Me and Dad in 1962, in the apartment that he and Mom rented in Corvallis while Dad earned his bachelor's degree at Oregon State University.
Wisdom? How's this? If I live long enough, whatever I write today will one day seem painfully naive to my future self. Because life is like a fire hose. It doesn't "shut off." And things come at you so fast that you scarcely get a chance to look around before everything has changed.
So let that be my little courage: the fact that I put it out here, for everyone to see, with the expectation that I will one day be embarrassed by it.
Ross Cariaga, Jr. passed in his home, in the house he built with his own two hands on the southeastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake, surrounded by his family, on June 9th, 2001. He was 59 years old. The end came at 8:00 a.m. in the recliner chair in the expansive front hall of his house. The recliner sat in the corner nearest the sliding door that opened onto the kitchen. From that recliner, he could look out through the vast tall windows on the south side of the house, across the great expanse of the lake. In springtime, the surface of the lake would be dotted with pelicans, grebes, mergansers, ducks and Canadian geese. My sister Mia, my Uncle Don, and Dad's wife, Tami, were at his side at the very moment of his death.
The last year of his life had been a real fight. He'd been suffering from complications due to Lupus for several years, and in that last year, his health deteriorated precipitously. His circulation became so weak that he developed gangrene on his finger tips. He was in constant pain. It was a trial for him and for all of us.
I was the only one of the seven children my father had from his three wives that was not present at his death. It was a more or less conscious decision. I had been to Klamath Falls the week before.
"Well, Dad," I said, "you've had a good life."
He was lying back in the recliner. He had a blanket pulled up to his chin. "A good life," he said. "A hell of a life, son." He nodded once, emphatically.
"Seven kids. Three wives. All of them good women."
"That's right, son. All three of them good women," Dad said. Speaking emphatically, the way he always did. My brother Calee was nearby and overheard what Dad had said. Calee half-grinned, seemingly abashed. But Calee and Dad had their own relationship to resolve; I didn't expect that Calee would understand.
I was glad Dad said that. All my life I had resented the way he had treated his wives; the way he had treated all of them, but especially my mother. And he knew I resented it and that I didn't understand it. He knew that to me his behavior was pointless and cruel. He knew I resented it, and so when he said that, he let me know that he understood that I resented it, and that he was sorry for it, if for no other reason than for what it had done to me.
And he understood that when I said "Dad, you've had a good life," I was really asking him a question: "Dad, have you had a good life?" He knew that I was asking him what I should look forward to when my time came; I was asking him if I should be afraid and he didn't want me to be afraid, and so he said "A hell of a life, son." He was always like that: emotionally two steps ahead of everyone.
It was the last time I ever spoke with Dad. And I knew, at the time, that it was probably going to be the last time I spoke to him, and I spoke with that knowledge. So, I felt we had said what needed to be said between us. It was enough for me. I feared that if we talked any more, we would only complicate matters. That's why I wasn't there at the very end.
Dad and his kids, May 2001
There have been times, since then, when I've thought of other things that we might have said, perhaps should have said, but I suppose that's the nature of death. Isn't it?
I was talking with my Uncle Don about it several years ago. "You know, Uncle Don," I said, "when Dad died, I didn't really want to face it. I couldn't face it. I worry about that sometimes."
Uncle Don said, "Son, don't. I know your Dad, and I know what he'd tell you. And I'm telling you... just don't!"