Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Yesterday we said good-bye to José. I helped carry him to the sober vehicle in which he would make his last earthly journey.
It was fitting and proper that my being in Buenos Aires for this event should have come about as it did. It was the result of a journey, an unexpected one. Not the carefully planned thousand-mile trips that I usually organize for the three or so visits a year that I make from Patagonia to the Argentine capital. This one was spur-of-the-moment, as if there were some urgent calling that drove me to make it. Fitting and proper, I say, because what José and I mostly had in common were journeys and the call of the Patagonian wilds.
In this case, my wife was the voice of Destiny.
“Why don’t you book a flight to Buenos Aires?” she asked.
“What for?”
“Because you need it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’re all uptight and finding fault with everything. That everything irritates you. You need to get away and relax.”
“Why don’t you go if you can’t stand being around me?” I growled.
“See what I mean?” she said.
She was right, of course. I’ve recently been going through treatment for the chronic arrhythmia that I’ve been living with for a decade. And I’m a terrible patient. I—like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets—hate pills (“I’m using the word hate here...about pills”) and like hospitals and going to the doctor even less (my record for not setting foot in a doctor’s office was the twenty-two years from 1978 to 2000...and I only went then because I had cut a tendon in my foot almost in two and realized I wasn’t going to be able to stick it back together with Loctite Super Glue). As in the case of that neurotic Nicholson character, however—and like it or not—pills, in this case, do me good, as do the trips to the cardiologist that I avoid for as long as possible and then take what he tells me with a grain of salt (“Oh, and about salt, Dan, lay off of it!”).
But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or like no longer being able to be the hard-drinking, “indestructible” devil-may-care rascal I once was. And that makes me really irritable, because it makes me feel old.
So I made the arrangements—emailed a client who owed me money to see if I could go collect it and while I was there talk to him about an upcoming project, messaged a friend whose novel had just won a literary prize in Spain to see if he’d be available in Buenos Aires to celebrate before he left for Europe to accept the award, and made a few other contacts to ensure that I could justify what was basically a pleasure trip by making it also sound like work and thus not feel any guilt (Oh, but the Puritan work ethic doth die hard!).
I booked my flight and lodging on Wednesday evening and by midday Friday, I was on my way to Buenos Aires. The first thing I did on arriving was call Cris, José’s partner of 30-odd years, since Virginia, my wife, had let her know I was coming and she’d admonished that I had better get in touch as soon as I landed. Cris said I should plan for a cookout at their place over the weekend.
We’d agreed to get together on Sunday evening, but that never happened. On Sunday morning, Cris called to let me know that José had died during the night. So the get-together on Sunday evening was with numerous friends and family members who had come to accompany Cris, and many of us were present the next day as well for José’s funeral service in the chapel at Buenos Aires’s sprawling Chacarita Cemetery.
José’s death wasn’t unexpected. But it still came as a surprise. He was nothing if not stubborn and tenacious, and he’d been fighting death for several years now, despite having become permanently bed-ridden. He had put up such a valiant fight, that we’d all almost forgotten he could actually die at any time.
José and Cris
Virginia and I have known José and Cris ever since they met. They were both classmates of Virginia’s brother’s at the University of Buenos Aires School of Architecture and Urban Design. They hung out at my mother-in-law’s house working on projects together throughout most of their college years in the seventies and eighties and we all got to be very good friends. At first they were my brother-in-law Miguel’s friends and we were simply peripheral acquaintances, but eventually we became Cris and José’s friends in our own right.
My relationship with José was, I would eventually realize, a lot like the one I had with my father. José was enough like Whitie—and I enough like myself—that we often clashed despite having great affection for one another. And since he was considerably older than the rest of us—he had been a road-crew ramrod and later private building contractor for years before going to architecture school, and had an ex-wife and a pre-adolescent son by that marriage to show for it as well—he often tried to pull rank, which, belligerent cuss that I’ve always been, I wasn’t willing to put up with. Cris and I got along swimmingly, however, and Virginia liked them both a lot, so the foursome tended to work.
It was with José and Cris that we explored numerous localities in the vast Patagonian region. That was where we were in our element. Travel, adventure and a bent for driving interminably long distances were addictions that José and I shared, and our friendship flourished when we were on dusty back roads, our two cars loaded with gear and victuals, rolling in tandem like a miniature wagon train through that vast and mysterious region. Or anyplace else that we decided to camp, for that matter. Because Patagonia wasn’t the only place that we directed our convoy and pitched our tents. We also camped on the shores of the Atlantic in the sprawling territory of Buenos Aires Province. And on the edge of a lagoon known as Lobos, where activities including a little fishing, a lot of talking and a corresponding lot of barbecuing and wine-drinking.
Cris, José and Virginia in their element: Patagonia
However, the deep southern reaches of Patagonia were not just journeys, but a dream we shared. Someday, we both insisted, we would all go there to live, he and Cris and Virginia and I, the four of us, and anybody else from our little clique of friends and family who wanted to come along. We’d find a place that struck our fancy and set up housekeeping there for the rest of our lives. And indeed we did our homework on the trips we took together, checking out the prices of land and housing, weighing the possibility of work, projecting ideas to make a living and still be reasonably free, talking to the locals to get a clear feeling for the region, giving our minds free rein to dream the dream we shared.
Together we journeyed to the strange Patagonian coastal region of Puerto Madryn, with its clear blue-green bay, coastal caves (where Welsh settlers made their first homes in the eighteen hundreds), the low mesetas sculpted by persistent winds, rugged steppe land, and the tall lion-colored cliffs above stony beaches where penguins and fur seals formed colonies, and within sight of which scores of southern right whales came each year to mate and give birth. While there we toured the towns that Welsh settlers in search of religious freedom had first established—Madryn, Gaiman, Rawson and Trelew, and indeed much of the rest of the province of Chubut as well.
Together too, we crossed the broad Patagonian desert from the coast to the Andes on a stunningly desolate highway where an Automobile Club service station every few hundred kilometers was what passed for civilization—that and blink-of-an-eye villages like Las Chapas, Las Plumas, Dolavon and the hidden settlement of Villa Ameghino where Reynolds and Jones were common names and the Chubut River was the artery whose flow maintained life there.
Cris, José and Dan on the road in Patagonia. 
Out of the gritty desert and raw steppes, we wended our way into the mountains and delighted to the lush forests and gentle valleys there, like the one that connected the pleasant Patagonian outposts of Trevelín and Esquel. We camped in the alerce evergreen and maitén forests of a national park on the shores of deep and cold Lake Futalaufquen, cooled our beer in a mountain stream that flowed by our tents and gathered watercress and mint there as well for our dinner salad. We pitched our tents on a tall table rock above the Río Azul and hung out at the artisan’s fair in El Bolsón. We camped in the heat of summer in Bariloche on Lake Nahuel Huapi, and curled up in our sleeping bags against the frost and autumn chill in San Martín de los Andes on the shore of Lake Lacar. And everywhere there was always a campfire, something to barbecue, spirits to drink and abundant laughter.
José was a cocky bantam rooster with a quick temper and a staunch resistance to backing down when challenged—traits he shared with Whitie. But he was also a joker with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for practical jokes. I recall once on a trip south, when I had charted our course for the day and was in the lead, seeing in my rearview mirror how José’s car suddenly veered off the road onto the earthen berm in a cloud of dust. We had just passed a field where manure had recently been spread, and the air was absolutely ripe with it (good ol’ fresh country air, as my mother, Reba Mae, used to refer to it).
I pulled over as well, and as soon as the dust had cleared, I saw Cris jump out of the car and start desperately inspecting the soles of her shoes. With the window down, I could hear her say, “No, José, mine are clean, it must be yours...but why can I still smell it out here?!” Meanwhile, inside the car, I could see José absolutely hysterical with laughter at the sight of Cris, a city girl for sure, checking and rechecking her shoes. Seems when she’d asked what that awful smell was, José said, “I don’t know, but whatever it is, you’ve stepped in it!” urgently stopping the car so she could get out and check.
One of many campsites we shared.
I have certain images of José etched in my memory. José getting up and hiking off to a nearby country store while the rest of us were still snoring in our tents and getting back just in time to offer us a breakfast of fresh French bread and butter. José with his half-glasses on the bridge of his nose, sitting at a camp table in front of his tent reading a newspaper, drinking yerba mate from a large gourd and using an enormous hunting knife to spread butter on his breakfast bread. José baiting his hook with sardine and casting from the pier in Villa Gesell, standing somewhat apart from the rest of the group, enjoying that moment alone with himself, never looking more relaxed and content than right then. José turning sausages on a grill over the campfire, cooking and talking at the same time regaling us with strange stories from his days as foreman on a road crew in Entre Ríos Province or from when he was an officer’s assistant during his obligatory military service.
There are ties that can’t be broken even when it seems they can. José and I had a falling out once. It wasn’t even our falling out. It was a tiff between him and Miguel, but I was tangentially involved. It’s hard to believe but for the next decade, Virginia and I didn’t see or speak to José and Cris. In hindsight, I would tell any young person who wanted my advice never to fight with good friends or family to the point of a break-up. Because in the end, it’s like cutting off an arm. Worst, it’s like cutting out a piece of your heart.
It was during that time that Virginia and I made the long-postponed decision to finally move to Patagonia. No one came along. No family, no friends. Just us. Our idea that if we went, others would followed turned out to be a self-indulgent fantasy. But go we did and there we’ve stayed, and no regrets.
With Cris and José on the Patagonian coast. 
But after we’d been there for a few years, one evening we got a call. It was Cris. They were in our area and wondered if we’d like to have a cup of coffee. I made no attempt to hide my delight at hearing from them and she sounded relieved. I asked where they were and she told me that they had bought a time-share, which, as destiny would have it, was less than two miles from our place.
“Stay right there,” I said. “I’ll be right over to pick you up!”
That evening at our place was a celebration, a homecoming, a return to how things should always have been. But it also marked another hiatus.
I enthusiastically told them that this was just the time for two architects like themselves to come to Bariloche where we lived. The resort was growing. More people were coming all the time, and they all needed to build homes. There was a fortune to be made for skilled people like them if they came right then. But that was no longer Cris’s dream. She was, she told me, heading for Spain.
When were they leaving, I wanted to know? Soon, she said, but José wouldn’t be going. Maybe later. Maybe once she got established. But José never went, nor could Cris even really go completely. We lost her for nearly another decade, but she remained in contact. Almost daily with José. He had no interest in Spain. And for the time being, she was through with Argentina.
In the meantime, we saw José whenever we were back in Buenos Aires and he always had news to share from Cris. And José also came down to visit us in Patagonia. That, he told me, was still his dream. He had never given it up. Whenever Cris got Spain out of her system and came back home, he would insist that they move to Patagonia. And as if to prove it, he did as we had always done on our journeys together, checking prices, looking at land, talking to locals. Patagonia was still in his plans.
And Cris did eventually come home. Not really by choice, but because there was no other option for someone of her high principles. When both her mother and José fell ill, suddenly, she was back, leaving the quiet life she’d build for herself in Spain because, simply put, there are ties that can never be broken, and on this new journey, she would accompany both her mother and José right up to their own last ones.
We said good-bye to José yesterday and in doing so I realized that nothing is random. There are ties that are meant to be, or so it would appear, and no matter how much we might test them or how much we might distance one end of the tie from the other, it simply can’t be cut, because it’s already tied to your mind and your heart. Once, José, Cris, Virginia and I were inseparable. Then we thought we weren’t. But in the end, we found out that we’d been right the first time—inseparable.
This last journey José had no choice but to make alone, and we had no choice but to let him go. But I’m not discounting the possibility that we’ll all meet up again someday, like the immortal Joe Cocker may well still be singing, “with a different name / and a different face” but with that same mysterious attraction that fosters ties that would appear to last forever.

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