Time alone on the Appalachian Trail changes people. I know this from my experience and from those of the hikers I met along the way. In the woods, the persona I project in my workaday world cracked and I became vulnerable. The trek moved me closer toward confronting thoughts and feelings I’d suppressed, and I cried at least once each day. I missed my father.
The trail created space for me to grieve, even though Dad passed away almost three years ago. He was a fine man, a good and also flawed father, and a model for how to be in this world. Each time I remembered how proud he was of my brother and me, how much he loved us, and how often he said so filled my eyes. How may people will love you like that? (See “A Eulogy for Our Father.”)
As Dad slipped away into Alzheimer’s, I spent time with him on our front porch watching hummingbirds and talking about whatever passed through his mind. I recorded our “porch talks.” It was interesting what he remembered and what he did not.
“Porch talks” with Dad. I recorded hours of our conversations over nearly a year and will one day edit the recordings for my brother Duncan, our mother, and my sons.
One afternoon after a long period of silence, Dad said, “I miss my father.”
“You’ve never talked much about that,” I said, surprised by this turn in his memory, hoping he’d elaborate.
“I’ve thought about him every day since he died,” Dad continued, staring up into the 100-year-old pin oaks in our neighbor’s yard, as if tilting his head back would prevent the tears rimming his eyes from overflowing.
I remember wondering what that felt like and if I would have the same experience. I remember worrying that I would not.
His father passed away when Dad was 16, just a week before he was to return to boarding school. I can only imagine how lonely that must have been, despite their relationship being more formal than ours. While Dad kept his grief to himself, I knew from pictures he held onto and from occasional comments about what he learned from his dad that theirs was a good relationship and that my father knew he was loved.
Father’s Day is fine, neither here nor there. It deserves to be a national holiday, but it’s not necessary for me because I did learn how it feels to miss someone so much that you think of them every day. When I listen to his voice on the recordings — which remains hard for me — I can see him as if he were with me at that moment. When I’m attuned to those thoughts, I have the opportunity to remember my own role as a father and how I want to practice the same kind and gentle love he had for Duncan and me.
In just a few days, I’ll return to the Appalachian Trail for four days and fifty miles with our two older sons, McLean and Elliott. (We’ll miss the youngest because of an important swim meet. Good luck, William!) It will be the three of us; however, Dad will be there, too.
Our sons were fortunate to know their grandfather and to love his quirks: how he would take a bowl of ice cream to eat in bed before sleep, how he’d grow frustrated by politicians on TV and talk back to them as if there were in the room, how he’d make a deep sound of pleasure as he ate Cinnamon Toast Crunch or watched a sunrise at the beach.
I see much of Dad in my sons: They’ve inherited his compassion, interest in other people no matter how different they are from themselves, and his ability to apologize when wrong along with the grace that Dad extended to others when they made mistakes.
This Father’s Day, as we’re packing gear and clothes for our trip, I’ll remember to follow Dad’s example: not to “teach” my sons but to let them find their way, to listen and be curious and to avoid talking too much as if I always have the answers. I’ll strive to be humble and grateful for the many gifts life has brought our way. As Dad would say on occasion, “Not everyone is as fortunate as we are.” Most of all, I’ll love my sons the way my brother and I were loved: not perfectly but always unconditionally.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you.
George W. Campbell, Jr., 1940-1918