To catch a fish

sunset-fishingI was beginning to wish we’d never seen the fish.

I wished that the sun had set, dirty faces has been washed, and I was drinking a cold one on the back porch. I wished that the line had been wet, there had never been a nibble, and we’d walked away talking about how the fish just weren’t biting. I wished it had been a happy failure.

Then we saw the fish. It looked like a big blue gill and was swimming in a shaded spot near the dock. It didn’t look particularly hungry or interested in anything at first. Until it flicked its tail, I wasn’t sure it was alive. I wished it would swim away, but it didn’t. It raised the fish equivalent of an eyebrow and looked up as if to say, “Well, how are we going to handle this?”

I am not much of a fisherman. In theory, I appreciate the practice. In fact, in private dreams, I see myself with sun-bleached hair, a weathered face, and a week’s worth of scruff as I point my boat out into the bay in search of the day’s catch. In reality, you’ll find me at the counter at Fresh Market with eye on the freshness of whatever is on ice that day.

The failure on my part to become a fisherman by this time in my life is no one’s fault but my own. I come from a long line of folks who spent countless mornings on the lake in search of bass, crappie, and catfish. They took me along as much as I wanted. For whatever reason, I tended more toward the midnight fireside guitars than the daybreak fishing trips. This was fine up until the point my son asked me to teach him to fish.

Let’s be clear: when your son asks to be taught something that every man should know how to do, a father either teaches the son or spends many hours in inglorious self-flagellation. In this case, the only thing I could do was fake it. Or, I could do what made the most sense. I could put him in the hands of a real fisherman.

Enter my father.

* * *

We have a small lake in our neighborhood. It’s the place where a kids-only fishing derby will happen this coming weekend. As it happened, my folks were in town a few days ago for the baby’s birthday. My dad promised my son he would take the boy down to the lake for a little practice. By the time they ended up going, it had become a family affair.

I stood on the periphery and let my dad teach the boy. It was sweet, and as the sun started to go down I caught myself thinking about my own childhood, fishing with my dad, and pictures of myself with my grandfather and a giant stringer of fish.

papa-d-fishing2

Since I’ve been an adult, my dad has confessed he felt like he missed out on a lot of my childhood because of his business pursuits. I don’t share that memory. I recall a father who was there more than most dads would be and who never missed something that was really important. With that understood, I get where he is coming from. I travel a lot for work, and I constantly worry about what I’m missing in my kids’ lives. I thought of it all as I watched the sun shimmer on the water and frame my father and son in a warm, purple dusk.

And then the fish showed up.

The problem with the fish (and the four or five that joined it) was that it was only casually interested in the yellow lure dangling in the water. The fish looked at the lure like you might look at a woman with purple hair and a miniskirt. It was all very interesting, but it’s best to keep one’s distance.

We all watched the fish circle the lure in a few feet of water. My dad worked the lure with the silence of a man who wanted nothing more than to let his grandson reel in his first fish. Minutes ticked by and nothing happened. It was clear that nothing was going to happen. The mission that could’ve ended as a happy failure was going to end, almost certainly, as something much worse. It was going to end with the kid who wanted to learn to fish and the man who wanted to teach a kid to fish both walking away wondering why they couldn’t catch a fish they could almost reach out and grab.

I found myself getting inordinately sad. I couldn’t explain it then and I have a hard enough time with it now. The short version is that I’m wired to make people happy. My greatest joys come from seeing people I love smile. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, the two people I constantly hope are happy are my older son and my dad. They are both people who express pure joy in a way few others do. Not catching the fish was probably going to make the old man and young man in my life sad.

We had no bait. The trip had been meant more as a casting lesson than a real fishing expedition. It seemed clear the fish weren’t going to hit a lure. It was time to call it a night.

I walked off the dock and toed around on the bank. I pushed some soft mud aside and saw a small worm wiggling its way out. I pulled it out and handed it to my boy. “Give that a try,” I said.

My son handed the worm to my dad and I watched him thread it on the hook the same way he had hundreds of times when I was five years old. There was a new light in his eyes and my son’s interest was hot again.

The line went back in the water. I don’t know how long it was there, because I was already thinking about the speech I’d give my son about patience, acceptance of failure, and the vagaries of fish. I had it half-composed in my head when the world exploded.

The fish hit, my dad set the hook, and he immediately handed the reel to my son. Within a minute, the kid had it on the dock.

I saw the fish, but I didn’t care much about it. Instead, I looked at the faces of the people on the dock. My mother had tears in her eyes. My wife was smiling widely. My son was swollen with pride as a few neighborhood boys ran up to inspect the catch. My dad was as happy as I’ve seen him since I scored my one and only high school football touchdown.

The grandfather and grandson looked at their catch for another minute and then released the fish back in the water. As everyone chattered, I started packing up to go to the car. I found myself getting misty. I’d just seen something that represented exactly what I hoped my life would become.

When my dad nearly died back at the end of 2003, I wallowed in regret. I’d done nothing to that point that I thought worthy of his pride. I lamented the fact I’d never given him a grandson. Before Dad was even out of the rehab center, my wife was pregnant. Even if I never made myself into what I wanted to be, at least, I thought, I’d given my dad a chance to be a grandpa. It would take more than that, though. It would take me accepting that what happens with my son doesn’t begin and end with what I can teach him.

Anyone else who might have been watching on the lake that day probably would’ve thought, “How cute. A fish.” But it was more than that. Pulling that fish out of the water seemed to make up for so much. My father and I were two men who both felt as though they hadn’t been there enough for their sons. I continued to struggle with doing something to make my dad proud.

As silly as it sounds, that damned fish represented an unspoken sort of redemption. My son learned to fish. My dad learned he could still teach. I learned that sometimes the best play is to get out of the way and just let things happen.

If the fish learned anything, it didn’t say.

First Fish