Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

My Uncle Victor died last week, and I’m reminded once again of how complicated death is. I’m not talking about the wills and the property divisions, nor is it the personal relief that his suffering has ceased, or that at last you don’t have to worry about when it’s going to happen.

When someone dies, it’s usually a huge event for the family, as though it’s never happened before, even though in the end, we all must eventually go that way. In a religious sense, I reckon we could rejoice in death, for it may mean access to the eternity of the after-life, but from some of the sadness I see at church-held funerals, I’m not so sure everyone in those rows of wood is on the same page concerning the promise of ever-lasting life.

For the survivors, death is an energy-burning affair that even if celebrated, still must be endured. There’s a new reckoning in our lives, even if we anticipated the end for weeks, or months. With a finality that is deafening, our loved one inescapably leaves us and we are expected to continue the game of life, even though we’re now short a playing piece.

And maybe that’s where the celebration comes in – the regrouping of family, far-flung members from all parts of the globe, reuniting not only to mourn the loss but to reinforce the connections that have held us together for generations and reaffirm to each other that between us, we have something special, no matter the winding road ahead.

We are fortunate to live in this area, for even in the midst of power-money and egos the size of barren wastelands, there is an enduring sense of community, long held together by and tied to the history of Aspen, a communal bond that soothes the pain and brings rejoicing to the gathering of friends and family.

The officiant at St. Mary’s, Aspen native Albert Loushin, took us down a quiet road, presenting deep reflections on Aspen’s past, a time period to which the dwindling few of Aspen’s old-timers are unimaginatively and perfunctorily relegated, the dust bin of the “Quiet Years.”

“No,” says Albert, “those were the Golden Years,” precursor to the growth explosion of people and money we’ve seen in recent history. Days when a gentle breeze rustling through the cottonwoods could be heard over the din of Main Street traffic. He continued, “People say the soul of Aspen has changed, but when I look out over the congregation and see folks sitting in the same pew they’ve occupied for 50, 60 years, I think there’s a continuity here that can’t be denied.”

Red Butte Cemetery, run by an all-volunteer board of long-time Aspenites, is an unsurpassed refuge of beauty, a green, tree-lined expanse of peacefulness that might help make eternity bearable. It was a military burial with the Elk’s Lodge in attendance. People always talk quietly in cemeteries.

Toward evening, the curtain opened on the final scene, a small family dinner at Uncle Vic’s Blue Lake house, his last refuge from the storm while free will began to leave him. His memory pervaded our conversations, and we all learned a little more about the man we all thought we knew so well.

I climbed in my Jeep and headed for home, and then the tears came. Oh, Victor, I loved you and will miss you, but it is not for you I cry. I long for the crunch of gravel under my tires at your old Red Butte house, the powerful center of family life for so many, many years, long-gone to bulldozers, and with trepidation, I fear we will never again all be in the same place, with the same closeness between us.

And that is the complication, the tragedy, unforeseen and unexpected but as guaranteed as death itself.