I stopped digging and wiped away my own tears. I bowed my head and rested it on my hands folded on the top of the shovel handle and thought about how many times I had seen Dad cry in the years since. It had been way too many.
In wasn’t long after I was married and moved away from home that a severe stroke knocked Pa down hard. It nearly killed him, but not quite. Even after months of therapy and rehabilitation, he was unable to walk and, even worse, unable to talk. The frustration of it all made tears something we shared on almost every visit.
He was frustrated because he couldn’t tell me he liked the looks of that new springer pup I just bought. I was angry because just when I reached a point in my career when I could start repaying him for making me a hunter, the chance was stolen from us. We’d never hunt together again.
Yet in the 10-plus years he was confined to the wheelchair, and during all the time when no words could pass from his brain to his lips, there were moments we smiled together, too. Most of them were over Gunner, the still dog on the blanket next to the grave I was digging.
It was late summer before Gunner’s first real hunting season. We were at home visiting the family and I was bragging about how well the pup quartered and hunted naturally in training; how his enthusiasm and stubby tail reminded me of Bingo. Although Dad couldn’t force out the words, the recognition and remembrance of what it was like to walk behind a good dog was in his eyes. I needed to help him relive it one more time.
I remembered a place we hunted together when I was a kid. It was on a state public hunting grounds. There was a hill with a horse trail on it and one rocky point that overlooked a grassy creek bottom where the DNR occasionally planted pheasants back when put ‘n take was the management plan de jouer. If I could somehow get Dad out on that point, he could watch Gunner hunt through the field below.
There were two problems. First that overlook was better than a half-mile from the nearest legal place to drive a vehicle on the state property. Second, training dogs on state land was prohibited until sometime in September, and we were barely past mid-August.
Even so, I didn’t have to think much about what I was going to do. If those life-changing minutes without oxygen that killed part of Dad’s brain taught our whole family anything, it was that you don’t put off until tomorrow time together in the field that you can share today. At home, we helped Pa from his chair into the passenger seat of my Blazer, then he and I and Gunner headed to the woods.
At the trailhead, I eased the truck into 4-wheel low and, as slowly as I could, bumped down that horse trail, right past the sign that said, “No Motorized Vehicles Beyond This Point.” To hell with it; it would be more than worth the ticket.
At the hilltop, I turned around and eased the Blazer as far out on to the rocks as I dared. I opened the window on Dad’s side, and shut down the rig. With a big smile, I told him the first step on his side was a doozy, and he shouldn’t wander off. He gave a choked chuckle and nodded. His smile, though distorted by the paralysis, told me he understood.
Gunner and I worked our way down through the thick vines on the hillside above the creek and crossed onto the flat. I didn’t know if any birds would be in here this time of year, but it didn’t really matter. At least Dad could watch Gunner run. I looked back up the hill and saw him raise his good arm in recognition. He was already enjoying himself.
From hupped at my side, I told Gunner, “Get ‘em.” He launched into the grass.