Sometimes our own words are prophetic at the most unexpected and unwelcome times.
It was a July afternoon at the lake. It had been dry, but the sky was overcast which helped to keep the temperature in the low 90’s.
The campground was one of those which didn’t have designated camping pads or spots. It was one where you could just pull your camper up under a tree wherever you liked. This was a favorite of many family groups because you could gather your campers and tents up in a group together.
Walking into one of these group campsites was like walking into a combination family dinner and party. They were fun to visit most of the time. If you were on foot patrol, you would many times get invited into the campsite. Folks were generally very friendly and many times you’d get offered food or drinks.
On this particular weekend there was a group of visitors who had their campers parked in a semi-circle next to some large Cottonwood trees. In the center they had pulled several picnic tables together and there was a campfire with lawn chairs around it. They even had a couple boats tied up to shore nearby.
There were always people busy doing something, even if it was just sitting and visiting. Kids were running happily, here and there. Some folks lounged in their lawn chairs with a cold drink. They appearred to be having a great time. Every time I would drive by on patrol someone would yell out that they had a cold drink for me if I stopped.
I would say thank you, but tell them I still had a lot of ground to cover, so I needed to keep moving. We usually didn’t accept drinks or snacks, because, just as soon as you accepted the gift, you’d end up back at the same site, later that night on some violation of regulations. This would make things more akward than necessary.
I did, however, stop by that same campsite on a couple occasions while on foot patrol. We always tried to do foot patrol as much as possible because you got to interact with the visitors more. Plus, you could see what was really going on in your campground when on foot. There wasn’t a vehicle to alert someone to turn down their loud music or put the dog back on the leash before you got there.
Willing cooperation was always preferable to someone getting into trouble. Most campers were like my own mom and dad. They were shy about complaining because of a rowdy or loud neighbor. So I would walk the campground after dark. This enabled me to spot possible trouble and deal with it early.
I have to admit, though, it was a lot of fun to just “pop in” to a campsite after dark. It would usually surprise everyone gathered around the campfire. The little kids would especially get a charge out of it with big eyes and “Where did you come from?” I think most people found it reassuring to know that someone was out there in the dark on patrol, watching over things. They were in a strange place with unknown people all around them.
It was later on this particular weekend that I was contacted by the sheriff’s dispatcher. She asked that I come by the dispatch center or call her by telephone. This was never a good sign. It meant that whatever she had for me, didn’t need to be put out over the radio for the world to hear.
I stopped my patrol and called the dispatcher by telephone on the non-emergency number. The dispatcher asked if I had seen a particular family who might be camping in my campground. I told her I thought they might be there, but I’d have to verify their identity on site. The dispatcher gave me the message and I drove back to the campground.
It turned out to be the large family gathering that had been so friendly all week. I called the dispatcher by radio and had her check the license plate on the camper. Sure enough, the name and address matched the person I was looking for.
To be honest I was hoping that it was the wrong group.
I pulled up to the campsite and everyone came out to happily greet me. Someone said “how about a cold soda”, while another said “hey you’re early for supper, but if you come back later we’re going to be frying up some fish we caught this morning.” As I moved through the group I told them I needed to talk to someone in particular named Karen. Everyone then started joking that Karen was in trouble and I was there to arrest her.
I told them again that no one was in trouble, but I needed to talk to Karen. They kept laughing and teasing Karen that she was going to jail. I said no, but needed to know where she was at. It was my intent to go into her camper and give her the message in private. The problem was that there were so many people standing there and they were in a very jovial mood. They all had something funny to say and crowded around me.
It was at that point someone said she was inside her camper. They yelled that the ranger was here for her and to get out quick. The mood was very happy and playful. One of the kids yelled, “Run! While you still can!” in a joking manner. I’m sure Karen was one of those people who never got into any trouble so the idea of the Park Ranger coming for her was ridiculous and funny. The thought of me being there for anything serious was the last thing on anyone’s mind…………except mine.
As Karen came out of the camper door she had a big grin on her face and flippantly blurted out…………..”I suppose you’re here to tell me my mother died or something.” She and everyone in the camp then laughed.
I took my ranger hat off and stood there looking in her eyes silently………..
I wanted to tell her in private, but it was too late………….. the playful smile quickly gave way to the ashen color of disbelief as the blood left her face.
In a calm and tender voice I told her, …..”I’m so sorry.”………
The look on her face was replaced by a look of horror as she realized that her own attempt at funny words had actually been true. I really was there, to tell her that her mother was dead.
I gave them with the information for who to contact and quietly left. She began to cry as she collapsed into a chair. The family gathered around to comfort her.
I never actually said the words, “Your mother has died’.
I remember driving away and thinking about how Karen had been so happy and in a split second she was in the throes of anguish. The fact that she had tried to joke about her mother being dead and that it turned out to be true probably made the anguish a bit more sharp.
At that point, I didn’t want to be around any campers. I didn’t feel like waving or having a conversation. I drove to a remote part of the campground where no one was nearby. Most of the time I was able to maintain a firm emotional wall that protected me from feeling the trauma and anguish around me. Normally I was busy with a job to do which I could focus on. It might be performing first aid, dealing with a bad guy, or even just writing an accident report. In this case it was just me watching her happy camper world change forever.
While I realize I was just the messenger, I felt some of her pain and anguish pierce my emotional armor. To see such a sad change in someone so happy evoked empathy in me that I normally was able to control and cover up.
I sat there quietly by myself in that out of the way place. I tried hard to “maintain”, but soon felt tears roll down my face. I was there for her fall into despair and part of it rubbed off on me. Maybe I could imagine myself in Karen’s shoes and getting that same message about my own mom.
It took a while, but the tears finally passed. Later, I reluctanly patrolled through that campground again and found that the entire group had packed up and left. I was thankful for that, because I didn’t know how I would act if I saw them again.
From that time forward, everytime I passed that site, I would think of Karen and the look of pain as she realized the joke she said was actually true.
I’m sure, that despite having family nearby, she felt very alone at the moment she realized the awful truth.
She will never know that her pain also touched me. That she wasn’t alone. For in that moment, I shared her despair.