I have a lot to be grateful for.
In my childhood I had it worse than some, but most certainly better than many others. I grew up poor, and insecure, and it probably didn’t help that I was always a little weird.
I was a short, scrawny little Mexican boy in a rural Colorado town, who up until about eight years old would sometimes go to school in hand-me-down (and previously Goodwilled) maroon corduroy pants so old that the zipper had been permenantly fused together, and ragged, ill-fitting tee shirts.
I can remember a day when I and my two older brothers found that the only bits of sustenance in our brick shoebox of a house were 12 Flintstones Chewable vitamins (how or why we had something as high-rent as Flintstone’s vitamins, I’ll never know), so we dividied them up, and I remember feeling sick the rest of the day.
I also remember some of the men that my mother brought around. She and my father had divorced when I was very young, and I almost never had an opportunity to see him. Instead she and her wild streak chose men like Raul, who enjoyed roughing me up when she wasn’t around, pushing me down and screwing his knuckles into the back of my head, willing me to cry like the lepe that I was.
Raul and others like him were what I grew to expect in terms of father figures.
But then Jonathan La Combe stepped into my life.
He was like the anti-Raul.
He was thoughtful, intelligent, and humble.
He was educated, and taught me to play chess, and indoctrinated me with a love for learning.
And for the first time in my life I felt actually happy, actually safe.
He worked for the Department of Agriculture as a Wildlife Biologist, which, in southern Colorado really meant that he was government trapper.
A farmer had beavers building dams or muskrats taking over a pond on their land? Jon, as we affectionately called him, was out there the next morning.
Skunks, badgers, or varmints of any kind needed trapping in the San Luis Valley, and he was the guy you’d call.
But mostly, coyotes were his main nemesis.
Cattle herds would occasionally need attention, but Jon’s main concern were the valley’s population of sheep.
I can remember going out on early morning calls with him to check the traps that he’d set around a sheepman’s property. Or if I was lucky even go with him when he would pick out a spot in a wooded or brush-covered area, and set up to call a coyote in. We’d usually have a couple of his border collies in tow, and Jon would have his rifle at the ready. Then he’d start imitating the ‘yote howl, either blowing into a bugle-like contraption or even just his own voice amplified by cupped hands. More often than not he could lure his prey in, as if by magic.
I remember going up in the mountains in the fall, felling and cutting up trees that we would then use for firewood in wintertime. I remember the first summer after my mom and he were married, and the two of us set to fencing in the twenty acres of land he had just outside of Monte Vista.
I remember the “camping trips”, sometimes up to two weeks long, when we would head up to the high mountain fields where the sheep herds spent their summers and where the coyotes would of course follow.
I remember these and thousand other little things now, for him, because his memories have begun to come undone. Just like their short stature and near-sightedness, Jon’s family heredity also includes rampant dementia in their not-so old age.
Undone. That’s exactly it.
It’s a knot that’s keeping the ship of his memories, a wooden hull of who he was, anchored, but is now uncoiling itself. And so he’s drifting away from the harbor, and those who know him, those who love him, are left to stand on the dock, helpless in any attempt keep the vessel moored in even a small way.
When I talk to him now, I catch only glimpses of the old Jon, as he tells me again about his time in Nevada, and about a niece of his that reminds him of my wife, and about how he once climbed to the top of Mount Blanca. And then he’ll tell me about Nevada again.
So I remember. For as long as I can, I’ll remember him, a quiet man with a curious mind who taught about a Knight’s movement, and Gandalf the Grey, and the healing properties of a root named Oshá. I’ll remember the summer day he set me to catching grasshoppers and crickets to use as bait for brook trout, and the sad morning that we woke to find that the patriarch of his border collies, Gavilán, had died in the night.
Gratitude isn’t only about what you have, but about what you were lucky enough to have had, once.