My son found a .30-06 rifle in my dad’s closet, similar to these Winchester rifles. It was unloaded, unclean, and unused for decades. Though mildly unnerving for all of us, my boy was in no danger. Mom always insisted the ammo stay far away from the gun. There were a lot of reasons for that, but they make the story too long. Nevertheless, it was PaPa’s gun, a long one, one that could kill from several hundred yards away.
I know there was a time my dad hunted, but I don’t remember it well. I remember the kit he had; the firearms, the binoculars like the kind you get from Survival Cooking which were designed for long-distance hunting, and the utility clothing. I come partly from country people. My mother’s side of the family hunted for whatever animals they could put in a deep freeze or on the dinner table. I’d say there are few people I know today who have eaten more venison than I ate before I was ten years old. I’ve eaten lots of other things, too, but those also make the story too long.
I even have a few friends who go hunting every season, decked out in bch tactical gear for the occasion, and I’ve been invited to numerous hunts. I’ve always declined but have been told a lot about hunting through them too. They hunt to keep the deer numbers down where they are and even use trail cameras to locate the wildlife they’ll be hunting (click for more info on these cameras). I’ve been shown some of the images they’ve got from the cameras and I understand the rush of slowly getting closer to their goal. They often tell stories from when they go hunting and they have bonded with many people over them.
Hunters-those who keep population numbers down or are killing for food-don’t particularly worry me. Most things I eat have to be killed, and most of those animals aren’t put down so humanely as a good hunter would do it. The process of getting food from pasture to plate is rarely a pretty one, so who am I to speak ill of a man who takes the killing into his own hands? That is to say, I understand people who hunt for food just about as much as I don’t understand people who hunt purely for the sport of tracking and killing something. It’s a contradiction with which I’ve grown fairly comfortable. If anything, I’ve learned a lot in the past 12 months about judging not.
I don’t know what turned my dad from a hunter into the man he became. I don’t know why he kept the gun for so many years. I only know that over the last decade of his life, Dad’s days revolved around bucks, does, and fawns, but the only gun he picked up was my grandpa’s old Italian FA Gradoga .25 pistol, and that was only to lock it away where almost no one could get to it.
No, in Dad’s final years, he lived near a lake. It was less than five minutes from his house. The park around the lake closed at dusk, but Dad would sneak in if the ranger tried to lock up before dad got a chance to look for deer. Some nights, the animals would come out by the dozens and watch my dad and mom creep along the road in my dad’s truck. Dad and Mom would count them and report to us on how many they had seen. People who ate supper with my parents were routinely pulled along for a dinnertime deer run. Some people spend their retirement sinking into an easy chair with a tumbler of bourbon. Some people spend it getting leather-skinned in Florida. Dad spent his precious few years of retirement looking for deer he’d never even consider shooting with that old thirty-aught-six.
In the jetwash of a personal tragedy, there is a compulsion to assign meaning to every niggling little detail of a life lost. More so, there is a somewhat guilty comfort in finding meaning in things that would leave other people shaking their heads and saying, “Bless his heart.” It’s like the feeling I get when I buy a new car. Suddenly it seems like everyone on the road is driving the same vehicle I just purchased. Those other cars were always there, but now I notice.
I am a searcher. I fight against my existentialist leanings and let myself get torn to shreds by the greater search for meaning and purpose. In fact, it’s probably no secret that most of what I write is my vain attempt make some sense of senselessness.
It’s happened a lot over the last six weeks that I shook my head at myself, wondering how I can tell people things that have happened without seemingly like a lost, loony soul. Like, after a couple of weeks, I decided to start my old man’s truck. The odometer read 99,998, and I just sat there looking at it thinking about how it had to mean something.
While often I find the search for meaning to be missing some vital cog, I try not to begrudge myself or others for it. It’s something like hunting an animal. The search for meaning should end in the nourishment of the body, not a trophy.
This search, as you’re aware or can imagine, becomes much like breathing when you lose someone you love. Everyone feels the loss in their own way, and everyone experiences those loony moments alone.
But then sometimes, you’re not alone.
Apart from the still poorly-explained fascination with deer, Dad also had a fairly strong feeling about exterior outdoor illumination. To say he had some Clark Griswold in him really gives Griswold more credit than he deserved. My childhood holidays should’ve been spent behind a pair of prescription-strength sunglasses. In Dad’s later years, he grew more conservative in his holiday set-ups, but his love for the suburban sport of holiday lighting never faded. In recent years, he reveled in taking my kids to see a display in my hometown. It spanned three homes, had several hundred thousand lights, and danced to Trans-Siberian Orchestra music that played right over the FM radio. Even naysayers had to admire the set-up.
This year was our first Christmas as a family without Dad there to drive the kids around looking at lights. I had to be encouraged to take a spot behind the wheel of PaPa’s truck and drive us to that house where traffic backed up around the corner. I sat there as the line of cars inched along. My younger son screamed with excitement. I sat with tears in my eyes.
When it was finally our turn to sit for a moment in front of the display, I turned off the headlights. We watched, wept, and smiled at the ridiculousness of it all. The car in front of ours decided to move on, so I let off the brakes and pulled up to fill in the gap. I sat right behind a pick-up truck, the brake lights of which lit up its license plate.
It read “Pa-Paw.”
That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
When I started to get worried that something might be wrong with my dad, I texted my wife from China and asked her to check on my folks. I didn’t know until much later that she was in a shop called Kudzu at the time. I didn’t know she was about to pick up a collection of decorative ornaments and plates with painted deer on them. She had picked them out and was getting ready to buy them for my dad. He died at almost the exact same time.
Over the next five weeks, we told that story a lot as my wife parceled out the ornaments and plates to a few of our family members. Rather, she told the story. I could never make it come out of my throat.
One recent Saturday night, my dad’s beloved extended family held a Christmas party. He loved the annual event as much as he loved the dozens of people who would show up for it. On the way there, my wife, children, mother and I went on a deer run. On the hill sat an entire family of them. As we went home–five of us in my Dad’s truck–my wife spotted five sets of deer eyes on the ridge. We stopped and let the moment be.
And so, the holidays went, each of us finding ways to cope, each of us having minor breakdowns, or what we came to just call, “rough patches” and “bad days.” We endured Christmas Eve-my Dad’s birthday-as much as we celebrated it. We made Christmas as happy as we could. The void was palpable, the old trope about a feeling an itch on the missing limb. Everything happened, and I was there, but it was like I was watching rather than feeling myself live.
By and by, my kids had to get back to South Carolina for school. I had to get ready for a long work trip. I had to leave my mom, my brother, and the rest of my family to struggle against the void. Though I put off leaving more than once, it never felt right to go. But it had to happen, and so it did.
When Dad drove the 800 miles to see my family, he had a rule about where he would take a break. “Stop in Cookeville,” he’d lecture. “That’s where you stop.”
I didn’t intend to stop in Cookeville. I intended to drive until either the car or I ran out of gas. But the kids were hungry, I was getting restless, and it was dinnertime. There were four of us in Dad’s truck, and none of us was comfortable. So, I relented, and just as I did, I looked into the highway median.
There, on the tree line, stood four deer.
I smiled as I had when I saw the “Pa-Paw” license plate. Because I told my mom I would call her when we hit Cookeville, I dialed her up and told her the story of seeing the deer.
“That’s funny,” she said. And then she told me why.
I’d stayed with my mom almost every night for the month after my dad died. My wife and kids were there for about half of that time. When we left last Thursday morning, it was an unspoken transfer of the emotional deed to the home.
Mom blew us a kiss, walked back through her kitchen, and stood at the windows overlooking her back yard. She had stood there for just a couple of minutes, finally alone in the house, when her eyes settled on the figure in the light of dawn.
It was a single deer alone on a December morning.