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by David Cabela
I had been waiting thirty minutes for him to open his eyes. When he did, he attempted to smile past the ventilator tube protruding from his mouth like some sort of artificial snake.
“Hey, Dad,” I said. It felt weird and inadequate under the circumstances, but I could not think of anything else.
My father lifted his hand weakly, happy to see his son. I sat there in that sterile hospital room listening to the breathing machine do the work my father’s lungs were unable to do and watched his eyes close as he fell back to sleep.
It was not my father’s first visit to the Intensive Care Unit. He had been in and out of different hospitals for the prior ten years. On more than one occasion, the doctors told us he would not leave there alive. He proved them wrong multiple times. God had something else for him to do or someone else for him to see or maybe God just knew at least one of my father’s children needed another moment, no matter how brief or seemingly insignificant. The thing is my father never questioned God’s plan. He just rolled with it. He had endured many hardships throughout his life and yet not once had I ever heard him complain. He was tough, I knew, but his toughness came from a trust that God was in charge and that God loved without question or condition.
As I sat there with my father, the rhythmic “breathing” of the ventilator nudged my thoughts to drift to a different time and place, a time before a bleeding ulcer had quickly stolen years from my father’s life, a place where time seemed almost infinite.
We were in Mkuze reserve in South Africa—home to a healthy population of white rhinoceros. White rhinos are one of Africa’s great conservation success stories. And that success can be partly attributed to the foresight of opening the species to regulated recreational hunting. In the early 1900’s only a handful of white rhinos remained. By the early 2000’s numbers had climbed to near 20,000. Contrast that with the black rhino—a species that has been “protected” from recreational hunting for years—whose population dropped from 100’s of thousands to only a few thousand since 1960. Now, the hunting correlation could be considered anecdotal if not for the almost universal success regulated recreation hunting has had on game species worldwide, most notably in the North America where we enjoy utilized sustainable populations of numerous species that were on the brink of extinction not too long ago, including whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorns, turkeys, and wood ducks among others.
Although the experience is different, the same thing that drives a hunter into the woods each year to hunt deer, drives some hunters to Africa and elsewhere to experience, in an honest way, some of the earth’s bounty. Africa spoke to my father’s soul in a way few places had, so he returned again and again to experience some of God’s simple but extraordinary gifts. Africa became his deer woods. The quantity and diversity of game played a part in that and on this particular hunt, he had been tracking rhino for nearly eight hours a day through rocky hills in Mkuze’s sweltering heat and thick brush.
I was a recently married young man, fortunate enough to tag along for the adventure with my wife. I traded tracking rhinos between my mother and father and discovered a great deal about their toughness, endurance and genuine love for everything outdoors. While at the same time discovering my own limitations in all those qualities.
One day, a particular big-footed rhino led us through brush so thick the trackers used machetes to cut a path and we crawled on our hands and knees for long stretches yet still had to eventually turn back as it just became too inter-tangled with thorny bushes and trees to continue. This was not the behemoth standing idly on the open plains I had imagined in my thoughts—such are the preconceived dangers of living behind the screen as we so often do these days—we lose connection with reality and see things as we imagine them, not how they really are. We believe we truly know something about an animal or a place or the people who live in those places just because we see a documentary or read a paper. But when a prehistoric beast leads you and a band of native trackers through a seeming impossible tangle you gain a greater respect for the creature, the place, and the men whose lives are formed by them.
I remember sweat dripping from my fathers face as if someone were pouring water over his head. I remember walking away from the tangle in silence. I remember how tired he seemed. I remember how difficult each step was for him to take. I remember his labored breathing with just a hint of a wheeze. I remember, shamefully now, thinking I saw weakness in his eyes. But as we piled back into the Land Cruiser that evening and headed for camp, he smiled at me and I realize now that was not weakness at all, but satisfaction. We had walked away that day without ever having seen a rhino, but he had also pushed himself to the limits. He left everything he had to the day and that was a day well-lived. That was a day worthy of a smile regardless of the outcome.
In the hospital bed, I saw useless suffering. I saw the strongest man I ever knew confined to a bed unable to even breath on his own. I saw his pain and wondered how this man who climbed mountains in search of adventure and memories could be so weak and frail. How could this be the same man? Why would God will this for him? My father loved life. He loved creation. He loved experiencing different places. Most of all, he loved God. He knew none of it existed without Him. My father understood his life was not his own. He never took credit for any of his accomplishments because he believed nothing was possible without God. And he tried to live his life with humility, generosity, and perseverance. To him every minute mattered so he tried not to waste it. In my naivety, I saw his time in the hospital as wasted.
The nurse interrupted my thoughts when she walked into the room and smiled at me. Then she checkered a few of the machines before gently pushing on my father’s shoulder. “Mr. Cabela. Mr. Cabela,” she said loudly.
His eyes slowly opened to the halfway point.
“Mr. Cabela. We need to turn you on your side. It’s time to turn you again. Okay?”
He tried to nod, but it seemed a bit painful for him to do so.
“Can he get some more pain medication?” I asked.
“He’s on a drip. I’ll ask if we can turn it up at all.”
She waved to another nurse outside the door who promptly entered and helped her shift the pillows from under one side of my father’s body to the other.
As they pulled on the sheets to lift him, his entire face winced in pain, though his eyes did not open.
I felt helpless.
Those many years earlier in Mkuze, my father spent the first six hours of light during another day tracking an old bull rhino well past its prime in one of the few areas left in the world where a hunter can pursue free-range rhino. My father always believed hunting connected us to nature in the most honest way possible for humans. He marveled at how quickly people could forget how much we all utilize creation. Now we find comfort in allowing others to kill, clean, prepackage, and serve us domesticated creation. And he found it a bit perplexing that the only form of hunting where it is possible for a hunt to be considered successful even when an animal is never killed is the most criticized. Every kind of hunting except for regulated recreational hunting requires an animal to be killed in order for it to be considered a successful endeavor. However, the experience requires at some point the final act of killing an animal in order to fully understand what it means to be a hunter—an honest predator. My father, like almost all hunters, hunted for much deeper reasons than most non-hunters will ever realize. He understood outright bans rarely worked—especially when instituted by well-intentioned folks in cities who rarely take into consideration the people who live with the wild animals and have to deal with them on a daily basis. My father loved the animals he hunter. He spent time with them, learned about them, and used his money and efforts to conserve them because he knew they held value for future generations. Whether a person hunts squirrels or elephants, that animal has value and my father believed you best understood that value by putting your boots on the ground to pursue them and share in an experience hunters from every generation before us partook in.
I stared at my father, lying weak and helpless in that hospital bed and remembered the man who always pushed himself to his physical and mental boundaries because that was all he knew how to do.
That day, so long ago, after six hours traipsing up and down hills and valleys so rocky it felt like walking on footballs, two great Zulu hunters led my father and his professional hunter, Garry, to a magnificent old rhino bull standing just on the other side of a wide and dense thorn thicket. They studied it from a distance, before deciding it was indeed old enough to pursue. Then they sneaked closer from downwind, crawling on their bellies for the next thirty minutes. They set up beside a thin, leafless acacia tree to wait for the bull to step away from the thicket and give them a clear shot.
At that point, it became a game of patience. Who could sit the longest? The bull or the hunters. The Zulu trackers, July and Izwane, made themselves comfortable in the shade where they could keep an eye on the rhino. Dick and Garry knelt beside the tree and watched closely, expecting the old bull to get thirsty or hungry or something—anything.
I sat in my father’s ICU room in a relatively comfortable colorless chair for an hour waiting for him to wake up. I just wanted to talk to him. I didn’t even know what I wanted to say. I just wanted him to talk to me. To give me some advise, something—anything.
The room had the sterile smell necessary to all hospitals. The machines clicked and beeped. The shades to the window allowed a subdued almost unrealistic light to filter in. It was shadowless and nearly lifeless. The quiet murmurs from outside the room came sporadically and without clarity. I sat and I waited.
My father knelt beside the acacia, sweat slowly working its way from his forehead to his chin. A light dust carried by a dry breeze entered his nostrils. A few birds clacked and whistled nearby. The sun pierced through the spindly branches as if it were laughing, its the attempt at shade. Every now and again the old bull would grunt or snort but never loud enough for the hunters to be sure they had not merely imagined it. They sat and waited.
The rhino ended up having more patience than the hunters. After more than an hour, my father and Garry decided more crawling would be necessary. Twenty minutes later, they had a clear look at the vitals.
At the shot, the rhino turned at them, pointing his heavy horn in their direction and charged straight for them. The speed with which the massive beast moved could not be overstated. My father barely had time to stand and point his rifle. Dirt and rocks shot out from behind its legs, the brush exploding as it crashed toward them. My father hit the beast head on with a second .375 round. It did not slow down. Twenty five yards became ten in seconds. He barely had time to work the bolt before the bull was on them. Garry fired a round from his big .470 double a split second before my father fired his third and final bullet at a charging rhino only five steps from plowing them over.
Those last two shots were just enough to push the bull slightly off course before it slammed to the ground and came skidding to a stop, leaving a small trench in its wake. It literally missed the two hunters by a few measly feet.
With a crew of nearly one dozen trackers, skinners, and other staff members, we joined my father and his companions later that evening to help skin, debone, and haul everything back to camp where they divided up the meat to donate to local families the next day. When my father retold the story and pointed out how close he and Garry stood shooting when the rhino’s charge ended, I marveled at how calm he seemed.
“I imagine most people would run,” I said.
“God did not give many people the ability to outrun a rhinoceros,” my father said. “But He did allow us to create and use tools.” He pointed to the rifle leaning on a nearby tree. “I’m thankful He did.”
So was I.
That same ability to create tools kept my father alive in the hospital for a few more days and even allowed him to be flown home to spend his final hours surrounded by the people who loved him.
I am eternally grateful for those few days I had with him in South Africa so many years ago and also for the last, quiet moments I was able to just sit with him and remember. There was nothing wasteful about that.
I am grateful our God loves us enough to allow us adventures and emotions and memories and loved ones to share them with.