Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lessons Learned Hunting With My Dad

My father died last week.

To make a long story short, he had a heart attack while hunting and was rushed to the hospital. My mother made it to the hospital to be with him while the doctors were running tests to find out exactly what happened (His EKG was normal and we wouldn't find out until much later that he'd actually had a heart attack). The last words he spoke to her were, "I'm ready to go home." Which would be all kinds of existential and stuff if he hadn't immediately followed it with, "They need to stop sending all these pretty nurses in here." His heart stopped twice while the doctors prepared to run tests.

When I found out, I sped to the hospital, some 2 1/2 hours away, in the middle of Virginia's recent blizzard. He was on life support when I arrived. He had suffered brain damage when his heart stopped on the CAT scan table. His kidneys were failing and his blood pressure was dangerously low.

Elk hunting in Colorado 2011
It is a grueling thing to decide to take someone you love so much off of the machines that are keeping their body alive. I put an old dog of mine down once. I thought that was the hardest thing in the world to do. I was wrong. But in what would be a great act of mercy, my father decided he would save us from that decision, and his body gave up on its own before we had a chance.

This week has been indescribably difficult. My father was my hunting partner, my fishing buddy, and a constant, predictable strength. It still feels like I am walking around in some sort of dream world or alternate reality. Other people's fathers die. Not mine. He was too stubborn, too ornery, too alive.

But he is gone. And I already miss him terribly.

Here is the essay I read at his memorial service.

Lessons Learned Hunting With My Dad

My family tree has a treestand in it.

Seriously, everybody in my family hunts. My grandfather hunted. Both of my uncles hunt. My father would have packed up his bags, headed into the woods, and stayed there if life would have allowed him and hunting season ran all year long.

I was born in early September, so  I was only a few months old when my parents first took me hunting. My mother claims I called in a curious doe with my baby whimpers and half-hearted cries from my cozy spot in the back of the nearby station wagon .

Before I was even three, I would spend late summer afternoons perched on an overturned five gallon bucket, short legs dangling, waiting for the doves to fly in. It was hard to sit still when I saw them, it was so exciting. “Here they come, Daddy!” I would say too loudly as I tried to whisper unsuccessfully. "Be quiet. You'll scare the birds," he would fuss.

But it was a long time before my Daddy actually let me do more than sit on a stand or in a blind with him. He claimed it was because I was always so small. He didn’t think I could handle a firearm. I was convinced he wouldn’t take me because I wasn’t a boy. So I pestered him obnoxiously until, like most parents, he finally gave in.

He took me squirrel hunting. I didn’t have proper hunting gear, so my mother bundled me in my puffy purple coat and I pulled on my flimsy sneakers. On our way out the door she hollered “Good luck.”

We would have the most miserable day ever. It rained, soaking my sneakers and my puffy purple coat. We forgot our lunch, leaving us hungry the whole day. We saw not a single squirrel. We got lost in the woods. And then, on the way home, the truck blew a tire, stranding us on the highway in a time well before cell phones.

Daddy blamed the whole thing on my mother’s “good luck” wishes before we left. No one, I mean no one, says “good luck” to a hunter. You might as well cast a voodoo curse on them. He was still cussing about how she ruined that hunting trip years later. Maybe even as recently as this past Christmas.

As you can imagine… I was completely hooked. He did eventually agree to take me deer hunting, but didn’t want to waste money on buying me hunting gear. He was completely convinced that I wouldn’t stick with it, that I was too tiny and tender-hearted to actually enjoy hunting with him. He figured I would abandon the notion and decide hunting wasn’t for me.

This was before all of the current pink camo hoopla or the special fashionable hunting lines for female hunters, so gear that would actually fit me, was hard to find anyway, but picture if you will, a much smaller, 85 pound version of me, wearing my father’s man-sized, hand-me-down camo. I had his old camo coat, an old pair of his camo pants that wrapped around my waist almost twice. I even wore a saggy pair of his old long johns. I might have been forced to wear a pair of his men’s size 12 hiking boots if Uncle Joey hadn’t stepped in and offered up a pair that Mikey had already outgrown.

I was 13 the first year he took me to George Washington National Forest in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains for rifle season. We had driven in his old Dodge D-50, arriving at our campsite well after dark. I hadn’t even gotten to see any of the mountains on the drive in. I was exhausted and just crashed into bed in Uncle Terry’s camper to try and get some sleep. Then well before daylight, he came pounding on the camper door to get me up. In those days, he believed the serious hunter hiked in by flashlight and hiked out the same way. So I dressed in the dark, then I scarfed down some luke warm oatmeal in the camp's kitchen tent while shivering uncontrollably.

Then we hiked, which sounds adventurous and dashing and exciting. It wasn’t. He hadn’t even bothered to give me a flashlight, so I just followed his bouncing light through the darkness, up steep terrain, gasping, my legs aching as his flashlight steadily got further and further away from me in the dark.

That flashlight did eventually stop, up high above me on the dark ridge. After struggling for several minutes more to reach it, he just told me “Sit here.” Then he left me. In the dark. Without a flashlight. I was thirteen.

I watched his light move off uphill, growing fainter and fainter until it finally disappeared over the top of the ridge.

I was alone in the dark. I was exhausted from lack of sleep and the exertion of hiking up terrain I was unaccustomed to. I was shivering and my feet were cold. I was scared. I was scared because I didn’t know what to do without him.

And I was angry. I was angry with Daddy because he had left me alone in the dark.. I was so angry in fact, that I decided I wouldn’t even shoot at a deer if one walked past me. That would show him.

I sat fuming and freezing in the dark, until I finally somehow drifted off to sleep, passing out from exhaustion, my back pressed against the hard bark of the tree where he’d left me.

Something startled me awake some time later. I didn’t really remember where I was, but as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I started to see what was around me. While I had been sleeping, the sun had come up. My father had left me in the perfect spot. The morning was all bright and glowing gold, and I had a clear view of the mountain dropping in deep waves of browns and greens down to a sweeping valley, where I could just make out a herd of cattle grazing. It was so stunning that it took my breath away. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Then I saw, working their way slowly up the slope toward me, a flock of turkeys, maybe as many as 20 (although more probably only 6 or 8. I am my father’s daughter after all), clucking and shuffling and scratching through the leaves. They came right past me, the flock splitting in half to pass on either side of the tree I was sitting under, like I was just part of the scenery.

Suddenly, I wasn’t scared or angry with him anymore, I just couldn’t wait to see him again so I could tell him about everything, the valley, the cows, the turkeys, and just how freakin’ gorgeous everything was around me.

He had known just the right place to leave me.

I learned a lot of really important lessons hunting with my Dad. I certainly was exposed to a very vivid and colorful vocabulary. But I learned a lot of other things, too.

Patience, for example. Sitting still in 18 degree weather, watching my breath fog, feeling my toes slowly numb, waiting for hours on end, hoping for even a glimpse of a deer is grueling. But there is strength and beauty in waiting for that single great moment. In that regard, Daddy was the most patient man I know. In traffic… not so much.

I learned that nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. You have to get up early, work hard, stay late. Go in with a flashlight. Come out with a flashlight. Like my Daddy always said, “If it were easy, it would be called killing, not hunting.”

I learned that if there isn’t a trail, that I should blaze my own. Unless you’re in the mountains and see a deer trail cut into the side of a steep ridge. Deer are a whole heck of a lot smarter than most people when it comes to getting around in the woods. Aside from that,  the good stuff usually happens well away from where everyone else is traveling. So take the trail less traveled. It will make all of the difference.

I also learned confidence. He would get excited every time I bagged a deer or a turkey whether it was a little doe or an old longbeard. It didn’t matter. He would pat me on the back and say, “I’m proud of you.” He made me feel like I was competent and able, something that was reinforced when the meat hit the table.

And I also learned to not let an animal suffer, to make my kills quick and clean, that the worst thing you could do was prolong death.

When Daddy and I were hunting, we had a custom. We would do this weird little fist bump. He would say, “Racky tacky, put ‘em in the sacky.” He did it with my boys, too. They know what I’m talking about. It was our way of saying “Go get ‘em...Have fun… see you in a little while.”  (Because you never say “good luck" to a hunter. Right Mom?) Then we would head off to our own stands. In the mountains I would usually watch him slip over the top of the ridge. Then we would meet back up after the hunt was over, usually after sundown

I held my Daddy’s hand while his heartbeat faded away to nothing. But when he left, I didn’t say, “Goodbye.” Instead, I gave him that same weird little fist bump, our hunting fistbump, and told him, “Go get ‘em… Have fun ...see you in a little while.” Silas was there, and he did the same thing.

You see, he isn’t really gone. We’ve just parted ways for a bit, headed in different directions. He’s just slipped over the top of the ridge. We’ll be meeting back up after sundown.

Rest Well, Daddy. Love you. See you soon.

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