Grief | Growth | Learning Beyond the Past

I’ve written about my dad’s death on the blog before. It’s always a bit of a difficult topic, and I’m not sure how best to open it this time. So let’s just say this is a post to share an experience of learning and connecting with him even after his death, hoping that others can also find their own resonance with that as they go through life.

This summer, when I started struggling with the clarity that the relationship I hoped for, the love I could see sharply, was not only unlikely to work out but rather abysmally so, I went for a walk to see a local rookery for great blue herons. It’s the largest rookery in the state. At peak, there were 70ish nesting pairs in the trees there – when I visited there in late May. When I was there again in July, it was pretty sparse. The fleeting partnership of these birds for procreation was waning as they shifted to their solitary territories again. Nevertheless, the now nearly adult hatchlings were impressive, filling the trees with their graceful forms.

For some reason, as I walked back from this, I flashed on my dad, and I had a sudden urge to shoot a bow again. I had grown up shooting traditional archery, long bows and recurves, which was a lifelong passion of my dad’s alongside hunting (traditional bowhunting, of course). I had never taken to hunting much, but I always had enjoyed the Zen nature of shooting these strung wooden wonders. I felt like it would be a way of enjoying something long lost in my life and of reconnecting with my dad, so I went home and called my mom to talk to her about the best approach to getting a bow and arrows in hands and shooting somewhere nearby.

Ultimately, my mom sent me some of my dad’s old gear, including my longbow from high school, and I looked into archery ranges in the area. Now, it’s the beginning of winter, a few months later. I recently procured a year-long membership to one of the archery ranges nearby with the perk that I have round the clock access to the range.

So, as my life is pretty independent, and I would much rather go to shoot by myself and avoid traffic and crowds, I went for the first time a couple nights ago at around midnight. The only reason it was that late was because depression makes me lethargic and even more of a procrastinator than I usually am. I drove through dark almost desolate streets on a pilgrimage to this reinvigoration of the past, to a reconnection with my dad. I even put on “Zen in the Art of Archery” to listen to on the ride, something I’ve meant to read for years but never have. Even just the 20 minute drive with these elements felt somehow profound, like a journey to something impactful.

I need to back up a bit and discuss some various things to set the stage for what shooting was like. First, shooting a traditional bow is very much about using your shoulders to pull. I’ve honestly struggled with this throughout my life. A couple years ago, I started getting back in shape and did an obstacle course race – the Spartan Race. About halfway through, I hurt my shoulder on a pretty basic obstacle – the monkey bars. I was swinging from one to the next and suddenly, something felt like it snapped right below/behind my arm pit on my right arm, and I couldn’t readily use that arm for much anything. Unfortunately, that’s my dominant arm as well. I followed up by going to a sports doctor and a physical therapist. I had torn some muscle in my back, and the PT worked on training me to use my muscles better. Well, it turned out that my body didn’t know how to utilize the muscles in my mid-back right along my spine but only on that side. There was a circuit there that simply didn’t activate, so I had to do exercises to force myself to use it more. This has transformed pull-ups for me in the last couple years. I had previously been over-using my arms to do it all.

Second, I have gone through some healing regarding my relationship with my dad since his passing, with a key point being around the anniversary of his death this year. Throughout my adult life, I’ve felt like I’m a disappointment to him, a feeling I was never able or maybe, more aptly, courageous enough to talk to him about when he was still here. I have shifted past most of this, but in a full depressive moment on the night of the journey to the range, I just suddenly felt these deep feelings that I’ll never be as good as my dad was. On some level, he’ll always be a greater than life legend in my mind, and in myself, I see my struggles, failures, and shortcomings – always trying to be good and do better but struggling and realizing that that’s always a journey underway. This may have just been a moment of my current depression really pushing itself to the fore, but it was a strong sentiment at the beginning of the archery outing.

I got to the range, used my key code, and walked into a half-lit empty room. I positioned a bale and set up my target. I had to pull up some videos on my phone to understand how to use the bow stringer to string my longbow. I successfully strung the bow and excitedly got set up to shoot with arrows, armguard, and fingerguard.

I started to shoot. My longbow is pretty heavy – 64 pounds at full draw. So, I handled it as a mindful workout to get the form right and utilize the back muscles I’d always struggled with as a kid. It quickly became clear that all the advice about form my dad gave me as a kid didn’t connect because of a simple inability to feel and use my back. In thinking on how he would have guided me and trying time and again to do better, to try to feel and understand how to move differently, I felt a depth of understanding for him that I never had before. The whole activity became more profound, more intricate, and more beautiful. These feelings swelled with the post-rock poignancy playing through my head phones. I kept shooting, probably over a hundred shots, until I started to fall apart from fatigue, shots going wide, and the string dinging my arm a couple times. In the end, I felt closer to my dad than I had in a long time, maybe ever.

I took down my target, put the bale away, and unstrung the bow. I got all my gear in order and bundled up for the cold. I walked out with quiver on, carrying the bow, got in my car, and drove home. All in all, it was a beautiful night that I’m struggling to fully capture. I hope that this all serves as an anecdote about the opportunity to grow, learn, and continue to connect after loss and even in the long tail of process that is grief.

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