Cowboy Heaven: The Passing of a Patriarch

cowboy_heavenI drafted this piece four years back, just found it in a neglected folder and cleaned up the rough patches. Mostly.

My grandfather didn’t die on my shift. I was back in the city. He died in the ranch house, horses milling about just outside his bedroom window. The aunts stood around him, hands on his ankles, his cheeks, weeping softly, making strange, tight faces, or so I imagine. I’m told my grandmother held his hand, curled up on the bed beside him like a cat.

Two weeks before death, when I entered the scene, he looked bad enough. My giant beast of a grandfather shrunken into the body of a frail old man. Low grumbling voice. Eyes of Caribbean blue darting glances sharp as icicles. Smiling at me. Barking at his daughters.

The aunts are four varieties of neurosis. I came often to relieve them of their posts.

“Get some sleep,” I’d say. They’d pile into pick-ups, Volkswagens, or jeeps and fly down the hill, finding even a trip to Safeway to pick up a prescription or to the sub shop for sandwiches more enticing than spending another slow minute in the quiet house.

My grandmother transformed into a whirlwind of energy, watering plants, feeding the horses, sorting piles of bills and hospital paperwork. My mother sat outside in a plastic lawn chair, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Drinking coffee. Not making sense. Both women jittery and over-tired.

I brought my daughter to float among them all like a wild hummingbird. She talked about dogs. She ate some of the cookies that had been dropped by. She stalked around my grandfather’s bed to jump out by his pillow with a giant boo and make him laugh so hard his oxygen tubes would come askew and the aunts would descend in a flurry of deliberate hands.

Another week into the glorious countdown, I tucked daughter away with other family. My grandfather no longer laughed. Nor did he eat or drink or even open his eyes. An army of cousins paraded through his bedroom, the color draining from their faces when they approached his bedside. The aunts stood around like sentries. Twisting necklaces. Timidly reaching out to touch his arms or legs, then pulling back quickly, unable to forget a lifetime of terror in final moments. All business, they could roll him, dress him, wash him without hesitation. But not one could bring herself to place a loving hand on his brow.

I was not his daughter. I was never struck. His berating bounced easily off the thick shield of love and assurances my mother had woven around me. When in my youth I did win his tirades, whether from running the nags too hard, or leaving a gate not quite closed, he would redeem himself with magic tricks and utterly adoring looks when I came to cry in his arms.

I called in to my city job. Told them not to miss me for a while. I hung my leather jacket in the closet, stood my heels by the door between all the pairs of muddy pasture boots and silenced my phone. I sat in the ranch house for long hours and did what the aunts could not do. I held his hand and stroked his face. I mashed up the white pills, mixed them with water and slowly dripped them into the soft tissue of his inner cheeks. I talked about when he pushed me off the hill to teach me how to ride a bike, about that night we all slept on top of the camper in Yellowstone, about how he gave me the name for my daughter. I sang cowboy songs and talk about sufferin’ and down by the river.

The aunts hovered behind me. Crying. Not crying. Trying not to cry. Crying. So desperate to touch him, to sing his name. My grandmother flitting in just long enough to fluff the pillows, adjust the blanket, then rush out again.

“I didn’t know you remembered those songs,” she said to me, quietly, in the kitchen. “We haven’t had a campfire since you were ten.”

My grandfather didn’t die on my shift. I was down the hill, back in the city, checking in on my daughter. The aunts stood around him, hands on his ankles, his cheeks, weeping softly, making strange tight faces, or so I imagine.

 

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