Last Camp along the Way03369_000_014
When the doctor released Tracy’s father from the hospital, it was to send him home to die. The cancer had been discovered too late and was too widespread for there to be much that could be done.
It wasn’t entirely for his father’s benefit that he wasn’t told he was terminal; his mother needed some time to deal with it before she approached her husband.
Tracy, then 18 years old, numbly endured the last few weeks of high school. During graduation exercises and the dance afterwards, it was as if there were a shell around him preventing entrance to any shared student happiness.
Then it was summer, and he worked on a state highway department survey crew, which left him his weekends free—to wait.
His three older brothers and their wives each took turns flying into town on weekends, spending a day or two with their father before returning to their jobs in faraway places.
One day his father called him into his room. It was dimly lit and smelled of pain; the bedside stand groaned with glasses and bottles of pills.
“Have I ever lied to you?” his father asked.
“Then don’t lie to me. Am I dying?”
Tracy felt his throat clamp shut. He tried to remember the hopeful platitudes about “being up in no time” that his brothers and their wives had tossed around so easily. But it was no use.
“Am I dying of cancer?” his father again asked.
“Yes,” Tracy answered.
His father sighed and said quietly, “That’s what I thought.”
Over the next few weeks, his father made all the necessary preparations—calling in a lawyer to complete the will and other financial matters, and picking out a reasonably priced casket and a lot for his burial.
Then he lay back and patiently waited to die. But death, like sleep, does not always come when invited.
He even seemed to improve a little.
One warm summer day in July, he looked out his bedroom window and said, “I want to go fishing.”
Of course, it was impossible; that was what his mother said; that is what the older brothers and their wives said; that is what the neighbors said.
The doctor said, “If he feels up to it and somebody can go along to do most of the work, why not?”
Tracy was put in charge of taking his father for one last trip into the mountains. After a flurry of planning and buying groceries and stocking up on pills and reading his mother’s never-ending list of how to care for his father, finally one Saturday morning, Tracy stepped inside the small camping trailer to make his last check before getting his father.
For all the years I was growing up, he thought as he looked at the worn path in the cracking linoleum floor of the camper, this has been dad’s church.
For as long as he could remember, his father had been inactive in the Church. Long ago someone in the Church had offended him—about what and by whom no one could now remember. But it had been enough to keep him out of church, except to watch his sons perform, for 20 years.
For all the years that Tracy had been alive, his father treated Sunday as his day. “I work hard six days a week. At least one day I ought to be able to do what I want to do.” And that was fishing in the spring and summer, hunting in the fall, and home shop and carpentry in the winter.
Tracy drove and his father sat in the front seat and silently watched the twisting mountain stream beside the road.
“I’d forgotten how beautiful it is up here,” his father said, looking strangely out of place in the now-too-large sweater his mother had insisted he wear. “I know this country as well as anyone. Every road, every peak, each turn in the river—I know it all. See that place where the river goes under the railroad bridge? Right down there on that point is a good place to fish. You can see that the water’s swift, so you need about eight split shot weights two feet from the hook. You do that, and I’ll guarantee you two or three nice brown trout.”
“You make it sound easy, dad, but it never is when I try it.”
“Well, I’ve spent the last 20 years fishing this river. I should’ve learned something. You know, I should write down all the good places for you. Somebody ought to benefit from all I’ve learned about this river.”
They drove in silence for several miles as his dad studied the river and the condition of every fishing hole.
Tracy had never learned to like fishing. When he was little and had gone with his father, he was always being told to be quiet and to quit throwing rocks in the water, and then after he got bigger, he was constantly being scolded for not keeping enough tension on the line, or not keeping his rod up when reeling in.
He wasn’t sure if his father knew that he didn’t care at all about fishing.
“We should’ve come out here more often, just father and son.”
“Mom never would’ve let me come on Sundays.”
“No, she was very strong on that.”
“But we could’ve come on Saturdays, dad.”
“Sure, we could’ve done that,” his father said wistfully, “if I’d ever had an assistant manager I could trust to leave the store with. You know Saturday was our busiest day.”
“I know; that’s what you always used to say.”
We’re strangers, Tracy thought as he drove. I know less about my own father than I do our milkman. And what does he really know about me?
By 11:00 they were at the lake. They discovered that the campsite, which for years had been his father’s favorite, was still vacant. It was the last one along the road to the lake and sat up on a hill, giving a good view of the lake and mountains.
After lunch his father took his pills and lay down for a nap.
About 3:00 he woke up. “I feel terrific!” he announced happily. “This mountain air has done more for me than all the doctors in the world. Let’s go fishing!”
First Tracy carried down two lawn chairs, next the fishing equipment, and after that a sunshade that his mother had made him promise he’d set up for his dad. After everything was set up, he escorted his father down the trail to the lake.
Not much happened until 5:30. Tracy by then had given up and was sitting looking at a girl across the lake dive from a cliff.
Suddenly his father shouted and his rod bent over sharply. At the same time a hundred feet out into the lake, a large trout jumped out of the water, shaking its head back and forth in an attempt to shake off the hook. Back into the water it made its run. The reel, set to release at a certain tension, hummed as new line fed into the water.
“He must be 20 pounds!” his father yelled excitedly.
It was a long seesaw battle. When the fish let up, the slow, steady reeling brought it closer to shore. A couple of times it was within 20 feet of them before it powered its way back into deeper waters.
“Dad, I can see it now. It’s huge.”
Finally it was over.
“Get the net, Tracy. Careful now.”
Tracy stood near the water and waited for the fish to get close enough, then dipped the long-handled net into the water and pulled the exhausted fish into the air, causing it to frantically writhe.
“It’s beautiful,” his father said reverently.
Tracy picked up the large knife and prepared to strike the fish sharply on the head with the handle to put it out of its suffering. That was something his father had taught him.
“Don’t kill him!” his father cried out. “I don’t want to keep him.”
“I want him to stay alive. He belongs in these waters. He fought too bravely to die. Can you remove the hook very easily?”
Tracy grabbed the fish by the gills and looked to see where the hook had lodged. It was deep in its throat.
“He swallowed the hook, dad. I can’t get the hook out without killing him.”
“Then cut the line and put him back in the water. Quickly now.”
He took his knife and cut the line a few inches from the fish’s mouth, then gently lowered it into the water. For a second or two, it just lay still; then sensing freedom, it shot away from them into the deep.
Tracy looked back at his father wondering why he let loose the largest fish they’d ever seen in the lake.
“He’s free now, isn’t he? Free to move through these waters. He can go places we’ll never see. I’m glad we didn’t keep it, aren’t you?”
Since anything else after that fish would be anticlimactic, they quit and packed everything back to the trailer.
“How’d you like to go to California with me for a few weeks this summer?” his dad asked, the excitement of catching the fish still bubbling over. “There’s a hospital there where they treat people with diseases like mine. We could drive down there. They claim they can cure people even worse off than me.”
His father was as positive as Tracy had seen him for years.
“We can fight back, can’t we? We don’t have to just sit and accept defeat, do we? We’ll leave in a week or two, just you and me. And when I’m all cured, we’ll have mom fly down and meet us. We’ll show her all of California—take a little vacation, just the three of us. Maybe we’ll even go down to Mexico and Central America and take a boat through the Panama Canal. How does that sound?”
Even as Tracy cooked supper, his father talked about visiting Mexico. He cooked hamburgers and opened a can of pork and beans. His father took the pills and then they had their meal.
Thick clouds had moved in during the late afternoon, and by 7:00 they were in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. Looking out, Tracy watched the wind drive sheets of rain across the lake in sporadic patterns. Several times lightning crashed around them.
His father, suddenly looking much older, his forehead drenched with sweat, went to bed after taking his pills. Tracy stayed up until 10:00 reading a western paperback.
At 11:00 his father woke up coughing and lost his supper.
Tracy got out of bed and turned on his flashlight. His father was sitting up, his body hunchbacked with pain.
Tracy got a pan of water and a towel and began to clean up the mess on the floor.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” his father repeated over and over again. “It must’ve been the pills.”
Tracy finished with the floor and then took a wash cloth and cleaned up his father as best as he could. They got him out of his sweat-soaked pajamas and into a pair of old pants and a shirt.
At first his father was afraid of taking any more pain pills that night. As the night progressed, he sat on the edge of the bed and rocked back and forth, his head down, his teeth clenched, fighting against the pain of his cancer.
Finally, at 1:00, unable to stand it any longer, willing to risk throwing up again, his father asked for a slice of bread and his pills.
“Does the fish hurt tonight?” his father asked after taking his last pill.
“I don’t know, dad. It’s only a fish.”
“It’s out there swimming around with the hook digging in with each breath.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“Do you think it’s grateful to me for sparing its life, or is it cursing me for allowing it to continue to suffer?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Every time it tries to eat, every time it swallows, the hook will be there, tearing at it. Maybe it’d be better off dead. Maybe we should’ve let it die.”
“Dad, please, you’ve got to sleep.”
“Maybe it’s already dead; maybe it’s floating belly up in the water.”
His father stood up and walked to the window to look out at the lake. The rain had turned to a steady drizzle.
“It’s so hard to know what we should’ve done—so hard to play God even for a fish.”
Tracy lay back in bed, hoping his father would soon go back to his bed and rest, but he remained standing there by the window looking out into the blackness of the night.
Tracy must have fallen asleep, but a few minutes later, he heard the door shut and his father walk out into the darkness.
He jumped out of bed, got dressed, and ran out.
A few minutes later, he found his father standing on a dock at the lake, flashlight in hand, shining the light across the surface of the water.
“Dad, what are you doing down here?”
“I want to know if the fish is dead.”
Suddenly Tracy was terrified. He knew he couldn’t forcibly move him up to the trailer. He was too big.
“Dad, please go back inside. It’s raining.”
“I know it’s raining,” his father said, shining his light in progressively more distant patterns across the water.
“You know mom would be mad if she knew you were out here in the rain. Please go back.”
Finally satisfied, his father turned around to face Tracy. “He’s not belly up. He must still be alive. We can go back now.”
Tracy put his arm around his father’s waist and helped him up the trail.
“Do you ever pray about me?” his father asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“What do you pray about?”
“That you’ll get better.”
“Don’t pray for that anymore. Pray that God’s will be done. We’ve got to trust him to know what’d be best. You and I can’t even figure out that for a fish.”
Back in the trailer, his father slept the remainder of the night.
When Tracy woke up, he discovered a gray, dull, rainy day. His father woke up at 10:00. Tracy fixed them both some hot cereal and his father a cup of instant coffee.
“This is Sunday, isn’t it?” his father asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s the first Sunday I ever recall you missing church. I shouldn’t have come up here with you. Especially with this weather. We’re not going to get much fishing today, are we? Of course, fishing is sometimes very good when it rains—if you want to.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“I’ve been thinking about what I said yesterday—about going to California. It’d take all our savings if we went. One thing’s for sure, the insurance’d never pay for it. And if it didn’t work out, if the treatment is no good, then where would your mother be without any money?”
Tracy ached inside as he realized that California was his father’s last hope for recovery, and that it had slipped away.
“I guess I’ll never see the Panama Canal, will I?” his father said, looking up from his cup. “Well, we’ll just have to make the best of what we’ve got here while we can.”
Tracy, still drying the pan he’d cooked the cereal in, looked away as the tears fell.
“I’ve got some money set aside for your mission and part of your schooling, but if there’s anything else you need from me, let’s talk about it now, before we head back home.”
Tracy knew what he wanted but didn’t know if he dared to ask his father. He knew it wasn’t what his father expected him to say.
“Dad, I want a father’s blessing.”
His father sadly shook his head. “You know I can’t give you that. I’m not an elder. Why do you want that?”
“All my life I’ve been ordained and given priesthood blessings by other men, sometimes by men I don’t even know, but what I wanted was for you to do that, my own father.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it meant so much to you.”
“I used to think that if I tried hard to be the best kind of boy that you’d see what the Church was like and become active again. Dad, I never did any of the things that other guys in school were doing. Why didn’t that make you love the Church?”
“I don’t know.”
“You didn’t even notice, did you? You took it all for granted. And now it’s too late. Dad, I want a father’s blessing.”
“I can’t do it. If you want a priesthood blessing, you’ll have to see the bishop or the home teachers.”
“They’re not my father. You are.”
“I can’t do it. I don’t hold the Melchizedek Priesthood.”
“Dad, you can give me a father’s blessing even if you don’t hold the priesthood, but if it makes you uncomfortable, just put your hands on my head and say a prayer,” Tracy pleaded.
“No, I can’t. Please don’t ask me. I don’t know how. God wouldn’t hear anything I say anyway.”
“I’d hear it. Doesn’t that matter to you? Please, this may be my only chance to receive a father’s blessing.”
His father sat on the kitchen chair and looked out the window for a long time.
“What do I do?”
“Stay in the chair, and I’ll kneel down so you can put your hands on my head.”
Tracy kneeled down in front of his father.
“What do I say?”
“Just say a prayer.”
He felt the big hands of his father rest gently on his head.
“God,” he began slowly, “Tracy wanted me to do this. I don’t have the right priesthood, but he thought if I just said a prayer.” He paused for several seconds and then began again. “He’s been a good boy, always has been. No thanks to me, I guess. I should’ve been a better example for him, but there was always enough food on the table, and I taught him about honesty and about work. When he’s given a job to do, he does it. There’s a lot of people, even Mormons, who can’t finish a job.”
Tracy knew there were tears streaming down his face, but he didn’t care about that.
“I wasn’t everything I should’ve been, I guess you know that, but I think he’s turned out okay—well, better than okay. I think he’s the most wonderful boy a father could have. God, you better take care of him. He’s going to need that, because I’m dying. You’d better help him—that’s all I can say.”
Suddenly all the ache that had been locked inside Tracy was spilling out.
“Maybe he could remember,” his father continued with a strange calmness, “the good things I did as a father and not dwell on my failings. And maybe when he’s a father, he won’t be too busy to take his son out and play a little catch in the backyard. I used to do that, you know. And maybe he won’t be too eager to look down on people in the Church who drink coffee or have a beer now and then. Instead, maybe he’ll try to help them, and not be like those who sniff their noses when somebody who smokes goes to church.”
His father paused and then began again. “I want him to go on a mission, but only if he works hard. And I’d like him to be married in the temple. I never was, but I think it’d be a nice way to start a marriage. You’d better bless him. He’s a good boy, and I love him.” There was a long pause. “I guess I’m through. Tracy, how do I end it?”
Tracy told him, and his father ended the prayer.
Tracy wiped the tears away on his sleeve and stood up.
“Was it okay?” his father asked. Tracy silently nodded his head, unwilling to trust his voice to explain what it meant to him. Then he reached out and threw his arms around his father and hugged him.
“It wasn’t so bad. I just hope it takes,” his father said with a slight smile through the tears.
The rain continued through lunch.
They went for the next three Sundays, and then the pain became too much, and they had the home teachers help Tracy with the sacrament each week for the family in their home until the Saturday before Labor Day, when his father died.