By Cecilia Farran
Sixteen years of the Voice and almost 200 issues and an end is near, or perhaps the beginning of something new. Doors closing. Doors opening. You know the drill. I wrote this eulogy for my youngest brother Joseph, who passed unexpectedly. I offer it as a tip of the hat to a light that often shines beyond apparent endings.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015. My brother John. His voice on the phone. “Joe … .” His words drop softly yet unbearably heavy, for heavy is the only way the first news of death can come. And heavy the hours drag, long and lost, until toward day’s end I become clear on what I need do.
Joe was our brother, the son and grandson of a farmer and a farmer himself. We had all been together just two days before, celebrating 100 years of farm stewardship. But he was also a pilot and when I ask where I shall find his soul at peace, I know where I am to go: The Lone Rock Tri-County Airport. Joe would fly in there on visits.
I bike the miles to the airport to sit alone under the open skies, hoping perhaps to find him in the afternoon silence of this deserted place. Shadows cast as the distant hills turn a hazed blue. I scan the sky. I wait not knowing for what, but I hold vigil feeling this to be a holy time and place.
And then in the heat of late afternoon, I hear a distant droning to the east. One small plane circles and lowers itself out of the sky, touches down and taxies toward me, never cutting its speed as if to deliver a message almost to my lap. I have never stared a plane down before but I find it exhilarating and hold my ground. And at the last possible moment, as I knew he would, in a dance of perfect control, he turns the plane toward the white tanks under the red Phillips sign.
A crop duster there to refuel, he climbs from the plane, stretching his legs as he walks to the fuel tanks. He reels out the grounding line and returns to unspool the fuel hose. He is working, mindless of me and doing what pilots do. I watch in awed reverence as well as I can. I don’t know if it is that I have blurred my eyes against the sun’s glare or that my eyes are blurred with tears, but I do not see him, this stranger. I see my brother Joe, going through the all-familiar motions of a pilot tending to his plane. I watch. I am grateful for the simplicity of what is unfolding before me. Finished, he recoils the hose, unsnaps the thin, grounding line and washes the windshield.
Then, a well-practiced skip up to the wing, a swing into the cockpit, engine roaring, he turns the plane to leave. But before he does, we exchange a glance, a nod, a two-finger wave. He taxies back to the end of the field.
He cannot know what this visit has given me, for in this crop duster routine tasks I see the simple tasks of life when we no longer need to think, but we can, if we are mindful, drop into a bigger place, a place as big as the skies. In his nod and parting wave he signifies a brotherhood of these open skies that Joe would understand. My tears fall. He takes off. Goodbye, brother Joe.
As the plane rises I shade my eyes from the glare. It becomes a speck in the west, as another speck appears. Backed by the sun it soars overhead: a vulture riding the currents above me. In Native cultures, the vulture represents rebirth, as guardians of death’s mysteries, of new vision, of endless flight without power. They soar motionless on the wind for hours. You, Joe, are no longer in the cockpit of a plane, but on the wide wings of this bird on the currents of thin air. In its dihedral flight it seems to tip a nod to me, this bird giving a fitting tribute for a man whose spirit loved the sky, reminding me to let the world drop away, release my hold and soar into a place as big as these skies.
Your body will be enfolded by the good and solid earth, the realm of farmers, but your spirit will take off with every small plane and soar with every large bird riding the open sky. There is an unraveling in the fabric of family now, the empty place takes some getting used to. The future is as open as the sky, though. May we lift our hearts into it. Hats off to you, Joe, for you, in the simple tasks of life, have charted a realm for us as open as the heavens. A tip of the hat to you.
Later, at his graveside, I lay a vulture feather upon his casket in a final farewell. The circle of life fulfilled.
I offer this as a tribute of gratitude to Mary Friedel-Hunt who with her husband, Bill, that evening in their living room 16 years ago, took up the suggestion I offered: What the Spring Green area needed was a magazine dedicated to the arts and culture of the River Valley. Thank you to them for taking my mere thought expressed out loud to so ably birth and shepherd the first six years of Voice of the River Valley. And a heart of appreciation for Sara and Erik Flesch, who took up the task to guide and shape Voice through its 10 years of growth. The magazine has enriched our lives. Thank you. A tip of the hat to you all.