Stone: Two men, two lives, and we remember
I went to Mike Strang’s memorial service on Monday. It was as warm, heartfelt and inspiring as one could imagine. Hundreds of people packed the large hall — four generations from this valley, from the very young to the very old — to laugh and cry, to honor and remember the life of one of our valley’s larger-than-life characters.
But, though I was caught up in the tales of Mike’s life and the broad sweep of his influence on so many others, for me the memorial was shadowed — not overshadowed by any means — by another too-recent death: Stewart Oksenhorn.
In some ways it’s not fair to pair the two men.
Mike lived to age 84. He died at home, peacefully, with children and grandchildren and a long lifetime of solid accomplishments. Mike was a valley legend, a big man with a personality and a voice to fill any room. I knew Mike, but only in passing. We always had a good word for each other when we met, because — as I heard so often at his memorial — it was mighty hard to dislike Mike. He was quite a man: rancher, politician, stockbroker, auctioneer and horseman on his ranch, in the hunt and on the polo field.
Stewart Oksenhorn was a man I knew very well. He was a good friend and a good man. I worked with Stewart at The Aspen Times. I edited Stewart, I fought with Stewart, and I loved Stewart very much — for all the good that did when he decided to take his own life Sunday morning at a mere 50 years of age. Like Mike, Stewart was a valley legend. But though his accomplishments were many and solid, we have to shake our heads in sorrow that he left so much undone.
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Two men, two very different trajectories through life.
And yet, when Mike died, his wife, Kit, said he died from “too many summers.” And perhaps the same could be said of Stewart — just that for Stewart the number of summers that amounted to “too many” was tragically few.
What made Stewart’s 50 summers too many while Mike survived for 84?
That is the question we are all left to wrestle with.
But though I am so deeply saddened by Stewart’s early exit, I have to think that we need to focus on a man’s life — not on the end of it.
Mike was famous as a man of generosity and good cheer.
At his memorial, his niece said Mike went through life “spreading roses” of kindness and humor. He carried that basket of roses as he lived, and “he left this earth with an empty basket.” His work was done.
And maybe that was true of Stewart, as well.
Certainly, I knew Stewart as sweet and funny and hardworking. I know I enraged him more than once by rejecting his latest bright idea for a story or by editing his copy more harshly than he thought necessary. But Stewart never complained (to me, anyway). He never got angry. He never got mean. He just gave his goofy smile and went back to work, writing more — and often enough writing better — than anyone else at the paper.
And, like Mike, Stewart was never unpleasant. He was never nasty in what he wrote. He was a critic — that was part of his job — but his criticism was never intended to damage.
I’m not sure I would have thought to say that Stewart went through life spreading roses — but maybe that was true.
And as I sat at Mike’s memorial on Monday, I kept trying to make those two images fit together: Mike, dying at home at 84, with children and grandchildren, if not all there then all thinking of him, all loving him, his life full and complete. And Stewart somehow ending his journey on a note of despair in spite of seeming to have a life that was perhaps a little dented but still enviable.
The mystery of those two lives is at the heart of the human condition: We are all mysteries. To those who love us and even to ourselves. No matter how much we love someone, no matter how close we may feel or how close we may actually be, each of us is at the end alone at our core, in our heart.
That’s not sad. The beauty in life is that we do reach out, that we try to connect, try to understand, that we struggle to overcome our inevitable isolation.
It is in that struggle that we find love — and joy.
And yet, finally, no matter how much love we have, no matter how many summers we have, the end is the same for all of us.
Death is not, of itself, terrible. It is only unknowable.
I am left thinking that, in a sense, no one’s life is cut short. One man’s life may be too short for the rest of us, for those who are left behind. But everyone lives his entire life — no matter how long, no matter how short — exactly that, not a day more nor a day less.
If I may quote Shakespeare:
“We are such stuff,
As dreams are made on; and our little life,
Is rounded with a sleep.”
And so Stewart and Mike both sleep, both rest, after too many summers. Or, perhaps, just exactly enough summers to make an entire life.
And because Stewart, like so many of us, was a Grateful Dead fan — and because I know that Mike was brilliant and open-minded and would certainly, I hope, appreciate this simple lyric — I will end with this, from “Ripple,” by Robert Hunter:
“There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go, no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone.”
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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