Farewell, Cowboy. Farewell.

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Sam’s CD, released in 2015 – when he was 80













Perhaps the most unwelcome passage through which all ships must pass is that of death. To be the impotent observer at the bedside of someone in the throes of death can seem the greatest of all insults. One must fight the battle between a desire to see wellness return with the growing awareness that such a return might not be either possible or in the person’s best interests. It is as poignant as it is horrifying.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do.” Lonelier words were never spoken. 

I too have faced this burden of human experience with grandparents and my own father who died from complications to his cancer treatment. Most recently, on Saturday morning, April 22nd at 3:00am, my step-father drifted into eternity. The lasso keeping him tethered to the dusty ground released him into much bigger pasture. One without fences.

Papa Sam was a cowboy, Métis (may-tee)* to be exact. Born Samuel Maurice Young in the austere, rambling flatlands around Birch Hills, Saskatchewan he was quick to adapt to the rough and tumble ways of the Canadian prairies. The youngest of three boys with a younger sister, they were the bluegrass version of the von Trapps. His brother Stan on fiddle, another brother, Gordon, on banjo, together with Sam on guitar would join their Dad or uncle, both fiddle players, to fill the house on prairie nights with the music of the farm. 

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Saskatchewan sunset
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Birch Hills – an aerial view
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Birch Hills grain elevator

A young farm hand, Sam, at the green age of 10, played his first dance with his Dad, promptly returning his earnings of a quarter to the Red Cross. A similar largesse would follow him for his next 72+ years. 

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Brancepeth United Church, where lie most of Sam’s family
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Prairie Sunset

Sam was inseparable from the cowboy fare he loved. A cowboy action shooter for many years, he collected guns and formed an indissoluble connection to the frontier life of the wild West. Old-time country dance music, played the old-time way on old-time instruments characterized the spirit of this small, big-hearted man. Numerous dance bands, including his own, The Calgary Playboys (fitting, given his rep as a ladies’ man), made the rounds in the Calgary scene for over 30 years. It would provide the context in which he would first meet Doris, his beloved wife – my mother.

Her life had not exactly been characterized by rose petals and wine. She lost her husband, my father, in September of 1985 when he was merely 55 years old; her senior of 13 years.

Mom was a widow at 42.

She played the role of dutiful wife and mother well, shuttling us hither, thither, and yon with tireless dedication and far too little gratitude. She shouldered the biting loneliness of a stolid, unflinchingly reserved man in my dad while acting as umpire to our numerous family squabbles, many of which revolved around my own self-centered peccadillos.

Dad’s passing kicked her feet out from under her. Even for one as strong and independent as she, the shock of being alone in the world was overwhelming. Nights full of angry tears eventually settled into steely resolution to reintegrate and reenergize by doing what she loved best, serving.

Much of the time, that meant some part to play in the Royal Canadian Legion, an organization to which our entire family had been attached for many years.  One such role was in working as president of the senior’s dances at Ogden Legion in southeast Calgary. She helped plan the weekly dances and hired the bands for these events. Sam’s band was one of those.

It was 1997.

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Sam Young – a cowboy to the core

A major surgery pulled Mom out of commission for a while. Sam was quick to notice her absence and asked about her regularly. He’d call her just to talk and to check on her well-being. Upon her return to the Legion, she was the lucky recipient of a big hug and rather public kiss. His charm, cowboy swagger, and crooning country voice ultimately proved too much to resist and Mom and Sam moved in together. 

For the next 3 years, they lived happily side by side in my childhood home in Calgary. But the draw to the country proved too urgent to ignore. In October 2000, they sold the house and moved into their idyllic new digs near the hamlet of Kelsey, Alberta. Golden Spur Ranchetta, as they named it, became their new home and, together, they made the dream of Canadian frontier life their reality.

Long days spent clearing land, pulling out wayward trees, retooling outbuildings, dealing with renters in an adjoining house, nurturing horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, was their daily lot. It fit them like a hand in a glove. I had never seen my mother so alive, so full of vigorous determination, so…happy.

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Sam was seldom without a guitar in hand

In October 2005, they were returning from Calgary, along Highway 21. Sam turned to her, saying rather baldly, “I think we should. I think it’s time.” In as matter of fact and unpretentious a manner as one can expect from a Canadian prairie cowboy, he had just asked my mother to marry him. This they did in a small ceremony held in Forestburg, Alberta on New Year’s Eve, 2005. For the first time since she had become a Rife over 40 years earlier, my mother had a different name.

Sam with guitar2.jpgTogether, Mom and Sam weathered well the uncertainties of ranch life in an often-harsh central Alberta landscape. They made many new friends, most of them musicians of one kind or another. Like a loose belt, their lives spread out amid country music jams, reenactment wild West gun shootouts, mosquito-laden summers, and fireside nights under the vast Alberta stars. I watched my mom transform from an anxiety-laden, late-middle-age housewife into a buoyant, self-confident woman. It was delightfully disconcerting.

Ten years later, in December 2015, I was blessed to offer a renewal of vows service at Yakima Covenant Church. I had never done such a thing before and was proud that this event, of all things, was my first.

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Mom and Sam at their renewal of vows ceremony, Yakima Covenant Church, December 2015

In May of last year, a combination of doctor’s visits, followed by unwelcome phone calls sharing even less welcome news became their lot. The ‘C’ word had taken root as infidel in Sam’s lungs. It would ultimately have the last word.

But the final notes were always his to sing. He lives on in memory and song. His CD, Back to the Mountain, released when he was 80, reminds us that music never grows old. It pulls us along our dusty trails on wooden wheels of hope. It is a small part of a big legacy, served up fresh, and ever new. 

Now, Papa Sam sings harmony with his ancestors, leaning up against heaven’s gate – rough-sawn, split pine, and barbed wire in his case – playing his favourite guitar. The Great Spirit (Jesus to me) sits nearby in plaid shirt, jeans and a ball cap, playing spoons and a washboard. A gentle country waltz fills the perfect air, and bristles with the high-stepping joy of heaven’s jamboree.

Farewell, cowboy. Farewell.

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*Métis originally referred to Francophone and Cree-speaking descendants of the French-Catholic Red River Métis in Manitoba. They are one of three recognized aboriginal peoples of Canada, descendants of marriages of Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Menominee aboriginal people with French-Canadians, Scots, and English settlers. 

This is a recording of Sam’s title track, Back to the Mountaina song I was blessed to co-author.


Regret, and second chances for chances not taken

He died of lymphoma on September 15th, 1985 at 10:22 pm. I was 21 years old. At that moment, a man I never really knew, passed into the aether, and was crushed tight to God’s bosom. Found by God and lost by me, he is to this day, an enigma and my regret. He was my father.

We spoke precious little while he was alive. A sense of quiet desperation peppered his disposition. A staunchly stoic individual, his upbringing in the wild, velvet foothills of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan burnished a certain leathery sheath to his already withered spirit. 

Maple Creek, Saskatchewan

I saw my father cry only three times. Once, during a conflict with my younger brother, whose belligerent cry of “yea, well, you’re not my real Dad, so I don’t have to listen to you,” saw him descend into bitter weeping (all three of us are adopted). On another occasion, my Mom was reacting to my new but immature faith, a faith terribly demeaning to anyone outside the tiny club I then called Christianity. My own inability to navigate the complexities of this new life of faith had thrown a monkey wrench into the heart of our family. My Mom was hurt and let me know about it. Dad tearfully held my hand, recognizing in me his own lostness in the world and responding as he generally did, silently, but deeply.

I had driven him to Rockyview Hospital so he didn’t have to be alone when he got his biopsy results. The very fact that the doctor couldn’t tell him over the phone had already primed the pump as to what we could expect. I sat in the waiting room while he consulted with the doctor. What seemed like days passed until he finally emerged. Tears drew lines down his ashen face. It was the third, and would be the final time, I ever saw him cry. His words haunt me to this day, “well, looks like I got a touch of the cancer.”

The denial in his words bespoke a terror I had hitherto not seen on his usually emotionless face. He was genuinely afraid and communicated as much in the only way he knew: cautious deflection. Perhaps if he treated it like a bad cold it might just disappear like a bout of coughing or a snotty nose. And, as we would discover later, he had most likely lived with the growing cancer for a number of years, successfully hiding lumps even from my mother. These may have been the actions of a man too rough ‘n tumble to be bothered with such matters. More likely, they picture someone lacking the interpersonal skills necessary to build a supportive foundation upon which he could pilot these stormy waters.

He was as lost as we were. 

Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Calgary, Alberta
Tom Baker Cancer Centre

In the months that followed we learned well the half hour journey from our home to the Tom Baker Cancer Center where he would be subjected to one test after another, one trial after another, one failed approach after another. He lost half his body weight and was an eerie shade of grey-green. Ultimately, he was admitted as a long-term patient. I learned how to help my own father shower and use the toilet. Any preexisting awkwardness was forced out in this new and vulnerable frontier. Old fears and presumptions fell away every time I helped pull his pants back up or helped him into pajamas before he fell, exhausted, into bed.

I was studying classical voice and choral conducting at the time and would often sit by his bedside reading and even humming pieces I was to have memorized for the following morning. From time to time I’d look up from my textbook to be sure he was still breathing, only to catch him looking back. Our words were few to none. But, to us, those looks bore volumes of communication unnecessarily crowded by such things as talk.

In the early evening of September 15th we had been made aware by the doctor that he had contracted pneumonia as a result of increasing weakness and the pure oxygen that was keeping him alive. Ironically, in so doing, it crystallized his lungs, turning them into glass shells. He was given zero chance to live off the respirator. Despite the knowledge that this day was coming, we stood like plastic dolls, unable to speak.

This reality had us cornered, and we succumbed to its horror, saying our trembling goodbyes. I bent over to kiss his forehead, whimpering quietly in his ear, ”Goodbye, Dad. I love you. I always have.” It was one of the few precious “moments” we ever enjoyed together. He would be dead two hours later.

My father was that man about whom one says, “He was someone I never knew.” I cannot say however that he wasn’t the father I needed. I was as negligent and uninterested as he was tense and unable to forge anything substantive in our father-son relationship.

They say regret is a wasted emotion. Maybe so, but few emotional triggers are more difficult to undo. It lies in wait every time we are reminded how our successes bowed to failure, our fears grew through inaction, our relationships dug themselves deep into a quicksand of mutual ignorance or naïveté.

In the years that followed, I’ve been forced to come to terms with my passivity and self-driven carelessness regarding my father. It has left me struggling with mountains of regret and the self-loathing it can generate. Left untended, regret can cloud the soul and create blockages to the inflowing of new love, new relationships, even newness in old relationships.

My Dad, Reg
My Dad, Reg

With my Dad it wasn’t about forgiveness. It wasn’t even really about misunderstanding. I am ashamed to say that, for me it was, quite frankly, lack of interest. He was everything I was not but secretly wished to be: unyielding, unflaggingly committed, self-denying, self-forgetful, self-reliant, with a willingness to forego relishing in his fears in the interest of those he supported and loved.

My lack of interest and passivity crashed headlong into his inability or perhaps tentativeness to face something he’d never known himself, tenderness. The casualty? Relationship.

Since then I’ve done a poor job, although with lessening self-flagellation, at honesty and intentionality in human relationships. Friends, pastors, colleagues, and spiritual directors have all shared in this journey with me. The one message most readily cobbled together from their loving advice is this: if the gospel tells us anything it’s that there is always redress for regrets. The Way of Jesus keeps open the door that leads to new and renewed relationships, to companionship for the lonely and an anchor for souls adrift.

I miss my Dad. I regret never really getting to know him. I miss what might have been. But, the Way of Jesus, lived with courage, promises second chances for chances not taken.

Picture of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan found here