This particular blog has been rattling around in my head for weeks – years really – long before the term ‘blog’ likely existed. I waver between writing it down and ignoring it altogether on an almost daily basis. Today I decided to get it over with – uncertain even as I sit here typing, whether or not I’ll actually hit the ‘publish’ key or not.
I recently came into possession of an old guitar – it’s a family guitar – owned by my first husband – though he doesn’t play, kept by his mother who played beautifully but had her own favorite instrument. Last year it was given to my son. He in turn, after spending a solid year trying to master the technique of fingers and frets, gave it to me. He doesn’t recall that I played it when he was small, and really – aside from a couple of self taught years of effort – I can’t say as I can play either. But I will learn again.
As I sat practicing it this morning, it suddenly occured to me, that in one of my previous blogs I had listed out all the people in my family who are ‘artistic’. People who can draw, paint, play….and not once did I mention my dad….who could pick up anything with strings and play anything you wanted him to play. Guitar, banjo, ukelele. He could play harmonica – that’s a toughie – I tried years ago, a talent that’s completely beyond me.
This omission on my part brought me up short. How could I have not mentioned my dad? The guitar now leaning against my desk a few feet away from me – I’m taking it as a sign that it’s time to write this. Time to put it into words.
Yesterday, on the way to work, stopping at the same store I stop at every day to pick up the paper, I reached for the door and paused – the notice taped to the glass read ‘hunting licenses and limited entry now available’. Another sign – my dad was a lifelong hunter. Memories that float around in my head suddenly raced to the forefront – I spent most of my day at work trying to concentrate and push the memories back under cover -then finally gave up. It’s not about ‘wanting’ to write this. I ‘have’ to write this.
My dad, to me, was always a bigger than life character. Over six feet, broad shouldered, handsome, funny, harsh, strict, kind, intolerant, smart….you get the picture. He worked hard, he lived harder. He did not tolerate fools, he did not tolerate people who couldn’t be on time. He was one of those people who upon deciding he wanted to learn something new – could simply learn it with little effort. A driving force in my life, as are all father’s to daughters, there is not a day that goes by without at least one thought of my dad, one nod to his teachings, one recognition of how much of him has made me who I am – one acceptance of the fact that although we didn’t often agree on things when I was strong headed in my youth, I can’t fault his line of reasoning now that I’m older.
As the years went by and the father/daughter aspect of our relationship passed into a friend/friend relationship, we finally began to accept each other for who we were. We grew close, but in an unspoken way – neither he nor I were touchy/feely people – I don’t recall I ever hugged my dad even once in my life – it just wasn’t done, and neither of us cared to change that – ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Most people, including myself, expects their parents to be around forever. Death is one of those things that doesn’t appy to them, it’s a concept that’s not considered, a far off concept that doesn’t rate much thinking about. Yet after the fact, some twenty years later, it seems I’m still doing nothing but thinking about that very thing.
To this day, I can still clearly recall the phone call I received in a round about fashion, telling me that dad was in the hospital, having suffered a stroke. The damage already done had him laying there for hours, yelling at the nurses to call his daughter – and giving them the wrong phone number. I couldn’t comprehend it – my dad, at sixty two, a stroke. I made it to the hospital, managed to get my shaking under control in the elevator, marched into his room with no clear idea what to expect and of course there he was, mad that it had taken me so long to get there, irritated with the fact that he was in the hospital in the first place, anxious to get the hell out.
I knew nothing of strokes. I knew nothing of the damage to the brain, the motor skills, the emotions, the thought processes, but I was suddenly in the middle of a crash course. I promptly did what women the world over do when faced with a sudden and incomprehensible crisis – I shut all emotion down, kicked my head into high gear and my body into control mode and dealt with it. I talked to doctors, nurses, reassured dad that he would get through this. I drove fifty miles to his house and tidied up, updated some friends, arranged for someone to keep an eye on the place, emptied the fridge. I went to work. I kept a positive attitude around the kids. I arranged to pay his bills, collect from people who owed him for renovation work he’d completed. I kept family in the loop. I spent every spare moment I could, and some that I couldn’t, in that hospital with dad.
Strokes are an odd thing, they affect people differently – in my dads case, the left side of his body had become numb to the commands of his brain and refused to cooperate in more than the minimum fashion. His thought processes, though sometimes very skewed, seemed to be recovering slowly – but it was clear that the man I sat with in that room was at once my dad – and not my dad. His impatience with things was more pronounced, his intolerance of things he’d always been intolerant of was on the increase. His frustration with being ‘locked up’ made him act out. His frustration with his own body’s betrayal turned him into a cranky child prone to tantrums. He became more demanding of me than he’d ever been – calling me at work and insisting I bring him his own bottle of rubbing alcohol (but dad they have vats of the stuff in the hospital – I don’t care I want my own), on an almost daily basis there was some new demand – another pair of slippers as the pair I’d bought him the day before didn’t fit. The following day the new ones wouldn’t fit either. He was furious with the food. Furious with the doctor who told him not to get his hopes of recovery up too much. My dad, who in my memory had never been depressed a single day in his life, struggled with depression every day.
At some point, the powers that be moved him into rehab. He now had a purpose, a goal, he was determined he would recover enough to get the hell out of that place and back home. More meetings with doctors, more trips to the store for slippers. Now I had to consider whether or not he could live on his own. He thought he could. The doctors thought he couldn’t. More meetings. He picked a date he wanted to be home by, I set about having some people do renovations to his house so he could get through the doors with a wheelchair, or a walker, get in and out of a bathtub…..the doctors insisted he wasn’t going to be able to manage on his own, he insisted he was. I suggested he might live with me for a few months. He wouldn’t hear of it – he didn’t like my second husband – barely tolerated the man and couldn’t imagine being stuck in the same house with him. I suggested a woman he’d been friends with for years could perhaps stay with him for a few months. He wouldn’t hear of that either – thought she was a lousy housekeeper. He suggested I come stay with him at his house – I couldn’t – I had to work. I had kids. And on it went.
As the weeks, then months passed, he worked hard to improve. He became the rehab poster boy – the nurses were all on his side, put up with his demands and tantrums, watched in amazement as he began to walk some on his own, get himself dressed, wheel himself outside to sit on the grounds of the hospital and stare longinly at the mountains surrounding the place, determined he would get out and go home and things would be allright. I took to picking him up on the weekends – it became a ritual. I would stop and get fried chicken and coleslaw for lunch, wrangle him into the car, drive where directed – usually a park, and we would sit at a picnic table, eat lunch, talk. His sense of balance not all quite right, he often felt car sick but he would soldier on regardless. Walk the ten steps to the table. Keep himself upright while he ate. Dad was nothing, if not a strong willed man – watching him make progress on an almost daily basis made my utter and absolute exhaustion with trying to fit this new thing into my life, seem unimportant. He would get out, go home, and I would get back to my own life. The kids could stop eating take-out. I could be home before eight o’clock at night, I could go to work and complete an entire shift without having to leave and meet some new and unreasonable demand for yet more slippers, yet one more accounting of how much it was costing to make the changes to his house, one more sit down to show him that the hydro had been paid. I had long since become numb to my own life, my focus had narrowed to my dad only – there wasn’t a single moment where the issue wasn’t at the forefront, in my face, in my head.
The day he was realeased, the day he had chosen, insisted upon, demanded – seemed almost anticlimatictic. We collected him and his things up from the hospital, I drove him in my car, my husband drove his truck and his belongings and a load of groceries ahead of me. We deposited him into his house, I made a pot of coffee, unloaded the groceries….we stuck around long enough to welcome several visitors who were arriving with fresh baked goddies and ‘glad to see you’ greetings. We drove home. I sat in the house stupefied, weary, anxious – it seemed incomrehensible – I literally had nothing to do. An entire long weekend of my own awaited me. Come dinner time I called him – ‘did you eat?’ ‘Of course I ate!’
The last conversation I had with my dad came the following morning. I asked him if he’d eaten breakfast. He launched into a tirade over the fact that while he had eaten, he’d missed out on the bacon as I had stupidly tossed it into the freezer instead of the fridge. I apologized, we made our peace, we hung up.
I went about my day in a fog, feeling spaced out, worrying about the bacon, not having thought to ask if he’d taken it out of the freezer. I went out for a beer with my husband, remarking that it felt unbelievably strange to be able to just go for a beer without having to schedule it in to my day. We returned home to a message from the police on the answering machine. I sat down. I knew.
It mattered little that the officer who’d left the message was now off shift and no one else seemed willing to talk to me, it mattered little that the hospital had nothing to tell me – I knew – with an unshakable certainty, that he had taken his own life. And once again I did what women the world over do when they are suddenly faced with an incomprehensible crisis. Shut all emotion down, kicked my head into high gear, my body into control mode and dealt with it.
My husband at that time was of no help – in retrospect, he had never had time for crisis of any sort, little sympathy for anyone other than himself. It mattered little, I refocused on the useless minutae of the situation and carried on. How many boxes would I need to pack his things up? When could I arrange for a moving van? How much time could I take off of work? Who did I need to call? How did I go about putting a notice in the obituaries? What should I write?
I didn’t want to go back to his house. I called a friend of his who told me they’d cleaned up best they could. It didn’t occur to me that there might be people who dealt with the aftermath of these things – I don’t know if there were back then. I simply got into the car with the boxes and drove out.
Of course it was not okay. I set about cleaning up. I called my mom who was on her way having driven miles and miles the day before to come up and help – and asked her to rent a steam cleaner. I could not for the life of me deal with the mess – but I did. I packed. I stacked boxes. I politely spoke to people who wandered by and said stupid things – ‘your dad always told me if anything ever happened to him I could have his reciprocating saw’.
Sure he did. I’d go fetch the whatever he’d ‘promised’ and hand it over. What would I do with a reciprocating saw anyway? House finally empty, moving van arranged, I drove fifty miles in the opposite direction and met with the police and reclaimed all of the firearms they’d removed from the house after the incident. I signed for and packed the long guns out to the car. I shoved the revolver with it’s five remaining bullets back across the counter and told the officer I didn’t want it. I signed a paper stating the fact. He fumbled through a file and finally asked me if my dad had been depressed lately. I stared at him for a long moment – ‘he had a stroke’ I finally said before walking out.
I arranged for a man my dad and I had both known for many years, a man who was about as right with God as I figured anybody was, to perform a small service. I wrote the eulogy, I did not attend. I did not care what anybody thought of my absence – I still don’t to this day. I picked dad’s ashes up from the funeral home, I put them in a closet in my house along with all the long guns – still tagged with police evidence tags, and closed the door on that part of my life for many many months.
I did not grieve. There was no crying, no sadness – I didn’t have time, I didn’t want to go there. Instead, I went to work. I raised my children. I ran my household. On the odd occasion while under some particular stress or other, I would find myself thinking about it – I would quickly shove the whole issue into some nether regions of my brain and ignore it. I became certain, at some point, that if I actually sat down and really really allowed myself to feel anything at all, I would simply come unhinged. Be carted off in a straight-jacket and locked into a rubber room to wail and tear my hair out until nothing left, I would be medicated and allowed to graduate down the hall to the basket weaving room where I could sit in a stupor pushing a piece of willow under over under over around and around until I managed to produce something resembling a basket. There was no question that I wasn’t ready to deal with my dad’s loss – and aside from that, I had come to realize, that there would be no grieving until I found a way to let go of the anger.
Anger might seem an odd emotion to associate with the loss of someone – but it wasn’t an odd emotion to me. I hung onto that anger for years, anger that he was gone, anger that he’d chosen to go the way he did – it was an emotion I could understand, hang onto, feed – until one day it occured to me that I was being selfish. Selfish in assuming I should have had some kind of say in how long my dad should live, when he should go, how he should go. It wasn’t up to me to decide. It never had been. I let the anger go and finally found a weary acceptance.
There came a time, when I finally had to acknowledge the fact that I had no idea what to do with his ashes. His sister suggested I bury them next to his mom and dad, I dismissed the idea immediately – it simply didn’t seem right. Once, in a brief bout of fury with the man, I thought to simply toss them out. I knew enough to mention it to an aunt who didn’t act shocked, didn’t lash me with a look of disgust, simply suggested I give it more time, think on it some more – maybe one day I would want to have a place to go and visit, talk to him, whatever. I left the ashes in the closet.
I thought about it some more, off and on for many more months, until one day I settled on an idea – not knowing if it was the right idea or not, at the time it just seemed like the closest I would ever come to perhaps understanding what dad would have wanted done with his ashes – and in the end, that’s what had been holding me up. It wasn’t about where I wanted them, or anybody else thought they should go – it was about where he would want them. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed the answer – still, it was many more months before I made the decision.
My dad was not an avid hunter – as in he didn’t go buy every tag available and tear around the bush trying to fill them all before the season ended – but he still picked up a deer tag every year and usually filled it on one of his many trips up to the mountains. Once a year, he would call me up during the season and invite me along. Actually it was more like ‘why don’t you come on out and we’ll get up early and go up into the mountains and tell lies’. Odd way to put it, but that was his idea of an invite. I’d pack up my stuff, drive out, eat dinner, bed early. At some mystery predetermined hour after I’d just barely got to sleep he’d be at the door waking me up. ‘Come on get up. People die in bed you know.’ I’d stagger out of bed, get dressed, manage a cup of coffee while making tuna-fish sandwiches mixed with a fistfull of chives from his garden. Into the truck and we were off.
Area 8-14. Some miles West, then off the highway South, and on up the mountain through a maze of old logging roads we’d go, idling along, waiting for daylight, smoking the odd cigarette – not many lies to tell at that early hour. My job, once it was light enough to see, was to man the binoculars. I’d get them out, adjust them to my eyesight and start looking for game. Thing was….I never saw any. Not in all the years we made the trek, did I see so much as a rabbit, a fool hen, a deer. Zip. Zero. I would stare through those binoculars until my eyes felt as though they were about to fall out of their sockets. Nothing.
‘How come you never see any game?’ he’d complain. ‘You’re probably not even looking. We’ve probably drove past fifty deer by now.’
‘There isn’t any to be seen. How come you always take me hunting where there isn’t any game to be had?’
And on we’d go, idling over ruts and bumps, heater on for warmth, windows open to let the smoke out, cab now reeking of tuna-fish-chive sandwiches.
‘Roll me one of those.’ he’d toss me his tobacco, perfectly capable of rolling one and driving at the same time. I’d roll one. ‘What the hell is that – a cigar?’
‘How about a chive sandwich?’ was my reply, making a dig at the fact that it was he who’d insited I put the entire fist full of pungent plant in one can’s worth of tuna.
And on for hours. We’d stop, get out and stretch, have a cup of coffee, maybe eat a sandwich. ‘What’d you put so many chives in these for?’
Back in the truck, another turn, another long while with no sign of game, up and up into the mountains until at another mystery predetermined point he’d pull over, shut the truck off and we’d get out, rifle, binoculars, thermous in hand and trek into the bush to sit, backs against a tree to wait for the likely non-existent game to appear before our very eyes and therefore the rifle.
I’d sip at my coffee and light a cigarette.
‘Well we’re not going to get anything now….they can smell your cigarette smoke.’ This said as he rolls another of his own.
‘Want me to go back to the truck and get the chive sandwiches?’
Every year the same, a ritual we played out because that’s what we did – odd father/daughter combo that most people didn’t understand. Every year, no game, bitching about the sandwiches, an agreement that next year we’d bring two thermouses of coffee because we always ran out.
But every year – without fail – the Elk.
Neither of us ever saw the bull elk, but we never failed to hear him. We’d be sitting there, out of lies to tell, things to bicker about, the peace of the surrounding forests, hills and valleys calming us – and he would call. It was a majestic bugle – a full blown call to the females from a bull that from dad’s account, had been in charge of this particular range for years. He’d relate the many stories of buddies he knew that had spent many seasons trying for that bull – only to never succeed, only to determine that ‘next year’ they would get him. The bull would call – the sound would roll through the trees, down into the valleys, echo off the rocks – you would think it came from your left, change your mind and decide it had come from the right. Maybe from down below. No – from up behind you. It was a call that made the hair stand up on your arms, made you feel priveleged to hear it, made you realize that there were some things sacred to this earth and they should be left alone. Really, it was the unspoken point of the whole trip – hoping to hear the bull elk bugle and knowing he was still up there – smarter than all the hunters, stronger than the other bulls – the mountains belonged to him.
‘If you ever see him will you take him?’ I finally thought to ask one year.
It was all he said on the subject. I didn’t quiz him further.
Once the elk had moved on, we would rise, head back to the truck and continue on up the road. This particular road happened to dead end at the very top of the mountain in a bald clearing that had once been home to a repeater tower of some sort. Standing at the edge of the road and looking around you, you would realize you had completely circled around and returned almost to your starting point, only several thousand feet above. With the binoculars one could look straight across the valley and see the road to a now defunct mine on the opposite mountain side, if one looked directly down into the valley you could see the small community he called home. If you just stood there and stared straight ahead to the east you could look, as they say, ‘as far as you could see’.
I decided, that this place was where I would spread his ashes.
I mentioned it to my husband one day, that this is what I’d like to do. As it’s foolish to wander out into the wilderness on your own, and not having been up there in ages, unsure if the roads would still be in reasonable shape, I asked if he would do the driving. No hurry. One day. Some day. Now that I’d chosen a spot it didn’t seem all that much of a panic to get the task done – wasn’t like the mountains were going anywhere. Aother year might have passed before without warning, I woke up to ‘come on, I’ve got the coffee and lunch made. Grab the ashes, we’ll go spread them today.’
Area 8-14. We idle up the road, me watching the signs, looking for landmarks, directing the turns, my husband shifting gears, circumventing ruts and potholes and following my instructions. I saw a squirrel. It seemed a good sign – I found it funny in an odd sort of way, that I’d actually seen some sign of life after so many years of having seen none with my dad – mind you, it wasn’t hunting season. We scared up a couple of grouse – another surprise – another sign. Concentrating on looking for the last marker to make the last turn and start the steep climb to the top I was suddenly startled by a rukus to my left – astonishingly, unvelievably – a massive bull Elk exploded from the trees, sprung up to the road and ever so casually settled his trot into a pace just right of the front quarter panel of the truck, slightly ahead of us – majestic in his form, all muscle and gorgeous coat, an enormous rack in full velvet, gently blowing steam as he effortlessly kept pace alongside for the next quarter mile as I sat in stunned disbelief. Then without warning, he picked up the pace, gained on us, diagonalled across the road, through the ditch and back into the bush. Following him with my eyes, I suddenly caught the last marker for the road and made a vague motion with my hand.
‘Turn there.’ I said. ‘It’s at the end of the road.’
I’ve always had this ‘movie’ idea of spreading ashes – ashes that gently sift away and float off in the wind to settle over whatever it is we hope they settle over. The reality of spreading ashes that have spent more than a small amount of time in the back of a closet, is quite different. They settle. They complact. In short, they don’t float or sift or spread. I found myself at the perfect spot, standing on the edge of the road, first trying to shake the ashes out, then finally whacking my hand on the bottom of the container to jolt them out. I didn’t feel bad about it though – deep down I know my dad would have appreciated the odd humor of the situation – after all, this was a man who had once demonstrated to me how to juggle raw hamburger only to have it land with a splat on the floor. Had once demonstrated how to unclog a toilet by connecting the vacuum cleaner hose to the back end of an Electrolux and simply blowing the clog out – only to have to spend the next half hour cleaning up the mess, and running the towels through the wash before mom got home with the plunger. This was a man who every single year swore it was my turn to sample the raw deer sausage to see if we’d put enough garlic in it – when I was sure it was his turn – and wondered, when I suggested one year that maybe we should just go in the house and cook some, then sample it, why I hadn’t come up with that idea sooner. A man who while driving home one day simply pulled over, got out, came round to the passenger side and told me to shove over and drive -it was about time I learned – I was all of maybe ten. A man who managed to not blink as I barely made the turn into the farm driveway and managed to ricochet my way round back of the house and nearly run into the barn. A man who made a thirty second trip to the outhouse on the farm last three minutes because he cut the trail in a zigzag pattern in case he came home drunk and couldn’t walk a straight line.
Me standing on top of a mountain thumping a cannister of ashes – he would have appreciated that.
We drove back down the mountain. I drank my coffee, I ate my sandwiches. I finally cried. I snapped out of it before we got back to the highway and spent the drive home wondering if the odd feeling I had was one of a big weight being lifted off my shoulders. Maybe.
I don’t think the Elk was the same one dad and I used to hear bugleing every fall, but then there’s nothing saying it wasn’t. I told the story to a native woman not so long ago and she said everybody has a totem. Maybe it was his totem. Maybe it was mine. Maybe the Elk was a sign from God I was on the right path, doing the right thing. Whatever it was, to this day, the event has affected me deeply.
People say time heals – it does not. People say the memories fade – they do not. Time, has allowed me to find some peace. Memories, remind me of who I am. Now that I’ve put this into written word form I don’t expect it will change much – I will still think about him, still wish he were here – but I’m hoping to finally be able to let go. Kick the lousy memories out, fill the space with the good ones.
Think I’ll go dig out his guitar pick and spend some time practicing – and remembering him in a good way.