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PLEASE EXCUSE MY ABSENCE
I'm attending to a personal matter but will be back in the saddle shortly.
For better or for worse I’ve always prioritized my work above all else — thankfully I have an incredible wife who makes it possible. Well, for the first time ever, I’ve made an exception. My father, who has been sick for months, took a turn for the worse last Friday. He went from shuffling around home to lying in a hospital bed unable to move. Fortunately, he had a beautiful view from his hospital room of Pikes Peak. He calls it “Rebecca’s mountain,” after my little sister.
The day before yesterday, one of his doctors came into his room and suggested that we stop treatment and bring him home. The curtain of my father’s life was unfurled from the rafters as he sat in the front row. We brought him home the next day. He rests beneath a painting that he and my mother purchased decades ago in Santa Fe. It depicts a Native American ceremony honoring the dead.
I didn’t think my father’s death would deeply affect me. It’s not that I don’t love and admire him, because I do. He set a standard of almost impossible heights. It beckoned me like the North Star orients a ship at sea. It also comforted me, for I have known since childhood that the same inferno of ambition that burned inside of him also rages like a wildfire inside of me.
But I had dealt with death before. My little sister, who died three years ago while climbing Pikes Peak, did no wrong in my eyes. She was sweet. Kind. Smart. And most of all generous. She didn’t write a single high school or college paper. She wanted her older brother (me) to experience the fulfillment of helping his younger sister. Her college philosophy professor told her that she was a better writer than his PhD students, which made her happy, until I said it was a low bar, which made her sad, which is weird because I wrote the paper. But that was Rebecca. Her death was a tough pill to swallow.
What I’ve learned is that one death doesn’t make another death easier to bear. My sister’s death came as a shock followed by an endless wait for the search and rescue team to descend the mountain with her body. And because she was alone, we will always wonder: Did she jump? Or did she slip? By contrast, it seems like my father is dying in slow motion. He hasn’t a voice to say if he is afraid or at peace. He seems to be neither fighting for life nor resigned to death. I tell him I love him. I tell him that he was a wonderful father. And I tell him how proud I am of his bravery. One waits a lifetime to discover if they’ll confront that final moment with serenity and courage.
My father was a fascinating man. He finished college in three years while working full-time at a bank. He attended auctioneers school to conquer his stutter. He graduated third in his law school class while earning enough money from trading real estate and stock options to buy a portfolio of businesses, including a drive-in movie theatre, flower shop, trailer park and apartment complexes that came up for sale just as he was heading to New York University to get an LLM in tax law. He made his first million at the age of 26 by trading cattle for his father’s sale barn. He then bought and expanded two feedlots, supported by an archipelago of farms and ranches. Years later, when he was the largest cow feeder in the country, he gave it all up so we could move to a bigger city with better services for special education children like my older brother. Things became untenable when my father stormed into the high school principal’s office, grabbed his throat and lifted him up against the wall after learning that state funds meant for the special education program were diverted to the football team.
To call my father eccentric would do an injustice to the word. He tucked his shirt into his underwear. He shopped for fine art galleries with cow manure caked on his jeans. He bought a new Lincoln sedan every nine months because he drove so many miles on ranch land. I was with him when he picked up a new Lincoln at the dealership in Cheyenne, Wyoming, drove us to a ranch outside of Rock Springs, summoned the rancher into the passenger seat and tore off across the pasture until coming upon a creek. It was higher than usual from a heavy snowfall the prior winter. This is why we should have taken my truck, the rancher told my father. Does this fool know what he just did, I remember thinking. My father reversed about two hundred yards, shifted into drive and put the peddle to the meddle. We made it about halfway across when the car sunk to above the window line, leading my father to admonish the rancher for reasons that escape me.
People didn’t like my father, they revered him. He was a man’s man. Some people say, “I’m going to kick your ass.” My father just did it. He bought dozers and front loaders and earthmovers like I buy books. When we moved to the most exclusive neighborhood in Colorado Springs and bought a marquee property, we showed up with horse trailers full of furniture. Oh fuck, our neighbors must have thought. Oh fuck indeed. Two weeks later my brothers and I arrived with an armada of miniature John Deere equipment that my father had been given as gifts by equipment dealers.
My father feared nothing. He ran the ring at my grandfather’s sale barn, killed rattlesnakes with the nearest blunt instrument no matter how long or large, pushed cattle down a chute and could irrigate a cornfield. My grandfather’s sale barn was once caught in the daisy chain of a check-kiting ring orchestrated by organized crime. My father ran into one of the ringleaders in the lobby of Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel. My father walked over to him, grabbed him by the collar and, limiting himself to variants of the word “fuck,” convinced the surprised gentlemen to produce his personal checkbook and make good on the debt.
But numbers were his thing. Ranchers and cattle buyers described him as a savant. When he played pitch with the usual crew at the sale barn, you half-expected to see mathematical symbols swirling about his head, as if in a movie. He could add astonishingly large numbers in astonishingly little time. And he was banned from playing blackjack at the Vegas casinos. He once told me a story about, Dilbert, the man from whom my father bought the drive-in movie theatre. Dilbert got to haggling once with one of Vegas’s ladies of the night. She wanted $100 for services which Dilbert believed were worth $20. Later that night, Fred and his wife were riding down the same escalator that said lady was riding up. “That’s what you get for $20,” she told him.
But beneath my father’s rough exterior was a man of boundless generosity. Outside of business, he couldn’t say no. It engendered an interesting duality. No one fucked with him in his professional life. But he was an easy mark everywhere else. He refused to hold grudges, was unaffected by investments that went to zero, and was a giver, not a taker — one of the traits, for better or worse, that I inherited from him.
After the doctor finished explaining to my mother, father and me that he thought we should focus on my father’s comfort, as opposed to treatment, my father motioned with his index finger to come close. My father has lost his voice, as he has everything else. But he could labor to whisper a few words. “You’re a good man,” my father told him. “And I have two good boys.” By then, my younger brother had come back into the room. One thing I learned from my sister’s death is that you have to do the right things at the end. So I’ve put my work aside for a moment, but promise to be back at it soon.
I appreciate your patience.
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