Tuesday, October 8, 2019
At around 2 PM, my phone rang. It didn’t ring often. My mom’s face appeared as it started buzzing around on my desk. That was even more unusual. I picked it up.
“Hey, Mom,” I said. Her sniffles immediately filled in all the blanks for me.
“Oh, honey,” she said, choking back the sobs, “Your grandfather...”
I knew he was gone before she got the words out.
This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Grandpa had made it to many more Thanksgivings than we expected, which was a lot to give thanks for. His health took a sharp turn several years ago in autumn, just before our biannual trip to Rancho. It seemed he’d pass before the end of the year, and Mom’s family focused on caring for him. Needless to say, there was no Rancho trip that year. Or since.
But Grandpa was a special brand of New Mexico tough. That damn ghost was his and he wasn’t going to give it up until he did it on his time. On his terms. After years of fighting with all the grit and tenacity of any Clint Eastwood character, I guess he finally decided he was ready. To be completely honest, it was a relief. Watching someone you love struggle through so much pain is emotionally and spiritually exhausting.
“I’ll get there as soon as I can,” I said.
It was my first time flying into New Mexico. Apart from a killer view from the plane, everything about it was wrong. This landscape is one that requires easing into, over a span of hours, while the cotton crops and trees drop away, slowly replaced with mesas, cliffs, sagebrush and cacti. To simply hop on a shiny Southwest plane and appear in New Mexico after a couple hours simply felt unnatural. But I had left my wife, Jane, and our young son, Ben, at home. Flying made the most sense. After all, I expected to be back in a matter of days.
Mom’s family had wasted no time. Grandpa’s remains had already been cremated per his wishes, but he wasn’t one for ceremony, so the details of any sort of memorial service hadn’t been arranged.
The airport was deserted, and soon enough I was speeding up I-25 in my generic rental car. As I pulled into my mom’s swanky little adobe place on the buttes overlooking Pojaque – the small town just north of Santa Fe – I noticed Phil’s car wasn’t in the driveway.
She opened the door before I could knock, and enveloped me in a warm hug. I could feel her bones through her Patagonia vest, and suddenly remembered she was getting on in her years, too.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, the tears audible in her voice.
“Me too,” I replied.
“Come in, there’s something I want to show you.” Mom led the way into the living room. Papers, old framed photos, boxes and artifacts were strewn all over the couches, chairs and dining table.
“Whoa,” I said.
“I know, I know, the place is a mess. I’ve been going through your grandfather’s things, trying to figure out his memorial service.” She shook her head, looking frazzled, as she brought two cups of coffee into the living room. I didn’t even have to ask her to bring me one, too. She just knew.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Well, there’s just so little to go on. All I have is this.” She handed me an old yellowed envelope. The words on the front were grandpa’s signature all-caps handwriting: OPEN WHEN I’M DEAD. That was him alright. Straight to the point.
The envelope had already been cut open, with one piece of old notebook paper folded inside. I pulled it out, unfolding the aging paper gently. The words were scratched in pencil:
THAT WHICH THE FIRE LEAVES BEHIND GIVES LIFE.
IN TURN, LIFE JOINS WATER BELOW WITH SUN ABOVE,
COOLS THE GROUND,
FEEDS THE SMALL,
PROVIDES SAFE HOMES;
AND WHEN LIFE IS GONE,
IT CREATES FIRE ANEW,
GIVING LIFE ONCE MORE.
MAY I GIVE THAT LIFE – EVEN IN DEATH.
“Was your dad a poet?” I asked.
“Not that I know of,” said mom, “I don’t know what to make of it. I mean, we always knew he wanted to be cremated, but he never said a word about anything else.”
“So weird. Are you sure this is all he left – I mean, on this topic?” I asked.
“It’s the only thing I’ve found,” she replied, “And I’ve stared and stared at it and can’t make sense of it.”
“Yeah. It’s like one final Grandpa Trial,” I said, giving a small laugh.
“Patrick!” Mom looked at me, wide-eyed, “That’s it! It IS his last trial!”
“You think––” I asked, the wheels starting to gain some momentum in my head, “You think it has to do with Rancho?”
“The cottonwood!” She said. “He wanted his ashes given to the cottonwood!” Of course. The giant, centuries old cottonwood at Rancho. Coronado’s Cottonwood, according to Grandpa’s legends. It had served as treehouse, home base, reading spot and a climbing challenge for countless among Grandpa’s trials. Now it would serve as his final resting place.
Jane and Ben met us at Rancho the next day. Neither of them had ever been there. Ownership of our special place between the arroyos and the mountains had changed hands a couple times, but luckily the new owners always kept true to the spirit of Rancho.
We scattered Grandpa’s ashes in the shade of the towering old cottonwood as the sun began creeping behind the shadow of the Jemez mountains to the west. We took a walk around the grounds as a chill found its way into the air. Memories flooded back as I watched my five-year-old chase the bunnies and peacocks, screaming and cackling with delight, just like I and my cousins had decades before. He ran up to show me a handful of rocks he had collected. “Daddy, Daddy, look at this one! It has PATTERUNS in it!” he exclaimed with delight.
“That is so cool!” I said. As he ran off to explore, I realized that without my dad – Ben’s grandpa – he wouldn’t grow up with Grandpa’s Trials. Unless I created them. In that moment, I felt the hole inside that was still there from when I lost my dad. I grabbed my mom and held her tight.
“I’m so sorry, Mom.” I said, letting her scarf absorb a few of my tears.
“It’s okay, honey, I know. Thank you so much for being here,” she said.
I looked wistfully at the old adobe houses, the sagebrush and acequias flowing with clear, cool water. A hint of piñon drifted through the cool, dry air. Jane and my mom were taking it in too, their eyes smiling with the infectious serenity of this little desert oasis. Grandpa sure was clever. He made sure we carried on this tradition, even after he was gone.
As we headed back towards the cars and the sun went down, a few stars began twinkling in the maroon-gray sky. I looked to Jane and Mom.
“Hey, maybe this is stupid, but... what do you guys think about having Thanksgiving here this year?”