On Dec. 23, 2013, my father and friend, Jerry Neal Sr., passed away at his home in Morrison, Colorado.
I was close to my dad and his unexpected passing two days before Christmas made a heartbreaking loss even harder to endure. My dad’s final words to me remain sealed in a Christmas card that I still haven’t opened. I’m not sure if I’m just not ready to read his final sentiments below a generic Hallmark greeting or if saving his unopened card has simply been my way of trying to hold on to a part of him for a bit longer. Even now, as I’ve reached the one-year anniversary of his death, the realization that my father is gone often hits me as if I’m hearing about his passing for the first time. And his absence has left a void in my life that’s hard to accept.
Normally, I would not share such a personal experience on a forum like this. Yet, as editor of Colorado Outdoors Online, a blog dedicated to providing how-to and where-to information for hunters and anglers, it seemed appropriate for me to discuss why I hunt and fish. There is no greater reason than the relationships I had with my father and stepfather. My stepfather, who was my main hunting partner, passed away in 2012. To put it mildly, it’s been a bumpy couple of years. But, this period of loss has also led to personal discovery, and it has given me the chance to reflect upon my childhood and my love for the outdoors.
Oftentimes, hunting and fishing are pursuits that are passed down from father to son. I was especially fortunate throughout most of my life to have not one, but two “dads” who dedicated enormous amounts of their time and resources to facilitate my interest in the outdoors. My stepfather gave me my first fly rod and shotgun when I was 10 years old. My father never hunted, but he was an avid angler and outdoorsman. He and I spent many weekends and summer vacations together camping and fishing.
Thanks to both men, I explored nearly every lake, river and stream in Colorado. I also made countless trips to the Eastern Plains small-game hunting. Some of my fondest memories were the times I spent with my father, uncle and grandfather at Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area. In high school, I spent weeks of my summer vacation fly fishing and camping there. The Delaney Buttes area was so special to my family, that it’s where my father requested that we scatter his ashes. And it was there, on a hill overlooking South Delaney Lake, where we scattered my grandfather’s ashes nearly 20 years ago.
My childhood (and most of my adolescence) centered around these father and son outings. Thankfully, most were captured and preserved through old photographs and camcorder videos. Among the photos, the Polaroid’s are my favorite, each labeled with the location, date, size of fish and other handwritten descriptions. Yet, the other scattershot pictures tell stories that are every bit as detailed. Not only does each photo capture an exact place and moment in time, but every image triggers memories of precisely what I was feeling and experiencing on that specific trip. And I can still see my father standing behind the camera, smiling, as I posed proudly with my latest triumph.
But more important than the photos and fish stories was the unique bond and friendship that I forged with my father on these adventures. Time spent in the quiet of the outdoors truly provides an escape from life’s distractions and builds relationships better than most other activities. I had some of my most meaningful conversations with my stepfather in goose blinds or while walking through fields on pheasant hunts. And I shared some of the best moments with my father while fly fishing and camping or while simply watching a red-and-white bobber drift on the surface of a lake.
Yet, for all the memories I have with my dads in the outdoors, I cannot help looking back with some regret on those planned outings, particularly in recent years, that never quite materialized for one reason or another. John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to us when we are busy making other plans.” I wish I would’ve pushed a little harder to make those talked-about trips a reality and to have had the opportunity to develop an even closer relationship with my father and stepfather into adulthood.
I’ve had a year to reflect upon on my father’s passing, and it has been nearly three years since my stepfather died. However, for all my reflections, I have no great wisdom to offer. Grief is a roller-coaster ride that affects each of us differently. But, perhaps I’ve gained some perspective and insight that I can share: If you are fortunate enough to still have your parents, spend time with them in the outdoors. If you are a parent, take your kids camping, hunting and fishing every opportunity that you get. Don’t cancel your fishing trip because you think you are too busy. Don’t postpone your hunting trip because of the weather or because you think you have better things to do. Just go. And cherish every minute of it. Take this not as advice from someone who manages a hunting and fishing blog, but as someone who would give anything to share just one more fishing trip with his dad.
I read that a man truly grows up after he loses his father. If that’s true, I can honestly say that even at 39 years old, I wish I could’ve stayed a “kid” for just a little while longer. The death of a parent also brings a keen awareness of our own mortality. We realize that our time here is short and that we need to focus on what’s most important.
I think I’ll call a friend and go fishing this weekend.
Story and photos by Jerry Neal. Neal is a public information specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online.