Me and My Dad in South Thomaston, My Old Boat in the Background, Eben Island and the Muscle Ridge Islands in the Distance
It was my Dad who got me into boats, starting with a few fishing trips to Lake Arrowhead in Southern California. It was there, on the shores of a peaceful mountain lake in the middle of San Bernadino National Forest, he dropped an anchor on my foot. I was only five or six years old. My pinky toe still cranes off at an angle from that experience.
Later, a little older, my dad took my brother and me fishing on the reservoirs and rivers in upstate New York. We fished with salmon eggs and all sorts of other baits now banned from the sport. He was patient and caring, reaching for the little jar of brine, taking out a salmon egg as if it were a magic bean, placing it carefully on a tiny gold colored hook at the end of my line. If I think about it hard enough, I can smell his tackle box. I can hear the quiet rumble of the old 5-1/2 hp Evinrude he had, smell its sweet blue-white exhaust.
He taught me how to cast, how to troll, how to tie a knot. In my tackle box, I carry the last of his old bass lures and even some of his spinners. I never really use them. But they're with me. Sometimes, when I go fishing on a lake, which isn't too often these days, I take one of the old lures and fasten it to the end of my line. While my fishing buddy, John, motors us from one spot to another, I stare at the old lure and think about my Dad, how he used to sit in the stern, one hand on the tiller of the Evinrude, the other holding his fishing rod. I remember how he used to stare at the rod tip and hold a bight of the line with his forefinger, ever so gentle.
Thinking back on it now, with his soft touch, I believe he could feel a fish wink.
The picture was taken back in 1983. I had left a high paying job in professional fundraising to become a dive charter operator on the coast of Maine. I'm not sure my Dad ever really understood what I was doing. Although he respected and admired me, and was incredibly proud of me, and loved me, he never said what he really felt . . . that he wanted me to be someone else, for my sake.
Few kids really get that, the feeling their father or mother truly respects them or admires them. I had that. It's a rare thing. My Dad, I believe, felt the same way about my brother, now a surgical radiologist. How lucky were we to have a Dad who admired us for doing things he felt he could not do himself?
And yet, I always knew he wanted me to be someone else. He never really accepted my leaving the city and that job.
My dad died in 1997. I wish I had told him how much I admired him, how much I respected him. How proud of him I was. I never found the time, or made the effort. Although, I believe he knew how much I loved him.
During the last two hours of his life, I vigorously massaged his entire body. He was unable to speak at the time, dying of cancer, on morphine, but he touched my forearms and gazed into my eyes while I rubbed him down. I kept going like that as long as I could, praying my effort would drain him of life, ease his pain. I massaged him so he could die.
The end came about a half hour after I collapsed on the bed next to his. The hospice nurse woke me, said it was time, that he was taking his last few breaths. I got my brother and my mother; we gathered by his bedside.
The actual dying part was a mechanical thing. My Dad, the part we loved, was gone before his body took its last breath.
There were no epiphanies. No revelations. Those would come later, in dribs and drabs. A conversation. A note from a friend of the family. An old photograph. An old letter.
It would be trite and an insult to his memory to say I hope he's fishing some quiet pond somewhere in the afterlife, pursuing the ever elusive quarry of his dreams. It's an insult because he was much bigger than that. He was bigger than the things he loved to do. . . . His was a selfless life . . . spent more for the benefit of others.
He never got the boat he always wanted, a 28' Betram. He never got the cabin on the lake he always wanted, in New England. He never got to see his oldest son achieve the greatness he envisioned for him.
But on his last night, during the final two hours of his life, I believe he realized everything would be just fine, if not exactly the way he had wanted it. He left this Earth as he lived his life, thinking of others. In fact, I believe the only thing he ever did just for himself was allow himself to die.