Full moon in Autumn, the aspens turning gold, Winter nipping at the edges of the night.

2:30 A.M.  From fathoms deep in sleep I hear the piercing sound of the telephone and struggle to the surface of consciousness, breathless with panic. Who is calling at this ungodly hour? The faces of everyone I love flash before me. I remember the phone call that came the Autumn of l964 —“Your father is dying, come as quickly as you can”


“Hello, Sam. This is Punky. There has been an accident. John Demetri got killed ,and we are trying to locate his parents. We thought Gif might have his address. Is he there?

“What happened?

“He left here about an hour ago on his motorcycle and ran off the road down by Black Canyon and hit his head on a rock. I tried to get him to wear a helmet but he wouldn’t do it.

” I heard Gif’s truck come in a while ago, so I know he is up at his cabin, but he wouldn’t have the address there. Why don’t we wait until morning and we will go over to John’s house and see if we can find an old letter or something with an address on it.

“O.K., I guess that makes sense. There’s nothing anybody can do now.

I hang up the phone and climb back in bed. The moon disappears behind the hill and darkness deepens. I try to sleep but waves of feelings and memories smash against my unbelieving mind, undercutting my illusions of safety , sweeping the ground from beneath me. Impossible! Not true! Just this afternoon John was painting my house. At five oclock he was standing on the porch wiping the paint from his hands. The red and white cap he always wore that advertised “Reed’s Electrical Appliances” contained a visible resume of the odd jobs he had recently completed—a grease spot from the old Pontiac he was always working on, a sprinkling of sawdust from the cabinet he helped Gif build, brown paint from my house. His tattered Levi cut-offs matched his stringy beard and  long, stringy hair. Disheveled. A little like a lost dog who hadn’t been well-treated even before he left home. Gif always warned me: ” You have to look underneath his appearance. John is a funny sort of guy. He always shows people his worst side first. He acts real stoned and stupid, but if you keep coming after him you see he is a real sensitive man who has a lot of pain he is afraid to let people see.” While I was paying him for the painting we had talked about his dream of buying a few acres of land. I noticed that he looked pale even though he had been working all day in the sun. As I review my sparse memories of John sadness grows within me for the death of a man, for  shattered frail hope that had just begun to grow. And tears, because in the morning I must tell my son that his friend is dead.

At first light I give up the effort to sleep and get up to watch the sunrise. A tangerine glow from behind the mountain heralds the day. The stage lights change rapidly bathing the valley in chrome-yellow, chartreuse, lemon, topaz, daffodil, apricot, copper. With a hush, proceeded by a hint of violet, the bronze and burning sun steps over the ridge and takes command of a day that is already haunted by absence. I drink cups of steaming tea and watch the drama from the privileged seat among the living, feeling unaccountably guilty and embarrassed by beauty.

As I walk up the path through the meadow to Gif’s cabin my mind squirms looking for the right words. How do I introduce my son to death?  This man-boy, 22 years old, sleeps hard, dreams vividly and wakes slowly. He doesn’t like me to talk to him before breakfast. Should I break the news gradually? Give him time to come fully awake? Fortunately his dog, Rastas, sees me coming,barks and warns Gif that their territory is being invaded. When I get in the cabin he is half awake..

” Good morning son” I say, walking over to the bed and pausing until I can put my hand on his uncovered and vulnerable shoulder…. ” I have some real bad news. John was killed last night”

Gif looks at me in stunned silence.

“On his motorcycle?”


“Yes. How did you know?”

” I was at Punky’s last night playing pool and there was lots of free beer. I knew John was going to Omak on the motorcycle to spend the night with a friend so he could see about his unemployment checks in the morning. I tried to convince him to come home and drive up with me today, but he wouldn’t do it….. Dead? He’s Dead?”

“Yes, son, It’s impossible to believe isn’t it?”

“Yes and no. Somehow I’m not really surprised. He always said he would die young and violently. It was almost as if he knew. When he came into the bar last night. He took out a quarter and held it up and said: “This is all the money I got, but I guess it’s all I need since the beer is free and the loser is going to have to pay for the next game of pool.” I grinned at him and started to leave and he said:” What’s the matter, Gif, you afraid to play me?” We traded friendly insults and played a game or two, and when I went out the door he flashed me a big smile and gave me a thumbs-up sign. It was always like that. We understood each other, like brothers, without having to talk about it. Ever since he came back from Vietnam he was in such pain that he stayed drunk or stoned a lot of the time. Once I told him: “John, I can see all the pain and rage you have bottled-up inside you.” And he said: ” I’m glad you can”, but we didn’t have to talk about it after that. We were just friends. I think, somehow,  it was his time to die. At least he is not in pain now.

Silence, again.

Gradually the awful fact begins to sink into Gif’s heart and he starts to cry softly. I also. I want to cradle him in my arms and protect him like I did when we was a baby. As I reach over and embrace him I feel my body ( calloused by frequent grief, covered with scar tissue from the death of my father and friends) form around his sinewy frame as if to shield him from tragedy. I hold him for a few minutes. But we are both too awkward  to take comfort for long within each others arms. We edge apart, trying not to notice each others tears.


“It’s a hard one, Son. And when you get older, you still can’t believe it, but you learn to expect it.”

” I guess you never get use to death, do you Dad?”

“I never have”

I sense Gif wants to be alone, so I leave the cabin. An hour later he comes down to the house and I cook thick slices of home-cured ham and eggs and strong coffee. After breakfast we go across the county road to John’s house to look for his parents address, which we finally find in a stack of letters in the bedroom. As we turn to leave I see that Gif has picked up John’s “Reed’s Electrical Appliances” cap and put it on his head.

The flood of sorrow carries us into each others arms and I hear a silent scream welling up from my depths: ” Death, keep your goddamn hands off my son ! You can have me, but leave my children alone.”

Scenes from three generations of my history flash before my eyes. First, I see myself standing by my father’s grave by a juniper tree in Prescott, Arizona wearing his hat and cursing death. Next,I imagine myself as an old man standing on the high ridge above this farm watching my children and grandchildren  eating from the apricot and walnut trees I have planted, harvesting the memories of my care. Finally, I see myself turning and walking over to the pine tree under which I want to be buried and giving myself peacefully to death.

As my vision fades I remember a Buddhist parable. A man comes to the Buddha and asks for a definition of happiness. The Buddha replies: ” Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies” “That sounds like terrible unhappiness “, the man replies. “No” the Buddha says, “This is the natural course of things, and that is the most happiness we can expect. Think of the sorrow if the son dies before the father and the father before the grandfather”

Gif and I pat each other on the back to signal that it’s time  to move apart. Our embrace loosens. Seeing John’s hat on Gif’s head I remember that the universe does not guarantee us a timely death and that our contract with life always includes the possibility of tragedy. And, for the first time, I see on my son’s face the marks of one who has been initiated into the knowledge of mortality. From this day forward we will be together as men who know how suddenly this fragile gift can be taken from us.