It was Elk Season.
I was fourteen.
The four of us hiked steadily into the Colorado wilderness:
1. Daryll, my natural-outdoorsman father who was once a hunting guide,
2. Brock, my 18-year-old (but quite experienced in hunting) brother,
3. Bill (a family friend of ours, also a hunter/fisherman), and
4. Me, Francie, a girl anxiously trying to please the men in her life through joining them today.
Each of us carried a rifle and our packs. Mine carried warm clothing, a sleeping bag, ear plugs for the anticipated gunshots, hunting knife, flashlight, sustenance for the next few days and a purple sleeping pad tied underneath. As we walked single-file toward our campsite that first day, I grimaced nervously. I had never killed an elk before. An antelope, yes. A deer, sort of - my dad had had to finish it off for me with a second shot in the head, as I shook and cried, standing there listening to it flop in the weeds. But not an elk.
We hiked for a few hours, full of energy for the trip. Once we arrived at the campsite, the four of us "made camp" by pounding stakes into the dusty ground to keep our tents steady, gathering sticks for the fire, eating canned sardines and sipping whiskey sitting in a ring around a campfire before sleep.
I shared a tent with my brother that night. He taught me to lay out my boots, socks, long johns, sweater, pants and coat carefully; we would dress awkwardly in this tiny space together in the cold dark before daylight.
I was awakened in the dark, as promised. Heart pounding from the abruptness and foreign terrain, I slipped my gear on, garment by garment. I stuffed the ear plugs, knife and flashlight into my jeans pocket. We gathered by the unanimated fire ring. Daryll decided we should split into pairs; my brother would hunt with him, and I would hunt with Bill. I agreed; the plan seemed reasonable.
I was small for my age, and Bill was only a few inches taller than me, which made for a comfortable and even pace. I walked, sometimes beside Bill and sometimes behind. We walked for probably three hours or so, rarely making small talk; after all, we were trying to stalk wild game. Just as my legs began to burn a bit from the hike, Bill stopped us in a sunny spot on a hillside. He turned to face me.
"Do you know how to use that gun?" he asked, nodding at the rifle hanging from my shoulder.
"Y - ye - I mean, sort of," I admitted. I had passed the required Hunter Safety course, and had worked on "target practice" (shooting targets pinned on hay bales and prairie dogs) with my family. But I wasn't sure if this was the same gun - my dad had always packed the weapons.
Bill smiled easily and held out his hand for the gun. I cautiously slid it off my shoulder and handed it to Bill.
"Yeah, see here - this is a double action rifle. Pretty neat little gun you got here. But it's not great for beginners. Look here," he pointed a finger at the top of the gun, at the bullet loading site.
"You see, you just - "
I struggled to stay steady and conscious.
I couldn't see anything.
I dropped to the ground from the force of the blast. I now understood the term 'ringing' in the ears; my whole head rang like an enormous tuning fork that had been struck against a steel beam. My eyes reverberated for a few seconds in my skull. It took me several (ten? sixty?) seconds to get my bearings and understand what had happened. It had been an explosion; an accidental shot fired and its impressive echo, millimeters from my right ear. Bill's eyes had been focused on the chamber of the gun as he had absentmindedly swung the barrel up toward my head. His hand had touched the trigger. He hadn't known it was loaded.
. . .
I consider Paul Kalanithi, the neurosurgeon who wrote an elegant account of his short life; he died of cancer in his late thirties. I finished his book this morning...its force is radiating from my chest and my fingers as I type this. His entire life, he had thought up until the last year, had been a preparation to become a surgeon.
I consider my mother's rare cancer - she simply lives on, and embraces each day with grace.
I consider that early morning on the hillside, trusting Bill, not thinking of my mortality, just standing there, eagerly receiving instruction.
This stuff about life being one moment at a time, unpredictable, fleeting, and soon to end -
I consider the things I would have missed had the gun barrel been pointing a few millimeters to the west. The things Paul cherished during his year of dying. The things my mom continues to do, to keep meaning and depth in her life. It is all about connection. With oneself, with nature, with other human beings.
How are you connecting today?