The stinging truth

Thirteen years ago our family had to wait two excruciating months to get one simple question answered: What killed dad?

And when we finally had our answer we didn’t know what to do with it. Turns out it wasn’t the heart attack we’d suspected. It was a random act of violence.
One that he had brought upon himself.

In all losses, there are lessons to be learned. Some are buried in symbolism. In this case, it’s obvious: If you have serious medical issues, it might be a good idea to let at least one other person know. If privacy is a concern, wear a MedicAlert bracelet or necklace.

Concealing a chronic condition serves no useful purpose. If the idea is to spare others any fuss, the purpose is defeated when you die. Funerals, wakes, estates and grieving are all fussy and messy.

I’m sure my brother has his own thoughts about that sweltering August evening when my father stumbled into the house mumbling something about bees. My brother thought dad was having a heart attack. He did what any of us would do: he summoned an ambulance. But it was too late.

My brother punished himself for a long time afterward because he didn’t now CPR. We later learned CPR doesn’t do much for someone in the advanced stages of anaphylactic shock. What does work is epinepherine. But we didn’t know what anaphylaxis was or that dad was deathly allergic to insect stings.  And we didn’t have an EpiPen in the house.

If we had been told of his condition, advised on what to do in the event of  a sting,  we could have at least tried to save him. 

Instead, we all fumbled around like fools, blaming the EMS workers and second-guessing every second of the 30 minutes between his cry for help and the hospital staff telling us he was dead. We alternated between  thinking it was a heart attack and theorizing that he encountered a swarm of bees. There had been reports of such attacks that summer.

Three months later as we prepared for our first Thanksgiving without him, we were stunned to read in the just-released autopsy report that he died of an allergic reaction from one bee sting. Medical examiners found a single puncture — not visible to the naked eye  — on dad’s left wrist. He died so fast his skin didn’t have time to swell. We were told that this type of reaction is a buildup over time. Death doesn’t generally come with the first sting. No doubt he was warned of this outcome and advised on preventive measures.

My father knew and didn’t tell us.  Why? 

We knew that dad wasn’t one to remember things he didn’t want to remember.

We knew he abhorred illness/weakness of any kind.

My mother knew that dad had once sought medical attention after an incident involving a hornet’s nest. But nothing more was said of it.  Mom tried to get answers from the doctor, who declined citing patient privacy laws. 

I wondered if in those minutes before he lost consciousness my father welcomed this hasty exit from life. Was it part of a grand plan? Who thrusts themselves into a bee-infested garden when they have deadly allergies? Or did he have a last-minute regret for being secretive, foolhardy? Perhaps he overestimated his ability to save himself.

I was angry with dad for a long time. I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye or to say how sorry I was we quarreled the last time we saw each other. He barely had a chance to bond with his first grandchild, my now teenaged daughter who was only 18 months old at the time. How quickly Girl from the West forgot her “gampa.” Within a few months, she no longer recognized his image in family photos.

I’ve finally forgiven my father for this final oversight in a long line of omissions. But I can’t help but recall his own words of advice to me:

A man gets to be an expert on survival in the wilderness. He gets a little cocky. He makes a fatal mistake. Nature wins.

The deer hunter


It’s been 13 years since my father’s premature death. 

I think of him often. On his birthday. On his death day. And on opening day of firearms deer hunting season.

It’s a big deal here in Michigan. It was a big deal to my dad. He always set aside vacation days to spend in the woods stalking his prey. It’s ritual and tradition and it’s something I’ll never understand. 

Growing up as the daughter of an outdoorsman meant I posed with every dead thing my dad brought home. Every fish, rabbit, bird or mammal he snared, trapped or shot. And in each picture I have the same expression on my face: a forced smile in response to some off-camera plea-turned-threat.

My dad took his outdoors skills seriously. We had property in the north woods. A rugged plot of land without modern amenities. We were supposed to get in touch with nature and learn how to survive without creature comforts. One of those ways was to get our own food. I think my father fancied himself as a sort of Jeremiah Johnson, just one step ahead of the Indians and starvation. My childhood memories are peppered with experiences of hunting for mushrooms and cattail roots and berries.  One year we even tapped maple trees and made our own syrup.  

There is a story my father told me years ago that may have foreshadowed later events in his life. It goes like this: A man gets to be an expert on survival in the wilderness. He gets a little cocky. He makes a fatal mistake.  Nature wins.

My father had a selective memory. He also made executive decisions about how much information his family needed to know. Like the wilderness man in the cautionary tale, these things led to his demise.

Being an outdoorsman appealed to my father because he loved nature. He also liked the role of provider. He wasn’t really in it for the glory. Our home didn’t feature mounted animal heads or stuffed carcasses. I’m guessing that when my dad hauled in that big stiff dead deer to the butcher, he may have been asked about the head. I’m imagining that he declined the offer all those years but one.

In that particular year he must have given in, imagining for one small moment some use for a deer head. But that moment passed quickly. So fast, in fact,  that when he pulled a cardboard box out of his trunk later that day and placed it on a high shelf in the garage, he must have imagined it was hunting gear or some other seasonal item that could be tucked away and forgotten.

The ghost of that year’s deer would haunt us for quite some time. The last person to ever guess it was my father.

The following spring we began to detect a faint odor outside. Thinking a small animal had died on our property, we began a search in earnest. Several investigations later produced nothing. This prompted spurts of frantic cleaning and clearing and some small amounts of digging in the dirt as the season advanced and the temperature climbed.

Odor turned to unbearable stench and with that came flies in swarms. This made it easier to narrow down the source: somewhere near the garage.  Still, without a corpse, a crime scene, we were stumped.

Finally one sweltering July afternoon, when some errand drove me up a ladder and onto a storage platform in our garage, I accidentally overturned a cardboard box.

The box tumbled to the concrete floor below. The momentum of the fall forced the contents out. Splattered below me was a decomposing deer head inundated with maggots in such large quantity that the whole arrangement looked like a rice stir fry platter smothered in brown sauce. The smell was unbearable.  I managed to scoop up the whole mess and quickly haul it to the curb for trash pickup.

Later that evening, when we told the story to my father, he looked over the newspaper at us with squinted eyes, pursed lips and shook his head as if we were making it all up. A deer head? In the garage? It had simply escaped his memory. 

Dad was like that about some things: He could name very Roman emperor in chronological order, all the U.S. presidents, too. But remembering something like a deer head in a box or that he had a life threatening medical condition, those things were niggling details that took up valuable brain space.

Later, I will tell of his undoing.