Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bridge of Straw -- In Memory of My Father

Keith Edwards  2/2/1918--12/8/2011

Last month my father Keith passed away after a short and rapid decline.  He lived a full life--93 years--and we knew that, even with good health, his passing was imminent.  When death comes at the end of a long life, there is no surprise.  He died from failing systems; the weakening of age; and the exhaustion of the long war against dying.  Still, we were not as prepared for it as we thought we would be.  It seemed that he was more prepared than his family was.  One of the last things he said to me was that he was crossing a bridge of straw.

With his older brother

He was born in Big Sandy but soon moved with his family back to South Dakota where the land was not as harsh.  When they returned to Montana a few years later they made the trip back in a railroad car containing their belongings and their animals.  The homestead, located in an area called Lonesome Prairie, was a tough place to survive, but his family, like others equally stubborn, suffered through the bad times and eventually flourished.  He once told me the area’s best and brightest had all left, leaving the dumbest and the dimmest.

Teaching me to ride

He suffered through chemotherapy 20 years ago, suffered a horrific horse accident that broke his neck, and a few years ago cracked his skull.  He was accident prone, but tough as hell.  As an adult, I was fortunate to be able to work with him, and I spent a lot of hours with him.  I knew him well--the good and the not so good.  He could have said the same about me, and probably did.  He expected a lot of himself and those around him.  His expectations of his children were simple: to do the best we could.  

My brother built this box for Keith's ashes

It is frustrating to attempt to sum up his life in a few words.  It would take a book to reveal his nuances.  He had a brilliant mind, an abundance of generosity for the less fortunate, and deep concern for his family.  He was a farmer, a rancher, a poet, and a dreamer.  He pushed himself mentally and physically.  He died with regrets--all great men do--with the knowledge that he made mistakes, and could have done better.  In his last days, he said to me: "everyone has to start at the beginning."  Life's journey ends with a walk across the bridge of straw.

                                          by Keith Edwards

Welcome to the K Bar R.  The boss says to show you 'round.
That's a big order, known' it covers lots of ground.
This old ranch has history, every part is worth a yarn.
And these old buildings too, the houses and the barns.
Over there's the main corrals and then the calvin' pen
That one-room cabin on the hill, that's where you'd find old Ben.

Ben rode in when the ranch was young.  Must of lived here 50 years--
Long before the rest of us was dry behind the ears.
Some of the other hands who've been here quite awhile
Claimed that no one on the ranch had ever seen Ben smile.
So he was a stern old cuss, we called him Captain Grim.
And tales we heard from the distant past said, you didn't mess with him!

At first he rode the rough string, tamin' the mean ones down,
Got 'em mellowed out enough to ride with your girl in town.
They say one time he roped a wolf and hung it in a tree,
and he traded lead with men now dead, who'd committed larceny.

Ben was foreman here for years, the boss's right-hand man,
But age got in the game and dealt   Ben a sorry hand.
His bones were a mess of fractures, from the broncs of years ago,
And he was asked to run machinery whose quirks he didn't know.

When the ranch was third-generation, a grandson ran the show.
He says to Ben, "you've been here,  since the buffalo,
That old log shack you're living in, it's yours for all your days.
But it's time to hang your saddle up and turn your pony out to graze."

One fall the meadowlarks was gatherin'   to go to Mexico
Or wherever it is they fly,  to escape the cold and snow.
Ben was dozin' in his chair when he heard the window crack--
A meadowlark had struck it and was lyin' on its back.

Its eyes were wild and red as it fluttered to be free.
It pecked at Ben in panic as he held it on his knee.
He studied how to fix    the broken, bloody wing.
Then he patched and splinted, with toothpicks and some string.

The months of winter passed, the bird no longer wild.
It thrived on seeds and tallow, as peaceful as a child.
It started making little trips as it flew from bed to chair
Or landed on Ben's shoulder as it seemed to like it there.

One day when the snow was meltin' in a February thaw,
Ben had the shack door open, even though the wind was raw.
The lark flew out the doorway, in lopsided crooked flight.
Then came back to the cabin, much to Ben's delight.

Ben woke early EasterSunday, still dark around the shack.
He heard the chirps and rustlings, the meadowlarks were back!
They swooped around the cabin, as dawn came bright and warm.
They settled in the sagebrush, in the branches, in a swarm.
The larks outside were ready to build their prairie nests.
Ben's bird heard their message, it was time to join the rest.
Ben watched from his chair, the door was open wide.
The lark perched upon Ben's hand, and then it soared outside.
A ranch hand came riding past, checking the calving pen.
He stopped at the open door just to say hello to Ben.
But there was no reply from him, he'd gone beyond the voice of men.
The ranch hand told the boss, "It's hard to understand,
There's a smile upon his face, a little feather in his hand."

 They dug a grave for Ben, up the hill a ways,
And called in the preacher,   to say some words of praise.
Then the little crowd was silent,  as they shoveled in the hole
A meadowlark sat above them, perched upon a pole.
It swelled its breast and warbled,  its sweet melodious trill,
Do you suppose it was a farewell song,  to the old man on the hill?