LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015
I am surrounded by a gymnasium full of children when I get the call. As I walk down the long hallway toward the phone, everything seems out of place. Voices are muffled by my own thoughts. My legs feel heavy. I check the conditions as I walk past the front doors. It is drab and spitting rain. The voice tells me the time and the place. I feel my stomach tighten as I hang up the phone. I turn my wrist and peer down at my time piece. I have only a couple of hours to reach him.
With each cycle of the wiper blades, I can feel my nerves unravel. As I leave the school grounds I give little thought to the numerous Stop signs. I must hurry. When I reach the interstate I find it impossible to plot a course around the slow moving obstacles in front of me. Words spew out of my mouth and I am immediately ashamed of myself. I check my mirror only to see a large cloud of blinding mist trailing behind. With each mile marker I accelerate even more. My thoughts are unorganized and short-lived. The sound of my own voice inside my head is driving me crazy. I begin to pray. I have talked to God, at one point or another, concerning various facets of my life, but never this. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with unworthiness as I pray for his life. Who am I to ask for such things? My voice drives through my skull like a sharp nail.
Thankfully, I was introduced at a very young age to the sport of hunting by my dad. That single act would lead to many great memories together.
I nearly pass the building when I spot it through the pale fog and heavy rain. I sense the cold drops of water on my face and hands as I reach for the small piece of paper. I sit and wait. I want nothing more than to drive violently through the frail blockade that is slowly ascending in front of my truck. After many agonizing seconds, it is out of my way. I punch the gas and feel the frustration as it makes its way up my back and into the base of my neck. The temptation to forego an appropriate parking spot is overpowering. I find one though, and mumble to myself as I lock the doors, running, from some distance away. I scarcely look for danger as I dash past the patient unloading area and through the front doors. I can feel the strangers eyes look at me as I shuffle around them with a hurried pace. I wonder if they know what is happening, or even care. For a brief moment, I wonder why they are there and who they might be praying for. The elevator moves like tree sap on a cold November morning. I should have taken the stairs. I curse my thoughtless decision.
As the doors open, I pick up my pace and head down the cold hallway. I am besieged with relief when I see him smiling from his bed. In spite of the grin on his face, his uneasiness cannot be concealed. I sit down beside him and begin to pass the minutes with trivial talk about things of little importance, all the while struggling to hold back the rush of tears resting quietly behind my eyes. I want to wrap my arms around him and not let go, ever. I start to reach for the picture I have hidden in my pocket, but hesitate for fear of the consequences. It is a picture of his grandson’s. He loves them more than the air he breathes. The repulsive clock on the wall reminds me that it is time. I grab his hand as he and his wife grasp mine.
I can feel them running down my cheeks now, unstoppable, like a herd of bison. I manage to get through the prayer despite the gravel in my throat. Minutes later I am leaning over his bed, my mouth lying close to his ear. I tell him that I love him, that everything will be alright. His eyes look up at me with fear and uncertainty. I do my best to hide my emotions and not behave like it is the last time we will see one another; even though within the hour his chest will be opened and his heart will be stopped. Faith is my only possession as the nurses push him through the double doors and into a large room full of strangers; watching and waiting to do what they have been trained to do.
It’s easy to lose sight of what hunting is all about in today’s world. With so much emphasis placed on trophy animals we often forget about the little things that really make hunting what it is.
Alone now, I struggle with only my thoughts. I fight to push the negative feelings to the back of my mind. “What would happen if“…..“What would I do if“….. Over and over until I feel the nausea rise to the back of my throat. Eventually though, I settle my feelings on the one thing that has always brought joy to the two of us. For a moment I am happy. My tangled mind begins to filter through hundreds of memories at once, and in a moment of clarification, I realize the magnitude of what I have done. I am quickly overtaken with shame realizing that I have turned my back on him.
Months earlier, I had managed to gain access to a hunting lease in one of the “bow only” counties near my home. Excited about the potential this certain piece of land held, I quickly called my father and invited him to join. Unfortunately, due to no fault of his own, he declined. This meant that he would be hunting alone once the season began. It did not matter much to me. I was in, and it was his loss for not coming along. I had waited several years, paid money I didn’t have, all for the right to hunt there. I rationalized that any free time would be better spent hunting “the big boy’s” on the lease, rather than chasing rubbish on public land with my dad. I counted the hours until opening day. On the surface it seemed to make sense, at least in my head.
I sit in a hard, unpleasant chair, with my hands in my face, idiotically trying to extract justification or comfort from the animals taken on the lease without him. However, my heart knows better, it is not as easily seduced as my own ego. There are no gray corners for me to hide in. I feel like Judas. In spite of the astonishing spot and stalk on a “once in a lifetime” albino doe, or my best bow buck, taken from a freshly hung stand, I feel empty inside. These “trophies” are meaningless to me now. I would happily trade them all for one day, one hunt with him. All I can think about is my dad, hunting alone in a cold tree stand, as the time bomb in his chest ticked closer to zero. I tell myself that it’s acceptable, that I didn’t know what was going on inside of him. It doesn’t bring me solace. I want someone to punch me in the face. I am disgusted with myself.
My dad was never one to get caught up in who killed what. Instead, he cared more about who was there and who he got to share the moment with.
I think about a picture sitting over my fire place at home, my younger brother and I, posing beside dad’s first buck as if it were our own. It didn’t matter to him if game was taken or not. What mattered was something more significant, something that neither my brother nor I would comprehend until later in life. As I look around the empty waiting room, I begin to understand. The florescent lights above my head cause my eyes to quickly shut in defense. It’s odd, but despite the cold metal and concrete surrounding me, I can still feel him. He is lying beside me in a small, chilly camper during one of our earliest hunts together. I stare out the window as the moon scatters a pale light across the frost covered ground. My youthful mind wonders what adventure might find the two of us the next day. I feel his arms wrap around me and draw me closer to him. He tells me that he loves me. I am a better person because of him.
I look at my watch and imagine the procedure as far as my nerve will allow. The possibilities only impose fear in me and I quickly become uneasy. I dare not speak of it, but deep inside I can’t help but wonder. I want to see his face as the moonlight washes over us in the pre-dawn hours, just before we head to our stand sites. I want to hear his voice when he tells me about the arrow that found its mark, or the one he wishes he could “take back”. I want to feel his arms around my neck, squeezing me until I cannot draw another breath. I want things to be normal again.
I can still hear his “war cry”, as it has come to be known, on the quiet November morning that he took his first deer with a bow. It was a special time for him, a feeling only someone who chooses to pursue game with such a weapon can experience. After many failed attempts, dad realized his dream. His joy could be heard for miles as he knelled beside the most beautiful doe to ever grace the woods. I will never forget it.
Black bears always seemed to spook my dad; especially when hanging out with them after dark, alone in a treestand.
As I walk down the corridor, I can see the bodies lying motionless. Machines of various shape and sizes, most of which I do not know the purpose of, flash numbers and emit sounds that cause the hair on the back of my neck to rise. I want to turn around and go home, forget that I was ever there. My leg’s keep me moving though, until I reach his bed. His face is swollen from the surgery and I try to assure myself that the large tube forced down his throat is actually helping him. His hands are cold and lifeless, like February. For a moment he looks at me with glazed eyes, but quickly drifts back into a deep slumber. With a regretful look at yet another ugly clock, I concede that my time is up. I turn to leave, knowing that the next twenty-four hours will be the most critical.
The drive home is dark and lonely. The road and the sky are black; black like the bear rug that hangs on his wall at home. I think about our first trip to Canada, chasing bruins with a bow. I chuckle to myself as he describes what it is like to be stranded in a treestand, an hour past nightfall, with only the bears and the bait to keep him company. He learned the hard way that in bear camp, the first one to be dropped off is also the last one to be picked up. Back at the lodge, sitting over a hot bowl of soup at 2 am, he is the life of the party. I watch him and his guide, an older gentleman that he has known for the better part of two evenings, and it is evident that they will be friends long after we are gone. I finish my gumbo and think about how proud I am to call him dad. I turn to my wife and best friend sitting across the table and just smile.
The wiper blades catch my attention and I think to myself “If I could only go back“. Once home, I check on my wife and kids and try to get some rest, but my mind will not permit much of it. I am awake long before the clock has a chance to scream at me. I tiredly fumble for my jacket and head out the front door and into the early morning darkness.
I do not observe much as I make my way down the dreadful hallway. I am lost in thought with the voices inside my own head. I spot his glass room, some distance away, but cannot yet make out his form. I begin to tell myself that someday I will let him know how sorry I am, that I understand what this gift he has given me is all about, that I know what really matters. I want him to hug me, the way he did when I was his little boy, standing over my first buck. I want him to hug his grandchildren and hold their innocent faces as they lose themselves in this wonderful obsession that is bow hunting. I want my dad back.
Second only to raising me in a Christian home, the best gift my Dad gave me was a love of hunting. That love is as strong today as it ever was.
As I enter the room, a smile breaks across his face. His eyes full of life again. There are no tubes to distract us and the clock on the wall isn’t as ugly as I remember. I am overjoyed as I clutch his warm hand. The flashing numbers and inexhaustible bells get lost in our conversation as we talk about various things of great importance. The minutes pass until I find myself in a shower of yellow and orange, sitting under a large oak tree with his arm around my little shoulder. It seems that God has known what both of us were praying for all along. A second chance…