Last Email to Bruce:
Dear Bruce, Dear Cousin,
It's moments like this when I pull together the times and memories I have with you. I reflect with a lot of fondness on the particular Hurd/Haughey craziness that lives in you. Somewhere I have a photo of our great-grandfather Hurd. He had a twisty handlebar-ish mustache. There is a look in his eye, and damn if he didn't look like . . . you!
Our trip in the late fifties to Billings was a big deal and a big memory for me. You were this older cousin, and I had big eyes for everything you did. To begin with, there was your Nifty-thrifty Honda fifty. And there was your re-write of the Zorro theme song ("Pyok"). Somehow, that was all red meat for me. I didn't know it at the time as a nine-year-old, but I needed to meet a high-energy out-of-the-box cousin, and that was you.
Last Encounter with Bruce:
I’m warned by Bruce’s wife Roxanne that the cancer has spread to Bruce’s spine, pain all around his middle. He’s on strong opiates, she says, so he might not even be aware I’m there, certainly not very sociable. I predict a short, maybe final visit.
In horse country outside Prescott, everything is big and open. I have the code for Bruce and Roxanne’s electronic gate which swings wide enough for trucks pulling long trailers. Surrounding the yellow stone and adobe house, five acres of cleaned and swept horse world, but I see no horses.
I knock on the locked front door, but there’s no answer. I figure Roxanne will show up in due time, and I don’t want to wake up Bruce. I doze in the stuffed chair on the front porch, then awaken to the crunch of tires on gravel. A bright yellow heavy-duty pickup enters the garage and out steps my cousin Bruce from behind the wheel.
“First time I’ve driven in three months! Opiates. Roxanne’ll give me hell.” He moves slowly, stopping to catch his breath. Bruce is shocking in an orange checked shirt, from which he’s cut off the sleeves, and neon-orange sneakers and socks. He has shrunk. His legs are wire-thin under his cut-off jeans. We shake hands.
In the house, every room has something of the art studio about it. Surfaces are crowded with his sculptures, and every square foot of wall space is hung with framed art, mostly Bruce’s watercolors. He shows me the two-page list of his current medications and points out the details of his rebuilt face and neck. His features gravitate in a tiny avalanche of numb scar tissue into his chest. His lopsided handlebar mustache accentuates the slant of his right cheek and jaw. The pink, globular nodule at the inner corner of his right eye is noticeably larger than the one on the left.
We wander through shared childhood memories. In his opinion, my mother might still be alive if they’d known then what they know now about treating cancer (probably not: she was born in 1919). There are long gaps as he processes thoughts, struggling to make sense. His speech patterns are unstuck in time.
Bruce was, and is, what people like to call a “piece of work,” an artist with boundless energy and a restless, dominating spirit, now unsure of his memory. His shaky hands can no longer hold a brush. Roxanne corrects him: “Bruce, you’re going to be seventy-nine this month, not eighty,” and something in him sags. He is pretty ill.
At lunch at a local public golf course, women in perms and day-glow tops stop by our table to tell Bruce how much they love his orange shoes and socks. When he shows them that his underpants are the same bright-ass orange, they laugh nervously and take a step backwards. The waitress takes our picture. As we say goodbye, my piece of work cousin Bruce and I shake hands, then hug, at the front door of the golf course café.