A few weeks ago, I wrote a short story about a parent and child out on a fishing boat, both of them mourning a tragic loss. Today, I would like to share another story with you, and there are many parallels between them that I had not intended when I wrote the first. This post, unlike the short story I named “Ballast,” today’s post is very real.
My father fought cancer, and he won. It was a Pyrrhic victory; the cost he paid to fight for his life was his life. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy killed his cancer, but it also left him in a physical shambles, making him easy prey for the pneumonia and C. difficile that eventually took him from us.
He was doing well early in his treatment, remaining fit and strong enough to maintain a fleeting grasp of his independence. My family witnessed the strength draining from him, though, and it happened both excruciatingly slow and all-too-fast. That might not make sense to you, and I sincerely hope it never does.
Situations like this are not uncommon, but that does not make them any less tragic, nor any easier to accept for those who are left behind. In my personal opinion, we are bearing witness to a time where the cure may, in future retrospect, be deemed just as devastating as the disease it is meant to save us from. I hope not, but I have been conditioned through my experience mourning my dad to harbor a healthy skepticism of such things. For now, I am cautiously optimistic, but I digress. This post is not about Covid-19.
I recall a time that my brother and I were returning with my father from one of his constant visits to one doctor or another. He expressed an interest in driving home from his appointment, and it had been months since he had gotten behind the wheel on his own. As nervous as it made both my brother and me, we knew that my dad might not get many more opportunities like that, and neither of us wanted to be the one to say that it was probably unsafe for him to do so.
It wasn’t safe, by the way… not even a little. But we got home in one piece, and it was our dad that got us there.
That is a bittersweet memory because as horrible as it was to see how much my father’s reflexes and skill behind the wheel diminished, he was smiling, and he was happy. He was behind the wheel, and reclaiming that little bit of control, fleeting as it may have been, was a metaphor describing the state of his life at the time. His body was in the fight of its life, and he was determined to give that fight its all, but he lost a lot of control over it along the way. He couldn't do all the things he had grown to love, and one of the things he always loved to do was to hop in the truck, roll down the windows, and hit the road.
He was able to laugh and enjoy a little taste of victory.
When I began writing this post, I mentioned the story that I wrote a few weeks ago, “Ballast,” in which a parent and child mourning a terrible loss sat in a fishing boat together. The day I posted that story, my brother reached out to me to thank me for it, and to share a story of his own.
It is with his consent that I now share that story with you.
The day after my father passed away, in late June of 2008, my entire family was obviously devastated, but my brother... he is a stronger man than most I've ever known. He held it together, though it was obvious losing dad hit him just as hard as the rest of us.
I fell apart, to be honest, but I am not ashamed to admit it. I was recently told that my emotions are always front and center, and that does leave me vulnerable in moments of loss. My brother sat at home, keeping everything afloat, checking in on our mom, my sister and me, and doing exactly what my dad needed him to do. His young son came up to him that morning, though, and decided to look after his old man, who was so busy looking after everyone else. My nephew asked my brother to take him out on their boat to go fishing out on the lake.
According to my brother, that morning was much as it was in the story I posted a few Fridays ago. They were out on the water at Chadwick Lake just as the cool of early morning gave way to the heat of a summer’s day, mist draped across the water all around them. Both father and son had cast their lines, and neither had a bite for some time.
Then, my nephew felt some resistance, a sudden tightening of his line, and his pole bent toward the water’s glassy surface. It was a solid tug, far too heavy to have been a fish, so the hook must have gotten caught on a jagged rock or piece of driftwood wedged into the lakebed.
Just as he asked his father for a hand freeing his line, and just as they were moments from cutting it loose, it moved of its own accord. This was no driftwood, nor was it a rock or any other inanimate thing.
It was the biggest bass in the lake, surely!
The two of them, both father and son, were able to set aside their grief for that moment as they worked in tandem with one another. My brother steadied his son, offering encouragement and watching in awe as the huge fish... almost cooperatively drifted toward the boat. A fish that size could have easily fought, snapping the line in due time, but, it didn't. Not even a little.
According to my brother, it was sincerely the largest fish he had ever seen getting pulled out of Chadwick Lake. The two of them were beyond excited. They pulled the bass out of the water, its weight the only real obstacle they had to contend with, and freed it from the hook right away. They were overjoyed, even if just for a moment. The world that seemed so gray and unfair gave them a reprieve, letting the sun shine on them for just a little while.
They were able to laugh and enjoy a little taste of victory.
After my nephew strained to pull the fish up high so that my brother could take a picture of it, proving this to be no mere fish story, the two of them released the fish back into the waters of the lake. Usually, when they released a catch, it would scurry on away, eager to put as much distance between itself and them as possible. That wasn’t the case, this time. At first it seemed to the two of them that the fish may have been injured or dazed beyond the limits of its instinct to flee.
However, this fish was swimming. It dove and circled back. It made itself seen. It lingered beside the boat for a while before it headed off into the depths of the lake.
This was the first time my brother shared this story with me, and he told me that he had not thought of that day in a very long time. Reading my words brought him back to that moment, when his son looked him in the eyes the day after our father passed on, and said, “Dad… that was papa.”
I miss my father so much, and as we approach the holidays, the ache in my heart becomes almost unbearable at times. Even as I found myself unraveling at the seams earlier this year, and even as I realized that my relationship with my dad may have played some part in the issues I now face, my love for my dad never wavered. I would give anything for one more moment with him. I am certain that most people who have lost a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child share in that sentiment.
It is Thanksgiving in a couple of days, and the surviving members of my family will gather in whatever capacity we are able. It may not happen all at once, and perhaps not even in person, but if my dad were still here with us, he would know how to make the best of all the challenges we have faced in 2020. He would say all the right things at the dinner table on Thanksgiving, reminding us all that in spite of everything, we can still laugh, and we can still celebrate our victories.
I am thankful that my brother shared this story with me, just as he was grateful that I shared my own and in doing so helped make that small, powerful, precious moment reemerge. Those are the ways we can help one another… by reminding each other to savor each moment we have together, regardless of the strange circumstances we are all now enduring.
That’s what dad would want us to do, I think.
He would want us to remember to laugh, and to enjoy the little victories in our lives.