This week I spent too much time–or maybe not enough– it’s hard to say, writing Nels “Nelbert” Niemi’s obituary. It was an intense effort for only 800 words in the Chilkat Valley News. Every word counted, but I didn’t want it to read like a telegram. There’s a flow to a story that shouldn’t be jarring.
I’m out of practice with deadline writing, so there was that. More importantly, I knew and liked Nels, and dearly love some of his friends. You’d think it would be easier to write obituaries for people you know. It is, in some ways, but it’s harder on the heart when you care so much. It’s difficult to cut a friend’s life to a few column-inches. You know, if I write a few more stories, add more paragraphs, maybe they will stay here a little longer. Maybe we will have more time together. It is almost as if I am trying to bring them back.
Still, it is good to spend hours discussing someone’s best qualities. How much they meant to us. What we admired. What we will miss. When was the last time you did that? Here’s another thought: why is it easier, or more normal anyway, to do this after loved ones are gone, than when they are here?
I know, deep thoughts for a Friday in October but worth sharing, I think.
Nelbert was almost 84 when he died in a single car crash in Arizona on his way to float the San Juan River with friends. He spent this summer, like dozens before, in Haines. He was called “Old Man River,” and liked it. This picture was taken this year by soon-to-be Haines-based terrific photogtapher, Colin Arisman of Wild Confluence Media, and shared for the paper. (I think they picked a different one, that shows his face better in newsprint.) I like this one a lot, especially when compared with the older photos from his younger years.
This was the Nels we knew, but of course writing about his long, full life, so much was revealed. He graduated in the 4th class of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, had an MBA from Stanford– marriages, children, grandchildren. Adventures– so many– mountain climbing in the Himalayas, skiing across Greenland, some 170 raft trips down the Grand Canyon, run-ins with the law. Chucking corporate accounting for wilderness guiding. I learned a lot from an interview he gave to an oral historian documenting “legendary” guides that was published in Boatman’s Quarterly Review.
“Nels was a true man of letters” one friend said– he wrote many of them, lots of post cards too, and filled years of daily journals.
“He was a teacher” another said– who went out of his way to coach young guides or anyone who wanted to row a boat down a river. A lot of “the kids” toasted him tearfully at the brewery Wednesday afternoon.
To me, the measure of a person is how well they are loved. Did they make a difference in anyone’s life? Is the world– meaning the people they went down this river of life with– better because they were here? With Nels, the answer is yes. No question. Which is not to say he was a saint. He was stubborn, irreverant, anti-authoritarian (“Try anarchy!”) an Eagle Scout and a Hell Raiser.
Here’s the thing I started to tell you about all of this: It is the season of grief and loss. Leaves falling. Salmon dying. Bears breaking into cars. No more garden salads ’til May. The weeks of rain hasn’t helped moods.
But, the fast-moving storms that were part of the tail-end of a typhoon, have produced a lot of what I call “Jesus rays,” lately. Those breaks in the clouds that heaven shines down through– and rainbows. One of Nelbert’s close friends said he saw a rainbow while running and knew it was from him.
Beth and I were walking on the beach when we saw a rainbow and thought the same thing. We talked about Nels, and then our parents, all gone now, and my neighbor Betty who promised me a sign from the other side. (I haven’t seen as many as I’d hoped), and another friend of ours who just planted a blanket of spring bulbs on her husband’s grave out at the cemetery. She and a couple friends made a party out of it. At night. They were not afraid. We agreed we should plant some out there too, before the frost.
That’s when I spotted a white heart-shaped rock in the sand. It was as if someone dropped it in front of us to say– “Hey, pay attention. We are not that far away.”
Beth reminded me about how when another old friend was dying he said he’d come back as a moose, and that after he passed, and the family was escorting his remains to the airport to fly to Juneau to be cremated, a bull moose stepped out of the brush on the side of the road. You don’t see that often around here. When a cycling friend of mine died suddenly in a bike accident, I went for a ride to remember him by, and had a weird visit from a little black bear. He just looked at me from the end of a driveway as I pedaled by. He was better behaved than a golden retriever. He didn’t bark or chase. He just stood there.
But back to the best sign from our man Nels. A few days after he died, Suzy was lighting a fire, and as always stopped to see what she may have missed in whatever old edition of the Chilkat Valley News she was about to crumple up, and this is what she read:
“Not a coincidence,” Suzy said.
Nope, definitely not.