The Last Cowboy

The stockings are hung but who cares,

Preserved for those no longer here,” – Peter Steele

As I creep closer to my 40th year on this planet, I’m now getting to the age where the number of family members no longer with us continues to grow.  With each passing year, a new, different milestone arrives.  Birthday’s no longer celebrated, now remembrances of how long ago they passed away.  Now, sadly, another member is gone.

William (Bill) Marshall passed from this earth yesterday, November 12, 2018.  But to all of us kids he was Poppa.  With Poppa passing away, I now find myself in the position of having no living grandparents and it’s a weird thought.  When you are a kid, you always believe your grandparents and parents will live forever.  How I wish that were true.

My Poppa, for me at least, was the last Cowboy that lived.

When I was born, we lived in a trailer down the main road from where my Poppa and Nanny’s house was.  When my mom and dad purchased our house and we moved, we lived even closer, just five houses away.

Most of my childhood was spent with my grandparents.  At least that’s how I remember it.

My Saturday morning’s (when not playing sports) consisted of waking up and immediately heading down to Poppa and Nanny’s.  My Poppa would have pancakes for us, or some breakfast ready to go, and always Tang to drink.  Those mornings still play out in my memories weekly.  On those mornings I was introduced to All Star Wrestling, WWF, and then Saturday morning cartoons.  You see, Poppa and Nanny had satellite TV (which was very rare, where we lived) and because of this we were able to watch ITV, based in Edmonton.  The odd serenity I find, now, thinking back to those moments, and now residing in Edmonton isn’t lost.  I don’t believe the channel changed that day.  Wrestling mornings, then cartoon afternoons.  Evenings were typically spent at our house or in Nakusp, and if it was in Nakusp it was at my Uncle Ron & Auntie Cherie’s.  My Uncle Ron has been gone for eight years as well now.  Funny how our memories intertwine.  How our childhood celebrations mingle with our older sadness.

My Poppa, for me, as the last living Cowboy, introduced me to so many amazing things.  He had a trap-line, which in the winter we would help with.  That’s where I saw my first and only living wolverine, which has a legendary story all on its own.  The trap-line exposed me to so many marvelous animals, and I believe directly influenced the mystique of the forest into my young mind.

Poppa would fill my head with stories of growing up, of hunting, logging and travelling through the unexplored wilderness near where we grew up.  The one that I still think about to this day, and I still wish to go to, was of Grizzly Basin.  Poppa would tell me about them travelling by horse caravan, loaded with supplies, as they would go up the mountain, having several Indian guides lead them to the area.  Grizzly Basin has a massive sheer cliff wall surrounding three sides of it, with the opening on the fourth.  Poppa would tell me that every time they would go there, they would see a half dozen Grizzly’s at least, foraging on the basin floor, or walking through the water.  Logging has now made it easier to travel into the area, but in some amazing mythical turn, every time my dad and I have tried to get into the area, we have encountered thick fog, deep snow, or some other obstacle like a downed tree blocking the path.  One day Poppa, I promise, I will make it there.

Poppa also had one of the most amazing gardens I have ever seen, which we would help tend, when I was little.  It was amazing to see all of the vegetables that he grew, and for many years, my mom and dad had a similar garden at our place.

With the close proximity of Poppa and Nanny’s place, we always knew someone was watching out for us.  You see, directly across the street from their front sunporch was the Burton park.  We spent many hours running around and playing there “unsupervised.”  This was far from the case, as the second we did something we shouldn’t, Poppa’s voice would bellow out from the porch and we would stop.  It also came in handy a few times, when someone was being mean to us, and I remember Poppa coming to my sister Jodi’s rescue one particular time.

Our bus stop for school was at the corner near their place, and when we came home we would walk by, Poppa always making some joke or teasing us about something.  I remember a number of times being embarrassed by him teasing me, wishing I could walk anywhere other than by their house.  Not anymore.  I really wish I would be teased just one more time.

I also came to learn that Poppa was a fantastic ball player and was one of the best pinch hitters in the area when he was younger.  I am privileged to be in possession of one of his bats from those days.  That is a connection I will be able to pass to my son.

The biggest thing I will ever have learned from my Poppa is dedication.  You see, my Nanny lived with Multiple Sclerosis for close to 40 years.  Might be even more.  I have one memory of her walking, but as I recently told somebody else, I can’t be certain I actually remember that or if it’s a memory of a memory.  Something I want to hold onto and so I keep making it up again in my head.  Poppa retired early to take care of her, and as the MS progressed he fed her all her meals, drove her to all of her appointments, bathed her and clothed her.  He devoted on her.  Now I loved my Nanny to bits, and will always love her in my heart, but she was not an easy lady.  In fact she could be downright mean.  But Poppa would tell her to snap out of it and would keep on taking care of her.

When the day came that Nanny needed to be admitted to extended care, Poppa started making the thirty minute drive to continue feeding her and would spend hours playing cards.  Eventually Poppa sold their family home and moved into Nakusp, now living only a few minute drive away.

Now, just a head’s up, this next paragraph is a bit dark, so skip it if you want.

As the MS progressed and progressed and Nanny had trouble communicating and was completely bedridden, a number of us family members hoped she would pass away sooner, for two reasons.  We wanted her to not be in pain anymore.  But we also wanted Poppa to still have some quality of life left.  He had devoted so many years to taking care of her, we just wanted him to be able to travel, see his grandkids and great grandkids and enjoy his last years.

When Nanny finally passed away, the years of dedicated care had taken its toll on Poppa.  He was unable to travel, and due to health issues, it was only a short time before he himself ended up moving into extended care.

I will never know how truly hard that move was on Poppa, but I know this; I will experience it one day.  Poppa went from a strong, fix-anything, move-anything, hunting, fire wood-chopping, garden-growing, snow-plowing, grandkid-guarding, wife-taking-care-of Cowboy, who had all of his photographs and memories in his house, to living in a single room with a TV at the hospital.  He lost all of his independence in a single move and the hurt he must have felt would be immeasurable.

I know I look at his devotion to Nanny in my own life.  Having a kid has been incredibly hard on the relationship with my wife.  But you know what, I know we can work through anything.  Poppa showed me that.

I know without a doubt Poppa was always proud of me and of all his grandkids (and kids), and as the years went by, the distance grew.  I spent less time with him, visiting sporadically on weekends when I was back from school, then only seeing him at Christmas time, then every couple of years as life became busy and priorities stacked up.  I wish I would have seen him more.  When we did get back to Nakusp to visit, we would always make sure to spend a good chunk of time with him.  The last time we saw him, this summer, he was tired.  He was confused.  But he was Poppa.  His hug was the same, his face was scratchy like it always was, and to have Auryn meet him once again was priceless.  I wish I would have been there with him at the end.  He always called me Butch (my Uncle’s name) and I never once cared.  I wouldn’t have cared then either.  We would have talked about Jake the Snake Roberts, and how he had the best DDT ever.  We would have talked about Koko-B-Ware and Junkyard Dog.  We would have talked about how Axe and Smash were the best tag team ever.  He would have asked where I was living and how Amanda was doing, and I would have had him tell me about Grizzly Basin again.

I don’t believe in Heaven.  I don’t believe we die and we go somewhere like that.  I’m one of those folks who believe that our body stops and that’s it.  But if I am wrong, I wish that Poppa gets to come back.  He is born into the world again, 90 years ago, and things are slightly different.  He meets Marion Hopp and they fall in love.  They get married, have Richard (Butch), Lisa, Cheryl and my mom.  Marion though, doesn’t get sick.  Cheryl, (God I miss you Auntie) doesn’t get Cancer and pass away over a decade ago.  They get to travel, get to visit the grandkids and great grandkids and then leave this world together.

You see, as I have said before, my Poppa was the last living Cowboy, and he deserved for that ending. For him to ride off into the sunset.  He didn’t deserve to be confused, in pain, not able to speak, wishing for it to be over.  I’m forever thankful that my Uncle Butch made it out to see him.  I hope Poppa knew who he was.

So as I wrap up my thoughts on this giant of a man in my life, one whose influence reaches in every aspect of everything I do, I’m going to close with a funny story.  Because Poppa loved to make jokes, loved to laugh, and did so often.

So for this story, picture yourself on his front sunporch.  Poppa on your left, Nanny on your right, two cold glasses of alcohol on their wooden table between them.  Nanny is wearing a flowered blouse and slacks, wheelchair folded up beside her.  Poppa is wearing his black Dickie pants, a dress shirt with the top buttons undone, full thatch of silver chest hair exploding from the opening.  The black case for his glasses tucked into his left breast pocket.  On his head is his hat, perched high, brim straight, a logging company’s patch on the front.

And someone says, “Poppa, tell us the time Steve drove the ski-doo into the side of the house.”

Everyone chuckles, and he takes a sip before starting.

“Ohhh, well.  We went for a rip around the back yard there.  I was sitting in the back, Steve and Jodi in front.  Steve was steering, his hand turning the throttle, when we came around towards the house quickly.  Steve, instead of squeezing the brakes, turned the throttle and bam!  We hit the corner of the house.  Hit it hard enough to stop us dead and take a chunk from the siding.”

We would all laugh, my face would flush with embarrassment, and I would remember the throbbing sting of the impact.  But you know what, it was worth it.  Every damn minute I ever spent with Poppa was worth it, and man how I wish I would have a million more.

But such is the finality of life.  So now I get to continue on, holding all of those memories in my heart forever.  I will do my best to share with my son, just how much Poppa meant to me, to us kids growing up.  I will try but I will never be able to do it justice.

So Poppa.  Here’s to you.  My last Cowboy.  Thank you for everything.  For all the lessons, for all the laughs and for all of the memories.  You were ALWAYS there for us.  ALWAYS.  I hope you know how much we loved you, how much I loved you.

And I hope you know I will make it a point of always visiting the Mount Marshall plaque when I visit Burton.

The world is a lesser place without in it, the lightbulb glowing dimmer.  Just know us kids will do our best to brighten it again, every time we think about you, laugh about a memory we had with you, or shed a tear wishing you were around.

Love forever and always.


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