LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP: A STORY OF LIFE, LOSS AND HUNTING ANTELOPE.
We settled in to give thanks and I took stock of the lovely table set before us. For whatever reason the aroma and arrangement of the beautiful meal tipped the scales, and my cup had runneth over. The emotions arrived all-at-once, resistance was futile. My face awkwardly tightened and I tucked my chin to my chest.
This meal featured special place settings, cloth napkins, and choices of red or white wine. The yams were golden brown & baked to perfection. Steam rose from the soft mound of stuffing and the grilled asparagus, neatly stacked and uniformly charred. Our hosts had carefully prepared a roasted antelope loin, the bounty of a successful hunt from the week before. Rubbed in rosemary & spices and partially carved to show the pink tender inside.
Next to me sat my beautiful wife, a true gift of the highest order. Rested by her feet in a bassinet was our recent miracle, our ten-day-old baby boy who lay quietly sleeping. Our friends raised their glasses for a toast. They had recently moved out to Denver from our home state of Michigan, and it was good to be near them again. This night was a celebration, but to me it felt extra special. I felt like a travel-weary sailor kissing dry land, willing to give anything to savor the moment. The whole scene blurred through my welling tears.
Friday had marked the morning of our 40th week of pregnancy. Evie and I went to the hospital to see our doctor for a final check-up prior to delivery. We were elated to learn the process could begin, our baby was ready. With a choice for a natural onset of labor or a manual water-break, we opted for the latter. The doctor instructed us to head home and pack some things. Taking our time, we even waddled a short loop around the nearby park before checking into our room around 2:00pm, prepared to spend the night.
As Evie’s contractions grew closer and more intense, the delivery seemed imminent. The nurses said otherwise. She only dilated to a four, and needed to be at a 10. At about 8pm, no progress had been made, so a nurse administered Pitocin to trigger labor. The drug worked, but also caused a terrible reaction and Ev shook as if having seizures. For the next 10 hours we ping-ponged between the pinnacled anticipation of new life and the unimaginable. Monitors buzzed, lights flashed and nurses rushed in and out of the room to care for my wife and unborn child. After much exhaustion, and a superstar effort on behalf of his mom, Arie John De Vries was born at 6:30 the next morning. We were overjoyed, and spent the next few hours resting as a family. When I woke, I saw a missed text from my dad. One of life’s rogue waves had come crashing. Calling home, I learned of some tragic news.
Blake Forslund, who served as my Grandpa since early childhood, had died during the night. Blake was many things to many people in the Grand Rapids area. He and his brothers owned Carl Forslund Inc, a furniture cornerstone in G.R. together for 41 years, where he served as President. He was also chairman of the Great Lakes Fishery Advisory Committee, Trustee to the Angell Foundation, (which owned North Manitou Island), and past President to the Grand Rapids Rotary. He was an avid outdoorsman who also loved birdwatching. All these attributes were according to his obituary. To me though, he was Grandpa. While Blake was mentoring my own dad, he learned about my early fascination with hunting and fishing. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers were hunters, and would have likely introduced me properly, but they had passed by this time. Since my dad knew little of traditional outdoor sports, he sought assistance. Blake proposed a squirrel hunt in his back woods. The cap from a tennis ball sleeve served as a target while I learned marksmanship and range safety with Blake’s Browning .22.
Somewhere during this instruction he leaned over saying “you can call me Grandpa”. I was seven years old, and as strange that proposition seems nowadays, we loved each other like family, and it remained that way until the end. Blake taught me to shoot and cast. He and his loving wife Joan showed up for Christmas, birthdays, graduations, sporting events, and our wedding. They brought memorable gifts, including a Shakespeare “Purist” reel, Bean boots, and a Stormy Kromer. But the gifts didn’t stop with presents. In my adult years, his advice over the phone came like perfectly timed care packages. I fully intended to have him around to meet our kids. To say my dad’s call brought on mixed emotions is the understatement of the year. I couldn’t believe he died the same day Arie was born. What a roller coaster.
Two days later, I hopped a plane to attend the funeral. It was sad to mourn the loss of Grandpa Blake. His memorial services were a testament to his character and positive affect on our community. I was grateful to serve as pallbearer too, alongside his biological sons and grandsons.
Back in Denver, close to Evie and Arie, I intended to lay low and recover from the recent events. My friend Russell MacLennan called to confirm an antelope hunt we had scheduled on the eastern plains that weekend. For months I had been so excited for this day, but couldn’t have possibly picked a more exhausting time. I packed my rifle, a Remington 700 in .243 topped with a Redfield Revolution 3–9×40 and drove towards the eastern plains.
Within hours of pulling on brush pants, I was laying within 300 yards of a bedded goat. Breathing hard from crawling on hands & knees, the crosshairs danced as I strained to hold steady. I squeezed until the little rifle barked and a splash of dust came from over top the buck’s back as my guide called out, “High.” It was too late for a second shot and they all ran off. Muttering in disbelief, I worked to calm down and gather perspective. From my early childhood days, Blake’s rule was one well-placed kill shot. All animals deserved an ethical death, and I heard him so much in my conscience that day. I’d catch myself talking to him, it felt like he was there.
I yearned to remain confident, but as the afternoon faded to dusk the time had come to wrap things up. We headed to one last ridge and glassed it over carefully. A lone buck stood at 260 yards. I crawled closer, and this time when I rose to the shooting-sticks my rest was steady. A dull thump followed the rifle’s report, a sound reminiscent of a fastball burying into a catcher’s mitt. This was no game though, and the bullet made quick work of its job. It was a one-shot, ethical kill. I approached feeling joy and sorrow. The adrenaline made my voice quiver as I whispered “thank you, thank you” with some uncertainty as to whom I was thanking. It was either to the unmoving antelope, which was still warm by my side, or my dear mentor who lives immortal in my conscience, even to this day.
I miss Blake, but his death offers reminders that life is fragile and precious. Sometimes I pull the old Shakespeare Purist down from the mantle. The purr of the click-retrieve reminds me of my adopted grandpa. Good times give way to waves of hardship, but today I strive to take joy in simply being a dad. That commitment means fewer days spent afield, but I savor them. The smell of our newborn’s downy hair, friendships, shared meals, the steadfast support of a woman I love. In my world, these are the finer things.