What I am going to share with you today started many years ago. It was a time in my life marred by tragedy, severe depression, and several near attempts at suicide. It took an immense amount of emotional exploration and healing as well as time, but it did lead me to my passion for travel and exploration which became the most meaningful thing in my life. The dark did eventually lead me to light. But that was only temporary.
It was six years ago that I lost my son. My heart. My wholeness. I had been a single father for almost all of Hunter’s life until then. His mother went off the rails and left for Colorado with her dealer almost immediately after recovering from her pregnancy. It seemed that the year she had spent clean had simply been too much for her. She snapped back from the unusually long period of sobriety and clearly was not able to cope with the responsibility of parenthood.
I was not perfect either. But to be fair and allow myself to simply be proud, I will say that I really stepped up as a father. With the challenges I was given, I did an exceptional job of putting myself aside and making Hunter the center of my life. I did everything for him, and the love that we shared was the most rewarding thing I had ever experienced. Until he was suddenly gone.
We had been on a three-night camping trip in the Allegheny Forest. Hunter was six years old, and though he was becoming slightly more resistant to the plans I would make, he absolutely loved camping. We would sit by the campfire at night, and he would begin these conversations that would quickly become philosophical. It was so wonderful for us to discuss whether or not we both saw colors exactly the same way and try to answer all of the child-like questions that would lead to mystical and esoteric exploration.
It was mid-afternoon when we broke to eat lunch. We had just climbed hundreds of vertical feet to the top of an incredible waterfall. We sat, eating cheese and pepperoni on the boulders near the head of the falls. We rested, lay back and warmed our bodies in the sun. Fat and happy we soon both swooned in the beating sunlight and took a small siesta. I remember maybe thirty minutes of that strange dreamy, restful but half-conscious sleep that happens in direct sunlight. Odd shapes and scraps of memory paraded through my semi-consciousness.
When I turned on my side to check on Hunter, he was gone. There was no one in the area. I called for him and searched for hours alone, absolutely distraught. I cannot even allow myself to describe the state I was in because frankly, I cannot bear to come anywhere near to experiencing that feeling again. Please forgive me. I cannot.
After what seemed like two hours a family came hiking through the area I was in. I told them what had happened through tears and worry beyond comprehension. Within hours the rescue teams came in, along with local police and the hunt began. Bless these men and women. Bless them and bless the local people who took part in the search. For five full days they searched, day and night, through storms and overcast skies. I never had a single moment where I thought that more could have been done for my boy. My heart. My life.
After five days there was no choice but to slow and then stop the search. There was not a single sign of Hunter. There was nothing, and in the end after another five days of my wandering the trails, scanning the waters, and haunting that forest like a ghoul, I went home. The moment my front door shut behind me as I entered, my soul was destroyed. Coming home without Hunter was very nearly the end for me.
I drank constantly for months. I took painkillers, frequently mixing the two in the extreme, nearing overdose many times. It was during this period that my sister visited. We had been estranged for years at this point. I won’t go into detail and I don’t want to be unfair, so I will just say that our personalities just never meshed. It was like mixing fire and gasoline every time we met. We always loved each other but the incredible intensity of our respective personalities was simply too much to exist peacefully in one space.
She did love me. She did care. She invited herself without my knowledge, showing up at my home on a Tuesday with her new one-year-old, Jessie in tow. She found me in my boxers, nearly unresponsive, unkempt, unshaven, and living in filth. She stayed for a week, cleaning, propping me up, and getting me involved in grief groups. She even found out that my friend Tony from school had lost his daughter just a year before Hunter went missing, and put us in touch. I tried to speak with him and share the common experience, but he seemed never to be able to open up. I would try to share my grief and he would just cry and say nothing, clearly turning inwards with his pain. I could not continue to upset him with my own fresher wounds.
My sister did help, but I had a very difficult time being around her daughter. It was simply too much to live in that house with her child. Eventually, when she felt that I was stabilizing, she returned home and consistently checked in with me on the phone or on Skype when she wanted to see my face and see that I was not failing back into severe self-medication. For the most part, this did not happen. For the next three years, I was on a slow and painful journey, but it was a journey towards partial recovery.
At this point, I had come to my life’s passion. Over those years I discovered that the thing that made me feel most whole was exploring new places. I became a seeker. I had sold my small house, collected unemployment and traveled full time. I would stay in hostels at times, camp often, and once in a while treated myself to a nice hotel room where I would shower for hours and sleep like a baby. I traveled much of Europe, spent some time in Chile and Bogota, and lived in Spain for several months, but eventually returned to the States to begin camping up and down the East Coast.
The day that my life changed again was during a hike through the thick forests of Maine. It was afternoon and slightly overcast which gave the woods this rich mossy feel. As usual, I was hiking and contemplating the universe. Thinking about reality and how the level of randomness in probability theory must ensure the continual possibility of the incredible. My mind often wandered towards such elusive and mind-bending topics. However, before this day I had never actually experienced the actual impact of such expansive considerations.
I had left the marked trail perhaps twenty minutes previous and was exiting a very thick section of forest, into a small clearing. I stopped dead in my tracks, my eyes widening and my mouth gaping like a buffoon.
There before me was a gentleman sitting in a leather chair in his living room, wearing a paisley silk robe. When I say he was sitting in his living room, I mean it. However, there was no house, no walls. In this small dark clearing, there stood the entire physical contents of what appeared to be a very dated, but upscale living room. He sat with his legs crossed, one slipper dangling over his knee next to a standing lamp in front of a mahogany coffee table. There was a very old wooden radio in “the room” and a small fireplace with a free-standing chimney burning and churning smoking before him. The only other actual structure whatsoever was a single door, and door frame behind the man. Everything else was just a collection of common household items. Picture frames on a small side table. A set of coasters, and glass of whiskey on the coffee table in front of the gentleman.
“Well, hullo!” The man put down the book he had been reading and rose to greet me with a wide, welcoming smile beneath his thin black mustache. “If you would forgive my informal attire, I would love for you to join me for a moment.”
I stared blankly trying to comprehend this situation as the man remained standing, laying a welcoming hand toward the chair beside his. I cannot tell you what I was thinking. I don’t know if I was thinking. The oddness of this experience seemed to lure me into some strange state of hypnosis. This was an incredibly unique and valuable experience, and I had no choice but to be a part of it. Doing otherwise would be to cast aside a miracle.
I calmly approached the man, skirting around his furniture and introduced myself, shaking his hand. I remember that his was incredibly warm, almost hot in my palm. The whole space he was set in felt exceptionally warm in comparison to the forest I had been exploring.
“My name is Jack. My mother used to call me Cracker Jack as a child. I must have been quite the handful” he smirked warmly as we both sat. “So what brings you to my home here today?”
I explained that I had spent the last year exploring and camping, dodging several inquiries about what had led me to this lifestyle. I was generally mesmerized by the situation, but could not bear to tell this strange man of my loss.
He pulled a small plug of tobacco from a pouch on his side into his pipe and lit it. He inhaled deeply, raising his eyebrows slightly. His eyes narrowed, examining my face very closely.
“We just met sir. I understand your trepidation. But I am only here for a very short time. I am happy to share this time with you, this unique opportunity for connection. But I do know why you travel. I do know why you seek.”
His eyes locked mine as if they were trapping a rabbit. He peered intensely and I could feel him seeing me in fullness. It was not entirely uncomfortable. It felt like I used to feel as a young child when I prayed. It felt like God could see every corner of my being in completeness, but there was benevolence there. He saw me, and it was perfectly safe.
“Hunter.” he whispered.
I put my face in my hands. I had no compunction to ask him how or why he might know my son’s name. There was nothing there for me but the sorrow that this name still evoked. I was seen. I was laid bare to this man.
“Yes, Hunter. Such a wonderful child, and such a terrible loss for you. Let us end that loss, Michael. Shall we?”
I raised my eyes to look at the man, wondering what he could have possibly meant. At this point, I did begin to feel slightly anxious.
His answer was to put his pipe on the coffee table, slowly rise, turn, and open the door behind him.
Standing there was Hunter. He was just exactly as he was the day he was lost. He was the same age and wearing the same clothes. His face lit up seeing mine, and he ran to me embracing my neck with his warm, sweet-smelling arms.
My knees gave out completely, dropping me to the ground to accept this unworldly embrace. I cried and collapsed as my hands explored and felt his little body. His face, his birthmarks, the way his hair smelled and his bright little eyes were just as they were. He was here. It was him. My boy. My heart. My love.
After several minutes of just holding him, I raised my questioning face to the man in the robe.
“I want nothing more than to send you home with your son as soon as possible.” He stated. “As I am sure you understand. I have done something incredible and difficult for you and it is only fair that you may offer to return the favor, yes?”
“Anything.” I whispered through my tears. And I meant it. There was nothing I would not do, for this to be reality.
“I appreciate that. And I can see that you are being completely honest with me.” he sounded so very sincere. “You may take your son home now and enjoy the rest of both your lives, and I ask only one thing. In one year I will visit you. At this time I will make one single request. You must do that one thing for me. It will be a small simple errand. It is the only thing I ask in return for my graciousness.”
“Yes.” I said simply.
“Very well Michael. Be on your way then, enjoy every minute and every facet of that wonderful young man.” He smiled at both of us and ushered us away from the living area, and back toward the path.
Just as I had walked out of the forest barren of Hunter years previous, I now left this forest with him by my side. He remembered nothing of the years after our previous trip and seemed completely and utterly himself. As he had been, so long ago. We talked, and joked, and hugged occasionally as we made our way to the trail, then to the lot, and then back to Pennsylvania where I located a job and bought a small condo. I could not go back to our hometown since there would be too many unanswerable questions, so we started a new life. Hunter and I spent every waking moment fully engaged with each other until he started school. This entire time I continued to speak with my sister but could never determine any plausible way to share the knowledge of Hunter’s return. The story was too odd, too unbelievable for me to consider attempting to explain. I simply lived in the bliss of having him back and decided that knowledge of his existence would be mine alone.
Shortly after Hunter’s seventh birthday I dropped him off at school and headed home. I descended the steps into the building’s laundry room with a basket slung over my shoulder. I stepped through the laundry room door to find myself standing in a timeless, 1950s-style living room with the man from the forest sitting in that same leather chair before the fireplace at the eastern wall. Everything was exactly as it had been in the forest, except that there were walls surrounding the room rather than trees.
“Michael, wonderful to see you!” He rose and shook my hand.
I immediately fell into the chair by his side, feeling strangely worried and defeated. I didn’t think that he would take Hunter away from me, and I did not necessarily fear the request that I knew he would present. It was just simply that I knew the score. I was a passive party here, with a job to do. And I would be informed as to what that job was and I would do it without question.
I was correct.
Jack very simply explained to me that I needed to convince my sister and her husband to take a camping trip. It did not matter where, as long as the forest was thick and dark. Furthermore, I must convince them to bring their daughter Jessie.
I did it. I knew, and I did it. In fact, it was worse than that. The moment I heard the request, everything fell into place. I realized immediately that my old high school friend Tony had lost his child almost exactly a year before Hunter went missing. I knew that Jessie was next in line for the same fate and that this might continue forever, in a never-ending chain of parental despair unless someone stopped the cycle.
I truly hope that someday, someone will. Until then I live for my beautiful growing boy. My heart. My love. My soul.