My father died last week, after a heartbreaking, years-long battle with Alzheimer’s. It was not unexpected, yet it hit me a little harder than I thought, even after all this time to prepare.
My sister and I delivered the eulogy, and it was both the writing and public speaking job of a lifetime. As I said on Twitter, mere words suddenly felt very puny. So instead of listing his many traits, I decided to handle it a little more obliquely, through story.
Of course, emotion continued to trump my intellect, and giving it that bit of distance was not a lot of help in keeping my composure. But I’m still proud of it as a tribute to my father. Here’s the text:
My father taught me many things. The importance of standing on principle, the value of a good joke – and even better, a bad joke.
And he taught me how to fish.
One of my earliest memories was when I was about five years old. Out on a pier in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the end of the day and Dad gave me the last piece of bait from the bucket: half a shrimp. We put it on the hook and I lowered the cane pole in the water … and I got a bite. It felt huge. I struggled to wrestle it up onto the pier.
And when I saw it, I thought it was some kind of monster. A great big fish the size and shape of a pizza pan with both eyes on one side. Turns out it was a flounder. Dad assured me it was a very good catch, and another adult there was so enamored of the fish he offered to take it off our hands.
I thought, “Wow, I’ve done something here that not only pleased my father, but was of value to this complete stranger who was under no obligation to think everything I did was adorable.” The power of fishing.
Fishing can be a very affirming, very spiritual experience. Almost religious. Allow me to quote from the Good Book – A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean.
“When I’m alone in the half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories … and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.”
Fishing is about ritual and mystery. It’s about acknowledging a power greater than our own. Recognizing that we play a small part in the scheme of things. It’s about faith. Faith that the next cast will be the one, that the fish on the line will make it into the boat, and that if this day didn’t go well the next would be better. It’s about our connection to each other, taking comfort in each other’s company and joy in each other’s success.
My father and I spent countless hours on the water – the Occoquan River, Lake Anna. Early, early mornings together, the sun barely up, in a small boat. We talked about different things and many times we didn’t talk at all. We just sat, casting our lines in the water, waiting, waiting, with the hope that a fish would rise … enjoying the beauty and the quiet.
But then I grew up, went to college, got a job, and my father and I didn’t fish a lot after that. But about 10 years ago, at the wedding of Mara and Jeff, Jeff was kind enough to arrange a fly fishing excursion to a stunning, picture-perfect canyon, with the South Platte River running through it. We waded into the stream up to our waists and cast our lines out into the water and reenacted that old ritual of faith.
It turns out I didn’t catch a thing that day but that was okay, because Dad landed a beautiful trout. And it made us both very happy. Thank you to Jeff and Mara for that gift.
I recently started fishing again, with my new fiancée, Karen, and her family. And when I’m up there in Alaska, on the beautiful waters of the Kenai River, casting to that four-count rhythm, I think of my father and how much he’d love fishing those waters. I hear him advising me on my form. “Keep your rod tip up, son.”
And so the tradition continues. Maybe someday I’ll have the opportunity to teach someone how to fish. And the cycle will go on. Which brings me to another quote – this one is from the actual Good Book. Ecclesiastes – one of my favorites. (And forgive me, father, for I have edited.)
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come thither they return again. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.