hen someone you love passes away unexpectedly, it's like jumping into a frozen lake. The coldness of it hits your body and knocks the wind out of you, leaving you gasping for air. Once you can feel your limbs again, you just start swimming clumsily in any direction, hoping to reach the shore someday.
Gram called me at work on July 15th, 2019 to tell me what had happened. You know when you get a call from someone at a time you know they wouldn’t normally be calling, so you assume the worst before you even pick up the phone? Part of you hopes that they just had a brainfart and forgot that this isn’t a good time to call. I was really hoping for that. When I answered the phone, I knew immediately that that wasn’t the case. She told me that Dad had passed away in his sleep at the cabin. She said, “I’m just going to hang up now to let you process that.” I collapsed onto the ground outside my office and laid there in tears.
I had spoken to Dad on the phone the day before he died. His best friend Terry and another friend had been visiting him at the cabin for the past week. A pit stop on a motorcycle road trip they were doing across the country. Dad and Terry had done some hiking while they were there and he was excited that there were a lot of flowers blooming in the meadows around the cabin that year. He said he was feeling a little nervous because he had a big art show coming up in a month and he needed to build a bunch of new sculptures for it. But overall, he sounded great.
My wife Nic and I caught a plane out to Denver the day after we got the news. Nicole and Jesse picked us up from the airport and we drove up to Buffalo from there. We were pretty much in a stupor for the first hour of the drive. Then, slowly we started to reminisce and tell stories about Dad, because that was how we would have passed the time anyway. We told a story and felt better for just a moment before reality set back in and we returned to silence. When we arrived in Buffalo, Gram and Pop greeted us at their house. The whole family was there, all passing the time in the same way we had. That’s about all you can do when the pain is still so fresh - pass the time. It’s like waiting in line at the DMV for your name to be called. You know eventually they’ll say your name over the loudspeaker and you can start to feel better, but while you are sitting in that uncomfortable chair surrounded by zombified people, you wonder if actually this is just your whole life now. Dad’s dogs were there, oblivious and watching the door the whole time, waiting for Dad to walk in. I was too.
A few days later we had a small gathering at Gram and Pop’s house to remember Dad. His friends drove in from all over the country. People he’d impacted on his sprawling journey around the country throughout his life. A few of his artist buddies from Colorado were there, as well as anyone else who had a cabin near ours. Dad and the other cabin owners had had their ‘monthly pour’ (everyone goes to one cabin and drinks) just a few weeks earlier. Terry was there, still zen throughout everything. He said that he stopped by the cabin on the way into town for the wake so he could check on Dad. He said his energy was in a good place. Something about Terry makes you believe him, despite the fact that we knew he was telling us what we wanted to hear.
It was not what I expected; Dad’s wake. I don’t know if wake is the right word, it felt more like a family get together. There were no tearful outbursts or stuffy speeches. Everyone sat in Gram’s backyard, enjoying each other’s company and some nice weather. Bright green leaves covered the big tree in the yard, and a breeze blew through them, recreating the sound of a small stream. Eventually, we all gathered in a circle and told some of our favorite Dad stories. Dad’s cousin Zach recounted a time when they were kids and they accidentally set Zach on fire. They had started a fire in an old oil drum and tried to jump over it on their bicycles via a ramp. Zach didn’t have enough speed on the approach and landed in the flaming barrel. Dad pulled him out and extinguished him. Zach said that Dad provided a great cover story and they avoided punishment from their parents for that one.
Uncle Ronnie shared a story of playing cribbage together. We have a sick sense of humor, so when you were playing a game of cribbage and there were zero points in your crib, we called that a “dead baby in the crib.” It’s dark, but fitting. Well, if you are familiar with cribbage, you know it’s possible to have just one point in the crib, but it’s extremely rare. Dad figured we needed a name for that as well. He decided that an extremely rare thing that could happen would be a baby being born with a finger for a nose. He’s not wrong; I’ve never seen it, so I’m guessing it’s pretty rare. So, he and Uncle Ronnie were playing cribbage and he had one point in the crib and yelled out “It’s a finger nose!” It became standard cribbage nomenclature for us after that. That story definitely split the room.
We continued with stories about Dad for a few hours, laughing begrudgingly because we had so much sadness that it was almost frustrating that he could still make us feel some joy. Dad could do that, he had an uncanny ability to force you to find humor in a dire situation, often situations that he had gotten you into, which in turn made the predicament you were in less scary, so when you looked back on it, it somehow became a fond memory. After the gathering, Nicole, Jesse, Nic and I decided that we should drive up to the cabin. I think we just needed to make sure that we could still go up there and not feel like it was a place that caused us pain. The cabin is possibly the most important place on the planet to us, so we had to make sure it still felt right being there.
We didn’t drive directly to the cabin that day. We couldn’t get too close just yet; it was too soon. Instead we drove into a small meadow nearby called Schoolhouse Park. We parked the Outback along one of the rocky, unkempt roads and hiked over a small ridge lined with pine trees. The same road we’d tumble down on our way to the Angeline trailhead. Once on top of the ridge, we had a perfect view of the cabin, nestled far below in a pocket of pine trees next to the small pond. We sat up on that ridge for about an hour and just existed together. It was perfectly serene up there. And the cabin looked peaceful as well. Like nothing had happened. We could see the entire Frisbee golf course that we’d played so many times. The sun was setting over the trundling hill and Bompie’s tree fort. We all hugged a bit. Being there, together, it felt all right.
As we sat on that ridge, I made the choice to walk down to the cabin myself, to have one last moment with Dad. I hiked down the steep hill that we used to sled on as kids. I crossed the small stream with the shoddy bridge we had built years earlier. As I circled the pond, the cabin revealed itself as it always does. Dad’s sky blue Subaru Outback was still parked in the dirt driveway in front of the cabin. I felt the urge to run away, back up the hill and into Schoolhouse Park, and bury my head under a pile of moldy logs for the rest of the year. But I kept walking. I approached the cabin and walked past the small aspen trees that line the property. I planted myself on a picnic table bench in the front yard and sat in silence.
As I sat there, I remembered the last time that Dad and I had been together at the cabin, just the two of us. It had been a year earlier, Fourth of July weekend. I had flown out from San Diego and we had spent the week together. Just me and Dad, and his two dogs, Bear and Luna.
That week had been the first time the two of us had been alone together at the cabin in probably ten years. It was the summer after my wedding and I was happy that we had some quality time. I flew into Billings, Montana, where he picked me up and drove us back to Buffalo. We spent the three hour drive chatting, mostly about politics and updates and gossip going on in Buffalo. Dad was fired up because he had gotten into a verbal argument with some prospector who wanted to set up a mine near the cabin because he thought there might be gold out there, despite mountains of scientific evidence suggesting that there wasn’t. Apparently, the prospector was tromping around in the backyard of the cabin trying to survey the land, so Dad went outside and told him off. He told me he was trying to think of the best way to sabotage the prospector’s survey equipment.
We arrived at the cabin and played a couple rounds of Frisbee golf that evening, before making some dinner and calling it a night. We spent the next few days hiking around and just being together out in nature, enjoying each other’s company. On one of our walks we saw a small elk hiding in the trees beside us. Dad always got super excited to see an elk. We spent the evenings playing some cribbage in the cabin and reading. It was all so tranquil.
The day before I left to return home, Dad and I went downtown to play a round of golf. Dad and I played the first nine holes by ourselves and then Larry and Zach joined us on the back nine. Dad and I loved the course in Buffalo. We’d probably played it a hundred times since I was a teenager, when Dad had gotten me invested in golf. He loved the fourth hole of the course the most. It was a short par three that started at the top of a large hill and you hit down to the green at the bottom. Similar to the fourteenth hole on Dad’s disc golf course, and I’m sure that he’d gotten some inspiration there. On slow days, Dad and I would hit four or five shots from up atop that hill, hoping for a hole in one. Dad was a pretty good golfer. He could drive the hell out of the ball but he rarely hit it straight. When he did, he was liable to hit it 350 yards.
After the round, Zach headed home, but Larry asked if we wanted to get a beer. The three of us went down to the only brewery in Buffalo and had a beer there, but they were closing soon so we went to the only other bar on the block, The Century Club. The moment we walked in to the ol’ Stench, Larry was recognized by a local, who immediately bought us a round of shots. Dad and Larry were well known in the small town and I’ve always wondered what it's like to be a local celebrity like that. We walked to the back of the bar to play some pool, our new friend joining us and making sure that the shots kept coming. It didn’t take long before we were all shitfaced. We took over the jukebox and drank and played pool for hours that night. At one point, Dad pulled me aside and admitted that he loved the singer Sheryl Crow, and then started playing all her hits on the jukebox, much to the chagrin of the rest of the blue collar dive bar patrons who were there that night. Now, any time Sheryl Crow comes on, I have an emotional breakdown. Who would have thought that Sheryl Crow could affect someone like that.
At the end of a long night, once the Stench had closed down, Dad and I said our goodbyes to Larry and walked back to Gram and Pop’s house. It was a cool summer evening. The streets were empty and it was perfectly placid in the way that only a small town can get. We stumbled up the large hill to Gram and Pop’s house. When we got home, Dad and I sat on the porch in the dark together for a bit. Neither of us wanted that day to be over just yet. We talked a while, and enjoyed the fresh air. As we were about to go inside, I told Dad I loved him in that extra heartfelt way you do when you’re drunk and you want to let someone know how much they mean to you. And I really meant it. Dad turned to me and said “I love you too, kiddo” and we went inside.
I sat on the picnic bench outside of the cabin thinking about that trip and how it was one of the last times I had seen Dad in person. I realized how we don’t know if, when we say goodbye to someone, it really could be for the very last time. I looked around the cabin and saw all of the little pieces of Dad scattered around. His Subaru Outback with seats coated in dog hair and sunflower seed shells and an audiobook in the CD player. I thought of the endless road trips we went on as kids; he and Nicole and I would play games in the car together to pass the time. I saw the Frisbees strewn out across the ground near the shed, just waiting to be tossed along Dad’s famous disc golf course. I saw Dad’s unfinished art that would now remain unfinished forever. I saw his trailer, which was packed with the tools he used to create his sculptures and mosaic pieces that so beautifully captured his love of and reverence for nature. And the cabin itself, which was the vessel for all our stories and family adventures. The keystone that kept us all together. I could feel the love surrounding me as I sat on that bench, and I knew that there is so much love in that place, that it will never go away. I put my hand on one of his sculptures and said goodbye to Dad, then returned up the ridge to the rest of my family.
Driving back down to Buffalo, I thought of all the small moments Dad and I had shared together in our lives. Sure there were plenty of epic ones, and he had a life full of his own misadventures, but it was the simple memories that I was recalling now. Sitting on the chairlift together while skiing. Playing a board game by a set of rules that he had made up because the regular rules were never creative enough. Stacking stones atop a rock in a meadow by the cabin. Canoeing across Flathead Lake. Rock climbing together. Trying unsuccessfully to teach us to draw like he could. Sharing a beer and a story around a fire. Building us a tree fort. Guiding us in yoga on the front lawn. Walking around the cabin in his tighty-whiteys with no shame. Carrying me on one arm as a kid, which blew my mind that he was that strong. Making hot air balloons out of laundry bags and candles, then setting them afloat into the night sky. Always answering the phone with a joyous “Hey, kiddo!” The hikes. The laughter. His excitement for living. His sense of humor. His caring and gentle nature. His creativity. His hugs. His love for my sister and his love for me. These memories are a part of the story of my Dad. And it’s my favorite story of them all.