In the wee hours of Nov. 22, 1980, my sisters and I were awakened and told our dad had died. He was at St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver; we were in Aurora.
Sherry Simchuk had recently moved from Gunnison with her two sons to a three-bedroom condo in Aurora, and it seemed as though half of Gunnison was crammed into her home, all there because the end was approaching for my dad. Terri and Tia were on a pull-out sofa bed in one living area; I was in the other living area on a couch.
I didn’t go back to sleep, but listened instead as they put my mom to bed. And then Sherry, who had stayed with my dad through the end, finally allowed herself to cry in the upstairs bathroom, while Bonnie Baril comforted her. I couldn’t hear anything distinct, just soft feminine voices reaching for solace in the dark. So many people caring for our family; we were all so intertwined.
Last night in his new home in Lakewood, with his son and daughter-in-law holding his hand, Jim Baril died.
[And I want to say to you all — fiercely — that it was not the move that caused this. While everyone has been focused on Mrs. Baril’s health, Mr. Baril’s decline has been far more precipitous, starting well before his move. In Lakewood, as he easily could have done here, he fell three times in a short span of hours, breaking ribs. He ended up in hospice, and lasted longer than expected.]
When we were little, our parents were always hosting parties. I don’t know how well it worked when they took place at his house, but when they were at the Livermore house, Mr. Baril would hang in as long as he could, then announce he was going to check on his kids — and not come back. On the night Terri hurt her leg skiing at Cranor Hill, it was the Barils that came to get us, because the party that night was for my dad, who had just earned his PhD.
On Christmas Tree Day, when several families went into the forest for trees, we all knew Mr. Baril was going to slog through ever-deeper snow, going higher than everyone else in the quest for the best tree. One summer, after my dad and Mrs. Baril crash-landed and destroyed a raft, my mom and Mr. Baril went in together on the replacement, and wouldn’t let their spouses near it. Eventually, that raft got passed along to me.
In my twenties, after the rest of my family had left Gunnison, the Barils invited me over often for dinner. I was an especially popular guest the night a nephew visited with pike, because no one in the Baril family ever developed a taste for fish, so it fell to me to consume the nephew’s gift.
My last dinner with them came probably a couple of months ago. Kristi was in town, so Lynn and I invited ourselves over (and brought dinner with us). Even then Mr Baril was fairly non-communicative, although he seemed to enjoy the topics the rest of us covered.
Mr. Baril — who was really Dr. Baril — taught English at Western Then State. He developed an affinity for vampires in literature, following his interest all the way to Romania. On the day they left the country, their guide-interpreter gifted Mrs. Baril some red roses, which she carried onto the airplane. Soon enough, the Barils were invited by a flight attendant to take two available seats in first class, and the roses turned out to be the reason for the upgrade.
I heard that story in the presentation Mr. Baril made about his research. He had put together a slide presentation; my part had been to take the slides of all his photographs and artifacts. I ended up doing that for several of his presentations, as his focus moved from vampires to the poet Robert Frost.
He was very much a scholar, despite some less-conventional interests. I saw the movie Ordinary People with him, and listened in awe afterwards as he identified points of symbolism that I (an English major myself) just took to be a movie. I particularly remember him likening a plate that broke cleanly in half rather than shattering to Mary Tyler Moore’s broken character.
He liked to direct plays for our community theatre group, Webster Players. I believe the orange director’s chair his cast gave him for one production is still around. I think he had a very good feel for what worked in community theatre, and did a good job of coaching his actors.
As Lynn and I took up ballroom classes and started going to dances around town, I discovered that the Barils were extremely good dancers, very smooth and elegant in their swing steps. They went on a cruise once, got up to dance, and ended up clearing the floor as their fellow passengers all stopped to watch. They apparently got rousing applause when the song ended.
But mostly, when one thinks of the Barils, one ought to think tennis. If not for the Barils, the Char Mar Park courts might have sat empty for many years, but they were out there all the time. They had other athletic pursuits: cross-country skiing, biking, walking, but tennis took priority over everything. And when they weren’t playing, they were watching. (A moment of sadness for their daughter came recently when — prior to his falls — Mr. Baril didn’t know what “Wimbledon” was.)
At some point in college, I was assigned over a summer to read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I knew Mr. Baril, a Faulkner aficionado, would have a copy, so I borrowed it from him. I read it and didn’t care for it. When I returned it, he asked what I thought, and that’s what I told him. I think maybe he was a little disappointed, although he’d been a teacher long enough to know that there will always be Philistines among us. Now I wish I had perhaps attempted to discuss it a bit with him — he might have been able to show me why it was a better book than I thought.
I have been thinking a lot about that interaction this past week, as Mr. Baril has lain dying, me saying, “I didn’t like it that much, but that’s all right” and then hopping back over the fence (why use the gate?) that he and my dad had built together between our two backyards.
I still don’t have any appreciation for Faulkner (although I do like the story of when he was having a bad day in Hollywood and they told him to go home — only to discover he had gone home to Mississippi), but I have a deep and abiding appreciation for Jim Baril, and while this morning’s news was not unexpected, it is still very hard.