Spent the morning planning a trip I’m not going to get to take.
I remember first meeting Sig Sporleder back on summer break from college, when I’d drummed up some excuse to drive down from Denver to Walsenburg that first time to court Gretchen. Half the freshman class had fallen in love with her, but I had the advantage of living only a three hour drive north of the southern Colorado cattle ranch where she’d grown up. Beautiful and smart and sweet and geez – a genuine cowgirl!
Anyhow, I wish I could remember the excuse – but I talked my high school best friend Brian into coming along as my second, trying to make it sound like more of an innocent road trip.
Sig was Gretchen’s father. He and Ruth had raised the (letsee – were there five?) Sporleder kids on the land he’d inherited from his dad, who’d inherited it from his dad, who’d come over in the original wagon train with the Walsens and Unfugs. The three families had settled at the base of the front range, and I guess the Walsens won some sort of a bet, or maybe “Sporlederburg” just didn’t have the right ring to it. But her father’s family had been on that land since the first white people rode through.
Sig was as classic a cattle rancher as you could imagine from the old movies – gruff and tough as nails, and able to scare the skin off a rattlesnake if he felt like it needed doing. But somehow he decided that I was alright. Slapped me on the back and welcomed me in with a big toothy smile. Was happy to drive around and show me the town, and trust me alone with his youngest daughter. By the time Gretchen and I started actually dating (perseverance has its virtues), I was practically family.
Gretchen and I parted ways in grad school, always as friends, and she and Brian married a few years later. Devon and I continued the pilgrimage to Walsenburg, bringing our own family as it grew. Sometimes we’d get invited for the massive Sporleder family Thanksgiving – though Sig only once made the mistake of asking me to give the pre-meal blessing (you’ve never seen deer-on-the-headlights until you’ve seen me try to improvise a blessing for a three-generation hometown Thanksgiving).
Still, there was always something between me and Sig – I don’t know what he saw in me, the nerdy-but-well-meaning “nice kid” who’d followed his daughter home from college, but I loved him. For what he and Ruth had endured to bring those kids up, to help them pursue their dreams. To send Gretchen to Dartmouth, even. I mean, running a cattle ranch and feed store in the poorest county in Colorado doesn’t exactly leave you with a lot of spare change. But he had a strong sense of many things. Of the importance of family, the importance of land and history. And the importance of working your ass off to help others follow their dreams.
Ruth passed away when I was still in grad school. Back then, I was scared of death, of what to do, what to say. I never got the courage to even call, and it took Gretchen a long time to forgive me for not being there. Not sure I ever completely forgave myself either, but most of life’s lessons are all about screwing up, aren’t they. In the years since, I’ve had a bit more experience with death of loved ones than I’d like – hell, I guess we all do, eventually – and know the importance of being there. Saying goodbye when you can, always saying goodbye as though it will be the last time, and making sure that you spend that time so you won’t have regrets.
You see where this is going. A couple of days ago, I got email from Brian that Sig was dying. I honestly thought he’d outlive us all, through the same sheer determination that got him this far. But his heart was giving out, and wasn’t going to hold on much longer – could be a few days, could be a few weeks. That was it.
It wasn’t until this morning, with Devon back in town, that I could work out my schedule. I could clear a couple of meetings and make it out on Wednesday – would mean skipping out on D’s birthday – but she understood. Sig had welcomed her into the family too (just for the scorecard, that’s his daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s wife we’re talking about – this is why we love the man).
I settled on leaving first thing Thursday morning – I’d land in Denver at 11:30, pick up a car at Hertz, and drive south, making it to W’burg by about three in the afternoon. Stay the whole next day, paying my respects, saying “hi” doing what I could to keep out of the way. Then drive back up to Denver that evening to stay the night and catch some insanely early flight home Saturday morning.
That was the plan. I’d get to see Sig one more time, get to say “goodbye” properly. Maybe even, briefly, lend a hand. In addition to having their own brood of four mini-Orr/Sporleders, Brian and Gretchen run the town newspaper; even in the best of circumstances don’t have two spare moments to get a good night’s sleep. But I just got a note from Brian – Sig’s not going to make it until Thursday. May not even make it through the night. At best, I should see if I could make it to the funeral; they were thinking maybe Sunday.
So here I’m thinking back on the last time I saw Sig. It was last summer – I don’t remember what excuse I’d used to head out and visit Colorado. Probably check up on B&G’s paper, ride along and see how life was. Gretchen told me that Sig had asked if I was available for lunch (what does that man still see in me?) – of course I was. He picked me up across the street from the newspaper office in his monster-sized pickup truck and we drove the three or four blocks down to Corine’s Mexican Restaurant.
“Have we ever taken you to Corine’s, Pablo m’boy?”
“No sir, I don’t think so.” – Sig was the kind of man you wanted to call “sir”, not because you thought he expected you to, but because it felt good to call him that. You knew his old friends had plenty of other names for him, but for us kids, it just felt right to call him “sir”.
“Oh, it’s a fine place. I expect they’ll be able to cook up something for both of us.”
He untangled himself from the oxygen bottle he was using back then and kept in the truck – no way he was going into Corine’s with that – and climbed down from the ranch-worn truck. Said “hi” to the girls behind the counter and set us down at what seemed like his regular table in the corner. Talked about the grandkids, talked about California – talked about more things than you could imagine a grizzled old Colorado cattle rancher and a Silicon Valley nerd boy might have to talk about. Debated whether or not to finish up with – oh hell, was it cherry pie or something? Had a good laugh over something that we knew wasn’t actually that funny. But I remember we both just felt like laughing, and any stupid excuse would do. Like it was good to be there, to be sharing lunch and conversation in a Mexican diner on the outskirts of a town that he, and his father and his father’s father had helped build.
I’m sure we each insisted on picking up the check, and have no recollection of who won. But I’m sure the “loser” was gracious and secured a promise that he’d be allowed to pay the next time. And when he dropped me back at the newspaper office, I’m sure we shared a firm handshake, and one of those pauses where you want to say more than just “Thanks for making the time to see me.”
As I climbed down out of the truck, I’m sure he said something like “See you next time, Pablo – make sure you keep those Google folks in line for me, will ya?”
And I said Yes, sir – I’ll do that. And I’ll see you next time.