Those words would've been perfect for my uncle's tombstone, if he'd wanted one. Not some silly factory-ready epitaph, not some stupid bullshit greeting card farewell, and certainly no Bible verses.
HE WAS AN ARTIST.
HE CONQUERED STONE WITH HIS FLESH.
BLOOD OF CONCRETE, ROCKS IN HIS BONES,
HEART OF GOLD
Listening to my parents' voicemail Wednesday morning, that was all I could think about as I sat on the loading dock at work, staring at a rusting brown Dumpster, wishing I could cry.
He was an artist, and I can visit him anytime.
My uncle had, after fighting cancer for several years, departed this world, mere days after the last of his children graduated from high school. And he fought until the end, fought for every breath, just as he'd fought every other thing that'd tried to break him.
He left my aunt with explicit instructions - no funeral, memorial service, or other frivolous things. His ashes are to be delivered unto the Columbia River, his soul left to bond with the salmon and the grizzly bear.
Rich was an artist, and now he'll be turned to dust.
And for an artist built like a grizzly, there is perhaps no better ending. He died in his sleep, entering his own eternal hibernation, to one day awake in another, freer world, where his growl scares no one but the wind, where he can be happy with that. He deserves one hell of a monument, but he'd rather just be returned to the earth, to the Wild West wilderness that spawned him.
And even though my aunt says she's not ready to part with him just yet, she'll one day take him down to the river, my five grown cousins in tow, and grant his last wish.
Still, I thought I'd better write him an epitaph. Words are, well, cheap, but they can occasionally mean something.
* * * *
Rich was an artist, and I don't care what the world says.
When I was a child, I used to watch him conquer quarried stone and build magnificent things, structures that would shame the architects of the Great Pyramids.
At the time of his death, he'd last been employed as a mechanic. He'd worked numerous other jobs, worked on a ranch, as a short-order cook, a carpenter.
But in my memories, Rich was, and will always be, a stonemason, the master of hammer and chisel and trowel, one with the ancients who built Stonehenge and the Roman Aqueduct, a modern incarnation of the everyday artist who built Europe's great cathedrals and the Great Wall of China.
Watching him work his trowels, watching those tools butter up bricks and granite and other stones, was like watching de Vinci sketch or Titian select models.
He'd stare at a pallet full of flat stones for an hour, pick through them like a child digging through a box of chocolates, lay them out on the ground in seemingly random patterns. And then he'd pull his masonry hammer from his belt, chip off a few corners here and there, birthing order from his chaotic mess.
Rich would then prep his surfaces, apply his wire backing, and mix his mortar precisely. As he worked his way up from the bottom, his chaotic piles of rocks would grow into chimneys and foundations and facades, retaining walls and fireplaces. As he finished, as he would work his knives over the joints, adding a groove here or there, leaving his own subtle signature in the mortar.
* * * *
He worked best with a large chew of tobacco in his cheek, with plenty of soda pop handy and country or classic rock music playing in the background.
Occasionally, he'd even try to sing - with a mouth full of Skoal, brown spit dripping down his beard as he bellowed out of tune. On most job sites, other construction workers would beg him not to dance, too, as the laughter generated could potentially lead to an accident.
As funny as it was, it was a thing of beauty. But then again, Rich was a beautiful man.
* * * *
Rich was a master, a man of dust and stone, in place of flesh and bone.
I spent portions of two summers working with him on job sites, sweating away in the Virginia heat for a whopping wage of $3.75 an hour, watching him build his marvelous creations and, most importantly, learning to build my own.
I hauled cinder blocks through tick-infested fields, dragged wet concrete up flights of scaffolding. I cleaned out at least a thousand buckets, chipped off at least a ton of dry cement from bucket trowels and tuck trowels and wheelbarrows and mixers.
Day after day, I'd cough up concrete dust for the first fifteen minutes of lunch breaks, learned to love cans of cold pork and beans and tins of mustard-covered sardines. I'd eat in silence and then stare at my poor blistered hands and bloody forearms for another fifteen minutes.
I'd hurt some days so bad that I'd want to cry. And as we'd drive home at the end of the day, he'd poke fun at my occasional whining, buy me a Coke (and sometimes a bottle of beer, if I worked hard), and debate the finer points of everything.
But I never once considered quitting. When one gets an opportunity to watch an artist, to be taught by one, only idiots and other worthless bastards walk away, crying about hardship.
True artistry is not taught in classrooms, nor explained by neutered MFAs in sterile lectures. And true art is hard, dirty work, rugged and mean and covered with scars. The carpenter is no different than the sculptor, the person who rivets the steel girders of bridges and high-rises the equal of muralists and photographers.
The rest is just bullshit history, the kind written by pompous architects, theorists, and other worthless critics. Art is not for them. It remains in the eye of the beholder, and it takes many forms. There is art, somewhere, in everything crafted by Man.
Rich was an artist, and he taught me to trust the dust.
* * * *
My Uncle Rich will soon be turned to dust, cremated down to the same gray dust that once covered his jeans and his shirts. And his ashes will one day clump atop of the water of the Columbia, floating along the surface for a time, then sinking to the riverbed.
And somewhere at the bottom of that mighty Pacific Northwest river, his human remains will mix with sediment, will bind with it, and will fill the crevices in between the worn river rocks. And there, finally, the creator will become part of the Great Creation, grout to hold stones in place, to slow down their eventual erosion, mortar against the forces of nature.
It is a perfect final work for a master mason.
* * * *
I have yet to cry. I don't think I can, actually.
I last spoke to my uncle two years ago, when he called my parents' house one Christmas, to wish his big sister's family a happy holidays.
We spoke for maybe five minutes, about nothing in particular. He did, however, brag about the beauty of the Oregon countryside, brag on his five sons, and brag on his life.
He was content.
And from what I've heard, he spent the rest of his days trying to keep it that way.
* * * *
Rich was an artist, and I can show you the marvelous stonework he created with his own hands.
Oh yeah, that two-story stone fireplace up at the Wintergreen Resort? He built that sucker. One of the homeowner's neighbors once called it the most beautiful fireplace she'd ever seen. And I think that may be the best compliment anyone ever gave him. As I rode home with him that night, the three hours back to the farm, he kept referring to himself as The Artiste...
That foundation on that farmhouse out in Burkeville? Hell, he and I spent four days digging those footers, and that lady's goose attacked us every morning. The damn thing even shit on the bucket trowels anytime we left 'em sitting around too long.
Oh, and that blockwork out in Buckingham? Took forever. Every day we'd get on-site, work for five minutes, and then it'd rain. Rich would just get pissed, kick something, swear at the sky. But it went up eventually.
And, yeah, he never once trusted me with a float. Said I put too much pressure on the concrete, left indentations. Never once saw 'em, but he swore up and down they were there...
And we can go to Oregon, too, and I'll show you his last masterpiece...
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