When Writing Just Feels Wrong: a tribute to my father and his courage.
By Gregory Zeigler
The Airstream named Winnie parked at our favorite spot on the Warm River near Yellowstone National Park.
Recently, my wife, Dimmie and I were camped for two weeks on the Warm River near Ashton, Idaho. I thought a lot about my parents, Jake and Winnie Zeigler, and the camping we did as a family.
Winnie, for whom our Airstream trailer is named, would have loved the scenery, the flowers—especially the fields of white Mule's Ears and purple Larkspur—and the birds: osprey, sap suckers and one resident Great Blue Heron to name a few.
My father would have come for the scenery and adventure, but he would have stayed for the fishing. No fussy fishing for Jake. Oh sure, he would have followed the rules (mostly) but trout rolled in cornmeal and crackling in the pan would have been his daily goal.
In thinking about my father, I remembered the dilemma I faced four years ago while planning to backpack the Oregon Coast Trail. I dedicated the three-week adventure to Jake. Well, not just to him but to the manner in which he died. As I walked with the breakers thundering beside me, Dad was always in my thoughts. But it was during the lead up to the trip that I suffered great indecision.
My backpacking partner, Jean Noel Malherbe of Normandy, France stands atop the highest point on the Oregon beach.
First, Jake's story.
Dad was a powerful, smart, self-reliant guy. He grew up on a central Pennsylvania farm, the only one of twelve children to attend high school and then college. He spent his career at Kiski School, a boys boarding school, as a beloved teacher, coach and administrator. Kiski's mascot is the cougar. Papa Cougar was the nickname the students gave Dad. Papa Cougar was a legend at the school. And he was an amazing father to my three siblings and me.
Six years after retiring, at age 75, Jake was diagnosed with kidney cancer resulting in the removal of one kidney. Five years later the cancer had metastasized. He did the chemo and all that was recommended but confided that his quality of life was near zero. Then he had an operation that laid open his chest, only to be told that nothing further could be done. He was facing a rapid decline and certain loss of dignity.
But my father was raised on a farm so he did what farmers mercifully do to diseased animals. He controlled his fate and put himself down. In fact, he called the town's undertaker and revealed his intentions, asking that he come and get him so my mother wouldn't find his body. Now that is courage. Knowing our father as we did, my siblings and I were not surprised by his decision. But we were deeply saddened, not only by the loss of our beloved father, but by the fact that he had no other choice at the time but to die violently, alone and almost certainly frightened.
That brings me to Oregon. Not many years after Dad's death, Oregon became the first Right to Die state. If my father had had a choice like that, he might have chosen to go quietly, safely, and surrounded by family.
Here's Dad mugging as he prepares to pull the cord on the outboard and head out fishing.
As my backpacking adventure in Oregon approached, I was having lunch with a wise friend. I confided that I was deeply conflicted about how best to honor my father with the trip while not exploiting his death. Should I print t-shirts, hand out flyers, blog about my experience? How do I both honor Jake and draw attention to this critical Right to Die issue, I asked. My friend stopped me short with this question. "Greg, do you want this trip dedicated to your father's memory to be about doing...or being?" I thought for a moment. "Being," I answered.
"Then forget about all that other stuff," he said. And I felt a great weight lift. I completed the journey. Jake was with me every step of the way. Doing anything other than simply walking and remembering just felt wrong. I've never even written about it. Until now.
Editor's note: Gregory's new environmental thriller, Rare as Earth is up on Amazon. Search under Gregory Zeigler books.