My grandmother passed away on December 22 of 2020, capping off what had been a terrible year for everyone. She took a nasty fall in August which landed her in a nursing home receiving physical therapy treatment for several months. She was a fighter – the sweetest old lady you could ever meet – but a fighter nonetheless. In fact, she’d been fighting since 1996 when my grandfather suddenly passed of a heart attack while mowing the lawn. They were inseparable. I couldn’t imagine one without the other and didn’t think she would live to see 90 for that reason. But she loved my mother, my uncles, and all of her grandbabies, and made it her mission to stick around for us. She became our conduit and dedicated herself to keeping the family together no matter where life took us.
We all hoped she would recover but knew better. I began to dread my mother’s calls, knowing full well that one of them would mean my grandmother was gone. “The doctor said she will never go home, Nick.” Mom said. “She just isn’t getting better. I think you better see her when you get the chance. You’ll have to talk to her on the phone and wave at her from the courtyard outside her room but it’s better than nothing.” That is what we did. It was a difficult trip. I couldn’t stand to see her so weak. It was hard to witness. I put on a jovial front but my heart was breaking in my chest. I fought back tears as we waved goodbye. For the first time in 38 years, I wouldn’t be able to hug my grandmother.
I spoke with her again on my birthday. She never missed a birthday. She needed a reminder from Mom from time-to-time but I would always find a musical voicemail courtesy of the little white-haired lady with the high-pitched voice. I wish I would have saved them all.
She suffered another fall the weekend before Christmas. My parents were driving down to join us for an early holiday when they were notified. Since they weren’t allowed to see her due to pandemic restrictions, they decided to continue on as planned. Grandma would’ve wanted them to be with us, and for my mom to be with her grandkids. She needed that distraction to lessen the blow of the situation.
I had planned on hunting that weekend but lost the will. The pull of the woods wasn’t strong enough to compete with the horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Mom spent most of the weekend on the phone with my uncles. Grandma was slipping in-and-out of consciousness and they were navigating the inevitable the best they could. Mom held it together somehow and told us all to call the nursing home to say our goodbyes. “Ask the nurse to hold the phone up to her ear.” Mom said. “She probably won’t respond to you, but she’ll hear you. Say what you need to say. Let the girls talk too. She loves to hear their voices.” That would be the last time I would speak to my grandmother. I don’t remember what I said.
I spent the following days wrapped up in myself and lost in thought. I’d planned to hunt but lacked the ambition. Jess eventually told me to get off the couch and into the woods on Christmas Eve. “It’ll be good for you.” She said. “You love hunting the night before Christmas! You always talk about how magical it is.” And I did under normal circumstances. This was anything but. Nothing felt normal and everything felt wrong. “I don’t think I want to go. What does it matter?” I muttered.
“You need to go.” She said. “You need to be you for a bit. It would pain your grandmother to see you like this.” She was right. She wouldn’t want her oldest grandson pouting around the house because of her. The thought pulled me into a memory. I was suddenly 11 and sitting on the tire swing on my grandparent’s farm. My brothers had gone to a practice of some kind, maybe baseball, which meant spending the afternoon alone. The farm wasn’t a great place to be on your own. There was acres of sweet corn to run through and several rusted, red, sheet-metal barns to explore, but adventures like these were better with company. Even the swing, which was the focal point of our summer entertainment, wasn’t great without someone to push you. Spinning, slow, lopsided circles and drawing sand spirals with your toes was the extent of its usefulness.
This wasn’t your average swing thrown together by novices. My uncles had carved it out of a tractor tire, installed a crossbeam brace, and suspended it all from tall wooden poles with thick rope. It looked a lot like the cockpit of a small helicopter – and we treated it as such by arming it with wooden weapons fresh off the belt-sander, or whatever we could salvage from the granary, auto shop, or barn. But without co-pilots or door gunners it was a swing, and only good enough for slumping into and moping about.
I’d been out there doing that for a while when I heard the door of the breezeway shut and saw Grandma waddling toward me. I spun around, got up, and met her half way. She stopped and laughed. “Oooh doggone it! I saw you out the bathroom window and was coming over to give you a push. I guess I was too slow.” Grandma wasn’t very tall, or fleet of foot for that matter. I smiled at the idea of her on her tiptoes trying to see me out her narrow bathroom window. “You weren’t, Grandma. I was coming in anyway.”
“Oh okay, Honey. I’ve got pancakes waiting for you with that fresh, maple syrup you like. Or there is that good Polish sausage in there with sour kraut. Or I could make some of that vegetable soup…” Her desire to feed people was legendary. I’d stop in to see her, on my way back to college and couldn’t get out the door without an armful of whatever was on sale at the supermarket that week. One of my better trips ended with a party-sized can of Hormel Chili and several three-liter bottles of off-brand orange soda. I got off light that time.
She always wanted me to be full — in body and in spirit. Now she was gone and I was no longer either of those things. But I owed it to her to try and an evening hunt seemed like the place to start. I kissed Jessica and the girls, grabbed my longbow, and drove to the nearest patch of accessible land.
I wasn’t shocked to find it empty. It was Christmas Eve in West Michigan and the hunting populous was either at the dinner table, around the tree, or asleep in their favorite recliners with full bellies. I killed the engine and let my mind drift back to simpler times and a lifetime of Christmas Eves at my grandparents’. We split time between both sets, which meant two dinners, two rounds of gift-giving, and an inexhaustible amount of holiday spirit. I was thankful for these golden years and the memories attached but could have done without the heartache accompanied. I focused on the hunt ahead to push them aside. I was at least happy to have the area to myself and looked forward to an evening afield without interruption. With any luck, I would shoot a deer, and bring home tenderloins for Christmas dinner.
I climbed out of the car, slipped on my wool pullover, strung my bow, and took in a long, sharp drag of crisp, winter air to prepare. It was very still. My phone predicted a northwest wind but there was little evidence to support it. Plus, there was the topography of the land and thermals to consider. I tossed the science aside and decided to consult a higher power. “Well, where are they at, Grandma? Where are am I headed tonight?” A gust of wind crept up and brushed my cheek, as if to answer. “Fair enough.” I smiled, tears forming in the corners of my eyes. “I’ll follow your lead.”
I headed into the wind, which took me up a steep hardwood ridge with a narrow oak flat on top. I’d spied several sets of whitetail tracks running both edges and evidence of foraging squirrels, rabbits, and even turkeys in the center. This place was as good as any this time of year. I would be entertained at least.
I found an old oak deadfall, climbed inside, cleared away the snow, ice, and debris at my feet, and propped my seat up against its trunk. I would have a shot at either side of the flat from that position, and would see anything coming or going before it saw me. It was the perfect setup for an evening sit. I knocked an arrow, laid the bow across my lap, and spent the next hour staring into the woods and thinking about my grandmother. I’d had so many happy memories of her, but for whatever reason, kept drifting back to that day in the tire swing. This confused me. I hadn’t thought of that day in decades prior to this hunt and was curious as to why it had resurfaced ahead of all the other wonderful moments I’d spent with her.
At around 4:30 I heard the unmistakable sound of crunching snow and snapped my eyes to the left in time to see three does bounding down the northernmost edge of the flat and to the safety of the pines beyond. Their tails were up and it was obvious something had pushed them from whatever area they were staging in. I checked the wind to confirm I wasn’t the reason and spent the next few minutes speculating on what it might be.
I heard more crunching moments later. This time of the two-legged variety. I was savvy enough to know the difference between a deer and a man. One moved with purpose and grace in the snow. The other plodded through it with certainty and hubris. This example was all of the latter but with a little youth and naivety sprinkled on top. The culprit emerged from the opposite edge moments later, wearing the biggest, dumbest grin I’d ever seen. A high-pitched voice on the cusp of puberty followed. “Oh hey, I didn’t see you there. What’s up, man?”
I raised the brim of my hat to find an awkward young man of 13 or 14 loping toward me. He had fiery red hair, a freckled face, and a lanky physique he hadn’t mastered yet. His clothes were branded from boots to hat and had the look of a snowboarder. It was obvious he frequented the slopes nearby. I’d seen hundreds of kids like him while taking the girls tubing and he fit every stereotype – right down to his lack of a real jacket and awareness of the world around him. I glared at him. “Evening.” I said, in my best alpha male voice.
“Cool camo.” He said. “You hunting?”
“You see anything, yet?”
“Yes, but probably won’t again. What are you doing stomping around out here during hunting season” I snapped.
“Just exploring.” He said, still grinning. “I’m not a hunter.”
“You don’t say?”
My face flushed. It took every ounce of restraint I possessed to keep from cussing this kid down the ridge and up the other side. But it was Christmas Eve and he was filled with the spirit of the season. He was probably visiting family and stepped out for an evening hike after hugging his grandmother. I softened, knowing I would’ve traded places with him in an instant if given the opportunity. Besides, how would he know people hunted Christmas Eve?
“Good night for it.” I said, pulling the arrow off my string. “How much further are you walking?”
“Oh, I was just going to go down this hill. It looked cool.” He beamed.
“It is cool.” I grinned. “Well Merry Christmas but be careful on your way back. There might be other hunters around here.”
“Oh really? I probably better get going then.”
“You too, man! I hope you get one!”
He smiled and stomped off, scattering his scent into the wind and taking any chance of my seeing anything else with him. I slumped back into my seat and spent the next few minutes drawing spirals in snow with the toe of my boot. There was no point in staying after the interruption but I was too busy pouting to care.
Then I remembered the tire swing and my grandmother and began to laugh. Grandma loved a good practical joke and this one had her signature all over it. In fact, I swore that if I looked hard enough, I would see her round, red face shaking with laughter, as she walked toward me. My sadness was gone. Grandma may not have given me what I wanted, but she gave me what I needed – a little push.
“Merry Christmas, Grandma.” I said, and settled back to enjoy the evening.
This story was recently published in the latest issue of STICKTALK, the official publication of the Michigan Longbow Association. If you enjoy my writing, you will find it and others in my latest book “Clumsy Predators” which should be out later this year.