On a calm, cloudy September evening, Ross Pendery’s family and a few family friends gathered from near and far at the beloved family house on Flathead Lake to honor him with a private memorial. We raised our glasses, toasting a life cut short too soon.
Ross burned hot and fast, like a Fourth of July sparkler. He was 26 when his heroin addiction took him from us.
We began on the porch, where Ross's mother Angie went over some details about her only child’s late July death at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. Angie and Paul, Ross's father, made sure that Ross was an organ donor, so that their son’s death could help others if possible. Ross’s heartbroken family is also vowing to use this tragic loss to educate people about the dangers of using heroin.
It was uncanny: The same week Ross died, the local air waves were full of news about the skyrocketing rates of heroin overdoses.
Angie led us down the little path to the lakeshore point Ross loved, and we sat around the big fire ring he’d built. Atop a table a lone candle burned next to the solemn purple bag that held the box of Ross’s ashes. We took turns telling stories about Ross: the time he and Angie saw the Flathead Monster; the times he climbed the island cliffs to jump into the lake; his deep love of nature and music; his mischievous ways; and his giving soul.
We laughed through our tears, navigating straight through the grief with as much grace as we could muster. We did the best we could. What else can you do when the unthinkable happens?
Ross’s family went down to the water’s edge and took turns gently tossing his ashes into the glassy, silver Flathead waters. The pewter-colored lake and subdued sky were perfect reflections of our mood.
As the charcoal shadows deepened into a bottomless purple twilight, we slowly made our way back up to the house for a great supper and more visiting.
That living room. That lake house. We’ve seen 43 years’ worth of good times there. John Nelson and Camilla sharing philosophical outlooks; Angie and I tearing off in my VW convertible, top down in a cloud of dust as we race to the fiddlers’ contest at Riverside Park; Camilla arguing with me or Marg, or both of us; Paul on the porch, crooning his original tunes; Paul accompanying Camilla in her unique talking-blues rendition of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
The wacky characters and their energy ebb and flow around this place. At its heart, still and silent, are the lake, the trees, the sky, the rocks, the cliffs, the mountains.
Through the years we’ve seen sad times there, too. This September evening ranks as one of the saddest times of all.
But just outside, the rippling waters beckon. “Come out and play,” they whisper. “Come. Remember. Enjoy. Savor. Respect. Honor.”
A few days later, many of us who knew and loved Ross honored him with a more public Celebration of Life at Boettcher Park in Polson. We came bearing big bowls, trays, boxes, and pans of delicious food. The long pavilion table overflowed with lemonade, sandwiches, pasta salad, fruit kabobs, baked fish, casseroles, pies, brownies, and much, much more.
Kelsah described it well. It was “a celebration of all the good things Ross was before the addiction controlled his life,” she wrote on her brother’s Facebook page.
First up were bagpipes. When Dick Bratton and Sandy Farrell piped “Amazing Grace,” there was not a dry eye in the pavilion. The two pipers finished by playing as they walked away from the gathering. As the strains of bagpipe music faded into the distance, it felt like a gentle reminder about gracefully letting go.
Next up was wonderful, funky live music by the Off in the Woods band. The guys in the band knew Ross. They’d gone to school with him in Polson, and he’d played music with them. They were the perfect accompaniment for the occasion, especially when they played their soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Angie took a turn at the microphone, recalling that incredible day when her son was born.
Ross’s family and friends ate, drank, sang, played, listened, drummed on the tables, and caught up with each other. Small children ran through the grass, waded in the water, and romped in the playground. Folks strolled along the lakeshore, then sat or skipped rocks. Cousins, sisters, old friends, and new friends exchanged more stories.
And laughed through their tears.