Passing Through

The weeks following Dad’s death were spent remembering where I lived and who I lived with. Milo and I were still at odds, and I realized that by this point it was me and not him. Milo wasn’t glad I was home any more; I was too distant or grumpy or short-tempered. He would have gladly sent me back across town if it would get me off his case.

Bills: I paid them, canceled accounts, tracked down Social Security, life insurance policies. Death notices, death certificates, Dad’s annuities. Medical insurance. Do I cancel the cancer-only policy? Will they pay any coming benefits which haven’t cleared yet? Dad would not be using their services any more, that was clear.

I picked up Dad’s ashes in the lovely non-water bearing vessel Dad had chosen, stoppered cheekily with a Patron tequila cork. It was heavy. I peeked inside, surprised to discover that Dad was in a plastic bag inside the vase. The vase with its absurdly small mouth; if I ever wanted to retrieve Dad it was going to be tricky. This was unforeseen.

I emailed the people Dad had picked to carry out his memorial party in Colorado. We set the date, roughly six weeks after Dad took his leave, and Dad’s friends mustered to find a proper landscape to toast Dad’s memory, settling upon a gallery in Denver where he and a friend had their last art show together. Relieved of planning duties, I was left with the peculiar challenge of delivering all of Dad’s hand-picked art to his friends, which if mailed would be prohibitively expensive.

Left with few options which wouldn’t cost a small fortune, I decided to drive the artwork out to Colorado. I wouldn’t need to have it professionally crated, or pay for the exorbitant shipping charges for objects of this size. I would pay for gas and the SUV rental, which would cost less than two of the bigger painting shipped by themselves. Lars offered to drive with me; we could make it a family adventure. But the reality of driving three days with our son was a little too hairy to consider with any seriousness. No, I would go myself.

When I told Chris, he signed up. His job was loath to part with him and he wasn’t really back in the game, but it was Dad’s memorial, and we were going to have a road trip. There was something poetic and foolhardy about it.

Chris drove to Portland from a film shoot, where he was on location in a hippie-dippy town much like the one we grew up in, full of dream catchers and crystals and potheads with expensive strollers. He had, since he left Portland six weeks earlier, been working nonstop. There was no grieving. There was no time.

He asked me to meet him at the Whiskey Soda Lounge. I arrived first, and smiled as Chris walked up, my fellow soldier in the trenches through the hardest summer we ever spent.

“I fell apart as I was leaving,” he said. “I’ve been keeping my cool pretty okay. But now that I’m here… I didn’t really want to come back yet,” he admitted.

Trying to be sensitive to Chris’s arrival, I had set up Dad’s living room so that it didn’t look as though a bomb had struck. The rest of the house was a disaster, but I arranged the part in which we spent our summer into a semblance of tidy hominess, filling the hole left by Dad’s hospital bed. But a sharp pain fell on Chris’s face when he unlocked the door and crossed the threshold; now I realized I had been unable to make it look like anything other than Dad’s house. Nothing I could do would make it any less raw. Chris walked through the house silently, touching Dad’s trinkets as he passed. 

 Confluence, oil on canvas, 2001

Confluence, oil on canvas, 2001

Chris and I barreled across the country wearing Dad’s iconic hats: a Greek fisherman’s cap and “The Travel Hat,” a straw cowboy hat Dad only wore in sunny destinations, last seen in Mexico. Now we took turns doffing them and taking photos.

The road trip was uneventful: no flat tires, we weren’t reduced to staying in rat-trap motels, and only ate at Denny’s once. The dining alternatives weren’t much better, but we were old enough and well-established enough to not eat McDonald’s for every meal as we had on road trips of earlier days.

And we talked about Dad less than either of thought we would. We let the scenery outside dictate our conversations, mostly about the desolate brown land between Portland and Utah. A house, solitary and dilapidated, parked on the prairie raised nothing but questions. “What compels someone to move here?” Chris asked. “Do you look out here and say, ‘By god, this is it. This is where I stake my claim.’?”

It was a good question. Still, the quiet was impenetrably dense. In that respect, it was appealing.

 

After driving through Salt Lake City during rush hour, past signs touting indoor gun ranges where you could shoot AK-47’s next to others selling the Lord, we finally made it to the very edge of Colorado, Grand Junction.

We were over the romance of the road, bored by the monotonous browns and beiges of autumn in the Western interior, and tired of making elitist jokes about people who we suspected could smell our heathen sensibility on us like mold. We were hungry, and didn’t want to stay anywhere that smelled like Lysol and acrid twenty-year old smoke. We tracked down the least crummy motels in Grand Junction, fled from one, paid extra for the luxury of “Continental Breakfast,” white sheets and free internet, and ran to a TGIF’s across the street where we ate steak and things that resembled vegetables.

Maybe crossing the border into Colorado was enough; that night Chris and I talked about Dad. We reviewed pictures, told stories, laughed a lot and felt mixed about going home to Colorado. 

 Chimney Trail, Ghost Ranch [detail], oil on canvas, 2000

Chimney Trail, Ghost Ranch [detail], oil on canvas, 2000

We woke up in a startlingly bright canyon. We had forgotten that Grand Junction sits on the brink of carved walls of rock, sheer red faces rising out of the earth like castles, towering over us as we left town and wended towards Denver. “It’s like driving through one of Dad’s paintings,” Chris remarked.

It was a painful truth we couldn’t deny, so we sat quietly through much of the mountainous journey remaining.

Road-weary and brain dead, having met Lars and Milo who flew in a few hours behind us, we all went to drop the paintings at Judy's house, where other of Dad's friends would come and pick them up. Judy had collected her grown kids to welcome us, but we were unprepared for social obligations, ones which by necessity focused on Dad. Finally, dazed and stupid, the four of us went to our hotel rooms where we collapsed under the weight of our bodies. Milo kicked both Lars and me in the head repeatedly in our shared bed.

Chris had his own room, lucky bastard.

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