Monday, January 3, 2011

A Celebration of a Life

Our friend went to school with us. Farm kids, we rode the same school bus, but he was two years older and as soon as he got a car, he was off the bus. Karen shared more school activities with him than I did, but she really hadn’t known him any better. After high school our lives scattered us like dandelion seeds in the wind. Neither of us knew his wife nor his children.

When I first moved back to Harlem I was a stranger in my own home town. I was working in my front yard one day when he drove up to the stop sign at the corner. He saw me, jumped out of his pick-up, left the motor running with the door slung open, and hurried over with a grin to give me a big hug. He told me he was glad I’d come home. I felt real welcomed. I saw him from time to time—always he gave me a wave with that grin of his that crinkled his entire face.

Then Karen and I learned that our friend had cancer, one of the more insidious kinds. Even there at the end he was so easy to talk with. I think he was a man of courage, a man with no false illusions. He met the disease head on like it was a freight train in a tunnel and the freight train won.

There was a notice in the paper. Said he didn’t want services, said he wanted a celebration out at the ranch. So Karen and I met in Chinook and rode out together. On the way we talked about how we both were feeling his death so strongly. “I can’t figure out why this has hit us so hard. Neither of us was that close to him.” “The only thing I can come up with is that the suddenness of his death slaps us in the face with our own mortality.”

Karen and I didn’t know where the ranch was. Out on Clear Creek Road somewhere. “We’ll follow the cars,” Karen said. That’s what we did. Followed the dust of the cars ahead. It is a pretty ranch, neat and well kept up, just like we’d pictured, nestled in the gentle foothills of the Bears Paw Mountains . But, oh my, there must have been three hundred or more cars parked along the lane, in the fields, behind the buildings, in every conceivable way, place and space. Some were leaving but more were driving up. We finally eased our way into a slot and walked a quarter mile up to the buildings.

“When I die, there won’t be enough people come to fill our little church,” Karen said. “I don’t even know this many people.”

“I could maybe fill my living room,” I replied. “I have acquaintances, but I haven’t lived here long enough to have many friends.” We both snorted at our thoughts.

The party was in full swing when we got to the barn. Crowded rows of tables and chairs were set up and food was being served. We took our offerings to the front of the barn to add to the pot luck. The women serving the food told us to, “Grab your plates and get in line.” There were great roasting pans heaped with beef, pork, lamb and chicken. You could just about name any dish and there it was, on one of the serving tables. And desserts, ummm, ummm.

We filled our plates. Once we sat down, we began to see people we knew. I think nearly everybody in the county was there. As far as I know, he had lived in Blaine County all his life. I overheard somebody laughingly say, “You know, he didn’t like crowds.” I looked around. “Well, he certainly has a crowd today.” I estimated between five and six hundred people had come. We finished eating, milled about, visited with those we knew, were introduced to others. We stayed about two hours. Still more people were driving in as we left.

That celebration said a lot about the kind of person our friend was, that he had touched so many people’s lives. As far as I know, he wasn’t special. He wasn’t famous. He was human, had troubles and worries just like the rest of us. He was a rancher, raised fine fancy cattle. I didn’t know him well, but I know he loved people. I bet he gave that same smile he gave me to all who knew him. We’ll miss him.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 4, 2010

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