Arriving home after a weekend away, I immediately knew something was terribly wrong. His new, beloved, prized possession, a blue and white Ford pickup truck, was parked diagonally in the driveway as he would NEVER have done. Silent alarms were going off in my brain. He had been on one of his yearly week-long fishing trips to Northern Canada and was due home that evening. The plan was that he would rest for a day and then leave for Nova Scotia where my mother was visiting her siblings. Parking the truck, or anything else, in this way was never part of any plan.
The woman I was away with dropped me off and headed to her home as I climbed the six stairs to the back door and entered into the kitchen. It was obvious that no one else was there. There were no shoes, no fishing equipment, and no fish in the freezer. The truck was there, parked oddly, and he was not. I went out and checked it, no equipment, and no ice chest with fish. Unnerving. The only thing that was different in the house was a set of house and car keys on the counter on top of a scribbled note with a phone number signed “Bob” which simply read “Please Call.” Bob was dad’s best friend who went on the trip with him. Inner alarms were interrupted by the external phone ringing. Hoping it was him, I picked it up. It was my aunt from Nova Scotia who immediately said she had shocking news.
“Are you sitting down?”
Oh God, something must have happened to my mother flashed through my mind.
“You better be sitting down. This is really bad news. Are you sitting down?”
“For God’s sakes just tell me.”
“Graham, your father is missing. There was a boating accident three days ago and he has not been found.”
I sat down on the stool next to the wall phone, and simply said, “Please tell me what else you know.”
She continued, the family was alerted by radio and television PSA announcements broadcast through the very rural provinces of Labrador and Nova Scotia, asking relatives of Charles Campbell to call authorities. His body had not been found yet. “This is very grim. They are still searching for him so there might be hope.” I thanked her and told her I’d get there as soon as possible.
I called his friend who had obviously driven the truck home alone and left the keys and a note. Bob was devastatingly upset and barely able to talk. As they were entering the extreme rapids in one part of the river the often-finicky motor stalled, the front end of the boat filled with water, flipped over, and threw the three of them into the river. Bob and the guide got to shore. My father did not.
Bewildered, lost in my home kitchen, I called other relatives and the authorities in Nova Scotia trying to get more details. But I immediately knew he was dead and would not return to us. If his swimming were as good as his fishing skills, he would have made it to shore. But I knew they were not. He was gone.
Mostly I was dealing with how feeble I felt. The idea of my mother up there alone made me sick. Getting to her was the priority. My uncle, her brother, graciously volunteered to leave the next morning to go retrieve her. Two days up and two back. Such a lovely, damn adventure. When I finally got there, her 5’2’, 110-pound frame seemed smaller than usual.
Frail, terrified, and dazed, all she could say was, “NO this can’t be true. Your father would never leave me like this.”
“Yes, mom, I know. He did not want to, but there was an accident. We have to get home to make arrangements.”
We were on the road early the next day. Still the body had not been found. Two days on the road home, two days in purgatory, two days between reality and the Twilight Zone. Two days traveling with the best end result being finding a body.
During the hours I was not driving, I silently wondered what his last thoughts were. How quick was it? Did he know I’d be here for her? I was in the final stages of a painful divorce. My marriage, in college, angered him. My divorce offended him. Did he worry about his two grandchildren? The thoughts of his pain at that time were disturbing. He was fifty-two years old. He had recently come to a sense of his own worth and happiness in his life. And the opportunity to enjoy this was taken from him. Not only was he taken from us, but he was cheated out of a time of contentment he had finally found.
We arrived home from the trip. Still no body, five days after the accident. Then the next day the news came, his body was discovered. But more delays were instore. The American legal system requires an autopsy anytime a citizen dies in a foreign country. Finally, the body arrived home. A funeral was held. Lots more twilight Zone time. I almost expected Rod Serling to show up with TV cameras rolling.
I knew with the first phone call: he was gone, permanently. What I didn’t know is that forty-eight years later I would need to write about him. A twenty-seven-year-old knows a lot of things but this one did not really know what permanent meant. In four years, he will be gone longer than he was here. He was here for 18,900 days. We shared 9,000 of those days. I’ve lived twenty-three more years than he did. I did not really know you could live longer than your father. I did not know I could have a son who is now older than my father was when he died. I did not know I would have 17,529 days without him.
Now in my seventy fifth year I am preparing to move into an in-law apartment in my son’s house. I am downsizing, ‘decluttering’ is the contemporary, pretty word for it, I think. Getting rid of most everything. I did not know that I would not be able to toss away pictures. I have an oval black and white photographic portrait of him as an infant in his mother’s arms. That isn’t clutter. I didn’t know I’d cherish the two fishing rods of his I still have. My sons will get them soon enough.
I didn’t know that 15,529 days would be such a long time.
C. Graham Campbell, Ph.D. is a seventy-five- year- old retired psychologist and a late blossoming author. He has a master’s degree in theology, a doctorate in pastoral psychology and training in Spiritual Psychology. He now spends most of his time involved with family, writing, meditating, and exploring what being an elder means.