We were walking along the edge of his Florida pasture one day, Bill, my father-in-law and I, taking advantage of another opportunity to talk about life and share each other’s company. I surprised myself that day when, after a young and rambunctious bull hopped the fence right in front of us, I instinctively approached it, not so much from bravery as an automatic reflex. Bill was already in his eighties and I, a mere forty-year-old then, wanted to protect the enfeebled old man, whom I was uncommonly fond of, and would have taken a bullet for, if truth were known.
“Watch out,” Bill said in his droll manner, cautioning me, alert to the unpredictable ways of livestock, especially a young upstart like this rowdy yearling-bull. “He’ll butt you hard if you don’t watch out.”
Wouldn’t you know just as Bill said this, the young bull charged me. But I, propelled by guardian mode, met the chest-high head of cowhide over steel with a double whammy fist right in the middle of the young animal’s eyes. Dazed almost as much as I, the bull shook his head and jumped right back over the fence, joining his four-legged family who stood bedazzled by the young daredevil’s adventure.
From the moment we met I loved Bill. I knew I wanted to marry his son the instant I heard Bill say to his elegant wife, “I must be in heaven, I thought I saw an angel,” when my future mother-in-law waltzed into the room to greet me that day. And it wasn’t he who objected to my bare feet, like she did, nor the fact that I was an artist and an adventurer of sorts. He wasn’t dubious about my mothering skills either, when it came down to whether I had what it takes to raise Carter’s two youngsters he had full custody of after a vicious divorce. This was a blended family we were a-brewing, creating a new dream of different backgrounds and faiths, cultural influences, even politics.
Grampa Bill, after his angel passed on, wasn’t one to let dust settle. Within nine months, at eighty-seven he married an acquaintance, a woman everybody hoped would be a great companion for his golden years. Sadly, she turned out to be an alcoholic and within five years the old man was not only divorced, but taken closer to the poor house by her shiftiness. Instead of finding another angel, Bill had been cornered by a succubus.
I sat with him as he sorted that one out. The trauma sent his mind to the farthest regions of awareness as he dove into the haze of senility.
In the numb twilight of Bill’s recovering from spousal abuse, he awoke one day to feel terribly sad, upset about our son’s debilitating football accident that would leave the seventeen year-old permanently handicapped.
“The worse thing that’s ever happened to our family,” the old man moaned loudly.
He wept that day I sat beside him, quietly talking of our son’s recent injury. Bill then reached into his pocket to grab what he thought was his linen handkerchief, always there. He didn’t realize it, and I said nothing to upset him further, but instead of the hanky he dabbed his flowing tears with a soft, used one-dollar bill.
I remembered hearing one of his daughters insist to the caretaker that he always had to have one in his pocket. “So daddy has some money and still feels he has some control over his life; just a token to help his self esteem,” she’d instructed.
Now, nearing ninety-nine, Bill was waiting for me as I caught the next plane from out west where Carter and I had gone camping. Bill knew – somehow, even at that final stage of the bumpy ride, filled with both joys and ravages that life brings us all – exactly who he wanted at his bedside. Of his four grown children and their spouses, I was the only in-law requested to be present. That’s because Bill was always more to me than just my husband’s dad.
Carter and I had driven out west on a month’s-long celebratory camping jaunt in honor of having successfully raised our kids. The minute the youngest joined his sister, safe and secure in college, we took off cross-country, driving to a new campsite every night, bicycling everywhere we could, cooking delicious food on wood campfires right outside our roomy tent. We were in Montana riding our bikes on the golden hills of the plains where the buffalo used to roam so abundantly, with the endless and eponymous Big Sky above, when we received word that our own old buffalo chief, Bill was on his death bed.
Three days before, Carter and I had ridden our bikes around southwestern South Dakota at Wounded Knee, close to the Lakota Indian Reservation. We were infatuated by the landscape, as foreign to us as if we’d landed on Mars. I leaned my bike against a rock and wandered away on foot from where Carter was intently observing a small animal or chasing some reptile between the hilly mounds and scrubby brush of that arid place.
A few quick strides and I came upon a jaw-dropping sight: an old grey buffalo, lying peacefully in a patch of sunlight. He must have gone off by himself, too, and was enjoying the last of the day’s fading sun. He paid me no attention as I came within ten yards of him and stayed that distance, half hidden by a hilly outcrop. I stood watching, fascinated to get so close to so magnificent a wild beast. He blinked and gazed toward me. I froze and met his eyes. He lifted his massive head back to catch the sun’s warmth, and serenely closed his lids, accepting my closeness.
He was at total rest, as if waiting, willing to embrace the inevitable shadow of the day’s end that was quickly approaching. I couldn’t help but think he might be getting close to pulling his last breath, by how resigned yet expectant he appeared. Immediately I thought of Bill, back home, and how he too, might be savoring his last moments in the gentle sun of life. The buffalo’s strong neck held his proud head high, feeling every morsel of warmth, absorbing it, yet at the same time he seemed to be honoring the disappearance of the bright disk above.
At my respectful distance I stood stick still, fascinated by such regality and noble strength that even in old age, was evidence of this huge animal having been a great leader in his day. As I watched the old buffalo I sensed he was preparing to die. What else could explain how this giant old rogue, now so feeble, so incapable, couldn’t keep up with the rest of his herd? Or why he had found this sunny, isolated spot to nestle in, between craggy rocks, so well hidden that Carter and I hadn’t noticed him when we approached the area earlier on our bikes.
While watching the old bull, his wet and flaring snout held high, his eyes occasionally roaming the horizon – totally aware of me – I saw how solemnly, how bravely he faced the last strong rays of the resting sun. Again, I thought of Bill, our family’s Grampa, and wondered if this ancient bison – not in distress but oblivious, and ready to leave behind that which no longer served his noble pursuits – was a sign that our own family’s chief, back home, was soon to leave his earthly body.
A few days later, in Montana then, we received the call.
Bill waited for Carter to arrive first, and then for me to come the next day, because there was only one seat out of Missoula the day we got the expected news. When Bill saw I had made it, he right away sat up in bed, agile as a trapeze artist, and said, “Oh, you’re here!” and immediately fell back down. Within an hour he lapsed into the in-between shadows of not-here, not-there of his approaching, last sunset.
Our kids were away in college as their Grampa rested in these waning hours of his life’s shine, while Carter, his brother and sisters and I gathered around our family’s old bull, being present for the head of our family’s comfort and ease in this, his glorious and final passage.
I wouldn’t have missed this most important event in Bill’s life, his last rite of passage, just as momentous as his earlier ones must have been. His four children and I stood around his bed, we who loved him so, witnessing Bill’s last breath as we joined hands around our favorite old bull, saying prayers, whispering comforts, saying our good-byes, offering heart-quaking thank yous.
Moments after, there was only stillness from Bill’s suddenly empty form, lying nobly and chief-like, surrounded by his tribe.
Later, alone with the love of my life, the man who shared his father’s great capacity to nurture, to love, I asked Carter in a small voice, “Why do you think Bill wanted me here?”
My own father, with whom I’d had a strained relationship, died twenty years before with me by his side also. Since marrying Carter, Bill had become my surrogate father, my pal, a role model for parenting: an unmatched spiritual mentor. He filled in the chinks of my broken faith in paternal strength, making up for all the misunderstandings and shortcomings of my own father, a troubled man. I could talk to Bill in private about my dreams, and he’d help me understand myself better. His wisdom affirmed how the subconscious affects us all so deeply. Dreams, you see, were Bill’s passion, and while he was a successful businessman, he was also an expert dream interpreter. He encouraged everyone he met to follow their dreams.
Now Carter looked at me and said simply, “Because dad loves you, teZa.”
My heart grew like a balloon pushing against my chest, realizing I was included in this inner circle not by chance, but by life’s many choices that had led us all together.