Jerry’s Dirt (essay)

I began to see, however dimly, that one of my ambitions, perhaps my governing ambition, was to belong fully to this place, to belong as the thrushes and the herons and the muskrats belonged, to be altogether at home here. 

                                                                        —Wendell Berry

 

I. The Cabin

Jerry McGahan was not well when he stepped out of his Montana cabin on a gusty mid-September afternoon in 2016. His hair was wiry and white. Steroids had swollen his face, rounding the usual angles of his jaw. He elbowed open the front door and slowly crossed the porch. His feet had memorized the distance. 

The cabin was older than he was, but solid. In 1973 he found it for sale at the foot of the Mission Mountains just north of here. He paid three hundred dollars for it and gathered some friends to help take it apart. Jerry numbered the logs, loaded them onto a truck, and reassembled them here along the Jocko River with his first wife, Libby. Using skills he learned from carpentry books and an eighth-grade shop class, he framed the windows, wired the outlets, plumbed the pipes, and built the cabinets. By the end of the summer, it became a home in this sylvan oasis. His closest neighbors were the swaying ponderosas, junipers, and cottonwoods of the river-bottom forest. 

The cabin looks at home in these woods. Like a nest, it is built of the materials that surround it. The cabin’s roof is shingled with hand-split cedar shakes, which are dusted with pine needles. The gutters are trimmed with gray, lichened wood. The doors have no locks. 

The cabin has a way of arresting people. Whoever comes down here, whether a deliveryman or—once—the poet Allen Ginsberg, knows they are seeing something rare and beautiful, the fruits of an autonomous life. When a hospice doctor visited, he stepped out of his car, swept his gaze over the house, the mossy rock gardens, and the corkscrew hazel out front, and said: “It looks like a hobbit lives here.” 

Jerry lived here for two-thirds of his life. At seventy-three years old, he was neither tall nor short, and his body was sinewy from a lifetime of walking and work. He wore glasses and a bristly white moustache. His nose protruded from his face like a beak. It was large enough, the story goes, that a kid once ran over it with a bicycle when Jerry was lying on his side on the school playground, inspecting a bug. 

As he walked across the porch, Jerry didn’t stoop or wince. He smiled. Laughed, even. The only clue that something was amiss was the tiny aberration in his daily uniform—his collared shirt wasn’t tucked into his Levis. 

If he was in pain, his face didn’t betray it. Comfort rarely guided his decisions, anyway. He did his work by hand, preferring the manual to the automatic. He cut his own wood, fixed his own cars, brewed his own beer, and butchered his own game. If his life was aesthetically beautiful, woodsy, and romantic, it was seldom comfortable. So whenever he had a headache or a wound, he endeavored to overcome his pain mentally. “I try not to attend to it,” he ’d say. 

But this current sickness was greedy for his attention. By now the cancer was accumulating. I imagined it welling up inside his body like a bruise-colored summer thunderhead, the kind of storm that smells of dust long before it ever smells of rain. 

______

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, figuratively or literally, when I first met Jerry, one spring morning in 2007, shortly after I had fallen in love with his daughter in Missoula. Hilly first described her father to me as a writer and beekeeper who never ate fruit out of season, refused to own a cell phone, bought almost nothing, and knew a lot about birds. In person, I found him to be self-possessed and encyclopedic, but simultaneously humble. He listened more than he spoke, and he was always learning. Our interests in writing, travel, and mountains overlapped. I admired him immediately; in time, I loved him. 

Hilly and I married in 2012, in the shade of trees Jerry planted behind the cabin. Then, in 2014, Jerry was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Hilly was pregnant with our first son. The cancer was the type that could have been removed if Jerry had gone in sooner, but he thought of doctors the way he thought of mechanics: the more you saw them, the more they found to fix. So, he prescribed his own health regimen of fresh food and manual labor, radiating the immortality of a tree, for which death is possible, but implausible. Jerry never scheduled the checkup that could have sounded the alarm, and his truancy came with a price: by the time a doctor found it, the cancer was aggressive and inoperable. His oncologist said he might have months to live. 

Almost three years passed. The cancer seeped into his organs and bones, the mutated cells proliferating within him like dandelion seeds blown into a breeze. Metastatic growths were starting to fracture his ribs and spine. The cancer’s progression was excruciatingly painful, but irreversible. Without the need for more ultrasounds, hormone treatments, radiation, or chemo, he stopped making the half-hour drive into Missoula to see his oncologist. Instead, the hospice nurses came to him. It was just as well. Standing here outside his house, a man in his domain, Jerry clearly had no desire to leave. 

Still, the pain was mounting. His first true pain crisis terrified everyone. He was upstairs in his bedroom, writhing and moaning in his bed. When we rushed to him, he looked at us in a panic, sobbing. His eyes flashed like those of a trapped coyote and he said he hoped he would die. For the first time since I had known him, he looked defeated. 

Defeat didn’t come easy for Jerry. One spring afternoon in 1985, a giant, root-rotted cottonwood fell across the cabin right above the front porch, smashing most of the house. The insurance would have paid a contractor to repair it, but Jerry got to work using borrowed house jacks, come-alongs, and a fence stretcher to hoist away the tree and resurrect his home from its bare, broken bones. In the end, he fixed it for a fraction of the insurance claim and used the extra money to pay off his debts. The cabin was as good as new, and it was his cabin, now more than ever. 

Cancer, though, was an act of God that no amount of resilience could negotiate, one that promised only diminishment and then erasure. After that initial pain crisis in his bedroom, a hospice nurse increased the dosage on the portable morphine pump installed directly into his abdomen. As Jerry descended the porch steps that September afternoon in 2016, he cradled the pump in his left hand like a Walkman. Every ten minutes or so it delivered a dose with a whirring noise as if it was fast-forwarding to the next song.

Jerry scarcely took a Tylenol in his whole life and in the days to come, these narcotics would dull his wits. But on that day his head was clear and his direction was intact. Janet, his second wife for thirty-five years, took his arm. Her body was riddled with cancer, too: a third round of breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Until recently, they scheduled oncologist appointments together the way they once went to the movies. For a while, they seemed to be lockstep in a race to the end. Now it looked as though Jerry would finish first. 

But before then, he had one bit of business left to attend to in the orchard, one final decision to make before the cancer pulled the rafters down around him. So, with all six of his children and some grandchildren alongside, Jerry slowly stepped down from the porch and started walking. 

 

II. The Birds

He used to run. Every morning, for years, he climbed out of bed, laced up his sneakers, and ran out the front door, down this driveway, into the hills and home again in a seven-mile loop. But a lifetime of movement had worn away the cartilage in his left knee, so by now he walked with a limp. Janet spent years trying to persuade him to get a replacement, and we all chimed in to bolster the case. You walk so much, we ’d tell him, why do it in pain? 

Now that was no longer a concern. We watched Jerry walk with his customary cadence, listing from left to right like a windshield wiper. 

He walked along river rocks that he set into the earth years ago as a driveway to the outbuilding he called the Honey House, where the family—Jerry, Janet, and all the kids—extracted honey from their hives. In 2012, before Hilly and I got married, Jerry started unearthing each of these stones, clearing the grass around them, and re-setting them into the ground, where they looked brand-new. There are hundreds of stones and the job took all summer, but he approached it the way he tackled every task: with daily, incremental work. He applied the same strategy to writing his stories and novels, pruning trees, oil painting, and learning French. In the case of these stones, he knew the grass would grow back between them within a few seasons, but that didn’t matter. Like Sisyphus, Jerry rolled his rock up the hill. If it cost him some sweat, it also rewarded him with purpose. 

Walking along the stones, he cocked his head toward the forest and for a moment he seemed young again, feeling the cool September air on his cheeks, scanning the trees for birds. Throughout his life, Jerry was most at home when he was outside.

 ______

Jerry McGahan was born in the winter of 1943 in Dillon, a small railroad town in southwestern Montana. His biological father was a well-liked drunk and loose cannon named Johnny Harr. According to a story Jerry was told, Johnny once shot a black bear, ran out of shells, and then tracked it down and killed it with a hammer. Jerry’s mother, Alice, divorced Johnny when Jerry was young and moved to Livingston with her new husband, Chuck. Together they opened a restaurant called The Coffee Shop and the family lived above it, in the windowless rooms of an abandoned hotel. In one of his stories Jerry describes it as “a big, dark, hollow place.” 

Jerry was a scrawny, awkward boy with freckles and few friends, so he learned to entertain himself. He liked climbing the buildings around the hotel. On one building he found a baby pigeon, which he brought home and named Sapphire. The bird became his companion, riding on his cap when he delivered the Park County News. Jerry soon became infatuated with birds. He would borrow his mother’s car and drive to hike the sloughs and climb the cliffs of Paradise Valley, where he found marsh hawks, falcons, and great horned owls. Along the way, he suffered scrapes with rattlesnakes, badgers, coyotes, bears, and other animals. His childhood was punctuated with tetanus shots. 

When Jerry was a teenager, he and his best friend, Jay Sumner, saw a book for sale in Livingston. It was a translated copy of The Art of Falconry, the first modern zoological treatise, written in 1250 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Jerry and Jay coveted the book, but neither of them had the twenty-five dollars to buy it. Then they caught wind that the owner of an agate shop south of town was willing to pay twenty-five dollars to anyone who could exterminate the skunks under his building. Jerry and Jay took the job.

Knowing little about skunks, they consulted the local government trapper, who suggested they bury a fifty-gallon drum and put a swinging platform on top, baited with a rotten fish. The skunk would step out onto the platform and then—whoosh—swing down into the drum. 

Jerry McGahan (right) stands in downtown Livingston, circa 1954, ready to sell some copies of the Park County News, accompanied by his siblings Melody and Mac and his pigeon, Sapphire

 

Jerry and Jay rummaged through the town’s garbage piles, attracting some attention from the police, until they found a suitable drum. They cut off its top in Jay’s back yard, rigged up a platform, and found a fish. They set the trap below the agate shop and came back before school the next morning to check it. Sure enough, a big skunk hissed up at them from the bottom of the barrel. They killed it, brutally and inefficiently, with rocks and a skewer, but not before it soaked them both in sulfur. When it was dead, they fished it out of the drum and dropped it down a hole, which they learned later was the well of a church. 

After that, Jerry and Jay tried a new technique with a steel leg trap attached to a length of wire. When they caught a skunk, one of the boys would grab the wire and run, dragging it out from under the shop. Then the other boy would take aim and shoot the animal with a shotgun. They dispatched eight skunks that way, enough to satisfy the shop owner. They took his money and bought the book. Even into their adult lives, the book spent a year at Jerry’s house, and then a year with Jay. Both friends developed a lifelong passion for birds of prey. 

One day in high school, Jerry found a fledgling golden eagle in a nest on a cliff outside of town. He lifted the bird out of the nest and brought it home so he could train it to hunt rabbits. He named the eagle Torrey, and he kept her in a large cage outside and fed her prairie dogs that he stored in the freezer. When Jerry went to the University of Montana in Missoula in 1961, he brought Torrey with him. She lived in an enclosure behind the gym. Jerry trained her to fly to him when he blew a referee’s whistle and swung a ball of meat in the air. 

Jerry was flying Torrey on the mountain behind campus one day while the university football team practiced on a field below. Alerted, perhaps, by the coach’s whistle, Torrey started tracking the football, then swooped, grabbed it, and perched on it near the fifty-yard line. The players all stood around her, hands on hips, maintaining a healthy distance. Jerry had to scramble down the mountain to get her off the ball before the team could resume practice. A photographer snapped a picture of the scene that appeared in the next day’s newspaper. 

Jerry was a natural student. At UM he compiled his fastidious field research into a paper about the hunting habits of golden eagles around the state. It’s still one of the most complete studies on eagles in Montana. He spent summers observing wildlife in the mountains. And he met Libby, a liberal arts major from Missoula who liked to hike as much as he did. They married in 1966, at Soldiers Chapel in Gallatin Canyon outside Bozeman, an elegant log and stone church at the foot of Lone Mountain. Jerry had driven by it one day and determined that one day he would get married there. 

That same year, Jerry finished his master’s in wildlife biology at UM. Then he and Libby moved to Madison, where Jerry got a doctorate in zoology at the University of Wisconsin. As part of his graduate research, he received a grant from the National Geographic Society to study Andean condors in South America. He and Libby spent two years in Colombia and Peru, scaling cliffs and hunkering in blinds to observe the birds. Jerry filmed a documentary and wrote a story for the May 1971 issue of National Geographic. Libby took the pictures, including the cover photograph of Jerry with a giant Andean condor perched on his arm, almost ten-feet-worth of wings flared, seemingly ready to peck off Jerry’s nose. [See page 689.] Jerry named that condor Gronk, and brought it home with him to Montana, before donating it to a zoo.

All of this research was ample groundwork for a career in academia. Jerry was passionate about science, and as a professor he could have stoked the curiosity of another generation of wildlife biologists—but he was a reluctant teacher. When he taught his first class as a graduate student, he was so nervous that he raced through two lectures on the first day. After the bell rang, he ran back to his office to start planning more lessons. 

The grandstanding of higher education put him off, too. Ultimately, he decided that he would rather retain his freedom in obscurity than nurture a scientific reputation on a concrete-bound campus. In 1973, he returned to western Montana and settled on the river-bottom land in the little town of Arlee, on the Flathead Indian Reservation just north of Missoula. He and Libby had adopted their first child in Colombia. They named him Jay, after Jerry’s old friend Jay, who bought land and built a house just up the Jocko River from Jerry. In 1974, Jerry and Libby had a daughter named Jordan. With a new family to provide for, Jerry bought a flatbed pickup, built some hives, and started a honey business that he called Old World Honey. He kept his hives on ranchland throughout the Mission and Flathead valleys and he valued the work that busied his body but cleared his mind. 

Because Jerry spent so much time outside, birds still inhabited his days. He could identify most of them by sight or sound, and the woods around his cabin teemed with them. In spring, he dutifully recorded his first sightings of songbirds, welcoming them as friends. Over time, he taught me the songs of his favorites. When he hiked in the mountains, he listened for the olive-sided flycatcher’s jovial call, “whip three beers.” The shy Swainson’s thrush would arrive in late June, thrilling him with its ascending, fluting spiral of a song, like a garden hose spinning through the air. The incessant chatter of the catbird followed him through his summer garden chores while tiny ruby-crowned kinglets chittered at him from the treetops.

One morning in 2010, he walked out of the cabin and heard a song he didn’t recognize. He found the bird in a bush and went back inside to consult his field guide. It was a Carolina wren. He reported the sighting to the wildlife department at the University of Montana, but they were skeptical; the Carolina wren is common in the eastern United States, but had never been seen in Montana. Until now. 

Birders drove from as far away as Oregon to add it to their “life lists.” When they arrived, brandishing spotting scopes and telephoto lenses, Jerry would stop what he was doing and introduce them to the bird. 

He paid attention to birds when he traveled, too. Later in life he spent his winters traveling with Janet, and sometimes alone, to India, Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere. He watched for the honeyguide bird in Mali and Senegal, where he spent several weeks working with local beekeepers. And he tramped around the Guatemalan highlands searching for the resplendent quetzal while visiting Hilly, who worked there for a year after college. She remembers her father walking through the jungle, enraptured, saying things like, “Jesus, that’s a barbet! I’ve never seen a barbet before. No, wait. That’s a white-whiskered puffbird. Well, aren’t you pretty?” 

*

There weren’t many birds around the afternoon that Jerry walked away from the house with his family trailing behind. It was fall, and most had flown south. Those that remained were the common ones most birders ignore—finches, chickadees, ravens, and turkey vultures. But Jerry found something to admire in every one. The way nuthatches always creep down a tree trunk. The uncanny intelligence of magpies. The way you can distinguish a pileated woodpecker’s cry from other woodpeckers, because, as he put it, “it’s just a little more unhinged.” 

Jerry had a special affinity for woodpeckers. Like them, he was industrious. He was hardheaded. He was a flash of color in the monochrome woods. 

 

III. The Dirt

Fall in Montana is a period of battening down. For Jerry, it was a season of closure before the dark days of winter. “Fall is chaos,” he wrote, “everything wanting attention.” There was fruit to pick and gardens to till and food to put up. But at its end, fall was the catharsis of summer, a sigh before sleep.

By mid-September the harvest was complete in the gardens that surrounded the house. As we walked away from the porch that day in 2016 we could see that an early frost had sucked the life from the tomato plants, leaving them limp and brown, slumped against their cages. With Jerry’s guidance, Hilly and I had gouged open the potato patch with shovels, stashing the muddy reds, russets, and fingerlings in the root cellar. The cool earth lay ravished around us.

Gardening was one of Jerry’s greatest passions. “What you love is what you keep your eye on,” he wrote in one of the dozens of short stories he published in The Georgia Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Ploughshares, and other magazines. “And that’s the trick, because what you are isn’t much more than what you think about.” 

In that case, Jerry was part plant. 

The first flower he loved was a narcissus bulb a neighbor gave him in graduate school in Wisconsin. He poked it into some pebbles inside a glass of water, set it on a windowsill, and waited. Eventually it sprouted, and then bloomed. The creamy blossom smelled like honey and lit up the house like a lantern in the melancholic mid-winter. 

When Jerry had just bought the river-bottom land in Arlee, his step-cousin Clifford, who was like an uncle and a mentor to him, gave him a Queen of Hearts dianthus. Jerry treasured it, but as he was putting the roof on the cabin he dropped a piece of lumber and crushed the plant. He felt terrible and told Clifford he couldn’t take any more plants until the house was finished. 

At that time this land was barren, gravelly, and overgrazed, but to Jerry it was a living canvas. Over the years, he built his small honey business here and he helped raise his blended family. 

When I first met Hilly, it took me some time to understand her family tree. Jerry had the two children, Jay and Jordan, from his marriage with Libby. Janet had two sons, Simon and Duncan, with her first husband, Scot. (I was impressed to learn that Scot, his new wife Philippa, Janet, and Jerry all remained close friends.) Janet and Jerry married in 1981 beneath a willow that Jerry had planted behind the cabin. Together, they had two daughters, first Romy and then Hilly, the youngest of the six. They were both born in the cabin and, like their siblings, grew up weeding the gardens and pulling honey alongside their father. 

From the moment he got here, Jerry cultivated a sense of belonging to this land. He filled it with trees, flowers, and vegetables. Over time he became so fond of the place that it was nearly impossible to coax him from it. He went into town reluctantly, and when he attended parties he reliably slipped out early and undetected and headed for home on foot. After almost fifty years of accumulating this dirt under his fingernails, of transforming its molecules into food, there was no longer a clear separation between this land and the man himself. One smelled of the other, elemental and eternal, like smoke and leather and loam. 

When the house was built, the land around it had no topsoil. Jerry was working four jobs at the time—keeping bees, teaching biology at a local high school, conducting a biological survey of the Blackfoot River for the Nature Conservancy, and working as a state bee inspector. He didn’t have time for landscaping, but he spread sawdust around the house and scattered grass seed. When the grass took root, he mowed it and left the clippings. As years of this went by, the clippings decomposed and manufactured dirt. By the end of Jerry’s life the grass grew thickly around the cabin and the topsoil was two knuckles deep. 

Jerry appreciated the value of the dirt in his vegetable beds, too. As a gardener, he considered dirt his most precious currency. When he pulled weeds, he shook the soil off their roots. When he rinsed his potatoes, he poured the watery sludge back into the patch. At the end of the season, he shoveled out the chicken coop and tilled this compost into the soil by hand. After four decades of devotion, the dirt in Jerry’s gardens was fine and dark, the color of possibility. 

Whenever the earth wasn’t frozen, Jerry had his hands in it. He developed growing systems for a cornucopia of vegetables—parsnips, asparagus, squash, beans, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, and more. It was all food for the table. But Jerry spent equal time with his flowers, growing food for the eyes. 

He was always scouting for new plants. Walking along the Clark Fork River in Missoula one afternoon, he noticed a flower he liked. He stopped and pinched off part of it to plant in one of his rock gardens, where it thrived. Later, he was walking along the same trail when he noticed the original plant had died. So he returned with a clipping from his own garden and replanted it. He figured the plant wanted to be there. 

 

Cover photo for May 1971 issue of National Geographic by Libby McGahan (later Libby Sale Lindbergh). Reprinted by permission of Sale Lindbergh’s estate and National Geographic

 

That was the sort of man he was. A naturalist friend of his taught him to put a coin in the earth whenever he took a wildflower out of the mountains. It was a measure of gratitude. Jerry spent his life searching out beauty, and when he found it he knew how to acknowledge it. He smuggled rock fig seeds across the border from Mexico. When Hilly and I lived in Cincinnati, he and Janet visited us and flew home with cuttings of mulberry and shagbark hickory wrapped in dampened paper towels. A friend gave Jerry a rosebud tree from Wisconsin and he planted it next to an oak in the backyard. Toward the end of his life, Jerry and Janet placed a conservation easement on their land to protect it from future subdivision or development, to ensure it remained the refuge that they knew it to be. 

The sugar maple in full color at Janet and Jerry’s home on the river bottom in Arlee, Montana

 

Jerry spent so much time working this land that its geography became a sort of map of himself. To dispose of accumulated garbage—old kitchen timers, the children’s trophies, and other unwanted flotsam—he put piles of the stuff in the yard and covered it all with big, naturally sculpted, lichened rocks that he and Janet quarried in the mountains themselves. Then he filled in the gaps with soil and planted flowers. Each flower in these gardens tells a story. The gentians that bloom in June—with a blue “so deep you could fall into it and never come up again,” he told me once—also grow on one of his favorite hiking trails in the Missions. The black tulip was a gift from a long-time friend. We all urged Jerry to get out more, to come to this party or that event, but he only needed to walk his gardens to be among all the people and places he loved. 

For the rest of us, the flowers were a fireworks display in slow motion. Even when our visits were regular, the palette of his gardens was constantly changing. One week the place would be covered in delicate purple-pink daphne, thickening the spring air with its fragrance. The next week Jerry would have conjured crocuses from the dirt, grape hyacinths, and hepaticas in delicate bouquets. As spring turned to summer, peonies, coral bells, and foxgloves budded and burst. When you were interested, and sometimes even when you weren’t, Jerry would lead you to his favorites and insist that you see them, smell them, know them. If you cared about the man, you cared about his flowers and felt honored by these introductions. Like the birds, they were among his closest friends. 

During his last summer, Jerry started writing treatises about gardening, short Word documents that offer wry guidance on how he grew raspberries, potatoes, string beans, and sugar snap peas. 

In the peas treatise, he describes how he dries his peas and freezes them to kill a tiny leafcutter called a sharp shooter that would otherwise destroy his seeds. In the one on raspberries, he explains his method for catching and releasing porcupines that depredate the canes: the technique involves chasing a fleeing porcupine through the undergrowth before diving in front of it with a wire cage and a broom. Jerry caught and released half a dozen this way. 

The pole bean treatise offers haiku-like wisdom: “Don’t wear corduroy shirts in the bean patch. Leaves stick like appliqués.” He goes on to suggest picking the beans early: “Otherwise, lumpy, leather-tough beans proliferate out there like chunks of hose.”

*

The season of closure was on our minds that mid-September afternoon as Jerry led us to the orchard. We passed a rock garden where a feeble fall poppy swayed on a slender stem. Nothing much was growing now, with the exception of the strawberry patch, back by the beehives. There, in spite of the cold, shortening days, fat September strawberries spilled out beneath serrated leaves. Occasionally, when the sadness welled up inside the house and threatened to pour out the windows, I ’d take my two-year-old son, Theo, out to the patch. We filled our mouths with berries and carried handfuls back to the house, depositing them on the kitchen table with red-stained fingers.

Fruit growers prize fall strawberries, which aren’t as prolific as the spring crop but taste better because the plants are stressed. It’s as if, knowing that the winter freeze is imminent, the plants empty themselves into their final fruit, this sugary, red proof of life, this small revolt against the inevitable. 

With the spirit of a September strawberry Jerry walked to the orchard, as his hours of clarity diminished, and a small procession of his family followed closely behind. 

 

IV. The Subarus

Jerry walked along the side of a rock garden and under a black walnut tree to the circular turnaround where the cars were kept. The family had always owned Subaru station wagons; they are the most fuel-efficient, snow-worthy cars that are also big enough to haul an elk during hunting season. Jerry learned their engines and dutifully changed the oil every three thousand miles.

Jerry and his daughter Hilly in Missoula in 2014

 

Of course, Jerry scarcely drove at all. He was too practical for joyrides and he walked into town every morning to collect his mail. However, every Tuesday for more than twenty years, he faithfully drove into Missoula to visit his daughters and have dinner with Janet at the home of a history professor and his wife, their long-time friends. After dinner, more friends would arrive—a lawyer, a linguist, a vet, and others—and Jerry would join these men at a circular table in the basement to take stock of each other’s lives and play poker. Jerry would go down carrying a green and white cooler filled with bottles of beer he had brewed in his bathroom, with his own hops and habaneros. He ’d drive home late those nights, often drunk. Sometimes he ’d eat a spoonful of mustard from the fridge before climbing the stairs to join Janet in bed.

In the years that I knew him, his car was a sky-blue 1987 Subaru station wagon. Rust nibbled at the wheel wells, and there was a dent in the back from a day we went goose hunting and he uncharacteristically reversed into a stop sign. Whatever the car, Jerry always left it unlocked, with the key in the ignition. As I understood, this habit was partly an incentive to never own a car worth stealing. It was also a declaration of his trust in people.

That contract wasn’t always honored. One summer day in the 1990s, Jerry walked out into the driveway to find his car missing. The car, Hilly says, was a lousy silver and brown Subaru whose sides were so rusted they looked as if they had been peppered with birdshot. The interior smelled like a dead animal, and the family called it “Rat Car.” Jerry reported its disappearance to the police. 

Six days later he got a call from a sheriff’s deputy in Pocatello, Idaho. They ’d found the car. The young teenage boys who stole it had been pulled over by an officer who noticed the driver was barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel. 

The next day, Jerry boarded a bus for Idaho. He found the car in the impoundment. The attendant took one look at the car and winced. “Did you say they only had it six weeks?” he asked. 

“No, six days,” Jerry said. 

The man let out a low whistle. “They did a real number on it,” he said.

In truth, it looked no different from when it was stolen. The boys had thrown out Jerry’s public radio recordings and left an Eazy-E cassette in the tape deck. Jerry was scandalized by the hardcore raunch-rap as he drove the four hundred miles home.

Jerry also drove to go hunting. During bird season, he would tie an old rubber dinghy to his car’s roof, load up his black lab, Annie, and drive out to the Flathead River to stalk pheasants and geese. In big game season, he would wake up before dawn and drive to his favorite haunts to look for deer and elk. He hunted the same places so long that every ridge and draw had a story for him. The land knew his footsteps. 

But Jerry put the bulk of the miles on his Subarus in winter, when he, Janet, the young children, and usually a black lab piled into the car and drove to Mexico. The migration suited Jerry’s personality and occupation. The bees hibernated in winter, and Jerry grew restless and gloomy amid the sunless inaction of the season. They drove down to the Sonoran Desert, where they camped along the Sea of Cortez. The family spent their days reading, painting, writing, and walking. Jerry taught the kids the constellations of the winter sky. He fished for corvina along the rocky coast. The family dug for razor clams, which they grilled over the campfire and ate with a squeeze of lime and a slash of hot sauce. 

I joined the family on one of those trips, a year after I started dating Hilly. It took three days to get there. Jerry drove the entire way, ensuring optimal fuel-efficiency by never exceeding the Carter-era fifty-five miles per hour. He stopped only for gas. We ’d all rush in to use the bathroom, and Janet would heat up food in the convenience store microwave. 

Because he drank almost nothing between his morning coffee and his evening beer, Jerry seldom had to pee. He filled the tank and then sat in the car, eating sunflower seeds and tapping the steering wheel, impatient to be moving again. If we were slow, I found myself anxious that Jerry would be irritable. He was clearly the captain of these trips, and it felt important to abide by his schedule. In his family, travel happened on his terms and at his pace. I could sense that Janet and the children sometimes tired of his rigidity, but for me he was an exhilarating guide. New to the family and eager to please, I fell in line like a solicitous sailor. 

Jerry had the habit of pushing even his finest qualities to the extreme. His frugality, for example, bordered on the obsessive. I borrowed his fishing rod one day in Mexico and got snagged on a rock on the ocean bottom. I broke off the lure and walked back to camp. I frequently lose my own lures when I fish, but Jerry looked disappointed, as if I hadn’t tried hard enough to get it back, which reflected poorly on my character. 

He was passionate in a debate, which made him a colorful conversationalist but also an intimidating one if he disagreed with you. His nightly beers made him even more emphatic. 

“Jerry didn’t have opinions,” his friend Steve once said. “Jerry was just right.”

He would wag a condescending finger at you and dismantle your logic with withering efficiency. He clung to his beliefs so tightly that arguments sometimes precipitated fallings-out with friends and even family members. 

His views of gender roles could be antiquated, too. He didn’t cook, and never changed a diaper. Later in life he expressed admiration for the way my male friends and I cared for our children, and he said he wished he ’d learned to cook. As a father, he had focused on providing for his family, even if he didn’t always attend to them. He was like that at home, and he was like that on the road. 

But for me, and others, Jerry’s intentional art of living was a centrifugal force we couldn’t escape. He lived a life that was true to himself, packing twice as much living into every minute and filling his days with the things that he loved. His was a rare and alluring existence, even if it made few accommodations for anyone else—including the people who loved him the most. 

*

I couldn’t tell if Jerry noticed the parked cars as we all walked past them. There would be no more trips to Mexico. At this final stage of his sickness, Jerry wasn’t driving anywhere. The narcotics had dulled his reflexes, and he didn’t have anywhere he wanted to go. He was left to walk now, which had been his preferred mode of transport since he was a kid, and so we followed this charismatic, complicated man on foot past the rusting hulks of his cars and on up the driveway, adding still more mileage to the seemingly limitless odometer of his legs. 

 

V. The Pit

Beyond the clearing where the cars were kept, we came to a gate. It wasn’t much of a gate, just a length of wire fencing with a rotted log nailed to the bottom. Janet and Jerry always kept it open, even during Arlee’s summer powwow, when RVs and teepees crowded the grounds above the cabin, and campers ambled through the property to swim in the river while young lovers had trysts in the woods. The only time Jerry closed the gate was in fall, when the bears come down from the mountains to fatten up before winter. This particular fall, a black bear sow and her two yearlings had noticed the fruit trees on the property. They seemed to be circling the place, waiting for their chance. 

Beekeepers working hives in bear country have ample cause for concern; some even carry handguns to protect themselves. But Jerry respected bears more than he feared them. During summer breaks in college, he put radio collars on grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park with his mentors, the late wildlife biologists John and Frank Craighead. He watched a grizzly attack a car with filmmakers in it, shaking it like a tambourine. Once, Jerry and another biologist shot a boar grizzly with a tranquilizer dart, and then pulled a premolar from the animal’s jaw to help determine its age. The bear was surprisingly alert, but they managed to take the tooth. When they got back to the truck, they realized their dart had contained only half the required dose of tranquilizer. 

Jerry knew he ’d be living alongside bears here on the river bottom. Bears use the Jocko River like a highway, and growing up Hilly and her siblings saw plenty of them in the yard. Once, when the kids were outside doing chores, Jerry set up a prank. He crept into the bushes near them and started woofing and snorting and snapping sticks like a bear. They were scared all right, and Jerry was in stitches until his eldest son, Jay, ran into the house and emerged with a rifle. 

Given a chance, the black bears would pillage the dog food, raid the chicken coop, and snap off the thin, grafted branches of his fruit trees. So in the fall Jerry hooked up an electrical line that ran along the top of his fence. Every summer, before he turned it on, he walked the fence perimeter, clawing through the thick undergrowth, to clear out any bushes or trees that would touch the line and short it out. It was an arduous task, but it kept out the bears. Best of all, the fence itself was almost invisible. Jerry never liked to draw conspicuous lines between the animals’ territory and his own.

*

On our way to the orchard, we passed through the gate and walked toward the garbage pit. Once the rock gardens were built, everything Janet and Jerry couldn’t recycle, burn, compost, or reuse ended up here, in a yawning hole beside the driveway. An old fridge is buried in there, along with broken windowpanes, a mattress, and more. Like a midden, it’s filled with the archaeology of a family’s life here. 

After Jerry learned that his cancer would kill him, he started making trips to this hole to dump the assorted documents of his life. Not wanting to leave any sorting to his survivors, he systematically organized his old stories, letters, and other papers, throwing away almost everything. Jerry said he thought about things by writing about them, and a fictional account of this end-of-life audit appears in a short story he published in The Georgia Review, “The Longing of Men.” In it, Jerry describes a woman with cancer dumping boxes of her possessions into a pit: “She was exhilarated to be free of all those self-imposed illusions about having a history, about preserving anything, about ever mattering. When she hoisted the wheelbarrow handles to let the boxes fall and bounce into the bone pit, they made sounds like animals getting the wind knocked out of them.” 

If Jerry was conflicted about erasing the paper trail of his history, he didn’t mention it. But one day at Deer Camp he did wonder aloud to me about his legacy. He had just read a review of a book called Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives, in which neurologist David Eagleman describes the three deaths we all face: the first is the moment life leaves our body, the second is when our body is consigned to the earth, and the third and final death occurs when someone speaks our name for the last time. 

This third death haunted Jerry the most. He asked me, “How much do you know about your great-grandfather?” Jerry had a nasal timbre to his voice and squinting, inquisitive eyes that made me aim to answer his questions squarely. I wanted to think a man like Jerry would always be remembered, but I had to admit to him I didn’t know much about my great-grandfather. 

“You see?” he said. “It only takes a couple generations to be forgotten.”

In time, he seemed to come to peace with his cosmic insignificance. In his final years, he sat down with a family friend, a writer named Candice, to tell her some of his stories. She recorded these and later transcribed them, and their details helped furnish this essay. During one of those sessions, Jerry told her this:

Camus said that Goethe would be forgotten in ten thousand years. He’ll probably be forgotten in one thousand years, maybe in a hundred. The point is we’re all going to be forgotten. 

I once wrote a book all about death, to explore it, and I read everything I could get my hands on. I learned that you can’t live like you’re going to die tomorrow and you can’t live like you’re never going to die. People who die well are people who lived well. That seems right to me. By living well, a person learns about grace, and that would have to extend to dying.

One of the best ways to live is with despair, in which you’ve made peace with how little you can do. But that doesn’t change how hard you work. I’ve related that to having cancer. I want to get the gardens tilled and dug up. I may not be here next spring, but it doesn’t matter. It’s what you do this time of year. Like the parable about St. Francis: he was out hoeing his garden and an acolyte came to him and asked, “What would you do if you knew God was coming in an hour?” St. Francis said, “I ’d hoe my garden.”

 

VI. The Apples

The orchard is at the far end of the garbage pit. When we finally reached it, Jerry knelt to unhook the electric fence from the truck battery that powered it. He stretched the wire gate, unfastened it, and pulled it aside to let us in.

In total, Jerry planted fifty-four apple trees on this land. He began soon after he settled here, and the process was slow. First, he planted the rootstock, which he covered with sawdust and dirt. He waited a year for them to sprout, then drove to experimental orchards on Flathead Lake and in the Bitterroot Valley to taste their apples. The next spring, he returned to cut wood from the varieties he liked and grafted that wood onto his young trees. Slowly the rootstock and the grafts matured into trees and after a decade or so, Jerry picked his first apples. 

They were wonderful, unusual apples, with names like Incarnation, Star Song, and Priscilla. He had Sansa apples from Japan, and an English variety called Ashmead’s Kernel that originated in the eighteenth century. An apple called New Jersey 46 has soft pink flesh that tastes like strawberry soda. 

Unsatisfied to stop here, Jerry then selected his favorite varieties and crossed them, hoping to combine one apple’s flavor with another apple’s texture, for example, or its storability. To do this, he tied a sack around the blossom of the parent apples while they were still buds. When the blossoms opened, he fertilized them by hand with pollen from his chosen apple parent. Once the petals had fallen, he removed the sack, labeled the location, and waited for the fruit. The seeds within the resulting apple would be genetic crosses of the two parents. 

When that apple was ripe, he picked it and planted its seeds in his greenhouse. Each seed had different traits, like children in a family. The following year, he planted these seedlings in his garden. Several years later, when the wood was pencil thick, he would graft a section of it onto one of his trees. Then he waited several more years for the new branch to mature, flower, and produce fruit of its own. 

After four decades, Jerry’s trees contained 175 different kinds of apples—eighty-two standard varieties and ninety-three of his own crosses. (Because the process is so glacially slow, only eight of his own crosses bore fruit before he died.) Without the ability to control which qualities each parent apple contributed, some of the crosses were terrible and Jerry sawed these branches off his trees. Those apples made Jerry think of the anecdote in which the dancer Isadora Duncan wrote to George Bernard Shaw, “Will you be the father of my next child? A combination of my beauty and your brains would startle the world.” Shaw declined, misogynistically, on the grounds that the child was just as likely to have his beauty and her brains. 

But some of the crosses were successful. One of them, between a Blushing Golden and a William’s Pride, Jerry called Morning Sky. The crowning achievement of his orchard, though, was his fourth attempt at crossing a Sweet 16 with a Gold Rush. He called it the Jocko—after the river that flowed past his house. This variety has a clean crunch, it stores well, and its flavor is delicately sweet, with a faint note of fennel. It was a worthy dividend to decades of tinkering. 

Late in Jerry’s life, I learned that he never actually ate his apples. He ’d take a bite now and then to feel the texture and enjoy the flavor, but he spat out the pulp. He made sure every last one of them was picked, at peak ripeness, and distributed to friends, family, or the food bank. Jerry’s chief incentive as an orchardist was the creation of something unique. To me the utility of an orchard was its fruit, but to Jerry an orchard was a laboratory in which the apples were the incubators for the seeds. The fruit would ripen and rot in a season. But the seeds? They were eternal. 

*

We all filed into the grassy orchard, where Jerry pointed out a limb of Jocko apples. They weren’t ready yet, but we hadn’t come to eat. Instead, we watched as Jerry swiveled his torso around the orchard, looking for something. Wind whistled through the tops of the pines as Jerry still clutched the morphine pump in his left hand. 

“What about this spot here?” he finally asked. “You like this end? I kind of like this end, too. You come in the gate, and you have this spot to go to. You have to walk.”

He walked over to the spot and scanned the ground. 

“If it were camp, I ’d kinda like my head to go here,” he said, pointing to the earth. Duncan, his forty-two-year-old stepson, set a large rock on the ground. 

“My sleeping bag would come down this way,” Jerry said. “Hey Dunc, move that rock two inches to the left.”

Jerry was looking down now, making small measuring steps, as if he were about to dive into water. Then he got down on his hands and knees and flattened his back against the earth. His palms lay flat on the grass, his head rested on the rock like a pillow, and his pain pump whirred beside him.

“How do you like it, everybody?” he asked. “Okay?” 

It wasn’t okay. Not to any of us, no matter how long we ’d known it was coming. Death for Jerry was still inconceivable, oxymoronic even. But if he had to be assigned to a single patch of soil, there was no better spot than this. Duncan gently sank a shovel into the grass on either side of Jerry’s head, and again at his feet, upturning four divots of sod. Hilly and Janet took Jerry’s hands and helped him stand. 

“It’s a little easier going down,” he said.

No one talked. We were all staring at our feet and this plot of grass, beneath an apple tree, next to a garden hose; this ordinary piece of dirt that death would sanctify. 

“What a strange bit of knowledge to have in my head,” Jerry said. “Wow. It’s a gulper. It’s a gulper.” 

We stood there, shifting our weight, awkward under the uncertain certainty of it all. Jerry read the mood and did the kindest thing he could. He walked over to a tree and shook a limb so that ripe Noreen plums rained down on us. It felt as if he ’d shaken us, too. Soon we were all stooping down to pick them up. They were tart and sweet. The flesh was bright red and the juice dribbled down my chin. Janet walked over to her husband and wrapped her arms around his waist. 

“A graveyard and an orchard,” Jerry said. “They go well together.” 

 

VII. The Hole

With his decision made and his energy waning, Jerry turned back toward the house and we followed. As we walked down the driveway, some of Jerry’s older grandchildren and one great-grandchild were already returning to the orchard with shovels. No one knew how much time we had, but it seemed sensible to dig the hole before the ground froze. 

Jerry stopped to offer them some advice. 

“You might want to pile it on a tarp,” he said. “It’ll be a huge amount of dirt. You’ll be shocked. A little planning won’t hurt.”

His fourteen-year-old grandson, Colton, was carrying a pry bar. 

“There’s a bigger bar,” Jerry told him. “I’ve got the perfect bar for the job.”

As we approached the house, we paused for a moment at the foot of a sugar maple by the woodshed. Jerry planted many trees on this land—oaks, lindens, willows, and walnuts. He planted a tree that’s a cross between a mountain ash and a pear. Most of the trees are tall and mature now, a diverse arboretum that complements the native grandeur of this forest. But in fall, no tree is more breathtaking than this sugar maple. 

It’s about as tall as the house, with a trunk forking off into twin branches that reach skyward like raised arms. We had been watching its leaves turn from green to yellow to orange to red. They were like an hourglass of the season. 

Before long, the leaves would fall. But at this moment, the tree glowed like an ember. I learned from his stepson Simon that Jerry used to tell the kids something at Deer Camp, when they circled around a warming fire under a glittering November sky. “The heat of that fire,” he ’d say. “That’s sunlight burning.” Matter and energy are never created or destroyed, he ’d explain. They just change state. 

In the same way, sugars in these maple leaves were igniting the last of the summer sun into a Technicolor display. The transformation incurs a metabolic cost to the tree, and botanists still aren’t exactly sure why it happens. Whatever the reason, the tree pulled our eyes toward it like moths to a lightbulb. 

By the time we reached the porch, the digging had begun. The earth in the orchard is riddled with rocks and we listened to the shovels sing out against them. Jerry walked into the house and sat down to a bottle of beer and a game of cribbage with his old friend Jay. On alternating evenings before dinner, Jay and Jerry would drive to one another’s house, up or down the river, to share beers, curse at each other, and play cribbage. They did this almost every day for more than twenty-five years, passing a crumpled dollar bill back and forth to the night’s victor. 

When he finished this night’s game, Jerry tiredly ascended the stairs and crawled into bed. Hilly brought him a Lorazepam to help him sleep. “How are they doing on that hole?” he asked her. “Do they want me dead by morning?” 

______

In the end more than a dozen family members dug the hole, including young grandchildren and Philippa, the wife of Janet’s first husband, Scot. The job took several days. The physicality of the labor and the simplicity of the objective were a refreshing escape from the anguish in the cabin. After one spell of digging, I returned to the house sweating and Jerry looked up at me from his pink recliner with soft eyes. “Thank you,” he said quietly. 

Meanwhile, Simon and Duncan built a box. They scavenged scraps of wood from the Honey House—the old sides of Jerry’s honey truck, pieces of his bee hives, and the colorful remnants of a sign Janet once painted for the local café. The sign became the lid of the casket. Inside, the boards read: soup & salad, espresso, breakfast. The casket sat outside on the porch, a thing of beauty, with handles of purple-grained juniper and a soft, sanded lid. Theo and his three-year-old cousin, Selah, would bang on it gleefully, like a drum. 

In the midst of these preparations also came new beginnings. One afternoon, Jerry’s daughter Romy gave birth to a daughter, Opal. Duncan drove Jerry into Missoula to see her, arriving just minutes after she was born. Jerry looked gaunt and exhausted, but his face glowed several watts brighter when he sat down and cradled his newest granddaughter. 

“You look handsome holding that baby,” Janet told him. 

His dry lips smiled. “It’s just reflected light,” he said.

 

VIII. The Descent

Five days before Jerry’s death, my father and I were caring for him upstairs in his bedroom. He was lying in a whorl of blankets, pillows, and cream-colored sheets. His cheeks were unshaven, and his smile—when he could summon it—was apologetic. He lay diagonally on the bed, one knee cocked, like a weather vane swiveled into a storm. 

The bedroom was crafted of rough-hewn pine. Hoya vines hung from the ceiling. Books were stacked beside the bed: James Baldwin, Howard Zinn, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. A dried-up sea horse was propped on a shelf. Soft light pooled in the north-facing window, and through it we could see the black-eyed Susans atop the root cellar, the blazing sumac, and the rusty trunks of ponderosas. Beyond them the Jocko River tumbled relentlessly westward. 

My father and I hovered over Jerry, holding his hand, lifting water to his lips, feeding him morsels of egg, tomato, and toast. Pain and morphine had muddied his mind and it was difficult to know what he was thinking. 

“Chavez,” he announced at one point, into the stale stillness of the room. “Chavez. He was such a major figure for so long. Now it’s a different deal.” 

He slowly looked around, caught my eye, and raised an eyebrow. 

“How many of us are in here?” he asked. “Three? So I can fart.”

He was dressed in baggy black sweats and a white undershirt that Hilly and I bought for him at Target. The clothes were too sloppy to suit him, but comfort was our final prayer. 

I tried to make conversation. 

“The golden eagles are migrating over the Big Belts,” I said. “I read it in the paper. They’re heading south.” 

“Hmm, that’s funny,” he muttered. He looked skeptical, like I had the timing all wrong. He glanced at the window. A few days ago he asked his friend David to measure it and then measure his chair. He wanted to be sure of his exits. 

Suddenly his concentration tightened around some unspoken purpose. Spurred by the muscle memory of a lifetime of movement, he pulled himself to the edge of the bed and rose on his weakened legs. But then he forgot his intention. So he just stood there, an island unreachable even to himself. 

We took his arms and guided him to his chair at the foot of the bed, where he slumped down and exhaled. The family had agreed that it was time to move him downstairs. Left up here he might fall, and downstairs he ’d be closer to the bathroom. The other night he climbed out of bed to pee into a red jug that Janet had bought for him. But he kept trying to unscrew the head of his penis instead of the lid of the jug. 

My father and I told him that we ’d help him down the stairs. 

His chair was next to his shoe shelf. For almost fifty years, he sat here each morning to lace up whatever footwear the day required. His dog would crowd his feet, yawning and stretching in anticipation. Jerry was a dog’s ideal human: always outside, active, and punctual. He looked at the shelf now and took inventory. There were his hunting boots, his town shoes, his muddy gardening boots, and the old sneakers he used when he went fishing. His feet were in slippers now.

“My stuff is looking at me with funny eyes,” he said. “Like, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ ”  

He put his hands on his knees. 

“That’s the plan, then?” he asked. “Going downstairs?” 

He seemed to know that he wouldn’t see this room again, that every death was its own kind of descent.

 

IX. The End

We moved him down to a hospital bed that hospice had erected in the living room. Janet oriented it to face the window and the flaming maple outside. The room was filled with curiosities Jerry and Janet had collected. There was a handmade violin from Mexico’s Copper Canyon, a whale vertebra they ’d found on a beach, an obsidian hunting knife, an aluminum pot punctured by the teeth of a grizzly. The house hummed with stories. 

Hospice sent out waves of nurses, pharmacists, and social workers—even a massage therapist and a harpist. The nurses managed the dosage of the pain pump, which purred next to Jerry on the bed. Janet kept his belly plastered with Phentynol patches. And in the evenings, when the nurses had gone, she climbed into bed with him and they ate ice cream and watched Trevor Noah. 

I was in the room on one of these evenings, sitting on the sofa. I watched Jerry look over at Janet, his companion of thirty-five years, the patient, gregarious artist, the right brain to his left. Jerry called her “one of life’s customers.” Different as they were, they were similar in the ways that mattered. Jerry liked to say they were cut from the same rock. (Unbeknownst to us then, Janet had developed a new cancer in her bladder that would kill her less than two years later, in this very room.) 

“Let me hold your hand,” Jerry said to her. “Just to hold it, I guess. It’s you and me, okay? And that’s what happened. What’s happened has happened.” 

“No getting out of it,” Janet said. “I love you.” 

“I love you, too.” 

“Get some rest now. Close your pretty blue eyes.” 

“It’s always going to be what it was.” 

“That was pretty fun, wasn’t it?” Janet said. “At the dinner table, with the kids, talking to them?” 

“Yeah. We did what we did.”

“That’s all you can do in this life, and then you don’t do anymore. You get a break. You get a rest.” 

Jerry closed his eyes. “I love you,” he said. “Good night.”

Janet kissed him on the forehead. “I love you. Good night.” 

In the corner of the room, the fish tank released bubbles of air. 

______

While Jerry could still swallow, he ate half a piece of a cherry pie made by Jay Sumner’s wife, Janna. His eyes had a faraway look, and he ate small bites slowly and gratefully. It was the last thing he ate. 

Eventually he began to cough. The cough turned into a rattle and then a gurgle, like the sound an irrigation pipe makes right as the water chases the last of the air out of it. 

Now and then his body convulsed, as it does when you’re drifting off to sleep and suddenly you dream that you’re falling. He started to sweat, and asked politely if we could turn the heat down, even though it wasn’t on. Janet put a cool washcloth on his brow. When his lips cracked, we smeared them with Bee Balm—the lotion he once made out of the beeswax from his hives.

We held vigil over his bed, shuffling seats around him, ceding chairs to our superiors in the hierarchy of closeness. The grandchildren entertained themselves outside, throwing leaves at each other under the maple. Duncan’s wife, Jana, sang Norah Jones. For long stretches, Hilly sat at the old saloon piano and played: Satie’s “Gymnopédies,” “Ave Maria,” and a piece called “Ode to Life,” written by the jazz pianist Don Pullen after the death of his friend.

Jerry’s eyes brightened with the music. “Wow,” he whispered. “Wow.” They were his final words. 

The gurgle in his chest took on the sound of a coffee percolator right before it’s finished brewing a pot, like the sound of gravel falling into a hole. His body was a tool he was not quite ready to set down. I took a seat at his writing desk, beside his bed, and found a scrap of paper with his handwriting. “Let the great world spin,” it read. 

______

And then the spinning stopped. It was four o ’clock in the morning, and Janet was sleeping next to him. The silence woke her, she said, when the drone of his labored breathing shut off like a switch. Hilly, Theo, and I were sleeping nearby in the kids’ cabin. When we reached him he looked like he was still sleeping, with his mouth slightly open. Crying, Hilly nudged it closed. 

“He looks more like himself than he did yesterday,” she said. 

The rest of Jerry’s children arrived, along with other family and Jay Sumner and his friend David. A hospice nurse came to pronounce the death. Looking tired but stoic, Janet brought down fresh clothes: his best pair of dark Levis, a rust-colored corduroy shirt, a vest, and his sun hat. We washed and dressed him, wrestling his stiffened arms through the sleeves. 

From the kitchen came the hiss of bacon and the smell of coffee as Duncan cooked breakfast. The whole house seemed to exhale as we gathered around the kitchen table and ate. Jerry had built this table, a sturdy oval of blond pine, as a Christmas present for Janet a few years after they married. If you look closely, you can see the wood is streaked blue and pitted with small tunnels, the handiwork of the beetles that killed the tree. Jerry filled each beetle tunnel with resin; he layered epoxy on the table’s surface, sanded it, and then layered again. The job required immense perseverance. 

More than thirty years later, the table remains the heart of the home. Hilly grew up around it, canning vegetables in summer, butchering venison in the fall, debating with her father over dinner and learning to distinguish herself from him. At family gatherings, the table was always laden with food—garden salads, Janet’s braided cardamom bread, wild geese, and elk steaks fried in tamari, garlic, and thyme. Now the family crowded around it once more and filled their plates, allowing this small relief to precede our impending grief. 

______

We carried his body out to the casket and laid him on a bed of sugar maple leaves inside. Somehow his expression had shifted. He looked chagrined when we washed him, and contemplative when we dressed him. Now a faint smile had crept into his lips. He looked peaceful and a little bemused, maybe even proud. 

Janet knew he shouldn’t go into the earth alone. She put a bottle of his homebrew into the box, a pair of his hand-dipped beeswax candles, and a stack of their old love letters. David put in a raven’s skull and a bison hoof. Jay Sumner contributed a crumpled dollar bill, a miniature cribbage board, and the game’s best hand: three fives and a jack. Hilly picked a ripe Jocko apple and set it into her father’s palm. Some grandchildren arranged a bouquet of purple asters on his chest. Janet bundled his decades-old, duct-taped parka under his head as a pillow. The casket was now a kind of message-in-a-bottle, a testament to the future of who this man was, and what he loved. 

“Some of the best things in life are in that box,” David said. 

We walked with Jerry to the orchard one last time and slowly lowered him into the earth. Duncan said a prayer. Jana sang a song. Swarms of woolly blue aphids hovered in the air like electric-blue storm clouds. Then, under a gray sky, everyone began filling in the hole, and the most alive person I’ve ever known disappeared into the dirt. Even his trees seemed to kneel. 

______

The following spring, when the crocus bulbs were poking out of the soil again as if by magic, almost-three-year-old Theo asked Hilly and me, “Where’s Grandpa?” 

We were out in Arlee visiting Janet, and just then we were driving past the orchard. Hilly said, “Well, his body’s in the ground, right there.” 

“But not his face?” asked Theo. 

“No, his face too,” Hilly said. “His whole body.” 

After a moment, I said: “I guess the answer is that we don’t know where Grandpa Jerry is. His body is in the ground, but some people believe we have souls and that when we die our bodies stay on earth, but our souls go up to heaven.” 

“Or they become a mountain,” said Hilly. 

“Yeah,” I said, “or they live in that person’s favorite places.” 

Theo considered this. Then he said, “I think he’s an apple.” 

And neither of us could say anything for a while. 

 

Coda

One May morning, the year before he died, Jerry took me fishing. He wanted to show me a hole that held a big brown trout. He knew this because he had caught and released it, twice, in successive years. It was a twenty-three-inch hen, with a rounded nose, that he called Big Mama. 

Jerry wasn’t a trophy sportsman. In his eyes, if a bull elk or a lunker trout outwitted the world long enough to become this grand, it earned a pass. He felt lucky just to see such creatures, and when he did, he savored them. 

We left his Subaru on the side of the road and waded through a field of waist-high grass and wild rose toward the river. Jerry walked as though some unseen hand was on the small of his back, thrusting him forward. Forty-one years his junior, I had to quicken my pace to keep up. The morning was bright and the yellowthroat warblers called wichity wichity from the riverbank. A trio of deer sprang away from us in bounding arcs, their tails waving like white flags behind them.

As we navigated a patch of thistles, Jerry slowed long enough to turn back and say, “You know you’re excited when part of you is almost afraid to get there.”

Jerry grew up fishing the Yellowstone River and the spring creeks of Paradise Valley. Now, he still fished like a kid, in a pair of Levis and sneakers. He used an old fiberglass rod that he rigged with a leader knotted together from scraps of monofilament. Ever since I lost his lure in Mexico I had made sure to tie him an ample supply of flies. (He liked woolly buggers best.) I didn’t have to tie many, because he hardly ever changed flies, even after fish had mangled them beyond recognition. 

The poverty of his equipment didn’t impair his results. He usually fished alone, but I saw enough to know that he cast his rod like a wand, jigging his fly through the current in just the right seams at just the right speeds to solicit the swirling flash of a striking trout. I was eager to watch him catch Big Mama. 

Jerry McGahan in his garden, Spring 2016

 

At last we came to the river’s edge, and Jerry showed me the hole. It wasn’t much to look at, just a sunken log on the far bank where a fast riffle had carved out a pocket that was a promising shade of pewter. The pool was the size of a stovetop. 

Jerry held his rod behind his back. “Go for it,” he told me. 

“What? No, this is your hole,” I said. “This is your fish. You try.” 

He insisted, so I waded out to my knees and dropped my fly upstream of the log. I let it sink and felt the current pull it quickly through the deep water. I picked up my line and cast again. I could sense Jerry’s anticipation behind me, and I wanted to catch this fish for his sake as much as mine. I cast again and again but never got a strike. Either I couldn’t catch Big Mama, or she was gone.

Jerry didn’t seem disappointed. We continued fishing downstream and caught a rainbow apiece, which we kept for dinner. 

It was late afternoon by the time he turned his Subaru down the driveway to the cabin on the river bottom. Janet and Hilly were there, and we all cooked dinner together. Janet poached the fish in soy, onions, and curly garlic scapes. I cooked pasta with peppers. Jerry cut some fresh asparagus, and Hilly made a chimichurri sauce with cilantro and parsley from the garden. 

Finally, we sat down to eat at the picnic table in the back yard where Janet and Jerry and then Hilly and I had married, thirty-one years apart. The food in front of us was fresh and green and vital, and the warming spring sunshine filtered down through the leaves with the promise of growth and goodness to come. 

We sat around the table, enchanted. I watched Jerry raise his fork to his mouth. He was wringing the glory out of every second. His face tilted like a flower’s toward the sun, his eyes were closed, and he chewed his food slowly, as if it were altogether too precious to swallow. 

 

Jacob Baynham is a freelance journalist and essayist who lives in Montana. He has written about criminal justice for The Christian Science Monitor, about parenting for Outside magazine, and has reported internationally for Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, and other publications. He lives in Missoula with his wife, Hilly McGahan, and their two boys.