I am the daughter of an avid fisherman, who more times that I could count, taught me perseverance and the childlike mantra needed that would assure a successful outing.
My dad and I - circa 1959
On countless docks and lakesides, my father handed me a pole, sometimes with an impaled worm writhing around my hook and cast it into the deep.
“Cathy,” he instructed, “if you say this chant, you are sure to catch a big one.”
He smiled at me with knowing anticipation. I followed his lips as he formed each word, and I believed.
“Fishy, Fishy, bite my hook.
You be the king and I'll be the cook.”
This little prayer didn't always work, but on one summer day on a dock in Arkansas we had hope. My brother and I chanted it over and over again, sometimes with great intensity thinking it would make the chant work even better. To our delight, over an hour or so, we hauled in a small bounty of crappies. My father was so proud and happy. Maybe it really did work.
One of my favorite photos of my father.
My father's passing in 2016, followed by my mother's last year, brought to light many complicated emotions in me. The dynamics of their nearly 58 years of life together were, at times warm and loving and at others, very difficult. In an effort to process and begin to understand, I sought out counseling. Our discussions made more questions surface and often a few tears; but over time, they also brought an understanding of my parent’s humanity, their woundedness and the roles that each of us had fallen into. In order to do the hard work, I had to be focused on the sometimes-difficult events. My healing was certainly happening visit by visit, but I knew I had reached a point where I could put some things to bed. I needed to go fishing for more of the happy memories.
And so, one recent spring evening, with the hush of darkness settling in, I stood at my window longing for connection. I slid the window open and breathed in the cool fresh smell of evening. Stars sparkled in the dark velvet of the sky while an owl called in the distance. Gazing up to the heavens, I picked out my best lure, the red and white dare devil, knotted it on my line, and cast it out into the universe, listening to the fishline whizz as it reached across the years and finally plopped into the watery pool of my life. I closed my eyes, took in a breath and began my chant, the one I was sure would work.
“Fishy, Fishy, bite my hook....”
Nothing. Not even a bite.
Over the coming days, my efforts to cast out into the memories of my father and pull in the colorful, happy ones left my line limp and the lure bobbing across the surface as I reeled it in. Sometimes I tried fishing in the early morning hours. In the quiet, leaning against the living room window, hands cupped around my warm chamomile tea. Feeling melancholy, I'd whip back my rod and blindly cast into the past. A few nibbles kept me hopeful, but the challenges of the past years kept anything substantial at bay. Like so many fishermen, I knew the big ones were out there. Maybe I had tied on the wrong lure or perhaps I needed to set down the rod, grab my oars and slowly dip them in the deep, gliding to a new spot.
Anticipating what would have been my father’s 91st birthday last month, I found myself filled with many emotions. After feeling flooded with sad thoughts, I decided to try something different. I would approach my fishing much like I search for words to begin a new story. I grabbed a pencil and journal and sat at the kitchen table. Staring out the window at the blue sky and blossoming forsythia, my mind began to wander. A lovely little minnow of a memory swam by ---
I am 5 or 6 years old, in the backyard of our home on Wendy Drive.
I can smell the rich, familiar smell of autumn leaves piled high.
I hear the scratchy sweep of my father’s rake as he thatches with the tines of a wire rake at the drying lawn, lifting the crunchy brown leaves up and on top of the others forming a line.
I see my brother and I running and leaping into the pile and laughing.
I lay there for a few seconds immersed in all that is fall to a child.
Rolling onto all fours, I lift myself up, feeling the crispy edges of the leaves, most falling off, but a few dry stems hiding in my hair and clinging to my sweater which I try to pick off. I laugh and chase after my brother to do it all again. My dad is somewhat patient, only occasionally yelling out to us to stop making a mess of his piles.
I smile. This is an unexpected and good one.
My family in the back yard of Wendy Drive.
L-R: Dad, Mom, Diane, Me, Mike, Sandy and Casey, our german shepherd.
Remembering one moment in my life led to another, and soon I had a page and a half of happy memories of my father scribbled down. I felt feelings of relief being back in touch with the times I had forgotten, when things were simpler with no long-term disease or caregiving issues, frantic long distance phone calls or troubled moments. Just a daughter feeling a connection to her Dad.
Laying my pen down, I decided to take a break, got up and walked over to the kitchen window letting out a sigh. With my fish line still bobbing in memory lake, I reached for a glass from the cupboard when a pleasant surprise happened. The big one finally showed up.
It started with a tug, letting me know it was there, still deciding whether to bite. Soon it was snagged. I instinctually set the hook with a yank, as dad had taught me, and began reeling it in. Back and forth we danced. The memory pulled away in desperation to escape being caught. I leaned back to gain some line. Reeling, reeling… inching it closer - close enough for me to catch it.
A few months before he passed, I had flown down to Birmingham
to spend time with my father who was declining. He presented me with a list of thirty or so topics he wanted me to record for posterity,
a series of interviews where he could tell his life stories.
I eagerly agreed and decided, because time might be short,
the priority would be to record him talking about each of his five children.
After these teary, poignant stories were in the books, Dad seemed to be enjoying it so much that he came up with more topics like “My happiest day” or “My college pranks.” We laughed and cried and everything in between as I pressed record day after day.
On one visit to the nursing home, my father was propped up in his bed with my mother sitting in a chair next to him. This time I decided I would be the one to choose the topic.
“Dad, tell me about how you met Mom.” I asked.
And from that simple question, followed 26 precious minutes
of them talking about when they met and fell in love.
Mom recalled, with a sweet smile, cutting a picture of her ideal man out of a magazine
that in the end, looked exactly like my father.
My father shared how he met my mother at her father’s dental office,
and how the little girl he remembered seeing in the sandbox,
unexpectedly had grown into a beautiful woman.
“Where are those movies?” I said out loud, “they must be on the computer.” I quickly headed toward the office, clicked on the computer and waited. Sure enough, the connection with my parents had been right here all along.
The big catch.
For the next 26 minutes, I sat by myself, Kleenex in hand hearing their familiar voices echo in my home once again. There is something about hearing your loved one’s voice after they pass. It is truly a gift. I watched the sweet tenderness of their smiles, the knowing glances they threw at each other and the heartfelt laughter spurred by a memory they had long forgotten. I was witnessing their love again.
I clicked on the next video called,“Dad talks about Cathy.” For 8 minutes and 45 seconds more, I watched my dad looking into the monitor, straight at me, tearfully talking about the day I was born and how happy he was to have a daughter. He went on to talk about my nicknames, one of them being “Mush Pus,” because of my sensitive nature. I grabbed another Kleenex and dabbed at my eyes again. “Cathy feels things deeply,” he went on, “and is probably crying right now.” In that moment, my Dad reached out across the ethos and was seeing me in real time getting emotional. It felt like a much-needed hug from my father.
With patience and perseverance, and that sacred chant, I had found just the right lure, cast it in just the right direction and finally… gratefully…had caught the big one I’d been seeking.