I often ask Oly, “What if…”
This weekend is the annual Jim Syron float on the Yellowstone River.
I wrote the following words a few days after his death and I planned on reading this at Jim’s wake, but I could not; I can still barely read it today. By the way, this is my least favorite week of the year.
Life is Fiction
Dark clouds swirled through Paradise Valley all morning. Streaks of rain swept down the mountain slopes as if they had been painted by a great artist. Along the Yellowstone River, the sun was sneaking through the clouds just enough to give the valley a brilliant greenish-gold tinge. Spring’s arrival of birds filled the river bottom with the sound of life. As we stood waiting for the remainder of our group, Megan and I skipped rocks into the murky water. With Megan being a geologist and myself being a geographer, we laughed about how there in that small valley our two disciplines met head-on everyday. The wind and water continued to beat against the rocks in an attempt to expose Earth’s history. We loved living in Montana.
When our party showed-up, we unloaded the canoes and kayaks while anticipating the first float of the season. The trip was to celebrate two birthdays and our home, Greater Yellowstone. We weren’t really worried when Jim didn’t show; Jim was a great student, and with finals approaching he was most likely in the library preparing for his final few tests; that is where I should have been. We enjoyed the river for him on that day. We floated in and around fast spots in the river, played on rock islands, and reminisced about all our history in the region, as osprey and eagles hovered above. Nature reminded us about spring in Montana with gusts of wind and a few short periods of rain that would fade back into sunshine once again.
By evening we were at camp, and our party’s numbers steadily grew. By dark there were maybe twenty-five friends in camp; we all had worked in Yellowstone at one time or another. The Yellowstone family was great to be a part of. When Jim still didn’t show, we laughed about him canoeing in the dark, but we really believed he was stuck in town with school work. We enjoyed good food and drinks until late in the evening.
Sunday morning was beautiful; a dusting of snow covered the surrounding peaks, only to taper off at the lower elevations. The overnight rain made the air feel crisp, as puffy white clouds sailed across the sky. Megan and I spent the day in Yellowstone; it was opening weekend. We had always loved spring in the park. For old Yellowstoners, that time of year has always been special. Mother nature seemed to pull the white blanket of snow back just in time for baby animals to arrive: it was time for new beginnings.
For me, the new beginnings of life seemed just around the corner; I was to graduate in two weeks, and marry Megan in one month. As we had been doing my entire senior year, Jim, Katie, Dave, and myself were to meet for coffee between classes. When Jim didn’t show, we figured he was studying; I thought about that all day. In the evening, I was watching the news before going to bed. When they mentioned a man had been killed on his bike on Friday, and still had not been identified, I got one of those feelings that we never want to have. For a few minutes, I paced the floor, afraid that my mind would even think those thoughts. After calling Jim’s and not receiving an answer, I went to his apartment. The door was ajar about two inches, which at first gave me a feeling of ease, but that quickly faded. Mail was still in the mailbox, there was old food on the stove, and Jim’s touring bike was gone.
Back home, I talked to Sean, one of Jim’s oldest friends. We agreed that I should call the coroner. After I described Jim, the coroner told me it sounded like we were talking about the same man. We made plans to meet the next morning. Trying to sleep was all but impossible; I tossed and turned, while slipping in and out of consciousness.
On Tuesday, I went to school around 6 AM, in an attempt to study. It was impossible to concentrate on work; thoughts of Jim were all I could filter from my head. At 8 AM, Sean and I met with the coroner; our worst fears were realized; Jim was dead. Identifying a friend is something we should never need to go through.
The day continued like a dream; dozens of Jim’s friends started to arrive from all directions. Phone calls by the hundreds, along with tears and laughter dominated the day. We told old stories, including the way Jim shifted his green onions from hand to hand when we were in the backcountry, in an attempt to decide how many to use for each meal; he was a numbers man. We laughed at the way he wore those black socks with his shorts, and about the green slacks he always loved. I could picture the web of Jim’s life connecting to all parts of the country: calls from Yellowstone to Arizona, Wisconsin, Maine, Washington, and beyond. There was food and wine, and more tears.
Later in the day, as I sat on my front steps, I found myself waiting for Jim to come walking around the corner, something I had witnessed many times. But Jim never showed, because that would have been real life, and we all know life is fiction. I miss him.
If you are ever in Olympia, stop by the farmers market and spend some time on Ron’s bench. It is something that Megan and I and now Oly do often; we took Oly there when he was just three months old. The Olympia’s farmers market is a special place in a special town. Like most urban areas, time is catching-up to Washington’s capital city. There are more homeless people than there used to be and the fads are different than they were when any of us were young. But, at the farmers market, if you get a chance, relax on Ron’s bench and watch for Ron’s spirit. It is there among the apples and crafts. Maybe it is floating on the music. You will notice the flavor of the people; Ron was one of them.
Ron worked in the same hospital in Olympia for 30 years. He was a mental health specialist and you would find it hard to locate a local family that Ron did not impact in some positive way. Ronald Joseph O’Connor passed away two days after he retired; two days. That still pisses me off.
I had many special moments with Ron. One of the most memorable was when Meg, Ron and I were paddling in Mud Bay near Olympia. As we paddled among some old log pilings, a baby seal surfaced and swam along with us; it would swim and then roll onto its back and then repeat the entire motion. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone, but I have never forgotten that sight or the pleased look on Ron’s face.
Ron was Oly, Isabella, Ben and Mia’s granddad, he was Megan and Sarah’s father and he was my friend. Ron was a spiritual man. He studied to become a priest when he was young. He was Zen Buddhist as an adult and he was a Christian when he died. He liked religion and he did not care where your spirituality came from; he had respect for all people’s beliefs. The world would be better if we all had the values of Ron O’Connor. The world would be better if we still had Ron O’Connor.
I hope Ron found his heaven and if he did, I bet there is a nice basketball court and I hope Izzy is his cheerleader.
“GOOD FOR YOU”