How is it that a man’s life can be summed up into a half hour monologue?
I sat today, listening as a relative stranger read the highlights of this man’s life from a sheet of paper. That peice of paper was identical to the obituary printed in the local paper and seemed woefully inadequate. The man who read my friend’s eulogy only met him a little over three months ago, on the occasion of another funeral, that of my friend’s younger brother. The younger brother passed from this world only days before my friend was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. The eulogist never knew the man I knew, and it was obvious in the lack of true emotion in his voice. This is what should have been said, complete with love, respect and more than a few tears.
Jim was born, raised and, except for the term of his military service, spent his entire life not ten miles from where I now sit. By the time he was born in 1935, his family’s ranch had been established and incorporated for 15 years. Now, if you think about it, these folks didn’t get a wild hair up their butts in 1919 and decide to pick an open piece of Wyoming and buy some cattle. By the time this ranch was officially established in 1920, it had already been running as a family operation for many years. As I understand it, Jim’s grandfather began this ranch in the late 1800’s. Jim was a hard worker and an honest man. Jim had a passion for ranch life and began his life as a rancher at the age of four. He never looked back. Much to his mother’s consternation, when he was in high school he decided he wanted to try his hand at rodeo riding. Fortunately, after his first time coming off a bronc in the arena, he decided that rodeo life was no different than the life of a working cowboy and went home to break horses instead.
After graduating high school, Jim enlisted in the Army and spent much of his military service in Germany after World War II. Four years later he returned to his home a decorated soldier and promptly went to buy an engagement ring for the beautiful and loving soul that he loved. My heart broke today as I watched his best friend, the woman who never ceased to be his bride, try and hold herself together. Four months is simply not enough time to prepare to say goodbye to the constant companion of 55 years. That’s what they were. When he joined the volunteer fire department, she joined the fire department’s ladies auxilliary. He was a member of the Wyoming Cattleman’s Association, she was a member of the Wyoming Cattlewomen’s Association. He joined the school board, and she followed suit. Through it all, they raised their children, ran a successful ranch, and taught their grandchildren to be the kind of men and women that everyone is proud to know.
They watched, side by side, as this area boomed in the early years of their marriage and then, twenty-five years later, watched it crash. As a town of five thousand people plummeted to fifty people in the course of two years, they watched many friends move away. Throughout it all, Jim and his wife fought for this area. Jim joined the county fire board and fought to keep our fire department, his wife searched through every agency she could find to keep it funded. As the town dwindled, they both fought to keep the local school house open so that the youngest of the ranch children didn’t have to be bussed sixty miles away for school.
I first met Jim a little over ten years ago when I was working at the bar and cafe that is the only business in this town. I will never forget that first meeting. He came in, and with a twinkle in his eye said “gimme a potty water!”
I, of course, looked at him like he had lost his mind. He clarified his drink order (Potter’s CrownWhiskey and water), and with a wink told me not to let his wife know that he was there. I brought him his drink with a stir straw in it and, with a grin he put the straw in the nearest ashtray and stuck his finger in his drink to stir it. I never brought him another straw, but I honestly don’t think he ever came in for a drink with truly clean hands either. That was always his line though, “bring me a potty water and don’t let the wife know I’m here.” I never saw him drink more than one drink, and it was several months later that his wife happened to be with him when he spoke his line. That was when I finally saw them together for the first time and knew that it was all a joke. She always knew where he was, and gently teased him about his “potty water.” It was fun to see them together. In any other walk of life, they were well past the age of retirement, but Jim held on to the job he loved. Last spring, the one grandchild who showed interest in taking over the ranch graduated from high school and they were rarely seen apart as he taught her as much as he could about ranching. He worked that ranch faithfully until his diagnosis and then he backed away and let his grandaughter step into place.
He was a man of strong integrity. One of breed that is going extinct. The ones who never need paper to sign a contract, a firm handshake was more than enough. There were treatments that could have prolonged his life, but with his attention on his younger brother’s long struggle with the same disease, Jim left his own health to too late. By the time they knew what was wrong, there was no hope of stopping the disease, the doctors’ only hope was to slow the course and buy him time. Jim couldn’t do that. It went against everything he was as a man. It would have depleted family resources and made him a burden to those he loved. Three weeks ago, he went into hospice care and for the first time the community was told how dire his health was. Nobody would have thought to ask him to try the treatments, we all respected him far too much, but nobody truly had time to say goodbye. On Wednesday last week, as I celebrated my 34th birthday, a few blocks away in a hospice bed, Jim closed his eyes for the last time.
I truly hope that when I reach the time for me to move on, that I will be as well respected, dearly loved, and sorely missed as my friend Jim. I also hope that someone who feels those emotions will have the courage to tell my story through their tears instead of some stranger who never witnessed my life.