The things that carry one through
By Reid Bryant · Illustration by Bob White
Dick Coffin died the other day in the house that sits where Gale Road turns to dirt and the tar road at town line bends north into New Hampshire. He died not five miles from the river-bottom farm where he was born. Dick was on the leading edge of 80, but the last decade or more had been a dissolution of sorts. A cancer had slowly, inexorably, chipped away at the foundation of the man who’d milked cows through the dawns of his life, rebuilt an ancestry of stone walls, kept a few Herefords out back when the collapse of New England hill farming sent him to work in the factories. Cancer had bloated his belly and turned his legs to twigs. He was brought home to die in his own bed, with a view to the east over the hedgerow where the woodcock would return come spring and the grouse would beat their tattoo, if indeed there were any grouse left at all. It was a spring he’d have known he’d never see—one as lost to him as the birds and seasons themselves.
I saw him a week or so before he passed. I’d visited him too infrequently in the years since sickness took on a pendulum swing of hospital visits and bedridden days and whole seasons soaked up in being ill. Illness had robbed him—robbed us—of the alder bottoms and mornings. I’d kept diminishing tabs on him in the first few sick years, from the very last time we’d hunted together, but the final day we’d spent afield had lingered with me long after with a metallic aftertaste that still settles when I remember it too hard. It was on that last hunting day that he described the truth of his illness in that rattling, rasping baritone of his. In a candor masked in pre-dawn darkness, he drove the sinuous path to our Otter River pheasant fields and talked about fear, heartbreak, the reevaluation of oneself as no longer a slab of muscle and sinew and bone. It was on that morning drive, the last of so many, that Dick Coffin’s voice quavered a bit beneath the hum of the truck heater and he told me about being afraid, really afraid, and uncertain of when the fear might end.
We leaned into that fear together, into the prospect of chemo and radiation and vascular ports, so long that we pulled into the apple-tree cover and cut the engine, exhausted by a day that hadn’t risen yet. In the widening gulf, absent of motion and motor noise, we both lapsed into a silence wherein there is no more to say. I knew enough not to comfort a man in those moments, not a man 50 years my senior. I wouldn’t offer my juvenile hope and rely on the shell of it, and I wouldn’t offer a thin candy shell of optimism. Instead I sat silent beside an old man in the dawn, and I felt his fear, and I considered his resolve, and I prayed hard for the sunrise hour. At sunrise, I hoped anyway, Dick Coffin would scrape together his fears in the dark back of his mind for the hour or two before my workday started while we wandered side by side into the space where pheasants sift out into the edges and the dogs work the cool of the morning and autumn transcends all thinking. I sat silent in the truck and hoped that sunrise would come, so the thinking part of the dawn wouldn’t lead me down the winding road that would end at a picture of myself, 50 years hence, with a tumor in my guts and a poison in my blood that feeds on the fear and no resolution in sight.
We cracked the doors when the hour came and loaded shells, loosed the dogs and tromped off into a morning. It wasn’t frosty yet but damp and cool, and we had an hour or more for a turn of the edges with three dogs down. It was the old bull Brittany, Rex, I remember; Tip the setter, too; and my young Brit, Sleeper, still green enough to be a liability. We cast them out no less and got to walking on the path we always took. Dick had given up on wild birds a few years prior, what with the cruelty of the cover they prefer and the scarcity of points. Stocked pheasants, with their reliability and heft in the hand, suited him just fine, and we ran the dogs on them three mornings a week for the first five seasons I lived on the south side of Maple Valley.
He remembered these things as though they’d been etched into his very soul.
That last day, though, the birds were scarce, and Dick had slowed noticeably and talk was thin. The dogs worked beautifully—up along the cattails of Otter River, lumbering over the stonewalls and creeping through the pine bottoms where the odd woodcock sometimes lit. We didn’t get a shot. There was one hard point where Rex, the unassailable senior, silenced his bell in a thick tangle of honeysuckle. Dick sent me in, claiming that I needed to do the grunt work while he covered the open shot down a lane to the right. I leaned into the tangle and broke through at length, pushing past the remainder with an open hand to shield my face. Rex was there beside me and, moving in astride his left shoulder, I kept waiting for the cackling rise or at least the scratch and shuffle of a runner. Nothing.
The brush ahead gave way to a slight clearing and an opening into the switchgrass where I could straighten up. I heard Dick moving around right and circling to meet me, no doubt waiting for the rise too. But Rex held firm, and when Dick and I met there in the matted grass in the wet space of the morning, it wasn’t a rooster that we saw pinned, or huddled or stupidly making its pen-raised provenance known. It was instead a feral cat, ears back and hissing, with gray fur mottled with mange and eyes crusted over, near shut. It couldn’t move, could barely hiss and was in itself a tragedy. It was an embodiment of suffering, so near death but resolute in its anger and its hatred of our presence there in its dying place.
Rex remained on point, and Dick raised his gun to kill the cat, and I turned away to not watch the lead tear and crumple its body. I turned, but no shot came. I looked over. Dick had lowered his gun, turned his head to not look any more at the suffering there in his last autumn morning, and horsed Rex off point by his collar. We moved back into the cart road and whistled the dogs, moving off to the truck under the guise of still hunting, knowing all the while that we’d shot our last birds together when we both could still rely on the illusion of health and the prospect of more and a future still opening up. We didn’t discuss the cat. Only once, at the end of the drive home, did Dick announce in what felt like an admission of guilt that he just didn’t want the dogs to roll in the remains of such misery.
That was the last time we hunted together, but the moments and years still unfolded. Dick’s illness foundered him, shrunk him, compounded his suffering with depression and pain. In and out of the seasons I ran his remaining dogs when I could, fed his pen-full of quail, strung new fence for the Herefords when their lines came down or rusted through. With the advancing seasons, these menial contributions stopped, too, as the bird dogs died off, heartbroken no doubt in the absence of autumn mornings, and the quail proved too delicate for winter and the Herefords went down the line in the auction man’s trailer.
Then there was just Dick, shrinking into his disease and the tragedy of it, in and out of consciousness, in and out of memory. His wife, Lois, made the bed fresh and set him up by the stove and fed him whatever he’d eat, hustling him to the hospital more than any wife should have to and hearing the doctors claim again and again that this was it. And then finally, after the last long run in the hospital, with the white cell counts and infection potential being what it was, Lois brought Dick home to die. That was where he belonged. She set him up on a bed in the parlor, with a view out to the east, and took him off all the treatments and gave him whatever he wanted. That was where I last saw him, just a week or so ago.
Dick was in bed, flirting with sleep, meandering in and out of lucidity. He could barely hear. Lois hugged me, welcomed me in. We went in and sat on the edge of Dick’s bed, and he opened his eyes just a bit and smiled. Lois had to holler at him to introduce me. He smiled so openly, and it didn’t matter that he had no clue who I was. There was a phenomenal gladness and gratitude there, and he reached out and took my hand like a trusting child might. Lois propped him up, and he continued to hold my hand and smile. He winked at Lois, as he always had, and her tears came a little and she went away.
I didn’t know what to say. This was a goodbye, and I knew that as well as he likely did, but our collective understanding and collective courtesy wouldn’t allow that much. So instead we talked about birds and dogs and deer seasons. And by god if Dick Coffin didn’t remember the names of each dog he’d run in a half-century and the stories of the great shots and the stories of the coverts growing up and going blank. He knew the names of the farmers in the valley and the telltale places that held birds through the seasons and the places where we parked and awaited the sunrise. He may, too, have remembered our last hunt, the birdlessness and the cat, but he didn’t tell me; he couldn’t remember my name. He could not sit up for more than a few minutes. But he remembered Rex and Tip and Jack and Ben and Birch Hill Dam and The Courier Place and John Moore’s. He remembered sending a setter pup to the kid downstreet who’d admired the working dogs so, and he remembered that out in the barn a lifetime of bird dogs had wiggled through his hardened hands and that through the hedgerow coverts a lifetime of bird seasons had done the same. He remembered these things as though they’d been etched into his very soul and the illness and sadness and fear had scrubbed the superfluousness clear of him and left the good stuff plain.
Lois returned with a glass of water, smiled and wiped her eyes. Dick reached out with absolute and simple dignity and asked for a hug. She gave him one and laughed through her tears when he winked at me again. In those moments he’d become pure honesty, liberated from all but love and the memories he needed to carry him on. And that was how I left him and how I’ll remember him: squeezing my hand in his, then rolling over to sleep a little more.
Dick Coffin died the other day in the house that sits where Gale Road turns to dirt and the tar road at town line bends north into New Hampshire. He died not five miles from the river-bottom farm where he was born. He died in his own bed, with a view to the east over the hedgerow where the woodcock would return come spring, in a spring he knew he’d never see. I like to believe he took with him the memories that became resonant and as unfailing as the seasons themselves. Considering his departure, there remains some great comfort in the fact that the things I love and the things I need are the things that will carry me through.