I spent all of Easter Day on an ATV to bring buffalo in from the east side of the Cheyenne River where they had spent the winter. It was a long day but not terribly strenuous. How tiring can it be to be miles from any other human being, in a piece of the Great Plains that could serve as a time machine, complete with antelope, deer, buffalo, migrating sand hill cranes, and waves of other birds heading north to begin the world over again?
It was the kind of day that Jim Harrison would have greatly enjoyed and, with the finches, sparrows, robins, and juncos flitting in every drainage, I thought of him more than once. I knew Jim was in Patagonia, Arizona surrounded by the birds he loved so intently. He’d been on my mind because I knew that he was not well. A day like I was having might have done him good, it was peaceful and calm. Still, I was tired when I got back to the house and I went to bed about eight o’clock. Jill was at her desk catching up on emails, Facebook, and all that other stuff that accumulates on beautiful days when sane people are out of doors. I didn’t plan on talking to her until early on Monday morning but woke about 9:30 that night when I felt her sit down on the edge of the bed.
“Dan?” I struggled to consciousness. “I wouldn’t have woken you but I thought you’d want to know.”
I roused myself and sat up. “Know what?”
She flipped on the reading light beside the bed and touched my arm. “Jim Harrison died.”
We sat in the pale light for a moment. “I debated whether to wake you or not. You need your sleep.”
I waved her concern away. “I’ll be fine.” It was not a great surprise that Jim was dead. “When?”
My next thought was that the birds that had flown over me all day had said goodbye to Jim a day or two before. “Are you all right?” Jill asked.
“Are you going to able to get back to sleep?”
“Sure,” I said. But after she turned off the light and left the bedroom I found that I couldn’t close my eyes.
The last time I talked to Jim I was shocked at the frailness of his voice. The immediate problem then was that his wife, Linda, was very sick. He was deeply worried about her and sounded more depressed than I had ever heard him. We found out a week later, that Linda had died and Jill said what we were both thinking. “He won’t last long without her.”
I called a mutual friend and we agreed that we should get down to Arizona to see Jim. But winter got away from us and we never made it. On that warm Easter evening all I could do was lay in my bed and regret our procrastination. Another would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, sleepless night.
Every news outlet would do obituaries and they would dwell, not only on Jim’s huge contribution to American literature but also on his outrageous behavior. They would try to reconcile Jim’s writing with what many people saw as a rural crudeness. They might talk about his black humor but they would miss the hilarity of his worldviews. They would not mention his kindness and sensitivity to others. Those were the characteristics of Jim Harrison that I thought of on the night after his death.
In the late nineteen nineties I knew almost no one in the literary world. I was living in the Black Hills of South Dakota, far off the beaten path, with neighbors who had no idea that I had even dreamed of writing a book. I would have sworn that no one would ever read the book I had just sent off to a publisher in New York. When I answered the phone and someone said it was Jim Harrison looking for Dan O’Brien, I just laughed. “Who is this?”
“Harrison, I read the galleys of your book. I wanted to meet you.”
He was passing through on his yearly migration from Michigan to Montana. He didn’t have to stop. He didn’t have to read the galleys. He didn’t have to call me or take me out to eat Chinese food. Of course he didn’t have to pour me a tumbler full of whiskey when I walked into his motel room or wink at the waitress when he told her “not to bother bringing any of those cardboard boxes because we’re going to eat everything you bring us.” The whiskey and the waitress stuff were the kind of reminiscences that would make the obituaries.
Few would know about the wise council he would give me and others over the years: how to deal with New York publishers, Hollywood agents, outsized appetites, and troubled wives. How to sit on the porch of an Upper Peninsula cabin and simply listen to the trout stream babble. He ate and drank too much. Sure, but that was just the love in him coming to the surface. To dwell on that part of Jim Harrison makes for great stories but obscures the man and clouds an understanding of his genius.
Jill came to bed sometime during the night and was still asleep when I walked out into our kitchen to make coffee. The south side of the room is mostly glass and looks out onto the Cheyenne River valley. The sun was pulsing red behind the bluffs on the other side of the river. It caught my eye as I measured the coffee and drew me toward the deck where redpolls and goldfinches fluttered around the bird feeder. There were more birds than perches for them to sit on. More birds on our deck than I had ever seen before.