R.I.P., Steve Milligan

Our friend Steve went west last night.

We were on the trail past the high side of Comanche, waiting on the Great Conjunction, when I saw the owl.

It was just before sunset as he flew in from the south, spread his wings wide, and coasted to a landing atop a utility pole down the hill from our own perch.

“I bet that’s Steve come to say adios,” I thought.

We had spoken with his wife, Christina, earlier in the day. She told us Steve was near the end of his struggle against an aggressive cancer. And when I saw the owl, well. …

This morning I awakened with Tom Waits in my head, rasping, “Come On Up to the House.”

Come on up to the house

Come on up to the house

The world is not my home

I’m just a-passin’ through

You gotta come on up to the house.

And sure enough, as I creaked out of bed and began dressing to greet the day, Herself gave me the news: “Steve died.”

Steve and Christina were librarians, like Herself, who met Steve sometime in 2005 when they both worked for Pikes Peak Community College in Bibleburg. Christina did her bit at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Funny thing was, they lived just a couple blocks around the corner from our place in the Greater Patty Jewett Yacht & Gun Club Neighborhood. So we could’ve met them pretty much any old time. Small world.

Steve and Herself at PPCC.

Herself developed this notion that we might all get along, be “couples friends,” a social wall she has been banging her head against for more than 30 years. I’m a surly old dog wary of strangers at the gate.

In this instance, however, she was correct. Steve picked right up on my suspicions about any plan I had not personally devised and his nickname for me became “Mr. Three Words.” If there was something Christina wanted to do and Steve didn’t, he’d say, “I have three words for you: Patrick O’Grady.”

These are of course two words, and constitute a koan of sorts, I suppose. And no surprise, because Steve was a Zen Buddhist, a member of the Springs Mountain Sangha. We had something in common there; some years earlier I had met Joan Sutherland Roshi, who would go on to become the founding teacher of The Open Source network that includes the SMS.

Joan had worked with John Tarrant Roshi, director of the Pacific Zen Institute and Robert Aitken Roshi’s first dharma heir. And Steve and I both appreciated Tarrant’s book, “Bring Me the Rhinoceros,” a sampler of classic Zen koans and a Western approach to them.

All this is not intended to say that Steve and I were Han Shan and Shih Te. Steve and Christina and Herself and I were not itinerant locos who did a little casual day labor to keep rice in the bowl (well, Steve, Christina and Herself weren’t, anyway). We were simply friends, people of like mind who enjoyed books and movies, food and wine, chin music and a few yuks.

One of many dinners at the Blue Star.

They would cook for us, and we would cook for them. If we weren’t cooking, we were eating, at Blue Star, Springs Orleans, Tapateria, Pizza Rustica, or Vallejos. Taking in movies at Kimball’s Peak Three. Hanging out and shooting the shit.

After we moved down here in 2014 we saw them less often, but both Steve and Christina have relatives in New Mexico, so they’d pop down from time to time and we’d catch up. And whenever we were back in Bibleburg they were at the top of our list of people to see.

Steve was a big fella, like me a bearded baldo, but while I am prone to rant and rave like some stewbum on a sidewalk he was inclined to uncork a dry wit and serve it in a confidential tone, as though the State might be listening in. Whenever he had a bon mot to deliver he would take a step closer, right into your personal space, drop his volume to a conspiratorial level, and let fly.

Christina? More of a Buddha, less entranced by her own sermons, occasionally raising a flower. She speaks in measured tones with quiet amusement and nothing I do or say surprises her because she spent decades with her own bull-goose loony and knew all that honking and flapping was strictly ornamental.

There was less of that sort of thing as Steve’s disease progressed, Christina told me today as we three, once four, shared a long-distance cry. But at least Steve was in the nest, at home, in the care of his wife and son. And that was where he left them, and us, at age 73. Gasshō, bodhisattva.

We can’t say that human lives have a purpose, since a purpose would be smaller than we are. It’s true, though, that the impulse to give freely to the world seems to be at the bottom of the well of human intentions where the purest and cleanest water arises. To be able to offer back what the world has given you, but shaped a little by your touch — that makes a true life. Eventually we find our song and remember it and sing it. And we can never know who else will sing the song, or how the story will turn out in the end; its ripples widen beyond us and there is no end in sight. — John Tarrant, “Bring me the Rhinoceros”

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35 Responses to “R.I.P., Steve Milligan”

  1. kath o'loch Says:

    I’m sure that was Steve coming to say goodbye. So sorry for your loss. It is hard to make and hard to lose good friends.

    Twice I’ve had an encounter with a hooting owl or mourning dove on a trail near my house that is always accompanied by a woman quickly walking by and disappearing. She said the same thing both times and then seemed to magically disappear. The second time it happened, both my husband and I had a “Wait a minute, didn’t we have the same sequence of events and conversation with someone right here before?” Then just last week I heard a woman’s voice and I thought it was a rider passing, but no one there. This has occurred near a bench on the trail dedicated to Jill Bishop–who loved this trail. I think she is still out on the trail in the late afternoon/early evenings.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Hard indeed, Ms. O’Loch.

      The wall between Here and There seems thin at times, doesn’t it? You walk into some place you’ve never been and it seems as familiar as an old shoe. An appliance turns itself off in another room and you’re the only one home. Beloved dogs and cats visit in dreams.

      It would be distracting to keep meeting the departed on a stretch of trail, especially if it were at all technical. Imagine negotiating a tricky bit during a solo ride and hearing someone say “You’re doing it wrong. Line’s over there.” Hijo, madre.

  2. Pat O’Brien Says:

    Losing a friend leaves a hole. Someone else may fill it, but you never forget the one there before. Couple friends are even more rare.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Couples friends are rare indeed. They’re like committees. There’s always at least one problem member. Not with Steve and Christina, though.

      Herself remembers Christina calling to ask if she wanted to see a movie. “Sounds great,” Herself says. “Don’t you even want to know what it is?” asked Christina. “Nope,” says Herself.

      That’s friendship.

  3. khal spencer Says:

    Condolences, my friend. Hard enough losing a friend. Must be harder when we are all in our caves watching out for Mr. Covid.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Yeah, ’tis. One more dearly departed who can’t be mourned in person. I’m not big on funerals, but there is some sense of solidarity in them, don’t you think? A bunch of people, many of them strangers to each other, come together on the shore to wave goodbye. Hard to do that over the phone, or via Zoom.

      • khal spencer Says:

        There is solidarity in saying goodbye in person.

        I have two family members in bad shape up in NYS. At some point I have to bite the bullet and head over there. Clock keeps ticking.

  4. Michael Porter Says:

    Patrick,

    I’m sorry to hear of the passing of yours and Shannon’s friend. I hope that some day someone will have such nice words to say about me . . . 😂

    Merry Christmas 🎄 to you and Shannon

    The Porters
    Michael, Michele, Molly & Olivia

  5. Dale Says:

    Sorry to hear of your loss. The closest I got to Zen was reading Philip Kapleau’s “The Thre pillars of Zen” back around 1970. The asceticism didn’t take root in me though.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      “Three Pillars” is a classic, to be sure. “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism” by D.T. Suzuki is another, as is “Taking the Path of Zen” by Robert Aitken Roshi, which was my intro, though years later I remain very much a tourist along the Way.

      “Bring Me the Rhinoceros” is a good read. Less formal, more about ideas than ritual. John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland have done some heavy lifting to adapt Zen for the Western mind.

      • Shawn Says:

        “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance” is another good one when you need help because throwing wrenches didn’t work.

        Oh ! Wrong subject. Well, maybe not.

  6. SAO' Says:

    Please tell Christina she has a squadron in her corner right now.

    The universe is one candle dimmer, but a thousand brighter from those Steve encountered, I feel confident in saying.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      One of the things I miss most about the Greater Patty Jewett Yacht & Gun Club was having Steve pop round without notice during one of his walks around the neighborhood.

      “Mr. Three Words,” he would say by way of greeting. We’d chat awhile, share a little gossip about the state of the Universe, and off he’d go. What a fine neighborhood for that sort of thing.

  7. Shawn Says:

    Your words of a good friend spread his loss to many of those who never knew him. And as those words are read, many feel the loss that they never got the chance to meet him. Life sure can be sad. Perhaps in a perceptive sense, after our earthly retirements we will all end up on a Ringworld with unlimited space. No conflicts, no egos, no morons. Just good food, good friends and good bullshit.

    Hoo…Hoo……………………………….Hoo!Hoo!

  8. Hurben Says:

    Beautiful, a fitting requiem. I have always said that when the Valkyries come down to collect me, they will take one look & then tell me to take the bus…

  9. Peter W. Polack Says:

    I teared up, and I don’t even know Steve and Christina. A well-written remembrance.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      It was a vale of tears around here yesterday, for sure. My usual product line of cheap gags, half-witticisms and pointless bullshit wasn’t selling like beer at a ballgame, I can tell you that.

  10. Libby Says:

    A beautiful memorial and meditation about Steve, your friendship and life. My sympathies to you, his family and friends.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      It’s a rough ol’ road and we all have to ride it, eh? It’s particularly sad in that we weren’t able to visit him, which these days is a standard-issue bummer in addition to the usual ones. So many people are in that sorry situation, forced to remain at a safe distance as their friends and family shove off. Here’s to better days ahead.

  11. B Lester Says:

    You paint a beautiful picture of a beautiful friendship. As a lifelong casual birder, the owl hits home. Thank you so very much.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      I’m fascinated by owls. Stunning creatures. I’ve only seen a couple big ones up close, one in Bibleburg’s Palmer Park, down at Lazy Land, and this one. He (or she) sat up there for a bit, backlit by the setting sun, then gave us a bit of the old head swivel, first left, then right, and flew off to the north. My phone failed me right when I needed it and I missed the pic.

      My favorite literary owl is Archimedes in “The Once and Future King.” Howland Owl from “Pogo” is runner-up. And then there’s “Twin Peaks,” where the owls are not what they seem.

      • Pat O’Brien Says:

        How about Bubo? I have.a restored version of this on DVD. Might have to watch it this afternoon. Love those Ray Harryhausen movies.

      • B Lester Says:

        Birds are plentiful hereabouts. Our resident great horned owls are downright noisy some nights.

        A favorite memory is a warm summer evening holding my then four-year-old daughter on my shoulder. We were looking west down our street at a spectacular sunset. The great horned flew up from behind us straight down our line of sight. It felt like it flew just a few feet over our heads, but of course that wasn’t the case.

        They are hugely talented flyers, and their wingbeats are totally silent. The hapless critter providing a meal never knows what hits ’em.

      • SAO' Says:

        Remember this? Cats with wings. Almost ten years old, and the internet finds it for me every time.

        https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/10/todays-delightful-flight-video/247121/

        • SAO' Says:

          NOCO is a nice place to hang your hat if you like winged predators. We go to sleep listening to hoot owls most nights, and the last couple of weeks was mating season, so they were out during the day. Great blue herons hang out at the nearby pond, bald eagles nest nearby, and we practically trip over red tails. They’re all tied for first place in my book, but pelicans are the ones I could toast a J and watch all day. They’ll fly up in a formation of 6-12, catch some thermals, and then glide for what seems like hours without a single flap. GBHs, on the other hand, look like if they miss one stoke, they’ll crash to the ground. We think, birds = flying, but it’s not that simple. Gotta be a hundred different techniques and methods to keep our fine feathered friends upright and airborne.

  12. Katherine Scott Sturdevant Says:

    Thank you for posting, Herself.

  13. Luis Martínez Says:

    Very nice piece about brother in law Steve.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Thank you, Luis. We miss Steve terribly, and Christina too. Once the wizards get the COVID genie back in its bottle we want to get up to Springs to spend some time with her. Our best to you and your family.

  14. Christina Martinez Says:

    Oh, Patrick, that was lovely. Thank you for writing that.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Thank you, Christina. Given the circumstances, it was the only way we could say adios to Steve. Shannon and I are thinking of him, and you. We look forward to the day when we can share a meal and some actual face-to-face conversation again.

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