Living

On our last day, I knew something was askew with you. You were quieter. You didn’t tell as many jokes and stories. You didn’t make eye contact as often. You didn’t even wrestle the kids.

I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Maybe you felt left out of our chitchat. Maybe you had more trouble hearing. Maybe your blood pressure was off. But something wasn’t the same, and I sensed it.

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With my best dad

Other parts of our last day were perfect.

 

We drank a glass of red wine together. We always did that. You commented on your failure to perfect the gravy’s consistency, and I insisted it was perfect already. I always insisted your cooking was great (it was). I scooped up a huge spoonful of succotash and claimed I loved it. I didn’t. But you made it, and you loved making it, and I loved you.

Our last day was the day after Thanksgiving, but it was our celebration of the holiday. For me, lover of gratitude and all things gushy inside, what greater gift than for our last day together to be a day of giving thanks?

I carried my coffee outside. I couldn’t stop yawning; it’s easy to relax at your house. The two of us were observers during the family baseball game, sitting on the sidelines, cheering for the kids and heckling the grown-ups. When the boys argued over taking turns at bat, and my little Maggie became distraught, you distracted her by inviting her to sit on the porch swing. You always had a way of making peace in a tense situation without sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, smoothing out hurt feelings like a delicate linen dress, nice and slow.

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In our woods, 2011

While you sat on the porch swing, rocking gently in the shadows of the late autumn sun, I regretted forgetting my camera, knowing my smartphone would never capture movement and light and real moments. I watched you whisper to Maggie, wondering what you were saying, so lucky to have a grandpa like you, something I never had.

 

When I left, I leaned in close so you could hear me, and said, “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you. I love you.”

I didn’t take any pictures of our last day together.

But we lived it, the same way you lived 69 years of your life, dodging bullets in Vietnam, driving your truck home down dark highways to make ends meet, crooning radio tunes in your bride’s ear with your big hands around her waist, casting bait into the White River, tossing your little girl up in the air and smoothing her long brown hair at bedtime, heaving two shotguns over your strong shoulder before your son could carry his own up the long hill when you taught him to be a man.

Maggie has asked what you are doing in heaven. She asks if she can talk to you.

Of course she can, we tell her. We tell her she can talk to you any time she likes.

scan_20161204-2We tell her you are fishing with your new fishing reel and taking care of her two cats and baby white chicken. She loves seeing this in her mind before she drifts off to sleep.

Many people, when they pass on unexpectedly, might have regrets. I imagine you have none.

You lived.

Keep fishing

My husband, fishing on the White River

My husband, fishing on the White River

There’s a reason so many old men sit down by the river after they retire for hours each day, staring into the water. They cast lines, bait hooks, smoke cigarettes, drink beer, wear sunglasses, and nod silently at one another in greeting. Most of them don’t have much to say.

Fishing is a great metaphor for life, and if you’ve never spent much time fishing, you might be rolling your eyes right now. That’s okay. Maybe you didn’t have a grandpa who took you fishing in a rusty old pickup truck with a can of worms. You might have never learned how to bait your own hook. And you might have never pitched a tent or slept in a sleeping bag under the stars while on a bonafide camping trip.

That’s all right. Someday, you might decide to embark on one of these adventures. Maybe someone else’s dad or husband or grandpa will wrap his sun-battered arm around you and invite you to hold a fishing rod. You might have difficulty being still for longer than five minutes. It might feel like a total waste of time. You might find yourself itching to take pictures with your iPhone.

Liz, fishing for crappie, January 2012

Liz, fishing for crappie, January 2012

Then you’ll feel a tug on your line, and your iPhone will suddenly seem insignificant, smaller than the crappie thrashing about in the water.  A thrill will fill your chest, and you’ll yelp as you yank a little too hard on the reel. You’ll lose the fish.

Your patient teacher will rebait the hook, and you’ll watch. You’ll feel a little sorry for the worm, but after experiencing the thrill of catching your own fish, you can’t wait to feel it again. You wait. This time, you watch the water cascading over the side of the dam. You have forgotten about taking pictures, and the imaginary world of Facebook fades into oblivion. You watch an old man reeling in what appears to be a gigantic trout. It must weigh 50 pounds, you think. You ask him how much it weighs. Maybe six pounds, sister, he mumbles.

You sit on the precipice of the dam, the damp concrete seeping through your jeans, wind whipping through your hair. You don’t talk to the people you drive down the gravel road with, packed like sardines into the gray pick-up truck, because the noise of the crashing waves drowns out every other sound anyway. You hear water, and you hear your own thoughts. Maybe you hear God for the first time in years.

019After thirty minutes of roaring silence, interrupted by intermittent casts and worms and sips of beer, a shiny trout gobbles up your bait. It seems too good to be true, but you follow directions, and somehow reel him in—this time without overreacting—and land him on the cold, hard surface of the bank.

He stares at you and stops flailing. The sun reflects off his beautiful shimmering body, showing the world one last time all of his colors. You smile at him, and the old man with the six pound trout peers down at you over the rim of his cheap gas station sunglasses. He’s a keeper, sister. That’s dinner.

And he is.

White River damAnd every time you cast your line into the river, you think about what it is that keeps you going back there, that keeps you fishing. It’s not dinner, although trout is certainly tasty, a wonderful local sustainable fish. It’s not the chance to spend time with people you love, even though that happens, too. And it’s not to escape a nagging wife or husband at home, although you might know a few folks who fish for particularly that reason. And it’s not the thrill of the tug and the bragging rights, although many people fish to feed their own egos.

It’s the beauty, the flash in the water, the colors and the light. It’s the silent cry from the trout and river and the rock, the don’t you remember Who I Am?

Six months later, someone asks you what you like to do for fun. Fishing, you say, without batting an eye. I like going fishing.

You might want to try it.