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FIRST LIGHT

First light

At first light I returned to where we had last seen blood. A sparkling sheen of frost on the fields, thin ice on standing water, and my breath hanging lazily in the air made the stillness feel full and close like a heavy flannel. I hoped that morning would show us that Cam’s buck had simply laid down last night and the small roaming sweeps of our flashlights had simply missed spotting him. Cam was at school. I walked with my thoughts.

After two hours I had to resign myself to the fact that he wasn’t going to give himself up. But as disappointed as I was that this is the turn events took, I have to move past last night’s speculation. Whether other hunters claimed him, or he simply ran far further than we thought conceivable, that animal walked into Cam’s life yesterday afternoon and gave him the gift of firsthand awe, wonder, and appreciation.

Listening to him describe the deer and the moment, reliving each sense, was poetry. His color and muscled stature. The almost wide-eyed look and breathless jitters of being in rut. How unreal the sheer size of his antlers looked when he turned his head. Leaves crunching under another, smaller buck’s hooves. The warm light of sunset. At 14 he is in possession of an awareness, calmness, and understanding of the natural world around him that I didn’t truly come to until I was an adult, in spite of growing up fishing and hunting with my dad. Cam takes nothing for granted. He accepts that things happen for a reason, broadens his perspective, and moves forward with gratitude. Life’s lessons are for learning, not lamenting.

I know that too soon his life will take him far and wide as he settles into his place and purpose. As a parent, this is my hope. But right now his journey is just beginning. And I’m fortunate enough to be able to share this stretch of it with him.

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THE RANGE OF OUR UNIVERSE

Aleida shot her first deer, a healthy 2 year old four-pointer, during archery season last year. It was her first trip into the woods as a hunter. We had made our way to the buddy stand in the dark, following the soft circle of light from my headlamp, and sat next to each other listening to the close sounds of pre-dawn, waiting. At one point she even leaned against me, putting her head on my shoulder for a short snooze. A small thing to her, but a giant gift for the father of this fourteen year-old.

The buck walked in ten minutes after shooting light started to push the shadows out of the mid-October woods. She spotted him at forty yards, browsing his way towards us, and nudged me to point him out. He’s a good one, I said. You ready? She nodded. Up to that point I had already steeled myself for the possibility that she may say that she’s not ready when she finally saw a deer.

There is a huge difference between what a first-time hunter pictures while shooting with field-tips at a target in the backyard, and the reality of being in a stand, coming to full-draw, and releasing a broadhead on an actual whitetail. When you exhale, settle your sight behind that deer’s shoulder, and let your arrow jump from its rest, you immediately gain a whole new understanding of life and death. You become an active participant in an ancient custom and rite of passage which takes one life in order to sustain many others. You become a provider. That’s heavy stuff for any first-timer, let alone a teenager.

Practice Practice
For three months prior to their first season opener, she and her brother had spent an hour every day they were with me (the divorce had our time split 50/50) fifteen paces from the foam block target. Aleida shooting my old Mathews MQ32, which was my dad’s before it was mine. Cam shooting a new Mission Hype DT. They had a routine for each practice session, from set-up to pack-up, and knew the range of their shooting universe. Three arrows apiece getting closer and closer to each other each round they shot. Siblings getting closer, too. As I sat and watched proudly, memories of my own routine and time spent as a teen in my parents’ backyard 10, 15, 25, 30 yards from a hay bale came rushing back. The range of my own universe, and the ethics, commitment, and passion I learned from my dad coming to life in my own kids. They would be ready when they entered the woods. Ready to make their own choices, earn their own success, and own their own mistakes. Life could bring it on.

At forty yards the buck dropped his head to browse and Aleida stood her bow upright on her knee. At thirty yards he passed behind a couple smaller trees and she stood up. As he passed behind a big, old oak she came to full draw, leaned into her harness tether, and followed him out. 20 yards. He’s a little outside your universe, I whispered. Put your pin just an inch or two higher. She nodded. I grunted to stop him. I could hear her count to one in her head and then the arrow was gone. The green and yellow fletching appeared exactly where it needed to behind the buck’s shoulder and he bolted into a thicket, stopping on the far side where he wobbled and went down without another sound or move, 35 yards from our stand.

Aleida and her first deer, fall 2015

Fall 2015

I started bow hunting with my dad when I was 12, and was in the woods with him every season till I graduated high school and left for the Army. It’s been many years since my dad and I have bowhunted in the same woods. Years since we’ve ridden together in his pick-up before dawn with coffee and high hopes that the rut and an overnight snow will have the deer moving. Years since we’ve laced up our boots at the tailgate, shook hands and said Good luck. Shoot straight before heading into the dark. I miss it.

It took 17 years from that first mild pre-dawn October morning when I picked my way to my stand as a 12 year old who was scared of the dark before I killed my first deer with a bow – a sturdy 8-point. I was in a small patch of woods that I scouted myself, in a stand that I had hung myself. Dad was in his own stand of timber about a 15-minute drive away in the hills of South Bristol. I still don’t know how I managed it, but I grunted that buck away from two doe to within three steps of my stand. My shot was true, and I field-dressed him where he dropped 25 yards away. After a great deal of individual effort, once I got him packed into my old Volvo wagon, I drove the 15 minutes south, parked next to my dad’s truck in the gravel lot across from his woods, and waited for him to finish his morning hunt and walk out. I was in tears from the moment he waved as he walked out of the tree-line toward me. I didn’t think I could’ve felt any happier or more proud than in that moment. Of course, sitting next to Aleida after we watched her buck fall – after I had watched her confidently extend the range of her universe – proved that yes, actually, I could.

I bowhunt almost exclusively. Not that I don’t like shotgun or rifle, but more because I don’t have access to property that would make gun hunting worthwhile. I hunt close quarters and I’ve been fortunate to keep meat in the freezer pretty consistently in the years since my first deer. For many of those deer I leave the woods to get my kids because they love being a part of tracking and finding dad’s deer – my latest buck included (and which I’m still in shock from – story to come). My dad comes out for some of those excursions, too, and I catch him smiling at the kids and just how happy they are to be there, hunters themselves in the thick of it all. I still don’t miss a chance to help my dad track a good buck that’s proving hard to find, or is simply to heavy for him to drag solo. It’s an important part of the fabric of our family. And it’s a tight-knit fabric at that.

The gang, fall 2011. Photo: Grant Taylor

Fall 2011 • Photo: Grant Taylor

The gang (minus Aleida), fall 2016. Photo: Grant Taylor

Fall 2016 • Photo: Grant Taylor

Aleida’s first request after we saw the buck fall was to text papa, nana, and the boys. See if they can come out, she said. They’ve got to be here. After asking when we can climb down and find him, she stated that the best part, dad, is that we don’t have to sit in the woods for two more hours and can go get breakfast. After almost two more hours of work, with her brothers, grandparents, and cousin in-tow, we finished dragging her buck up and out of the woods, and did just that.

This story has taken more than a year to find daylight, and I’m not sure why. It’s probably one of the most important and significant experiences I’ve had as a father. And with Cam already settling into a very mature level of comfort in the deer woods, and Jonah on deck for next fall himself, I know there’s more coming. But maybe the venison chili we’re still making with her deer needed to simmer on the stove longer (everyone asks if it’s her deer we’re eating). Or maybe I needed the context of a year’s-worth of life passing to fully appreciate it. Regardless, I’m grateful that my kids are reminding me just how important it is to pay attention the range of my universe, as much as they’re finding the boundlessness of their own.

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GRAVITY

Tuesday morningTuesday morning could’ve turned out to be something entirely, brutally different.

It was clear and cold. New snow had fallen overnight and the morning sun seemed to light it from beneath the blanket. I woke at 7:30 or so and lied in bed till almost 8, listening to my girlfriend’s soft breathing next to me in the morning’s stillness, both filling the long pauses between the distant sound of passing cars on Main Street and the furnace kicking on and off. The kids were with their mom. It was a slow morning, and I couldn’t have been more thankful for it. 11 hours earlier I was in an ER bed at Thompson Hospital being evaluated for a possible Stroke or aneurism.

Rewind to 6:30 the night before. I had just arrived at Bristol Mountain to meet my middle child, Cam, for ski club. I was going to make some turns with him, let him run with his pals while I ran solo looking for good snow in the margins, and then give him a ride back to his mom’s so he didn’t have to ride the bus. I saw him for about two seconds before he boogied with his friends, but managed to coordinate our meet-up at 8 at the lift. I headed up the mountain.

My first run was good. Given that I’m still breaking in new telemark skis, bindings, and boots (as well as still breaking in telemark technique), I was happy that my gear was actually starting to feel right under me. Mid-mountain I stopped to get a breather and my head was pounding at the base of my skull. Figuring I just needed to warm up some more, or stretch, or just push through it, I set my jaw, finished the bottom half and grabbed another chair to the top.

Four turns into my second run the wheels came off. My head hurt so badly that gave up trying to make the signature kneeling telemark turns and simply made wide, easy S-turns, stopping again mid-mountain. The edges of my vision stared to narrow. The back of my head pounded down into my neck. At this point I knew the whole deal was going to shit. But I told myself You’re not going down on the fucking mountain, Matt, thus committing to reach the bottom and the lodge.

I could see, but nothing really registered except the gravity of my body on the hill, so I finished the bottom of the hill largely by feel, eventually sliding to a slow stop as it flattened out. I couldn’t swallow. I was standing, half-inert and completely limp inside, held up by some sort of instinctual defiance. I’m not fucking going down here. I felt the need to cry, but I couldn’t get it from thought to action. Death-thoughts started to creep in. No. No. No. I’m going to be here for Cam at 8:00. It took everything I had to lean forward and release my bindings. I was now operating on sheer will. It was 7:10.

I managed to get my gear off and into the car, and walk back to the lodge. I texted my girlfriend, Amanda, that I was done skiing because of a blazing headache. She offered to come out and get us, but I said I’d be ok. I just needed to sit for a while. Upstairs, I sat alone at a table in the bar area (the only place not over-run by high school ski clubs from 10 different school districts) and blindly stared at the Alabama-Clemson pre-game coverage on a TV across the room. I couldn’t get words out audibly and reminded myself to keep breathing. My head was immense and so damn angry. I still couldn’t cry. Sitting still calmed me some and I kept running through a mental inventory, wiggling fingers and toes, blinking, raising an eyebrow, clearing my throat, and rolling my neck a couple times. I just need to get Cam home and get home. In spite of the pain, I was fierce.

At 8 I picked my way back out to the lift and ran into a close friend who also offered us a ride, which I declined, saying Naw, I’ll be ok. Just need to get home. I corralled the boy and we loaded up for the ride home. He knew I was hurting and chatted with me about everything that came to him — school, friends, antics on the mountain, his dislike of his Health teacher. I couldn’t get a word out but everything else functioned, so I smiled and nodded and patted his leg and head. I felt so bad for being so unable to respond. He stayed calm and ran distraction for me while I got him home safe. Aleida, my oldest, came to the door when we arrived and with one look knew something was up, too. A strong hug and I love you, dad and I went home. Now the tears started to come. Hot as hell.

As soon as I walked in the living room Amanda had the same immediate reaction as Aleida, listened to my symptoms as I piled onto the couch, and told me we need to go to the ER. And that she was driving. The triage desk moved me immediately to the intake room, where I was asked a few cursory questions, given a wheel chair, and then ushered to an ER room with Code 12, room 15. Code 12, room 15 echoing from the all-call PA system announcing my arrival on the floor. The nurse, a PA, and two assistants were already there waiting.

Then everything went into full-speed. Shirt off, gown on, a lot of things are going to be happening very quickly — we’ll talk you through each one, don’t worry, heart monitor points stuck to my chest and legs, wires hooked up to them, IV hooked up, blood drawn, temperature check, we’re going to be taking you back for a CT scan and angiogram so we can get a look at your head and neck area, heart monitor beeping, numbers reported, orders given, we’re going to be checking for signs of Stroke or aneurism, ER staff in and out in a perfectly choreographed flow of every-second-matters, curtain open, curtain closed, tell me what time your head started hurting, Amanda in a chair three feet away, wide-eyed, holding it together and texting updates to my mom and sister, and then my bed being wheeled down the hall for my close-up.

After everything was said and done, after the scans, dye injections, touch your finger to your nose and then my finger, reading simple sentences and identifying pictures of trees and birds and kids raiding the cookie jar, people in and people out, the Doc came back with a couple final motor tests and the news that all the tests came back negative. Everything looks good, he said.

Negative. Holyshitthankgodnegative. My kids and family immediately flooded my head. I looked over at Amanda and thanked God for her, too. Their estimation is that it was likely a perfect storm of elevated heart-rate, low blood sugar, dehydration, latent headache, adrenaline, and cold weather. A freak occurrence. Better to be safe than sorry, they said. But I am sorry, regardless.

Tuesday morning turned out OK, but Monday could’ve gone wrong in so many ways. And even as scared as I was, in as much pain as I was, facing the realities I was — the terrible gravity of the whole situation — I was still too prideful, stupid, and bull-headed to accept help or admit weakness. I had nothing to prove, but I chose to gut it out and be tough as I always do when I’m hurt, or on the rare occasion I get sick. I don’t have time for down-time. As my mom scolded me after, just like your father.

Therein lies the reason I’m recounting this story. I know I’m not alone in thinking that I’ll recover easily if I get hurt, that I live a very active life and and eat pretty well therefore I’m healthy and won’t get sick, that bad things won’t knock at my door because, well, they just won’t. Worst of all — when I am sick or hurt, it’s best to just soldier on. All of that couldn’t be further from the truth. And I want my people to know that. You, dear reader, included. Some shit simply shouldn’t be soldiered through. Especially when considering your own mortality.

As excruciating as it was, I was given a gift. And it got my attention. I’m making some changes. If I’m going to be around for the long haul, it’s time. For me and my family and friends. Not off-the-deep-end shit, but I’m most definitely taking steps toward a more mindful, present, healthier life as a whole. To take better care of myself. And that includes listening to those I love when they’re trying to take care of me.

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