So Rob called me one afternoon. It was September 2010. He’s family, like a brother, my cousin, we had a connection. He wanted to tell me about some Coyotes he had seen, see we would do that, ya know, tell stories of wildlife and adventure. Maybe one of us had seen a cardinal in deep snow, or a hawk strike a squirrel on a bird feeder, a flock of geese flying in a V to the north.
I knew he was cutting wheat straw that day in the field across from his house so I presumed I knew this story. Of how the coyote would follow the bush hog and chase the field mice, easy pickings. But he said no, not this time. He told me “There were five big males up on the tree line, and they came down and encircled me on the tractor, paying no attention to the scurry of the mice.” Startled I asked “What did they want Rob?” He thought a minute then said, “They seemed to be interested in me. They were paying attention to me!” I said “What did you do, Rob?” “I went home and got the gun, when I came back to finish up, they were gone.”
Now this kinda set me back a little bit, because you see Rob was a part of the natural world, he was not separated from it. I had heard tole of a time he walked over to wild turkey in tall grass. As it hunkered down, he picked it up and carried it over to our uncle so they could admire the plumage and the wonder of it all.
And this is a man that I had been boating with in the Tar River and as we skipped by in our small wooden boats he plunged his arm into that dark water and grabbed the tail of a snapping turtle and pulled him clamoring into the boat.
Now the fear in me of this primordial, evil, swamp monster. For Rob it was a turtle.
We had been on many camping trips like that. We had been on the Pamlico, Pungo, Pasquatank and the Perquimans. We had explored the Scuppernong the Chowan, the Wiccacon and the Meherrin. We had camped on the Deep and the Black, the Middle and the Little.
But in that field across from his house, all of that would change.
Four or five days after that incident he had with the coyotes, Rob was finishing up in that field as it was getting dark. As he shut her down and was climbing back off that tractor, he stumbled and missed the lower step. He fell, hard, on his butt. He got to his knees and walked home. The house was dark, the boys were in bed, his wife had left a plate out for him. He ate alone, took a shower, and went to bed.
That night his leg got sore and swollen, discolored and hurt. By the time the sun came up, and they put the boys on the bus to school, they took Rob up to the hospital. They called me on the way and asked me to stop by the farm and tell these men he was to meet that he would be late and might not come at all. I just happened to be driving by the hospital when I got that call so I turned in, parked right next to the ambulance, walked in the door and there was Rob. He was in a split gown, on a gurney, and with a wink in his eye he told me he had one upped me, referring to a remarkable fall I had had while camping with him some years prior. I went on to take care of my errand, they took Rob into the back to see the doctors.
That leg got worse as time went on, he was in a lot of pain. Paralysis set in. His blood count was wrong, he became very sick. They could not tell what was wrong with him. And after four or five days they had to do exploratory surgery and they opened him up. His intestines were infected and rotten. They had to take out a lot of his intestines and sew him back up. And over the next few days it happened again and again. They did not know if he had been bitten by a snake, stung by an insect, or bitten by a spider. They could not believe he could be so sick because of this small fall.
But he had developed a compact syndrome. It is where the muscles in his leg were atrophying and his body was trying to absorb all of those toxins through his intestines. And the toxins were causing his organs to fail. And after surgery after surgery, twenty one surgeries, death set in. I leaned in to his death bed and I told him I loved him. And I asked him to save me a seat, maybe let me drive a little bit when I get there. Because you see for me, heaven is sharing a boat seat with Rob in a wild place.
The night of his passing a childhood friend who lives closest to that tractor was awoken by the sounds of coyotes howling outside of her window. She sat up and she thought of Rob. And I wonder, what did those coyotes want? I think maybe they wanted Rob. If he was here today, would he think they were evil? I don’t think so. They were no more evil than that turkey, or that turtle or me. I think they were there to take him to explore another wild place.