In the sea-light of a dusty living room, you look at someone you love, and you realize that he is losing bits and pieces of himself– his acumen in certain things, his appetite for risks, the elan with which a fence went up, or a dream was built stone by stone on a piece of land.
You manage to accept that everything else on the earth has its season, and then the winter of its decline and inevitable end. But the ones you love, whom you count on for succor and tenderness and comfort– how difficult it is to permit them to be where they are on the continuum of life.
This is all by way of saying that my companion, the biggest fan of my work and longstanding broad shoulder, turned 71 at midnight tonight. I am deeply glad that he’s made it to 71, and I hope that he likes the LL Bean windbreaker I found for him on e-bay.
But he might think it’s too flashy. In the past decade he’s backed away from color, settling for dark plaids, navy blue denim. Khaki outdoor gear.
Once, some years back, he let me give him a red winter coat, and he wore it out. He still has the Sorel boots I bought him when he let me have the Penney’s credit card. I’ve tried to replace them with no luck.
And, you could say that I’ve tried to replace him with scant luck as well.
But he can’t be substituted for or who he is duplicated. Not by many miles, many wide-brimmed Western hats blowing around in a field of Texas Blue Bonnets.
For next to my baby brother, deposited into my arms when I was all of five years old, Jack has been the biggest gift in my life, and he is a tremendous person. It’s time someone told the world about him.
He was born Jack Douglas Macarthur Brooks in Paducah, Texas, and grew up outside Fort Worth.
He was reared in a Southern Baptist family. His parents had what the arrogant call humble beginnings– i.e., they were hard working and honest, and I’m sure they would have been elated to go to college.
Jack went out for track, and he was a voracious reader. He told me he got a reading light one birthday and was thrilled. Somewhere in there as a young man, he would hitchhike in a suit down the highway to the city to be an usher at a concert, in a burgeoning passion for classical music.
He went to North Texas State University and got a teaching certificate and ultimately a Master’s in literature, writing a novel as his thesis. He joined the Navy and became a Lieutenant JG. I often visualize him in his “whites”; I’m certain he was drop-dead handsome then, because he’s a damn good looking old man.
He fell in love, married, and fathered a daughter who is a lobbyist in Denver. When the marriage drifted into the shoals, he came to Colorado, eventually settling down in Fort Collins for a time, with a quarter horse mare named Little Bit.
I met Jack in the summer of 1990, after I rented a trailer at a stable so that I could live with my horse. I had a little white Arabian mare named Majesty, and I needed to have her brought to me.
He had just sold his horse trailer, and I don’t remember now who helped me.
What were the odds I’d meet someone like Jack at a stable, or the odds he’d meet me? But there we were, from that moment on, with side by side horses, a passion for the West, and both of us writers.
I remember his stopping at my gate one afternoon, and showing him my collection of poems, Reunion.
He said, “I’m proud of you.” And he meant it.
I had sworn off men and was living alone in my new home with my little terrier Duncan, and a beautiful Golden Retriever named Dora. I had just lost a job as the assistant editor for a dog breed book publisher and an angry bipolar editor who worked me to the bone.
I still had my mind-blowing case of insomnia. I still struggled to take care of myself. And I was fifteen years out from my last drink.
Jack and I had coffee, and he cut my grass and painted my deck. One afternoon during a rainstorm, I led him back to my bedroom and we christened our relationship. The next day there was a note with a line from Frost in a bouquet of flowers on the seat of my car; “There is a singer everyone has heard.”
That night he fed me shrimp and steak while we sat on the living room rug in his trailer on the crossroad before the turn into the stable. He read to me from Don Quixote and offered me green plums. He tethered his cats to a tree with long leashes so they wouldn’t wander away.
He borrowed a thousand dollars from an old friend, and we took a trip to the San Juans to see his daughter where she was a wrangler on a gorgeous ranch at the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
We rode into the forest together, and stayed in a century-old cabin. I couldn’t sleep, and I was irritable; I had hoped my agoraphobia would leave me alone so that we could have our impromptu honeymoon.
I was angry with him when he had trouble lighting the fire, and he was hurt.
I have been angry many times since for things that have not been his fault. But he is forgiving and steady and I so wish I could undo the dents I put in the furniture and his trust in me.
I found us a job on a horse ranch near Boulder as a caretaker couple. I commuted to CU where I taught in a highbrow program. I had bred Majesty and she was due the following June.
Not long after we took the ranch job, moving into a little trailer cabled to the rocks, nearly blowing away in the foothills wind, I passed a job announcement on to Jack and he got a position teaching in the adult education program in the St. Vrain schools, one that he went on to hold down for twenty-two years, keeping up an arduous commute and only retiring last June.
My beautiful colt was born eleven months after we moved to the ranch. We named our new baby Dusty Kiss, aka D.K. I have a photo Jack took of me up on Majesty and the nine-day old colt looking right at the camera.
One day fire came to the ranch, and in a Valhalla of chaos and equine clamor, we loaded up the horses and got them safe at the Boulder Valley Fairgrounds– with our cats and dogs in crates in an empty stall.
One windy day I came home and Jack said, “Look in the ash can.” I went back outside, and looked in, and there was a severed rattlesnake, its body coiling and uncoiling, its jaws gaping in rage. He had heard the dogs barking, gone outside to see them surrounding what must have been the patriarch diamond-back of the foothills behind the ranch. Then and there, wearing only his scivvies and riding boots, shaving cream on his face, he had dispatched the snake with a shovel.
With so much excitement, so much dramatic weather and beautiful horses, I wanted to stay on the ranch; but fate, as they say, had other plans. Jack wanted to buy a six-acre tract next to the stable back in Fort Collins, and had been made an offer no one could refuse. This was a gorgeous piece of land with a natural creek running along its east boundary, and its own stand of cottonwood trees. The view to the northwest went on for miles, to the mountains and the Wyoming state line.
He withdrew 20k from one credit card for the land, and the same amount on another credit card for the refurbished double-wide we picked out together and brought over the bridge in halves.
He single-handedly put up our house, our corral and shed. He trenched in power, water and phone lines, and he and a friend dug a well. He built yards and yards of post and rail fence, so that our by then three horses could be turned out to grass.
As time went on and I continued to commute to Boulder and he to Longmont, he built my kennel, where I began to realize my dream of raising Golden Retrievers.
Accordingly, our saga has been one of love and loss. We have been devoted to our animals, and obliquely, to each other in the process. We have been to hell and back with my alcoholism and that we are so very alike and yet paradoxically and problematically different.
Somewhere in there, our dream of a marriage and a child dissipated; in fairness, I must say that perhaps it is I who sabotaged that dream. It glints back at me in the deeps of the night, like the tiny sapphire in the engagement ring I threw into the creek so long ago.
A few weeks ago my matron Golden Retriever Tess, whom we both adored, endured what we later learned had been the rupture of a tumor in her spleen; she lay in the bedroom out at the place I’ve come and gone from for the last twenty-three years.
We improvised a sling from a curtain, and Jack took her to the vet hospital to be put down.
This was but one of our many tribulations around our love of animals. Six years ago I adopted a pregnant mare; she got into trouble, I had her induced, and we lost them both.
When I couldn’t watch the inevitable befall my beautiful mare Vida, Jack stayed with her, helping the vet try to save the filly.
He came back into the house where I sobbed, face down in my bed. He climbed in and held me all night long.
When his animals have fallen ill, I have stepped up, and when mine have gone down, he’s taken over, sparing me the sight of my horse crumpling to her knees, never to lift her head again. Sparing me the good-bye in Tess’s eyes as she got the shot at the vet.
Taking my hand when my beautiful male Golden Fanfare died, and walking me down to the creek bank, where he had managed to dig the resting place of my champion-pointed lion of a dog, and where we both wept, and buried him to nourish the earth.
Six years ago I rode a horse drunk; when I was dismounting, the saddle slipped and I fractured my right leg. When I woke in the local trauma center after surgery, and for the next five months while I was in a nursing home, Jack was there.
He came to visit me, bringing me lattes from Starbuck’s, and enduring orders to shop for intimate items for me at the local superstore. He held the wheelchair for me while I gathered my courage to ambulate up and down the halls of the nursing home in a walker, shaky on Percocet and fearful of putting weight on my healing leg.
He took care of all of our animals—our Jack Russells Mandy and Scherzo, the Goldens, the cats, the horses. And when I came home with an arsenal of equipment–a wheelchair, a bedside potty, a bath bench– when I got bad news from the surgeon that my leg had not healed properly, devastating news that it would need to be re-broken and reset to be properly aligned (something I haven’t been willing to undergo), he took care of me.
Across two decades, when I had my alcoholic relapses, all three or four of them, when I was in the DT’s and driving over to see him at daybreak in desperate loneliness, afraid I was going to hang myself from the nearest limb, he took me in and made a fire, and sat with me, holding my hand.
I confess again that despite all of these gifts from one human being to another, I have been more than a handful and a headache for my dear partner Jack. Certainly I have tried to give back, with love and support, and my cooking and companionship.
But what a gift, a windfall, to be on the receiving end of the devotion of such a kind and loving guy. We have given each other a great adventure. And an often exhausting and aggravating one, but we are wiser, more circumspect now. I get by in my subsidized place, and he lives in “our” house a few miles up the road.
Happy Birthday, Jack; I cherish you. May life bring you catamarans and soldias—sunny days– for the rest of your voyage.