This past weekend was my father’s funeral. We buried him in a family plot on the Central Coast of California.
Nearby was another dusty square of land that used to belong to my great-great grandfather. It was there, in a barn that still stands, my father would attempt to milk cows early on summer mornings. It was there he would watch the slaughter of livestock for the butcher shop that bore the family name in town. It was on this forgotten ranch my father learned how to shoot a .22 and chase down on horseback an itinerant calf stuck in a creek bed.
My father didn’t choose the life of a roustabout, instead he became an attorney. He made his name litigating for the rights of ranchers to have their share of water. A petty existence thought some, myself included, arguing who really owns rights to something that in its resting state, never really rests.
Water, by nature, flows, and so, like the air in the sky above, it’s tough to say who really owns it. Yet my father, and my sister after him, have made a living destroying forests to create the reams of paper it takes to say who, in fact, it flows for.
It’s easy to lionize your dad, especially when he’s no longer around to make the mistakes that made him, well — your dad. I’ve done my share of thinking on his life, not just over the last two weeks since his passing but in the year since he was diagnosed with lung cancer and in the two or three years since his fading memory and reason was blamed on early onset Alzehimer’s.
It was a tough go, not just for him, but for myself, my sister and her family and especially his wife of almost 45 years, my mother.
There were times, as individuals and as a tiny collective, that none of us were going to make it. And when I say “make it” I don’t refer to a moment when we could all fly business class to Maui and enjoy one last trip together for rounds of golf on floating islands of neon grass perched on volcanic rock, catamaran rides featuring native dolphins breaching playfully for the boat on cue, a lava flow to pair with a handful of drippy sunsets and plates spilling over with sushi, raw fish shimmering in candlelight. We didn’t get to put that bow on his story. Making it instead meant just summoning the strength to wake up and do it all over again.
My version of his farewell tour was of the more mundane variety: Driving up the 101 on the weekends to visit. A sort of stop-action film where each time I would arrive at his bedside, I could see his condition worsen in measurable increments; years passed in weeks. Hair, graying and disappearing. Eyes sunken, cheeks to follow. Yellowed hands growing long at the fingertips stretching out for some type of liquid to sooth his sandpaper tongue.
And finally, that sunny, cloudless winter morning, I explained to him that it won’t snow in Tahoe because he wasn’t living up there then set out on a morning clear-my-head run. I returned to find my mother and sister surrounding his bedside and laughing, for the first time in a long time.
We sat together and shuffled through a stack of photos my mom keeps unorganized in a box somewhere. All the awkward moments of living and being and growing up condensed into one stack from the Fotomat. My dad’s tinted horn-rimmed glasses the only constant.
To us, these pictures told the real story. Pictures we had no chance to review and delete. Pictures we couldn’t garnish and make perfect with filters. These were simply of photos of us, and who we were. And who we are.
Flipping through the images of us frozen in different lives, the four of us found a little joy. A little resistance to time and fatigue, to the diseases that held captive the man who starred in those photos, and by way of association, our lives. As we snorted and laughed and showed him, eyes half shut and beyond the horizon, his breathing, agonizingly loud and labored to this point, went down like the car radio volume of someone who’d just gotten pulled over. And suddenly, without warning and over the laughter — he was gone.
Standing over his grave site, his remains cremated and condensed into a shoebox made of marble, I got up to gurgle out a few parting words, perhaps a story. I tried to recall in that moment what he’d left behind. He wasn’t a collector of things. He loathed guns and knives and anything that connoted violence. He wasn’t much for wardrobe. He liked his golf attire which consisted of pleated pants and some kind of polo shirt with a golf course or Tahoe Yacht Club or some such other middle-age-appropriate embroidery on the left breast. He favored brown socks and brown shoes and always kept a comb. He did have a little stamp collection, passed down from his grandfather, which he would look at once in a while. When the memory started to fade, it stirred something in him. There were some Golf Digests hanging around. Andy Rooney, his favorite humorist, wrote a few books that made their way onto his bedside table. But that was the sum of his things.
And so, wilting there on a patch of soil where four generations of my family now reside permanently in the shadow of an oak tree that was so dry it might as well have been a stage prop, next to a vineyard looking sickly and fallow and thirsty and the 101, appropriately ocean-like in its car sounds rushing by, I thought this was all of him that was left — his parched California quenched briefly by my tears.
The man who didn’t buy. Didn’t sell. Didn’t scheme. Didn’t tell. The man who could have made more money, but didn’t spend much. The man who found a lot of friends along the way but, because of his dwindling condition, wasn’t able to keep up with them at the end. The man who could’ve traveled more but saw much and preferred to be at home, next to his dog, anyway.
He was the guy next to you at the restaurant who picked up your napkin when it fell to the floor. He hailed then surrendered his cab to the harried woman dragging around a three-year-old in the rainstorm. He stayed back one chair to make sure the skier kids with shiny helmets in line next to him could get on without being hurried. He struck up a conversation with you in the 6 a.m. security line at the airport and if you didn’t feel like talking, just gave you a smile. He, almost to distraction, ushered other drivers through a four-way stop …and then waited some more. He wrote nasty lawyerly letters to crooked landlords of mountain town friends who had no money and weren’t able to get back their security deposits, free of charge. He never met a piece of prime rib or a slightly undercooked burger he didn’t like. Even better if it had onions. Life requires onions. He liked artichoke hearts and sautéed mushrooms and still ordered veal at his favorite Italian restaurant, because, hey, it’s already there. He laughed inappropriately and slightly louder than the rest of the crowd at his own jokes.
He lived. He died. He was buried. He passed through this turnstile without trying to be noticed or noteworthy. He never cheated. Didn’t lie. He made mistakes and then made up for them. He didn’t leave the table till he’d turned out his pockets. And he always did his best, even when he knew his best wouldn’t be enough.
And that, to me, is a long enough day.
Craig A. Pridgen
March 22, 1946-January 15, 2014