The Death of My Dad, Five Years On

Dan for FacebookDaniel Franklin Farris, b. March 22, 1934, d. Nov. 6, 2011

I’m writing a piece for American Atheist with the working title “The Idea of Souls,” in which I look into some of the civilization-wide cost of believing in ensoulment. The writing of it coincides with the 5-years-ago-today death of my surrogate Dad. What follows is a feelings-level reaction to dealing with that anniversary.

This is an atheist — me — grappling with the death of a loved one. Nothing in atheism says we don’t feel all the same feelings goddy people feel — the same sorrows, the same yearning for it not to be. The difference is, we don’t fall into permanent fantasies of eternity and immortality, into imagining that every life is cosmically significant and that someday, someday, we’ll all be together again in glorious paradise. We accept the fact of death — real death — and simply live with it.

Someday I’ll write a book about it.


People die. And I hate that more than anything.

I’ve thought a lot about … not just the deaths of loved ones, but death itself. How it takes from us the bright lights of civilization, and replaces them with darkness. With nothing. So that we have to struggle to create new lights and put them out there.

I was never a great fan of Lucille Ball. There was something about her comedy that bothered me. The heart of what she did was often about personal embarrassment. She would do something silly that turned into a disaster, and the funny part was how mortifying it was. It just wasn’t my type of humor. But other people liked her, eventually enough that she was one of those legendary superstars, known to everybody.

Bob Hope was the same type of star. Timeless, immortal, forever.

And yet …

If you asked young people today about Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, they would say “Who?” Or maybe “Oh wait, wasn’t she on a TV show or something? And he was like this guy who’d go over and put on shows for the troops? I think my parents knew about them.”

One of the funny things about getting older is there’s all this stuff that happened in your life, events and people you consider Memory, but that younger people consider History. To them it’s a lot of dry, dull stuff that happened way in the past. Genghis Khan, John Glenn, it’s all the same. Eventually, it’s all the same.

I like to think there could be people who were so accomplished, or so good, they’d be nailed into the fabric of reality forever. I’m talking about something more than mere History, where names and dates and victories are recorded in books. I mean they’d be embedded in the bedrock of the Universe, so that everyone and everything that came after would be aware of them. You and I could look up at the sky and just KNOW things. “Vorpal Grishnak? Oh, yeah, he’s the guy who lost his life saving billions of Randalians from that plague on Zarefia IV, in the Korbin Sector.”

And “people” out there could look up at their sky and say “Oh, yeah, Dan Farris. Hank’s Dad. He’s the Earth-human who devoted 60 years of his life to mule packing, taking people into the Eastern Sierra mountains to camp and fish. Helluva story teller and all-around good man.”

To my sorrow, there’s nothing like that. Hell, we can’t even manage History, most of the time. I see cemeteries all over Upstate New York that have pre-Revolutionary tombstones in them. Some of them are so old, hundreds of years, that the chiseled inscriptions have been worn away by rain. I asked at an old church one time, “Are there permanent records somewhere that tell who these people were?” The guy chuckled and said “Paper records get burned in fires, eaten by rats, damaged by water. The stones ARE the permanent records.”

Who would ever imagine a carved granite stone would ever wear away to nothing? And yet they do. The names fall away into darkness, following the people who sported them by only a few years.

I saw a picture at a museum in South Lake Tahoe a ways back, a dozen or so loggers standing on and by a huge felled tree. A dog had wandered into the frame, and a team of mules stood in harness nearby. I realized that every one of those men had lived lives as long and as memorable as mine, or anybody’s, and yet today not only are they gone, but everybody who ever knew them, or even heard stories about them, is gone. The entirety of the impression they had left on the world was this one picture, a shadow-play of silver crystals catching one brief moment in their lives, showing their faces but telling nothing of their story.

And here’s Dan, who meant the world to me, falling away into that same darkness.

He had his day in the sun. He took life into his hands and shaped his own course. He had his victories and his disappointments. He was treated both well and shabbily by the people around him. He found love, and gave love, lost love, and gave still more. He packed mules, he wrote, he told stories. Breaking bones, skinning his knuckles, dessicated by the dry air and the high country sun, he unfailingly stood tall, stood strong, stood steadfast, making a rare impression on the people who knew him. By no means did he come away from life with everybody loving him, or even respecting him. But he lived on his own terms, rock solid, and I see that as victory of a sort many of us never manage.

I have thought many times that we humans have this two-part gift, that we get to be Human and Beast both. We have our Humany parts – which are language and humor, intelligence and creativity, in the heart of our cities and civilization. And we have our Beastly parts – which are things like eating and sleeping, fighting and carousing with our packmates, at our best delving into the wilds around us, becoming one with it.

It seems to me that to be the best person, a COMPLETE Homo sapiens, you have to be not just a good Human, but also a good Beast. And Dan was a good human, intelligent and funny and creative. But he was also a very good Beast – not just good at living in the wilds, but feisty and lusty as well, in every part of his life. Glorying in his beastliness, he ended with memorable scars and stories, but he lived up to the best of both roles.

He’s one of those people who should be branded on the hide of Earth, recorded and preserved forever for all who come after. There should be a story, a vivid memory of him, floating in the clear air and the crystal waters of the Eastern Sierra, so that anyone who came after, the moment they took their first deep breath of the backcountry air or drank the cold, delicious waters of a Sierra stream, would instantly know him. They’d look up in surprise, the water still dripping from their lips, and go “Oh! Dan Farris!” as the memories unfolded in their heads.

But … we have nothing like that. Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, Genghis Khan and John Glenn. And Daniel Franklin Farris. They fall away into darkness, and nothing but words on paper, carvings on stones, hold them here.

We live our lives, creating our own memories and impressions, but also loving and cherishing the memory of each other to the best of our ability. What immortality there is, we provide it, for as long as we ourselves live and retain the memories.

Some of us get stones, some of us get stories in history, some of us even get statues. But some get only memories in the minds and hearts of the people around them.

To a writer, one used to putting down thoughts and words on paper, those memories are as vivid as any bronze statue, recorded for me in a timeless Now. I see Dan as he lives his life on the sunlit trails of the Sierra. The creak of his saddle sounds in the crisp air of a mountain pass, the clink and thud of horse and mule shoes ring and thump on the dusty trails. I see his strong hands on rope and tarp and pack box. I hear his friendly voice as he tells stories by firelight, hear his laughter at the punchline of a joke. I see the last dying light of a Coleman lantern strung overhead, and hear its final little pop.

In the darkness, five years past, I feel him give my hand a last squeeze, see him smile briefly from a hospital bed, a smile that lights the infinite night for me, a light that will – no matter who else remembers or cares – carry on with me for all the years of my life.

For me, it will never be “Here Lies Dan Farris — little-known man of this one small place.” It will be “Here STANDS Dan Farris, A Good Man, A Mule Packer and Mountain Guide, A Rare Specimen Of The People Of Planet Earth, Unforgettable And Unmatchable In All The Worlds.”

The world is poorer for his loss, and there will never come another like him.

But maybe … for this life, for this history, for me, the one was all I needed.


Ha — of course that doesn’t stop me from thinking, pretty much every day, “Dammit, Old Man. I miss you.”

Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth

Cowboy DadFor most of the years I knew him, I unconsciously thought of my Cowboy Dad as “the grownup” in my life. Since he died, I’ve realized there were several side-effects of thinking that. One is that I cheated him out of all the years of ME being a grownup, so that we could be … well, friendly equals, fellow MEN together. The other is that I cheated myself out of all those years of me being a grownup. All the endeavors and relationships in my life were approached in some degree of a childish/childlike manner.

None of this was conscious, or by decision. It was something that simply appeared in my attitudes and behavior. If I had stated it in words, it would’ve come out to something like “It’s safe for me to be childish. I can be irresponsible. I can drift, I can put off critical decisions. I can party, I can laze around and not think about my present situation, or my future. If I screw up, he will rescue me. I can safely not worry too much about the people around me, or the larger world, because the Old Man is handling all that.”

I think a lot about religion and the effects it has on people and cultures, and I think my experience of “relating to the grownup as a child” is directly applicable to the experience of people in religion. I doubt we can imagine how much we’ve lost, how much Planet Earth has lost, by us feeling free to not be conscious adults.

In my case, I can’t place the entire blame on myself. I came into our relationship fairly  broken, and I needed the comfort and guidance, the there-for-you-ness, a real parent could provide. But that doesn’t mean the results were any less real, any less damaging.

In the case of we humans, I suppose I can’t place the entire blame there, either. As a species, we grew up without parents or wise guidance of any sort. We stumbled along figuring out things as we went, repeatedly falling back into mistakes and breaking ourselves and the world around us.

But the cost has been incalculable, and it’s something we – and our planet – can’t afford anymore.

A month or so after my Dad died, I woke up one day to the realization “Oh gosh, I have to be a grownup now.” It was a little bit scary, but mostly it was … strength. Determination. A little bit of steel injected into my being with the understanding that I could handle whatever happened, because that’s what grownups do. I understood that I had to relate to my own life and the world around me in an entirely new, entirely responsible way. And I was truly okay with that.

For any individual recovering from religion, I have to believe you have that same epiphany. After your god “dies,” you realize you have to be an adult. You have to deal with the reality of your own life, and the lives of those close to you, and even larger matters out in the world around you. But you also understand that you CAN. You — along with others like you — take each situation into your hands and change it for the better. Or you accept the fact of a bad situation and deal realistically with its cost. Because that’s what grownups do.

As an entire civilization, we’re nowhere near the point of waking up as grownups. Our world full of contentedly religious, drunkenly mystical, calmly unconcerned juveniles is this hapless, directionless child, fumbling around and breaking things, breaking each other and the world we live in, and thinking it’s all okay, because our Parent is dealing with all the hard stuff and picking up the clutter of each destructive act.

I think even most atheists inherit this mindset, and fail to notice they have it. We grow up in the culture that thinks this way, and it’s so deeply embedded we never get around to seeing it, or peeling it out of our own heads.

To all those soft-serve atheists who think we should just live and let live, that atheism will grow or not as events develop, and that meanwhile it’s all good …

I think you have no idea how deadly dangerous is the situation we live within. No idea how damaging it is to let people continue to believe in gods, and stay children. No idea what we’ve DONE, and continue to do, and will soon do.

It’s why I’m not just an atheist, but an anti-theist.

In the same way you have to cure disease in order to be well, we have to cure ourselves of religion, of the childishness of our race, in order to be grownups. In order to live and be well on Planet Earth, in order that the lot of us can wake up and see that we have to be adults now — in order to SURVIVE — our gods have to die.

We have to kill them.

Pain As a Monument to Life

The question always comes up: What do you say to someone who’s lost a loved one to death? How do you comfort them? Maybe the only useful answer is that there is no real comfort, and that that’s a good thing.

A few days ago I found a microcassette tape of my Cowboy Dad talking to me. The tape is nothing special, it’s just him sitting there in his living room talking. Teaching me something … and that was so HIM.

I wish I had more such tapes. I wish I had video. Jeez, I want HIM back. But I know I’m not going to get that. The rotten realization hits me yet again: I’ll go the whole rest of my life without him in it.

But I’m also thinking, you know, he had his moment in the sun. And this moment, THIS one, is mine. This is the moment in the sun of all of us, all we living people. And yeah, sadness is a part of it. We’ll always have that, those of us who feel real love, and lose it.

But this brief Moment, our moment, is also the only time we get for creating joy, for living our lives as our own selves, and discovering how much we can do with that.

That’s what we’re really about, isn’t it? Not just getting through the day, not just slinking through our lives making as little fuss as possible, not just dragging ourselves from one place to another and back over and over, but creating joy. DOING something joyous and big, and sharing it.

I suppose it’s irony that each next generation most strongly feels the sadness of losing us when we have created an environment of love, of the joys of life, for them to live inside. The sadness we feel at the loss of a loved one is the monument to a life well and lovingly lived.

In my view, nothing should be allowed to diminish that sadness, that monument. Not drugs, not religion, not well-meaning fantasies about better places and rainbow bridges.

When you lose someone you love, it should damned well HURT, and keep on hurting … until you rediscover the joys of life in your own time, hear the music of life again and find your feet dancing to it.

Every generation carries within it the darkness and pain of death, and yet manages to dance in the music and the sunshine of life.

It will happen for you.

I’m Ready for My Inheritance, Granny — Would You Kindly DIE??

I was talking to my friend Dirt Boy (he owns a plant nursery, and I never shake his hand that he doesn’t have to wipe it off first) last night about Beta Culture, and we got onto the subject of death.

If you’re an existing reader here, you probably know about my Cowboy Dad. For you others: I grew up in Houston, Texas, moved to a little mountain town in California when I was 22. I met this guy there who became my mentor, teacher and eventually, “Dad.” We were both mule packers and wilderness guides — cowboys, that is.

So: Cowboy Dad.  And I wish you could have known him. He was the greatest, kindest, toughest, most magnificent  single human I ever knew. Hell, he put up with ME for 35 years.

I sat with him in the hospital for the last four days of his life, sponging off his forehead, talking to him, telling him everything I needed to say: Your life mattered. The world was a better place for having you in it. I wish we were anywhere else right now, maybe reining in at Duck Pass and looking down at the lake, or setting up camp in Horse Heaven. I will never, ever forget you. I wish I’d been a better son. A thousand times: I love you, Old Man, and I always will.

Anyway, he died. He was conscious and in control for most of those four days, and he was emphatically clear that no tubes or wires were going to be connected to him. Though he couldn’t talk, the fury on his face when a nurse tried to sneak one in on him was eloquent as hell.

He was neither drinking nor eating by the time I got there, so essentially he was starving and thirsting himself to death. The peaceful breathing on the day of my arrival gradually ramped up over the four days to the rasping breath of a marathon runner, and he crossed the finish line as I sat with him.

Though they gave him morphine every few hours, I have no doubt that the whole thing was agonizing. Part of his end was some sort of septic reaction that made his legs and feet swollen and black — so painful they put a little arched rail down by his feet so the sheet wouldn’t touch his toes.

I asked a doctor, and later a nurse, flat out: Is there anything we can do to end this? Their eyes slid away from mine and they voiced standard platitudes: Well, we can make him as comfortable as possible in the time remaining.

Though his dying was no fault of anyone’s, he was still, by the nature of the situation, being tortured to death. And damn, I hate knowing that.

You know, there were moments when I would have liked a final hug from him, more than the one squeeze of his hand and the one smile that accompanied it. But I understood this was HIS time, that he was BUSY, and that I would have a whole lifetime more to see to my own needs. I was there for him, and him only, and so were the doctors and nurses.

Except in this one way: None of us had the power or the will to let him go painlessly.

I know for a fact that he didn’t want to be lying there in pain, dying in a bed. Hah — more than once I heard him reveal his ideal end: “I want to be shot by a jealous lover right after making love to identical twin redheads!” But he would just as well have wanted to die in his sleep while camping in his beloved John Muir wilderness.

I don’t want that sort of boundlessly-painful in-bed end for myself. Or for anybody who doesn’t choose it. But it’s what we’ve got, and there is no possibility of that changing.

I suppose some small part of the problem is our screwed-up language.  For the elderly person who seeks an end to intractable, never-ending pain, we have only the one graceless word, the same one we use for the vengeful adolescent who jumps off a bridge to get back at his parents for being grounded, or for the cornered killer who shoots himself to escape arrest.

He committed suicide. She committed suicide. Shameful. Disturbing. Bad.

And as we all know, “suicide” is ALWAYS wrong. It’s crazy, it’s sinful, you go straight to Hell.

As you might guess from the title of this piece, I know there really are people out there who would seek to quietly and conveniently do away with Granny, or even Mom, to speed their inheritance on its way. The thing is, most people WOULDN’T. But as Dirt Boy describes it, “We make the rules for the dumbest kid in class.” Or the meanest, the most evil, the most greedy. And everybody else, though they’ve done nothing wrong, suffer from it.

The result: For all those who might, with great love and compassion, assist in the death of a loved one, it’s just plain old murder. We’ll put your ass in prison if you do it.

We’ve all heard that old argument: We treat our pets better than we do our old people. But yes, in fact, we do. I’ve sat with two dogs, Ranger the Valiant Warrior and Tito the Mighty Hunter, hugging them and dripping tears into their fur, as they died. Tito died at home, on the grassy hillside of his own yard. Ranger died in a vet’s office, but I insisted he be given a shot of painkiller before he got the death shot, so I’d know he didn’t die in pain. And both times, I was talking to them, telling them what great friends they were: You’re the best, Ranger! I love you, good boy! I love you T-Buddy (Tito)! I’ll never forget YOU.

Oh, shit, I’m crying as I write this. But … it’s a good cry. Memories of those friends will be with me always, and damn, I hated to lose them. But I know I did the RIGHT thing to let them go painlessly.  Ranger lived to be 12.5 — a very advanced age for a pedigreed German shepherd. Tito, my big malamute-black lab mutt, lived to be 16.5. They were OLD. They’d lived their lives. And in both cases, we extended their time in every way we could, until we couldn’t do any more. Neither could walk. Ranger was bleeding internally and in pain, Tito had some sort of cancer and was finally too weak to stand up. It wasn’t murder; it was mercy.

When the “I can’t bear to lose him” inside me was finally beaten out by the “Don’t be selfish, he’s suffering,” in each case, I let them go — painlessly, peacefully, and with all the tear-soaked love in my body.

In ugly contrast, what we have for people — mediated by cops, courts, lawyers and distant legislators — is … well, LEGAL.

Not loving and compassionate and pain free. Legal.

I’d bet good money that if you could do a brain scan of almost anyone dying in a hospital of advanced age or serious disease, you’d find that they were suffering hellish pain — at least part of the time, and some of them the whole time.

But hey, on the bright side, the rest of us don’t have to feel it. And at least we’re keeping safe that small percentage who might otherwise be murdered by greedy heirs. Because screw the rest of those old gummers, right? We can torture them to death by default, then walk away and forget the whole thing.

Merciless. Ugly. Crazy. Uncivilized. And forever. Unless …

Speaking for myself, I’d like to live in a society, in a culture, that will treat me better when I’m close to death. I don’t want drugs, I want dignity. Self-determination. Freedom. I want to be in charge of my faculties and my life, and have some say in the moment and manner of my ending. I damned well demand it.

It’s one of the many things I think could be changed, if we create this new thing.


To You and Yours

dan2Favorite holiday moment of all time: I was away at college in about 1982, but determined to make it home for the holidays. In the dead of winter, I set out hitchhiking from the Sacramento area to the Eastern Sierra, a distance of more than 250 miles. In what turned out to be a full day of standing on the roadside, getting short rides, more standing on the roadside, etc., I finally reached my Cowboy Dad’s house in the mountains at about 8 p.m. — 12 hours later.

The last ride had been an endless, freezing two hours hunched up inside my coat IN THE BACK OF A PICKUP. If you look up “chilled to the bone” in the encyclopedia, there will be a picture of me as I crawled over the side of the truck bed and landed on the street. I was so cold I could barely make my hands grip, so cold I was no longer even shivering.

I walked two blocks to Dan’s (Dad’s) house, climbed the stairs on knees so stiff I had trouble bending them, and knocked on the door. He opened it and ushered me in, instantly seeing I was near-frozen. He said “Go right into the bathroom and fill the tub up with hot water. Sit in it for a while.”

Through stiff lips, I said “Just let me sit here for a bit.” He was adamant: “No, get in there and fill the tub up with hot water and get into it. We’ll talk when you come out.”

I did what he said. Spent about an hour in luxurious hot water, and it was unbelievable how great it felt.

I will love him forever for so many things, but that was one of the REALLY good ones. Wish he was here so I could tell him one more time: I was so, so lucky to have you in my life. Merry Christmas, Old Man.

And happy holidays to all the rest of you. If you have somebody like this in your life, TELL THEM what they mean to you.

Interlude, With Pack Mule

Sorry, all, about the recent paucity of posts. Among other things, I’ve been busy getting some stuff ready for an event – Mule Days, it’s called – happening in Bishop, California, where I used to live and where my Dad lived.

I’m trying to get all the people who knew him to contribute stories, photos, etc., memories of his life that will go up on a couple of memorial-type web pages. This event will draw quite a few people into the area, some of which will be old friends or acquaintances of his, some of whom will have some of this stuff I’m gathering. Continue reading “Interlude, With Pack Mule”

Interjection, With Tears

I’ve shied away from gushing at length about my Dad’s death here. Mainly I think of my own “guy” reaction to other people’s family-death turmoils. It’s a personal thing, or should be, and you shouldn’t go flashing it around in public too much.

But I also feel that I owe all of you something. Periodic updates, I guess. Those of you who donated to make possible my visit to his side at the hospital, I want you to know … well, that a very human thing happened, and continues to happen, and it’s all thanks to you. I didn’t want anybody to think I had just shrugged it all off, and that posts months back were the last you’d hear. I still think a book is a real possibility.

Meanwhile, I thought I might give you a little window into what’s going on by posting a brief note from my tape journal from a couple of days ago. Continue reading “Interjection, With Tears”

Jeez, I Looked Like THAT??

Good news! Well, for me, anyway.

I’ve been invited to do an article for American Atheist Magazine. I just submitted it today, for the March issue.

Part of the thing was a couple of photos I had to send along. Since the piece is about my recent “atheist deals with death” experience, and speaks of my cowboy Dad, the pics were of me and said Dad.

Most of my life, I actually thought I was rather homely, but looking at this pic from 1975, I’m like “Hey, this kid is handsome! That’s ME??” Continue reading “Jeez, I Looked Like THAT??”

The Ashes of a Cowboy

I’m sitting here waiting for the USPS. My Dad’s ashes are coming in the mail today.

I was sort of happy-excited about it all morning, but now I’m thinking “Oh, crap. Here comes a solid reminder that I’ll never be able to hear his warm voice again, or have him invite me in for a slash of apricot brandy.”

That welcoming, wise – and yes, sometimes damned annoying – presence is gone from my life. He won’t BE THERE for me. Ever again.

In case you’ve wondered, after my trip to California that you all donated to make possible, the whole thing is still going on in my life. Continue reading “The Ashes of a Cowboy”

I’m Back

I got to be with my dad from midnight on Wednesday until Sunday morning.

I expect to be writing more about this at some indefinite-future time, but for now the details are this:

Thanks to everybody’s donations, I got to be there with him for 3 days and a little bit more, and I was with him when he died. He knew I was there, responded to my voice, and seemed to be comforted by my touching and talking.

I told him what a good man he was, and what a hole there would be in the world when he left:

I love you, Old Man. You’re not alone. I’m right here with you.

I was so lucky to meet you, to have you in my life. There just aren’t words for what you mean to me. You’ll be in my head every day for the rest of my life, and I’ll do my best to be somebody you’d be proud of.

The world has been a better place for having you in it. I guarantee you every person who ever went on a wilderness trip with you remembers it to this day, and it’s one of their best memories, and the reason for that is just you. There are so many people who love you, who respect you for the man you are, who envy you the life you’ve led.

All the work is done, and you did a fantastic job. The horses are back in the corral, the mules are fed, the gear’s all put away. If you want to rest now, it’s okay. I’ll be right here with you for the whole trip.

I was with him on Sunday morning, running a cool wet cloth over his forehead and talking to him quietly, when his eyes opened. I went down to the nursing station to ask a question, and when I came back I sat and put my hand on his warm forehead.

At 9:45 a.m., his labored breathing changed, became suddenly softer and slower. He sighed through five more breaths, and then stopped. I could see the pulse still beating in his throat, but after a minute that too stopped. The nurse came in and I choked out “I think he just died.”

Daniel Franklin Farris: Sunburnt mountain man, mule packer, High Sierra wilderness guide, horseman and hunter, teacher and coach, backcountry cook, unmatched teller of campfire tales, protector and defender, friend to dogs and horses, sometime cowboy poet, legendary bare-knuckled bar fighter, irrepressible lover of women.

Crusty angles and edges, but soft-hearted, patient and giving, ever-welcoming, he was also my Dad.

There will never be another like him.




Anybody who wants to check the details of the story, my Dad’s name was Dan Farris. He was in Room 11 of Northern Inyo Hospital, Bishop California. His attending physician was Dr. Boo … and I’d bet good money Dan made at least one joke about that, considering it was Halloween, or close to it, when he was admitted.

The hospital staff were nothing short of fantastic. They took great care of Dan, checking on him frequently and keeping him comfortable. They made a big fuss about the fact of my long-distance visit. Everybody had been told to expect me, and I must have been asked a half-dozen times “Are you ‘New York’?”

They completely ignored visiting hours, letting me show up at 5 a.m. and stay until after midnight, they offered trays from the cafeteria at breakfast, lunch and dinner, they told me what a good friend I was for traveling this long way, they listened to my stories about Dan the mule packer, wilderness guide and good friend, they kindly pretended not to notice my erratic tears, and there were even a few hugs.