The Last Cowboy

“You did it! I saw you push it!” My neighbor hissed at me. I was accused of pushing over her pink bicycle, which I had no recollection of doing. Perhaps her shrill voice had caused me to black out and in that state I had spitefully knocked over her bike, but I don’t believe I ever did such a thing.

“I didn’t knock over your bike. I swear,” I tried to convince her, but I was losing patience.

“Well I’m going to tell my Mom!” Shit, I thought (even in elementary school I was fond of swearing), sensing I’d soon be getting into trouble with adults. I never actually saw her tell him, but I guess my neighbor’s mother must have found my grandfather puttering around and told him of the crime I was accused of committing. In elementary school (Mondays through Wednesdays), my little sister and I went to my grandparents house after school, but we rarely saw my grandfather since he was always out in his workshop. The spoken rule was to stay out of his gardens, and the unspoken rule was to leave the man alone, so my neighbor’s mother had basically sent me to the gallows.

“Connor, come with me for a minute. I’ve got to talk with you,” he said this calmly and didn’t look twice at me, confident I’d obey. I followed him through his shop door, into the dimly lit room, heated by his cast-iron stove. He took his seat in his yellow, crusty recliner and I took mine on one of the stumps he’d cut into sitting stools for guests. He looked at me for a few seconds before he said anything.

“Connor, do you think your grandfather is a smart man?” His question caught me off guard. Why would he ask me that? Did he think I’d lie to him?

“Yes,” I replied meekly.

“Because I was told today that you knocked over that neighbor-girl’s bike. Did you do that, Connor?”

“No, I didn’t. She just said I did,” I told the truth; I didn’t think I knocked over her bike, maybe it was my sister, or maybe it was my neighbor’s little brother that did it. But I was sure it wasn’t me.

“You know you can’t lie to me, Connor. I don’t believe you’d knock over her bike, and I trust you, but don’t take your grandfather for a fool,” I was at his mercy and soon I began to question whether I’d knocked over the bike after all. Could I have? I knew I couldn’t lie to him, so I just wished to God that I hadn’t knocked down the bike and stuck to my story.

“I promise, Grandpa. I didn’t do it.”

“Alright, you can go,” I got up from my stool and immediately searched for my little sister, who most likely had thought me doomed.

* * *  

My grandfather had earned the nickname “The Last Cowboy” from his daughter-in-law, my mother. He lived in his shop more than he did in his actual house, if you don’t count sleeping. My grandfather kept multiple gardens in which he grew his own food, until he was about eighty years old. He would also forage for his food, collecting chives and mushrooms from around his yard and ours (my father built our home right behind the house he grew up in). He cooked in his shop on top of his cast-iron stove, subscribing to the sentiment that anything can taste good with enough salt. Every Sunday he’d carry a plate full of bacon, sausage, and other breakfast meats back to our house. He was a hunter, as well. Every Thanksgiving he’d hang a deer in his garage, leaving the blood to pool in a bucket below. The deer’s black hole eyes seemed to scream at me while I’d quickly snatch a basketball and slam the garage door shut.

It just always made sense to me, he personified a cowboy; in the 2000s, he was living like he belonged in Oklahoma, circa 1880. I found this mesmerizing, mostly because I knew I could never live how he did.

When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a patriotic poem for him, for having served in World War II. As I recall the poem now, my guess is that he actually didn’t appreciate my anti-Iraq war stance, but I hope he at least appreciated my sentiment. I know now how different I am from him, but when I was a child, I never cared to think such thoughts. The place he holds in my heart today is unequivocally, and somewhat unfortunately, bound with infamy. I knew from others that he was a strict and harsh man; he was the patriarch.

He was raised during the Great Depression and it left its mark. He very visibly possessed the edge of a Darwinian. He performed some sort of manual labor around his yard until he was no longer capable of doing so. I heard tales of the wrath of his belt from my father and some of my oldest cousins. I’d seen the drained skeletons of Black Velvet whiskey bottles dispersed throughout his shop. I’d been told by my mother that my grandfather had been an alcoholic. He scared me, but he never whipped me, never yelled or lost his temper with me. I was happy to have him as my grandfather, despite the legends of his malice.

When I was in elementary school, he crashed his car while driving under the influence. This resulted in the removal of his license, but he remained unscathed physically. I can remember seeing the wreckage of the tan Buick while on my bus route home after school. I remember telling my friend, Kyle, “wow, that car got messed up,” not even knowing it was my grandparents’. At the time, the accident seemed like another instance of his triumph and in my mind the incident’s headline read: “THE TOUGHEST MAN ALIVE SURVIVES CAR CRASH UNINJURED.” In reality, he’d nearly killed himself and my grandmother. The guilt caused him to quit drinking that day. With 45 years of alcoholism under his belt, there was concern whether he’d survive or not. He did, of course, and this time the headline would read: “ALCOHOLIC CURES HIMSELF THROUGH THE POWER OF HIS WILL.” Except a year or so later, he relapsed and took up the habit again.

One day, while my uncle David, my dad, cousin Johnny, and I sat in the shop with my grandfather, he rolled up his pant leg and showed off a 6 inch scar.

“See this? Got this from a Kraut over in France. Sliced me right up the leg. But don’t you worry, your grandpa got him back,” Johnny and I stared, amazed, while my dad and uncle David chuckled behind us. My dad later tells me that my grandfather never saw any combat in France, to which I just laugh. In my head, I tell myself that perhaps there’s a tale of bravery behind that scar Nazi or not.

On another occasion, my grandfather mentioned that while he was in France, he was forced to take cover in a fox-hole while a friendly tank ran right over him. He made it out just fine though and it proved to be another instance of his bravery. I tried to imagine what I might tell my grandchildren about, but all I’d done was won a little league championship. I began to realize there would be no legends of my bravery to tell, sadly.

* * *

In 2009, he was diagnosed with leukemia. When I first heard the news, I figured leukemia to be a meek opponent challenging the likes of my grandfather. He began chemotherapy and blood transfusions soon after the diagnosis. He was no longer seen tilling his garden, or present at breakfast on Sundays, now I only saw him from his bedside. Except they had to move his bed downstairs, since stairs had become a task too daunting for the man who’d faced Nazis and friendly, but errant tanks.

In truth, I only really remember my final two visits with my grandfather all that clearly. They weren’t ceremonious or even eventful, really. My father just happened to ask me if I’d like to go along with him and visit my grandfather. Most times that he’d ask me I’d say that I couldn’t, perhaps blaming it on too much homework or that I didn’t feel all that well. I didn’t want to see the sickly creature that had adopted the form of my grandfather; the man that laid immobile in his bed wasn’t the man I’d known. Plus, at thirteen years of age, I didn’t know how to talk to a dying man. Much less my dying grandfather.

The second to last visit I hardly remember. The only true and trustworthy memory I have of this second to last time I’d ever talked to my grandfather, was that I told him that I loved him. That is the only reason this visit stays in my mind. When saying goodbye after my visit, I told him that I loved him, and then quickly passed through the relief of the door frame. There was a veil of discomfort guarding my grandfather — a veil of grief. Looking back, I can see myself melodramatically inhale oxygen once I’d exited my grandparents’ house. Not simply because my grandmother was a chronic smoker, but because the fresh air tasted like freedom. Along the walk back to my healthy home, I felt like I was shedding the shadow of a stalker from my skin. I knew I couldn’t catch his Leukemia, but I was certain that I could catch grief. I couldn’t allow myself to succumb to such an ailment.

From the crypts of my temporal lobe, I can’t salvage the words coming from his lips: “I love you too, Connor.” I don’t believe that actually ever was his response, truthfully. But that doesn’t matter to me. Whatever he said, I’d most likely forget it, and all I wanted was the peace of mind that I’d told him I loved him before he left me forever.

The interval between my second to last visit with my Grandfather and my last could have been a week or a month. I can’t say for certain. I’d let myself forget about him. He was out of sight and out of mind, for the most part. I didn’t do this because of the pain of his illness, though. Sure, partially it was because I was sad that he was potentially dying, but mostly it was because I didn’t want to see him as that person. It pains me now to say that my final memories of him are through the confused eyes of my thirteen-year-old self. I wanted to remember him as The Last Cowboy, instead of leukemia patient #57289605.

My final visit with him was shortly before he passed away. I knew, somehow, that he would die very soon. I was with my father once again, sitting in my grandparent’s living room, where they’d moved my grandfather’s bed.

“Have you started baseball?” My Grandfather asked me, selecting baseball as a safe topic of discussion to have with his thirteen-year-old grandson.

“Yep,” I replied, “modified this year. Moving up to the big field now. It’s a bit of an adjustment, but it’s going good so far,” I spoke somewhat uncomfortably loud, but I needed to if I wanted him to hear my reply.

“Good. Good,” my grandfather mumbled back to me, as I gave a slight grin and a nod of my head.

“Here, Dad. Can you sit up a bit?” My father said, entering the room with a glass of buttermilk in his hand. Buttermilk was one of the few substances my grandfather could still stomach and it was supposed to help him keep on weight. When he moved (slowly) in his bed, it was clear just how diminished this man was. He was always rather skinny, but what I saw made me feel like I was in a movie — one of the war flicks where someone is mortally injured, but the main character assures their wounded comrade that they’re going to make it out alright and go home to their wife.

Of course the real me, the person behind the stage name and the makeup, knew that this man was going to die. His bones appeared embossed and his skin was as pale as paper.

After a couple sips of the buttermilk my grandfather slouched back down into his bed and told my father “not today, Bill.” The visit wasn’t very long, perhaps an hour or so, before I decided to depart.

“It was good seeing you, Grandpa. I’ll see you again soon.”

We’d never speak again.

On June 2nd, 2011, I came home from one of my final days of the school year to a somber mother. I kicked off my shoes and flung my backpack into the corner. She came into the foyer from the kitchen looking distraught. I knew something was wrong when I saw her face.

“Grandpa passed away today, Connor,” she told me, equipped with a frown. I wasn’t shocked, I had seen this coming, it was just a matter of time.

“Well, that sucks,” I replied plainly and then I left her and went into the bathroom. As I looked out the window that viewed my grandparent’s house, I could feel my eyes water. Next I felt my anger.

I clenched my fists and flexed my jaw with fury. And with all my strength, I didn’t let a single tear escape my body. I wanted to mourn him the way he might’ve mourned himself. I knew that I would never be as brave or as tough as my grandfather, but I knew that in that moment I could be tough enough to silence my tears. I wanted to honor the spirit of the Gunslinger; hoping my draw was quick enough to gun down the villainous Grief that stood before me twenty paces away, in the cracked dirt. His black duster waved behind his right hand, which hung in the air, cocked atop his revolver’s grip. My gaze fell upon him, unwavering. When we both twitched and drew our weapons, I’d already known who’d stand intact.

* * *

When my grandmother passed away as well, a few years later, it fell upon my father to sell the house. It was an old house, mistreated and filled with junk nobody else wanted. Then, of course, there was the shop, filled with my grandfather’s woodworking projects and his John Wayne life size cutout. Nobody would want some old shop with a roof that desperately needed to be reshingled. So at eighteen years old, I saw the toppling of the shop. My father’s friend came and ripped it to splinters with his backhoe. The shop didn’t belong in this era and so it had to die too. My father kept the door, which was signed by all of the people who’d come to visit my grandfather through the years. Now it’s kept in the little shed in our backyard, which just so happens to have been built by my grandfather, as well.

My grandfather embodied an image I’d grown up captivated by. I loved hearing my grandfather’s stories and tall tales for the same reason I loved watching Rocky Balboa and The Terminator. I wanted to be a hero, like them. I wanted to grow up and be strong and tough. I wanted to be able to live off the land and do what’s necessary to survive. I wanted to shoot whiskey and show off scars.

But that isn’t who I am. Part of me still wishes I could be the hero, or the soldier, or the cowboy, but there’s another part of me that’s content with my own individuality. Content that I don’t have to shoot whiskey, or go fight nazis, or kill my dinner. Just as my grandfather had done himself, I plan to be myself at all costs. Even if that means that I’ll never fill the boots of the Last Cowboy.

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