A Story of Love and Friendship; Life, Loss and Hunting Antelope.
By Drew De Vries
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 came 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 choice 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. 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 mutual home state of Michigan, and it was good to be near them once again. This night was a celebration no doubt, 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.
The previous Friday had marked the morning of our 40th week of pregnancy. Evie and I went to the hospital to see our Dr. for a final check-up prior to delivery. We received good news, 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, which we did. We even walked a loop around the park before checking into our room around 2:00pm, and came prepared to spend the night. As Evie’s contractions grew closer and more intense, we assumed we were getting close. The nurses said otherwise. She only dilated 4, and needed to be at a 10. At about 8pm, no progress had been made, so an i.v. of Pitocin was given 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 both elation and the unthinkable. 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 hour resting as a family. When I woke, I saw a missed text from my dad. A wave back home had come crashing. I called home to learn 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 yrs, where he served as President. He was also chairman to 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 things 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. I have a memory of paying careful mind to the muzzle of his .22 rifle while he helped me line the sights on our target – the cap of a tennis ball sleeve, tacked to a tree at the edge of his woods. Somewhere during this instruction he leaned over to say “you can call me Grandpa”. I was seven years old, and as strange that proposition might seem nowadays, we loved each other like real family, and it remained that way until the end. He taught me to shoot & cast, gave me his Shakespeare Purist (it resides on the mantle at our home, I take it down from time to time just to hear a click retrieve), Bean Boots and a Stormy Kromer hat came from Christmas’. Graduations, sporting events, our wedding, he and his loving wife Joan were part of all this. In my adult years, his advice over the phone came like perfectly timed care packages. With stable health last time we spoke, 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 can’t believe he died on 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 high level character and positive affect on our community. I was grateful to have been given the honor to serve as pallbearer too, alongside his biological sons and grandsons.
Back in Denver and again close to Evie and Arie, I had hopes of laying low to recover from the recent ongoings. 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 put on brush pants and packed my rifle, a Remington 700 in .243 topped with a Redfield Revolution 3–9×40. Within hours, I was laying prone on the grassy plains within 300 yards of a bedded goat. Breathing hard from all the crawling on hands & knees, the scopes 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 gathered perspective. From my early childhood days, Blake’s rule was one well-placed kill shot. Any animal pursued was deserving of 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 worked to remain confident in a silver lining, but as the afternoon faded to dusk conversation turned to wrapping things up. We headed to one last ridge and glassed it over carefully. A lone buck stood at 260 yards. I crawled closer, this time when I rose to the shooting-sticks my rest was steady. The report was followed by a distinct dull thump, reminiscent of a fastball burying in a catcher’s mitt, or perhaps solid contact in a pillow fight. This was no game, or pillow fight, and the bullet made quick work of its job. It was a one shot, ethical kill. I approached feeling both joy and sorrow. The adrenaline made my voice quiver as I whispered “thank you, thank you” – with uncertainty as to whom. It was either to the antelope which laid still, or my dear mentor who felt so alive in my conscience that day.
I miss Blake, yet his death prompts reflection on what a gift life is. The sea of life is fickle. Good times will undoubtedly give way to waves of hardship, but today I strive to take joy in simply being a dad. It makes for 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 book, these are the finer things. The nod of importance goes to these.