During our four years together, Gary and I said our share of “I love you’s”, but another feeling often poured from our hearts and out of our mouths.
“We’re lucky,” we said.
I met Gary not quite ten years ago on my first trip to Alaska, at Brushkana, where I was visiting my Aunt Vee and Uncle Keith. Uncle Keith rang the breakfast bell that first morning and in strode Gary, with his big red beard and trademark feathered hat, carrying the .22 he’d been using to pick off some pesky red squirrels, his dog Bella by his side. He was a real life mountain man.
When Gary was 15 years old, he had begun spending summers and more with Vee and Keith and my cousins Joan and Glenn and our dear friend Heidi. My aunt so thoroughly considered him her adoptive son that for many years I assumed he had no other family to speak of, though I could not have been more wrong. I didn’t know my aunt and uncle growing up, except through letters. I’d sought them out in their Oregon winter home about two years before that first trip to Alaska, not long after my own parents had died. What I’m trying to say is this: the odds of me ever meeting Gary were – if you can forgive the pun – extremely remote. We were just really lucky.
We corresponded a few times a year after that, and Gary’s letters revealed a reader, a poet, a creative thinker and artist, a spiritual soul deeply connected to the natural world. He lived his life – a life so exotic to me – with a grand sense of humor and high adventure. We became dear friends.
In 2009 Gary was diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Living remotely as he did, with only an unreliable satellite phone for communication, Gary accepted my help finding specialists. I traveled to Portland to join him for doctors’ appointments and see him through surgeries. Gary never forgot it was cancer that brought us together.
“We’re lucky,” he reminded me, even as the disease took its awful toll.
When Gary first confessed his love for me, I was surprised. When he said he would follow me to San Francisco, I was disbelieving. But he and Ella left their homeland and his beloved ponies, and came to join me in a rented flat next to the freeway. Someone asked Gary not too long ago what was the best time of his life. Though I still have trouble taking his answer too literally, he was, he assured me, sincere.
“San Francisco” he said without hesitation.
Every day he and Ella saw me off to work and then walked to his studio, where he was able to carve full time for the first time in his life. When I got home in the evening, Ella would be watching at the window for me; seeing me pull up, she would run to the kitchen where Gary was fixing dinner, and the two would greet me at the door. Gary loved the stimulation of the City: the diversity of people, the parks and beaches, the beautiful organic fruits and vegetables always available, the library and bookstores, the art, music on the streets and in concert venues. He never lost his wonder at all the plants that thrived year-round in the mild climate.
He quickly discovered “street finds” and “free stuff” on craigslist, and the amazing salvage and recycling places in Berkeley. Gary found the most unexpected uses of what others threw away. He made a dance stick in the shape of a horse from a single chair leg found on the street, and just this March we saw our dear friend Brent dance with it at a pow-wow. Our next-door neighbor in San Francisco considered it life as usual in the City, I’m sure, when she saw a bearded guy in a do-rag taking a broken child’s chair from her garbage. Her surprise came when Gary returned it to her, repaired and beautifully painted, decorated with a charming chip-carved flower. Gary spoke to the homeless people I’d learned to overlook, even if only to ask them how they were, and to listen to the answer. He showed me my own world through new eyes. We were lucky.
After a year in San Francisco, Gary and Ella returned to Alaska, where he worked to make his Brushkana summer cabin into a cozy year-round home for us. He built an addition with room for our coats and boots, his carving table, and a shower stall for me. We didn’t have running water, so he bought a 3-gallon sprayer normally used for pesticide; it made a wonderful hot shower. If San Francisco was the best time of Gary’s life, Brushkana was the best time of mine. Gary had little time to carve as he made us a home and kept us safe and warm, patiently teaching me what he could. How to make a fire, stack wood, ski, drive a snowmachine, make a snow shelter, insulate the cabin with snow bricks, keep the water hole from freezing over, test the ice, tie knots, pick and clean and can berries, even how to use the outhouse properly without stinking it up. Gary and Ella were at home in their beloved Alaska, and I reveled in our life together in a tiny cabin in a vast and beautiful wilderness. We were lucky.
The last two years were filled with doctors and scans, research and treatments, diets and supplements, appointments and disappointments, choosing and abandoning, packing and unpacking, hope and despair, gratitude and anger, laughing, loving, crying, growing and dying. We understood how precious each day was, and we were grateful. Our tribe grew closer and dearer as family and friends gathered around and touched us with their love. I know no one with a stronger will than Gary, or a stronger will to live. We worked so hard to find a way. Gary was willing to do anything, no matter how difficult, to regain his health. At the same time, he was at peace with his Creator and his fate, able to reconcile that struggle and that peace.
Gary wrote this: “The saying, ‘it is a good day to die’ means that you have done well in your living and it is a good day, you can go without regrets, leaving loved ones behind, you will, no matter, but leaving them loved is good. We all will leave this and go on. Don’t fear the new or what must happen, accepting but not giving in, there is a balance somewhere between those.” Gary wrote that a year and a half ago.
We were lucky. I am lucky, and I am so very grateful. How precious it is to have loved and been loved by such a man. Gary changed me. He changed my world. Gary left me here at this beautiful place with our beloved Ella, making me part of a larger and stronger tribe, including each one of you and his own family, so dear to me now. I love you and need you all. And I pray I will never forget how lucky I am.