Today, I thought more about death than I usually do.
We went to a memorial for Emily Stonington Hibbard, a woman of extreme spirit who died at just 72.
In the crowd were lots of ranchers and farmers, judges, carpenters and lawyers, horsewomen, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers, and former politicians and an ambassador and the usual smorgasbord of people that you see at a funeral for a woman who died before her time, who had a pilot light that was always lit, even in summer.
For those of you who didn’t know Emily, she was a fiercely independent woman who became a state legislator from Bozeman who could work across the aisle (a Democrat, she married a Republican) and get good things done for Montana. She was not driven by ideology in politics, but driven by the virtue of community and public service, of mentoring young people, especially women, to believe in themselves, to find their true spirit, to go on and do good things for your community, for your family, for the places that you love. She left that legacy that was fully remembered this day.
The essence that drove the 90-minute paean to a woman who served family, community, state and landscape was summed up best by her nephew, Cooper Hibbard, who I have always known sort of as an ironic soul whom my daughter has characterized as having a Saharan sense of humor.
His poetic tribute to the wife of his uncle was simple, elegant, graceful, touching and magical — easily the best tribute of the afternoon that featured some of Montana’s well-known political figures and closest to poetry that we would hear that day.
His images — simple, vivid — in describing her walks up a hill to a lambing barn are seared into memory now, describing the biting wind, the ascending saunter, the grasses and the open sky that make Montana what it is and what we can only hope it will always be: the values that bind us like grass, as Ruth McLaughlin would say in her remembrance of growing up on the seemingly boundless and soulless prairie in eastern Montana.
It is that land, that sky, the animals that make us whole, that bind us to the place that we call home and make us want to live here forever, to come back and never leave again. But it is that loss that makes it even more poignant, more valuable, knowing that you, or your children, could lose what you have had, that makes you wonder who in successive generations will protect the beauty of nature that we have cherished and enjoyed.
That is what struck me today. And that is the endurance of Emily Stonington Hibbard and the poetic remembrance of her life summed up — literally, at the end of the long procession of speakers by the youngest of generations — that makes you understand the transitoriness of life, how quickly it passes by and how little that you appreciate the most simple moments of it.
Then, and only then, when you die do you live. And that’s what was so amazing today, to hear the stories, and then the summation from the youngest, to feel the biting wind, to see the birthing place, the lambing barn, the open sky, the dull grasses, to know that you will face the same prospect one day, and to hope that you will go out walking uphill, into a wind, scanning the hills and grass, knowing that life will go on without you.