03 Apr 2018 The Choice
This story is adapted from a parable by Isaac Munnalall, and used with his permission.
The alarm clock on our bedside table said 6:30 AM, which meant Sarah had already been up for at least half an hour. I turned to look out the window and caught a view of the sky. The mid-July sun had already climbed over the high eastern ridge that was an insurmountable obstacle during the winter months, and it was clear that today would be beautiful.
Today was already a great day. I was officially done my two-week cleansing diet, and green shakes were something I planned to put behind me for good. It was also time to take my little man on his first camping trip, something we had both been looking forward to eagerly.
After a quick shower and some last-minute additions to my pack, I walked down the stairs with my seventy-pound pack in my right hand, and a five-pound backpack in my left. As I crossed into the kitchen, my leg was accosted by a speeding cannonball that impacted me with such force I staggered backward. I dropped the packs, pried thirty pounds of laughing energy off my leg, and held my four-year-old son up in front of me.
“Daddy, Daddy the weather is good! We can go today! We can go, right?”.
“You’d better believe it kiddo,” I laughed.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Sarah turned around and flashed me a warm smile.
“Good morning, Tom! I made you two some breakfast to eat on the drive. You have everything you need right? You didn’t forget anything? Water purifier? Henry’s rain jacket? Extra food?”
I leaned over for a kiss and smiled. “Don’t worry honey, we’re only going for one night, and yes, I double-checked everything this morning.”
“Just don’t take any risks, ok?” Sarah said softly, looking sideways at Henry. “I want him to love his first trip…just take it easy, for my sake.”
“I promise,” I smiled, “there’s nothing to worry about. “Let’s get going Henry, we’ve got places to be and mountains to hike!”
“Oh, by the way, I put a little end-of-diet surprise in your pack,” Sarah added with a wink as we headed out.
Henry predictably fell asleep in his car seat during the three-hour drive to the base of Purple Oak Ridge. While he slept, I contemplated what this trip meant to me. My father had taken me on my first camping trip to Purple Oak Ridge when I was four years old, and that trip got me hooked on the outdoors for life. I grew up immersed in the animal kingdom, and when I learned that I could get paid to study animals as a zoologist, I did what it took to get my degree and start work in my dream profession.
As I drove along the base of the valley beside the river, I looked up at the mountains and remembered the many days of work that I had spent in this valley; tagging cougars and wolves to track their movements, setting up remote cameras to document the local fauna, and the terrifying moment when I had to tranquilize a massive grizzly bear after we caught each by surprise. That last episode had bothered Sarah a lot and, her being pregnant with Henry at the time, we made the decision that I would spend less time in the field and focus on lab work.
It was a smart move, but I still always felt a restlessness to get out there and be with animals in their domain – there was nothing quite like it. Now I would get the chance to share one of my favorite parts of life with my son, and I was both excited and nervous. If Henry didn’t like the outdoors like I did, would it be harder for me to connect with him as he grew? I shoved those thoughts out of my head.
When we pulled into the trailhead parking lot, I woke Henry up, put our packs on, and off we went. The trail was a gentle incline winding up the side of the ridge. Henry chatted eagerly about everything we saw – bugs, plants, even dirt. Every hour we took a snack break, and each time I resisted the urge to pull out Sarah’s surprise, which I was sure was meat of some sort. By four o’clock, we reached the crest of Purple Oak Ridge and, after some bushwhacking, came into a large clearing that looked like a perfect spot to set up camp.
“Are we there, Daddy?” Henry asked.
“Well, I’d say this place is as good as any!” I said. “Let’s get the tent out.”
I pulled the tent out of my pack, and we set it up together. We unpacked our food and I showed Henry how to hang it from a tree to keep it from animals. We gathered firewood, I taught Henry how to light a match, we got a fire going, and still had a couple of hours of daylight left.
“Hey Henry, wanna have some fun?” I asked with a grin. I unstrapped a .22 from the side of my pack. “Let’s do some target practice!”
I set us up behind my backpack, facing a big pine tree about thirty feet away. I put my finger on the trigger, and helped Henry point the gun. The next hour simply dissolved – Henry was enthralled by the gun, by the little squirrels and chipmunks running around, by the birds in the trees, and I was having just as much fun. When it got too dark to see the tree well, we walked back to camp and Henry stretched out on the grass, where he passed out immediately. I decided to let him sleep until I had some food ready.
I stoked the fire and grabbed a couple buns and a can of soup from the food cache in the tree. I remembered Sarah’s surprise and reached into my pack and smiled; it was exactly what I expected, a side of bacon. As I fried the bacon over the fire and warmed up the can of soup, I remembered how scared I had been as a child that wolves or bears would smell the meat and come attack us. My father had always said that we would be the scariest thing any of those animals had ever seen, what with our fire and our loud, unpredictable noises. I guess I never truly believed him, and to this day was a little timid about cooking food in the bush. In university, I learned that wolves and bears basically never attack people around a campfire unless there they are rabid, which is statistically almost impossible. Regardless of the low odds, the fact that there was a chance had me scanning the darkening bushes regularly as the bacon cooked.
The smell of slightly burning bacon snapped me out of my thoughts. I pulled the griddle off the fire and poured about a third of the can of soup into a cup for Henry. I turned to wake him up but stopped myself. There was something too sweet about the way he was lying there with his face against the grass, his breathing slow and even, his arms outstretched, almost like he was hugging the ground, trying to recuperate the massive amount of energy he had expended. He clearly hadn’t moved a muscle since he laid down, so I decided to let him sleep, and I started digging in to the bacon that was calling my name. Man, I was never going on a fast again!
My eyes popped open and I knew instantly that something was wrong. I realized that I must have fallen asleep after I finished eating, and that several hours had passed. I glanced over at the fire – it was almost dead. I sat up to grab my pack and pulled out a flashlight. I flicked it on and, scanning the perimeter of the clearing, I saw what was making the hair on my neck stand on end. Two white dots – two eyes– in the darkness to my left.
“Calm down, Tom, calm down,” I muttered to myself. “It’s probably just a deer, you’ve seen lots of deer at night.”
But that was the problem- I had seen lots of deer at night before, and never once had I felt this icy, pulsing, stomach-churning sense of dread.
In an instant I made my decision. Without taking my eyes (or the flashlight) off the two eyes in the bush, I crawled about four feet to where Henry was lying and picked him up. No movement from the eyes.
I stood up and knew what I needed to do. I remembered noticing a large oak tree on the far side of the clearing and decided that it was the safest bet to try and get to that tree. Keeping my light trained on the glowing eyes, I slowly maneuvered in the direction of the oak tree.
And then I made a mistake. I took my eyes and my light off the eyes in the bush and looked ahead to check where the oak was – about twenty yards away, straight ahead. I turned back and the dots were gone. I shone my flashlight to the left and I saw the image that has haunted my dreams to this day – a shaggy black wolf, alone, sprinting toward us at full speed. The impossible odds had become reality.
I started to run as best I could while carrying Henry. I was now only ten yards from the tree, but when I turned around one last time, I saw that the wolf had made up half the ground between us. I turned forward again, trying to focus, desperate to get us up into the tree. There was a solid branch about seven feet off the ground – within my reach – but I realized that I could never swing myself up onto the branch with Henry in my arms. I could hear labored breathing less than a length behind me. I dropped my flashlight and realized that I had to make a choice – reach up and put Henry on the branch, safely out of reach, or drop my son on the ground, and use my two free hands to pull myself to safety, leaving him to the wolf.
The wolf was not particularly large, and it was probably weak from hunger given that it was not hunting in a pack. I was pretty certain that I would get mauled, but probably not killed. Henry, on the other hand, would certainly die, if not from his wounds then from the rabies, which I was vaccinated against because of my work. In that split second, my arms holding my beloved, somehow still sleeping, son, an insane creature literally nipping at my heels, I made my choice.
In the days and weeks that followed, I was told many things; that I had been brave, that I had been in danger, under pressure, that I had made a choice that was mine to make, and so it was the right choice for me. Some people even told me that Henry was not really a person at the time of my decision – he was sleeping, so he didn’t have the consciousness that a person has, and, at the end of the day, was simply a clump of cells.
But kneeling beside the grave of what was left of my dear boy, my tears drenching the cemetery grass, I knew that all I felt was soul-crushing shame. I felt like a toothpaste tube that had had every bit of honour, strength, and human worth squeezed out of me with no hope of ever getting it back in. I was totally empty, echoingly hollow, and I hated myself.
My friends’ and co-worker’s attempts to convince me that I had done the right thing made no sense. I was the one who chose to cook bacon, and even to go on the camping trip in the first place. Henry had nothing to do with it – why should he bear the punishment for my decisions, decisions made purely for my own pleasure? And of course Henry was a person! He may not have had been conscious at that moment, but he certainly had the capacity. And saying he was just a clump of cells? We all are! And the idea that with my body in danger I had the right to choose to kill my son? What did they think being a parent meant – that you only take care of your child when the going is easy? Now, this child whose protection was my responsibility, was lying in thirteen pieces in a tiny wooden coffin.
Others around me may try to justify my actions, but I’m not sure why they try so hard to believe a lie. And I do not know how I will live with the truth.