friends all whipped out their phones in the middle of their Thanksgiving dinners and started shouting in joy on his Facebook page.

Dave

People are saying, "No one celebrates Thanksgiving the way Dave celebrates Thanksgiving." "Dave turned Thanksgiving into Easter."

[LAUGHS]

Stephanie Foo

It turned out Dave's parents never did wind up taking him off life support. They transferred him to another hospital instead. And a couple days later, his dad walked into his room and started talking to him like he had countless times since he'd fallen into the coma.

Dave

And at some point, perhaps I recognized his voice. My eyes popped open. And I was still intubated at this point, so I had a whole mess of tubes sticking out of my face and attempted to scream. But because I was intubated, it came out silently. But I just mouthed the words, (WHISPERING) "What the fuck?"

Stephanie Foo

Dave had been in the coma for a month. He's a type 1 diabetic who had just done an awful job caring for himself. He hadn't paid much attention to what he was eating, drank too much, and he had no way of monitoring his blood sugar because he sold all his test strips for weed money. So he had no idea his blood sugar was skyrocketing, eventually sending him into a coma. The last thing he remembered was puking into a bucket and figuring he must have food poisoning. And then after a month, he woke up in a hospital bed, completely bewildered by the entire situation.

But the upshot of all that was that he was in this weird situation that some of us fantasize about, that Tom Sawyer thing of being at your own funeral, where you get to hear all the things people say about you. You get to finally find out how you're seen, what people will remember about you.

Dave didn't get a chance to look at Facebook for a while. He was still recovering. His hands wouldn't stop shaking, so he couldn't even use his phone. It took another month or so for him to be discharged from the hospital, and that's when he finally decided to read through all of the eulogies people had left on his page, about a hundred of them.

It was New Year's day after the ball had dropped and everyone went to sleep. He was recuperating in his parents' house, so he went down to their basement and sat alone at the little kitchen island scrolling for hours.

Dave

You know, it got to be 2:00, and 3:00, and 3:30 AM. And I'm just there at this island reading these things from my laptop.

Stephanie Foo

One of the first things he spotted right in the middle of all the "I miss you's" was a post from his brother trying to quash the whole thing, written the day after Dave supposedly died.

Dave

I think my family was honestly pretty upset reading some of these things. Like "To friends of David, there seems to be some confusion and unofficial word on David's passing. At the time of this posting, Dave Maher is still with us. Until you hear official word that David has passed, please out of respect for him and our family, refrain from posting about David in the past tense."

Stephanie Foo

It got 70 likes, three comments. But the Facebook algorithm had buried it. It was overshadowed by all of the comments coming in facilitating the dead Dave narrative. Some of those got twice as many likes. And reading these comments was sort of like you'd imagine. People brought up a lot of memories, things he did, some of which he didn't even remember, funny stories. And he got to see what this life he bumbled through actually looked like from the outside.

Dave

There's pretty good ones in here. [LAUGHS] Oh yeah. This one I had forgotten existed. OK, so this woman writes, "Deep into the late night hour of a crazy, sexy, cool party, I found Dave pounding on a closet door." And then she transcribes this conversation where she says, "What are you doing, Dave?" And I say, "I gotta go to the bathroom." And she says, "That's a closet." And I say, "No, it's not. It's the bathroom, and there are people in there. There are people in there. And they need to get out." And then she says, "I show Dave that it is indeed a closet." And then the last line is me saying, "Just let me knock on the door for a little, and then I'll walk away so that people don't know what I did."

[LAUGHS]

Dave

And that's great, man. That's so funny.

[LAUGHS]

Stephanie Foo

A bunch of posts perplexed him just because they were so random. There was one from an ex-girlfriend who was appreciative of the fact that he broke up with her inside his car because it was cold outside. One woman said he was a great storyteller and also quote, "unreasonably sweaty."

Stephanie Foo

Why?

Dave

Yeah, absurd, right? Like it's so easy not to include that sentence.

Stephanie Foo

But as Dave kept scrolling past the funny memories, of course, things got heavier. Many of his friends had been devastated, and they took to Facebook as a form of therapy, pouring their hearts out about their loss. Dozens painted Dave as a devoted friend, the kind of guy who was there with hugs and advice and beer whenever you needed him. And then he got to this one post from a friend that just gutted him.

Dave

"Hey, dude. Pretty sure Kit took this photo right before I told you I was going to leave her party in order to go to bed early. And then you made fun of me for doing that. I guess I never thought about this before, but you were totally my best friend in college. Even though you were a senior when I was a freshman, you insisted on treating me and everyone as equals, even though we weren't, dude. You really made me feel so effing cool.

My dumb smile in this photo is 100% genuine because I was so happy to be with you all the time. It wasn't just me who felt that way. Whenever we went to CVS or Walgreens, every employee recognized you and said hello. We've even eaten at Chipotle for free because you have it going on, dude.

Thanks for telling me not to be so hard on myself, and then laughing about how funny that sounded coming from you. Thanks for all the rides home. Thanks for being my best friend. It looks like it's finally your turn to turn in early. You earned it. I'll talk to you later. Duffer." [CRIES]

Stephanie Foo

That is so sweet.

Dave

(CRYING) Yeah. [CRIES] Yeah. It's just really sweet. [SIGHS] It's really-- I don't know. It's like so many of these things I didn't remember. Like I don't remember things that way. I don't remember employees at Walgreens all knowing my name. I remember shoplifting from Walgreens and spending the night in jail. That's how I remember this stuff.

Stephanie Foo

This was the main thought Dave had going through his eulogies. Even though everyone was being so nice, he thought, "They're all wrong."

Dave

I know that people don't really talk shit about someone when they've died, but it's just really tough to like square the image that I have of myself with the way other people talked about me when they thought I was dead.

Stephanie Foo

And that's why reading his own eulogies, it actually made him feel awful. He felt overwhelmed by the complete disconnect between the guy he thought he was and the guy everyone else was talking about. He'd thought that he was at core a bad person, that he took his depression out on people, that he could be insensitive, self-centered.

Dave

I put myself in this coma. It was my carelessness, my recklessness, that got me to this place in the first place. And on the one hand, while it's moving to hear that everyone at this wake at Blake's house was so miserable to feel like I had gone, I made these people miserable.

Stephanie Foo

That totally makes sense. You were like, "You guys, you're not acknowledging how fucked up it was that I did this stupid thing to you."

Dave

Right. And that's why it was like-- it's very different, the experience with my family. Because my family was pretty aware and they had been hurt by-- in terms of the traditional wreckage that an alcoholic or an addict leaves in their wake, my family suffered a lot of that. And so they weren't effusive when I came back. They were very aware of the ways in which I contributed to the situation.

Stephanie Foo

So now that everyone was saying he was this wonderful and nice guy, it actually made him feel guilty. Even now years later, it's a burden. Witnessing your own funeral, it actually kind of sucked. Maybe it wouldn't if you stayed dead. The problem is if you have to keep on living. But you know who this didn't suck for? Dave's friend, Blake.

Stephanie Foo

Have you ever found his laugh annoying since then?

Blake

No, now it's like music to my ears.

Stephanie Foo

That's so crazy!

Blake got to watch his loved one come back to life. That's really the thing worth fantasizing about. He gets excited just thinking about the day Dave woke up.

Blake

Yeah, just to relive that moment again and again would be priceless, because that's the happiest I think I've ever felt. I think it just makes me a little happier to be around him every time. It's just like-- I'm just a little happier around him than I could be around any other friend because I know what it's like to also lose the same person.

Stephanie Foo

Dave and Blake both got second chances to love and to be loved. Turns out one's a lot easier than the other.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program. The living Dave Maher has comedy stuff that he would like to share with you at thisisdavemaher.com.

Act Three: Funeral for a Stranger

Ira Glass

Act 3, "Funeral for a Stranger." So this last story is about a guy who goes to a funeral for somebody who does not know at all and has to piece together all the stuff you would want to know in that kind of situation. And the guy who did this wrote us an email last summer at the radio show. There was no subject heading in this email. The very first line was a link to an obituary for another guy named Eddie Furlani. Eddie had died a few weeks before. He was young when he died, only 35.

The email began, "Dear This American Life, I'm attaching a quick document that I created Friday documenting some of the thoughts and emotions I had following the funeral of a Navy SEAL. The whole experience was more of an odyssey than I had bargained for." This caught the eye of a producer here on our show, Dana Chivvis. Here she is.

Dana Chivvis

The email was signed by a retired officer in the Navy, a guy I'm going to call Charlie. It's not his real name. The document he had attached to the email was an essay. It was four pages long. He'd written it quickly after Eddie Furlani's funeral. Eddie was a stranger to him, but there was something about the whole experience that seemed to kind of haunt him that led him to write an essay, something deeply emotional. I couldn't tell what it was, so I gave him a call.

Dana Chivvis

So why did you write us?

Charlie

I knew you were going to ask this question.

Dana Chivvis

[LAUGHS] Do write radio shows a lot?

Charlie

I don't. And I think I wrote you guys one time prior, and that's the only reason why I even knew how to contact you.

Dana Chivvis

OK, so maybe Charlie writes radio shows more than most people. I asked him to tell me the story of Eddie Furlani's funeral last summer. The story begins with a random text message from a friend of Charlie's, a guy named Mark. He and Charlie went to the Naval Academy together. After graduation, Charlie went on to become a Naval aviator. He flew medivac helicopters in Iraq in 2007. His friend Mark joined the Navy SEALs, the Navy's special operations forces.

Dana Chivvis

What was the text that you got from Mark?

Charlie

So actually, it started with, a "Good morning." I said, "Good morning. How's Liam, your son?" And his next text is, "Hey, I got a job for you." And that's where my response came back, "Does it involve explosives?"

[LAUGHS]

Charlie

And he says, "Attend the service of a frog man in my absence."

Dana Chivvis

Frogman is a nickname for a Navy SEAL. Eddie Furlani and Mark had been Navy SEALs together. The funeral was going to be in San Diego, and Mark, who lives in Florida, couldn't make it. So he asked Charlie, who lives nearby, to go in his place.

Charlie

That was the moment where it was like that moment of decision where I was like, "Well, do I really want to go to a funeral of somebody I don't know in his absence?" If it was anybody but Mark, I probably would have made an excuse.

Dana Chivvis

So did you sit there for like a minute or two before you wrote him back thinking of excuses not to go?

Charlie

[SIGHS] I'd be lying if I said no. I did think of a few excuses not to go because funerals aren't one of those things that people like attending to begin with, and let alone the funeral of somebody that you don't know, which technically seems a little rude because it just doesn't seem appropriate.

Dana Chivvis

But Charlie wrote Mark back, said, "Send me the details and I'll do it." And then in the swirl of his own life and work and family, he kind of forgot about it.

Two weeks later, he woke up and realized it was the morning of Eddie Furlani's funeral. He put on a nice pair of jeans, some nice shoes, and a dark button down shirt. He thought he'd go to the service during his lunch break, catch the eulogy, and then scoot out of there, get back to work. He realized he didn't have any of the details about the service, and he also didn't know anything about Eddie Furlani. So he did some googling and found a Facebook memorial that Mark had set up and a GoFundMe page asking for donations to help support Eddie's family. It mentioned that he had passed suddenly.

In the essay Charlie sent us, he writes, "There are pictures of his three children and the smiling face of Eddie in SEAL training, submerged in mud and smiling and giving a thumbs up with green fatigues on. The date of his passing was listed, and I started googling different military tragedies. Being alumni from a military academy means that rarely is there a military accident where someone I know isn't involved or affected. I found it unusual that I could find no reporting on anything."

Dana Chivvis

You know, at the time, I told myself that he was a Navy SEAL that had died in the line of duty. If it was a major firefight or a conflict, there would be yellow ribbons, there would be parades, there would be flags everywhere, there would be people weeping in the streets if he had died in combat.

Dana Chivvis

So you knew it wasn't that. You knew it wasn't a battlefield death, but maybe it was an accident

Charlie

Well, I didn't-- you get that little bug in the back of your head because I'm like, OK, well, how did he die? Was it a car accident?

Dana Chivvis

The internet didn't shed any light on the mystery surrounding Eddie's death. But anyway, it was the day of the funeral, so Charlie would probably find out what happened there.

It's a weird thing being a proxy at a funeral. It reminds me of being a plus one at a wedding, only miserable. You don't know the person who died or their family, so it's hard to have any feelings about it. Like the fact that Eddie Furlani was gone, it hadn't changed the course of Charlie's life at all, just the course of his lunch break, really.

Charlie gets to the chapel late because Mark texted at the last minute and asked him to pick up some flowers for the family, corsages for Eddie Furlani's daughter and widow. As soon as he drives into the parking lot, he notices a woman sitting on the sidewalk dressed in black, attending to a little boy who's having a total meltdown over his pants and how he doesn't want to be wearing them. Charlie recognizes the boy from pictures as Eddie Furlani's son.

When Charlie walks into the chapel, the service has already started, and he's carrying those flowers. So one of the funeral directors intercepts him and asks him if he's the flower delivery guy. Charlie tries to explain awkwardly and in whisper talk because, again, the service has already started, that no, he's there for the service. But no, he doesn't actually know the deceased, and no, he doesn't know the family either. He's just there for a guy in Florida, like as a stand in. The funeral director lets him by, and Charlie finally squeezes into the back row of mourners.

Charlie

The pews were all full, and the walls-- especially the back of the walls were lined with men in three piece suits that were 6 foot 4, athletically built, wearing sunglasses. I mean, you're clearly Navy SEALs.

Dana Chivvis

People were giving eulogies. In his essay, Charlie writes that it felt odd to hear about the achievements of a stranger, stories from his friends. The men on the back wall with him were steel-faced, betrayed no emotion until Eddie Furlani's daughter, a 7-year-old named Zelma, broke down in tears.

Charlie

The little girl was sobbing. You know [COUGHS] in that sort of deep, heartbroken [COUGHS] deep, heartbroken sob. And her stepmother was kind of bent over and escorting her out through the door. And she is just sobbing. [COUGHS] Again, you can imagine all these 6 foot plus, 300 pound, athletic Navy SEALs. And [COUGHS] [LAUGHS] Everybody just looked so helpless. It was like-- there isn't anything these guys can't take on and win, and here's this little girl sobbing [LAUGHS] right behind us. And there's nothing anybody could do.

Dana Chivvis

There was a part of your essay that really struck me. I'm just going to read. You wrote, "The military trains you to separate the emotion from the mission. Eddie's oldest girl Zelma was old enough to understand what was happening, but not military enough to know not to show it." Did you want Zelma to be a little more military in that moment?

[SIGHS]

Charlie

I don't know what to say to that because that little girl wailing out there in the hallway-- you know, that again, set off a cascade of grief that everybody there had to kind of stuff away.

Dana Chivvis

Charlie stuffed the grief away with an old military trick. He focused on accomplishing the mission to deliver the flowers Mark had sent him with.

Charlie

It's stupid, and I feel so embarrassed to even admit this, but I mean, that's what I clung to is I need give her the flowers. I clung to that idea that my mission is to give her the flowers.

Dana Chivvis

Luckily, a voice in Charlie's head-- his wife's voice, he says-- told him that delivering the flowers then was a really bad idea. So he stayed put. It made him deeply uncomfortable, all these feelings for a stranger. He wasn't being military enough.

Charlie

You lose a degree of empathy in the military because empathy is not an advantageous skill to have in most-- especially comrade-in-arms fields. Empathy is not a useful emotion to have. And [SIGHS] the fact that I'm sniffling and tearing up is generally thought as weak. Like I said, your empathy centers tend to be atrophied.

Dana Chivvis

Well, I mean, I think that you could also see it as proof that your empathy centers haven't atrophied, that they're actually quite present.

Charlie

They just come out at the wrong times with odd things, which is--

Dana Chivvis

I guess. Although I think some people would argue that a funeral is the exact right time for it to come out.

Charlie

Oh, they're present. Yeah, I know they're there. [SNIFFS]

Dana Chivvis

The service finally ended. The chaplain asked everyone not to talk to the family, just proceed outside to the flag presentation. But Charlie ignored these instructions and walked up to Eddie Furlani's widow, eager to give her the flowers, to accomplish his mission at last. When he told her he was there on behalf of his friend, Mark, she brightened and gave him a hug. She told him Mark was the whole reason they'd had a service there in San Diego. He'd arranged everything.

Charlie got back in his car and called Mark to give him a report. And then Mark said something strange. He told Charlie he was relieved to hear there had been so many people at the service.

Charlie

It hit me almost like touching a light socket. He said, "I'm glad people showed up. I was worried nobody was going to be there." And you get that kind of sinking feeling that you've missed something important. And the next thing he told me was is because of how he killed himself. And-- [SIGHS]

Dana Chivvis

Eddie had disappeared from home 3 and 1/2 weeks earlier. He'd been missing for about a week before his body was found under a bridge. He had a backpack filled with pictures of his family and his service record. In his essay, Charlie writes about that moment after the funeral when he was in his car talking to Mark, and he finally understood how Eddie had died.

"It all came together in my mind suddenly. No mention of cause of death, no news stories of training accidents, no mention of the end of his life at the eulogy-- the monster that hides in the dark, the one that you don't mention lest you summon his attention."

Dana Chivvis

How did that change things for you, to understand that Eddie had committed suicide?

Charlie

I got lightheaded, honestly. I had a physical reaction.

Dana Chivvis

Why?

Charlie

Because there was nothing about it. I mean, there were no articles on it. The chaplain's invocation didn't talk-- nobody said anything about it. Both Mark-- and Eddie's widow, as I found out this morning when I talked to her-- they were terrified because they expect to show up to an empty chapel. They expected no one to come.

Dana Chivvis

In fact, the Navy chaplain had mentioned at the start of the service that Eddie had killed himself. But Charlie arrived late and missed it. And Charlie had misunderstood Mark's worry that no one would show up. Mark told me he was worried about that, but not because Eddie killed himself. It was more like it all happened so suddenly, and he wasn't sure people would be able to come.

The morning before our interview, Charlie called Eddie's widow to make sure it was OK with her that he talked to me. And during that conversation, he learned something about Zelma's breakdown in the chapel.

Charlie

The reason why she wanted to leave is because she was ashamed. She felt ashamed that everybody knew her father had killed himself, and that they felt that she was a bad person. And I was horrified to hear that. [LAUGHS] I mean, of all the [CRYING] of all the things for her to think, that she was somehow this pariah for her father passing away. And that everybody in that memorial service, who was there to support her, and she was-- I don't know. I was horrified to hear that. And that she wanted to leave.

Dana Chivvis

Eddie left the military in 2012, the same year as Charlie. Charlie says when you go back to civilian life, you get a job, you've got your family and friends, but you miss having a greater mission.

Charlie

Your sense of purpose is gone. You have to evolve. But when I heard what Eddie did, I understood what he was thinking in that moment. I guess I'm trying to explain in basic layman terms. Without knowing myself, but maybe I can put myself in a few of their shoes with--

Dana Chivvis

Can you talk about that?

Charlie

About what?

Dana Chivvis

Being able to put yourself in their shoes. I mean, can you talk about that? Are you up for talking about that?

Charlie

[SIGHS] Sorry, I've been kind of dreading this.

Dana Chivvis

You want to take a little break?

Charlie

[SIGHS] No, I can keep going.

Dana Chivvis

OK.

Charlie

[SIGHS] I'd like to say I'm brave enough to take that subject on, but I don't think I can do that. I don't think I can do that right--

Dana Chivvis

That's fine. That's fine.

Charlie's had his own bouts with suicidal thoughts. They brought his career in the Navy to an end. He told me about it when the microphones were off. He said it was OK to talk about here. I asked him if, in retrospect, the thing that got him about Eddie's funeral, the reason he felt compelled to write the essay, was that it could have been his own funeral. But he said no, that's not it. And then he explained why he wrote the essay.

He said he knew from his time doing medivac flights that the mere sound of a helicopter approaching can improve the vital signs of a person on the verge of death. He said, "I wrote you because I wanted to be the sound of a helicopter to someone."

Ira Glass

Dana Chivvis-- we wanted to share the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That number is 800-273-TALK. 800-273-TALK. That guy Charlie who wrote that essay asked us to say that he dedicates his essay to a guy who helped him, a marine who died in Iraq, Major Richard Gannon II.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program is produced today by Miki Meek. People who put our show together includes Elma Baker, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Hilary Elkins, Stephanie Foo, David Kestenbaum, Alvin Melathe, [? Stone ?] Nelson, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed, our managing editor is Susan Burton. Special thanks today to Judy Melinek, Wesley Lowery, Melissa Franklin, and David Morin.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can subscribe to our free weekly podcast or listen to the archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. "This American Life" is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. I know it's been a week since Mother's Day, but Torey is still reminiscing about how much fun he had.

Dave

I remember shoplifting from Walgreens and spending the night in jail.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of "This American Life."

[MUSIC - THE POLICE, "MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE"]

I hope that someone gets my, I hope that someone gets my, I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle, yeah.