The Ashes of a Cowboy

I’m sitting here waiting for the USPS. My Dad’s ashes are coming in the mail today.

I was sort of happy-excited about it all morning, but now I’m thinking “Oh, crap. Here comes a solid reminder that I’ll never be able to hear his warm voice again, or have him invite me in for a slash of apricot brandy.”

That welcoming, wise – and yes, sometimes damned annoying – presence is gone from my life. He won’t BE THERE for me. Ever again.

In case you’ve wondered, after my trip to California that you all donated to make possible, the whole thing is still going on in my life.

An aside for those not clued in on the whole thing: I had a distant father, a wicked stepfather, and then a Dad – who was no blood relation. The Dad was the guy who let me into his life, a realio-trulio cowboy/mule packer and a man who became my teacher, mentor and confidant in my cowboy years in California. I met him when I was about 23 or so, and he was in my life for 36 years.

His name was Dan Farris, and he was somebody special. You would have liked him.

I got the news back in early November that he was dying. I was broke and unable to go visit him. I posted an appeal here, just on the off chance some few readers might be willing to donate maybe $50 or so to help me manage the trip. (I was hoping to borrow the rest from a couple of friends, but even that was very low probability.) In less than 8 hours, the atheist community donated enough for me to get a late flight, rent a car, get a motel room, everything I needed to get there to see him and stay with him. It all went scary-fast.

I sat with him in the hospital for close to 18 hours a day for the last 4 days of his life. Talking to him, stroking his forehead, helping the nurses reposition him, and just sitting thinking about him, while he died. He breathed his last as I sat with him, telling him that he wasn’t alone, that he was loved, and what a difference he’d made in my life.

And oh man, did I do some champion crying in those four days. Don’t think I’ve gushed like that since I was a kid.

In gratitude for the help the atheist community gave me, I have meant to be writing more about this all along, but … I’m still processing the whole thing. I get new thoughts about it all on a daily basis. This is the first person I’ve been really close to, the first human I’ve really LOVED, deeply and undeniably, who has died on my watch. (I’ve lost two beloved dogs.)

(There might be a book about the whole thing at some future point, tentatively titled “Saying Goodbye to Dad: An Atheist Deals With Death.”)

My Dad’s sister is having a hard time dealing with the whole thing. She lost another brother just a few years ago in a really ugly circumstance, and an older sister when the lot of them were kids. Plus, she was stuck in Hawaii with a sick husband when Dan was in the hospital dying, and couldn’t make it there in time to see him. And about which she is devastated.

Anyway, I offered to help in any way I could.

One thing I promised Dan, when he was still able to hear me, was that I would take his ashes to one of his favorite places. It’s about a day’s ride by horse into the John Muir Wilderness, a place called Third Crossing, not far from another place called Dan’s Camp – and yes, that last one is named after Dan. He was a wilderness guide for more than 50 years, the absolutely perfect host to the High Sierra wild places, and something of a legend in the horse-and-mule set of eastern-central California. (Think Yosemite National Park, which is just a few miles north of this area.)

Dan’s sister asked if I would receive and keep Dan’s ashes until I can manage the trip next summer. I said yes.

So they’re coming. I’ve been tracking them the last week or so online, as they wend their way through various USPS checkpoints. Today … they’ll be here.


  • Randomfactor

    I’ve got my wife’s ashes waiting for a similar opportunity. (We probably used the same mortuary…)

    Peace, Hank.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM.

    My father died a couple of years ago. The medical school finally finished using his body as a teaching aid and cremated the remains. This summer I’ll be taking the ashes in a sailboat (my dad loved to sail) past the 12 mile limit and scattering them at sea. I can hear my dad now: “You’re not going to dump my ashes from an E-Scow into Lake Winnebago? I’m disappointed.”

    You have my sympathy and empathy, Hank. The pain goes away, the memories never do.

  • grumpyoldfart

    I’m glad you were there for him.

  • raymoscow

    My mother died just after New Years. I was there with her at the end. As you say, it was hard, but it was a good experience, too.

    We scattered her ashes in the lake next to her home just after the memorial service. I think it was best just to get that part done as soon as possible.

  • Quincyme

    Just think that you will ALWAYS be able to invite him for an apricot brandy (in a memorial sense). We lose the person but not the memories of them. As a staunch atheist, it is difficult to say but some rituals are comforting.

  • docsarvis

    Hank, pour a little Apricot Brandy next to his ashes. The journey to scatter your Dad’s ashes will be hard, but you’ll persevere. You have touched many people with your heartfelt writing. Thank you for sharing this.

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