It was Labour Day, September 5th 1988. My friend Craig and I were spreading our sleeping bags in the tent. My father was outside searching for kindling with a flashlight. I could hear twigs snapping. It was our tenth year of canoeing into Algonquin Park. Different people had joined us over the years, including my sisters, but dad and I were always there.
The day had been cloudy and chilly, but no rain. There were already reds and yellows speckled through the green hills. We were two portages in from Canoe Lake on Burnt Island Lake.
When I stopped by my parent’s house a week before Dad had casually mentioned that the doctor said his ticker was missing a few beats here and there. Dad also said “Don’t tell your mother.”
He’d had open heart surgery seven years before when he was 48, his sixth year of sobriety. At that point I figured that he was fully repaired and he would live forever.
I remember visiting him the evening after the operation. He loved the details of any process. My mom, my sisters and I listened while he gave us his version of the surgery.
“They sliced open my chest and sawed my rib cage down the middle.” He ran his finger from his neck down to his stomach and smiled. “Then they pried back my ribs…and to keep the ribs from snapping closed they have these braces kind of like a fireman’s jaws of life.”
My younger sister was in her teens, she raised her hand, “Ok Dad we get the picture.”
He laughed, he wasn’t finished. “They ran a scalpel down my leg and stole about 3 feet of veins that they used to bypass my blocked arteries.”
“Pretty amazing if you think about it,” he said.
My mom asked if it hurt.
He said yes, it hurts like hell.
His eyes fluttered and he fell asleep.
I flopped onto my sleeping bag. “This feels good.” I said. I put my hands behind my head.
Craig nodded. “I’m beat.”
My Dad looked into the tent. “Hey young fellas. Help me get this fire going. We’ll go down to the shore after, it’s clearing up and the stars are amazing.” He stood up and said, “It’s good to be here.”
I was slipping on my shoes when I heard heavy breaths, and grunts. I flew out of the tent. Dad was lying on his back beside the fire. I kneeled down. His chest rose and fell twice and stopped. I pushed on his chest and then punched it, but he was gone.
The fire lit up, sparks shot straight up and became stars. I leaned back on a tree. I figured he was already above us looking down from a place where he knew everything happened just because it had to. I imagined his last breath crossing the lakes and up the rivers and creeks to the highest point in the park where it would stay as long as eternity would allow.
I stood up.
Craig rubbed his eyes and then looked at the fire.
I looked down at Dad’s straw hat lying beside him on the ground.
Craig poked the fire with a stick. “What should we do?” he said. His voice shook.
“We can’t leave now,” I said. “It’s too dark; we’d never find our way back.”
“We have to cover him. I’ll get the tarp.” I opened my father’s tent. His sleeping bag was laid out and his toothbrush and toothpaste beside it. I untied the tarp from his pack.
Craig and I draped it over dad’s body.
Without speaking we started placing stones to hold it down. We continued until we created a border that followed the edge of the tarp. It looked like a cowboy’s grave in the desert.
Craig and I went to the tent because it felt like there was nothing left to do but wait. I didn’t sleep but I tried. I never knew if I was dreaming that the tarp was rattling or animals were actually poking at my father. I didn’t leave the tent until the morning light reminded me all of it was real. I didn’t know what time it was, my father was the only one with a watch and he was wearing it.
I remembered there was a lodge on Tepee Lake. We decided that it would be our first stop hoping someone would be there.
We paddled away from shore, leaving everything except the wallets and keys. I looked over my shoulder once, the green mound of dad under the tarp looked exactly like what it was. The food pack was still hanging high in a pine tree.
The portage was easy with no gear. We slid up to the dock and the lodge looked deserted. Every ounce of my soul was fretting that we’d have to go all the way back to the outfitters.
Craig waited in the canoe while I went to check. I shaded my eyes to look through the glass door, chairs were stacked along the walls and a vacuum cleaner sat in the middle of the vast dining room. My shoulders slumped and I let my hands drop to my sides. I heard something and a woman came around the corner.
“I thought I heard noises,” she said.
I launched straight into telling her what happened. She took me to a phone in the kitchen, another huge space of stainless steel tables and the faint smell of tomatoes.
I called the police first and the officer asked if he should call my family. I said I’d do it. Mom answered on the second ring. When I told her she said she had felt it last night. Then she cried.
The police came and drove us to a lake where they kept a sea plane. Craig flew with them to break down our camp and get my father. I sat in the cabin office for however long they were gone. It reminded me of the tree fort my dad had built in our willow tree when we were kids, the smell of wood and leaves. I stared at a calendar on the wall wanting to see the pictures from the other months but never stood up to flip the sheets.
Over and over I played out the scenario of going home. Mom and Dad’s house would be full of people, my sisters, aunts, uncles, friends and I hoped I wouldn’t cry but wished I could. But mostly, I wondered how many times I would tell this story that was yet to find its place in me.
Algonquin Park is from pixabay
Guest Author Bio
Jeffrey’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals including The Puritan, Qwerty, Front and Centre and the Danforth Review. He placed first in Sub Terrain’s 2018 short fiction contest, and first in 2019 Gritlit writer’s festival short fiction contest. He teaches Creative Writing in Continuing Education at Mohawk College in Hamilton Ontario.
Blog / Website: https://jeffatthisage.wordpress.com/
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