I sent an email to my friend Stewart Oksenhorn a week ago Thursday, just three days before he took his own life.
We usually would exchange a few emails during the week, keeping up an ongoing conversation between friends who no longer live close enough to grab lunch. My email to him on Thursday was about the Dweezil Zappa concert that’s happening soon — this week, in fact. Stewart and I shared Zappa-fanboy status, and he had called me months ago to tell me that “Zappa Plays Zappa” was returning to Aspen. We both were pretty giddy about it.
In what would be my final communication with him, I wrote, “I’m mentally preparing myself for this event by watching out where the huskies go.”
You know, as in “watch out where the huskies go and don’t you eat that yellow snow.” A lyric from quite possibly the one Frank Zappa song you know, except maybe “Valley Girl.”
And Stewart never wrote back. Which was strange. Stewart always wrote back, and usually right away. But not this time. How’s that for the last thing you ever get to say to someone?
Last September, Stewart called me on a Friday morning to see if I wanted to go to Telluride Blues and Brews with him. Like, later that same afternoon. The person he was going to go with had to cancel. I was his second choice. A few hours later he was picking me up at my house in Paonia. He had several stops that he’d scheduled between my house and Telluride, all of which, not surprisingly, involved getting free food. I shared his passion for free food, if not his skill in acquiring it. But really, who among us could claim to be his peer in that regard?
As we were walking to the festival site, heading through security, I was joking with him about how hard I was willing to work to make him not regret picking me as an alternate. “I will be present, available and eager to exchange any sort of high-fives, head nods, loud shouts of ‘wooo’ or whatever is appropriate at the moment to demonstrate the good time we’re having.” I also explained how easy it is for people to get separated in crowd situations, but because of my hyper-attentive nature and my excess height, he would not have to waste his time looking around for me.
Just as I said this, the security guard motioned him over. He stepped to the table and plopped down his ever-present brown leather backpack and began to open it up. I walked ahead just a few steps and stood there checking out the scene. Some rain clouds were moving in. I was glad I had a good rain jacket on. I turned back to see if Stewy was done getting his bag searched and … he was gone. Totally disappeared gone. Nowhere to be seen. Gone in 60 seconds. Just. Plain. Gone.
It is so disorienting to look back at where you’re certain someone will be, only to find that they’ve totally vanished. I yelled his name, did a quick scan of the sparse crowd, popped my head in the BBQ tent, but he was well and truly not there anymore, leaving the words of my not-getting-separated prowess still hanging in the air.
A band and a half later we finally reconnected. “I’m in the press tent,” he texted me. “They just brought out free cookies!”
As we were piecing together how we’d managed to get separated before we even technically got into the venue, he said, “You know, the last thing you said to me was that you were so good at not getting lost…”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, I know, I know.
We carried on enjoying the night of music, which also included taking a break from the show to have a big elaborate (free) Cajun dinner at someone’s house. Of course it would.
The last time I saw Stewart in person was at The Aspen Times Christmas dinner. We were sitting at different tables, so I only got to talk to him for a little while after dinner. But that was OK, because I knew I’d be getting to Aspen a lot in the next few months, so we’d get to hang out, eat, talk and laugh. And there was the upcoming Zappa concert, of course. Yeah, I’d get lots of Stewy time in the very near future. We have nothing but time, right?
Last Sunday, just after noon, I get an email from the Times’ editor telling me to call him ASAP. He told me the news; Stewart killed himself earlier that morning. And there’s that feeling again. That feeling of looking back to where you’re certain someone will be, only to find that they’ve vanished. That feeling when all that time you thought you had suddenly ends, and your words describing a future that’s not to be are left hanging in the air.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays.
There is something winsome and captivating about rounding that final bend off of the rustic, rural Brush Creek Road to find the town of Snowmass Village nestled so harmoniously into this mountainous valley.
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