My grandfather is dying. It’s a perfectly normal thing for a person in their 90s to do, but thinking about losing him makes me sad. I’m going to miss him when he is gone, and I’m going to wonder about the history and stories that will be lost with him.
Grandpa and Grandma moved to a memory care center and we put their house on the market. While sorting through 90 odd years of life’s detritus I came across a picture. I’m looking at it now, hanging on the wall of my bedroom.
A man and a boy sit in a small wooden rowboat. The man at the oars smokes a cigarette while leaning intently towards the boy, but it’s the boy who captures my attention. The boy is holding a big deep see rod bent over from a large fish, the boy’s body is strained back against the pressure in the rod, his head is tilted back with effort, and on his face is an expression of pure joy. That boy is my Grandfather.
Four years ago I was in my third year guiding in Western Alaska. My grandfather isn’t much of a fisherman anymore but he came up to Alaska and we spent six days fishing together. At 89 he wasn’t steady on his feet and his casting was lousy, so we spent most of the week talking and watching the river flow by. He hooked a few small trout and grayling on dry-fly, which he loved. Showing Grandpa those rivers was magic.
In the back of my mind was a constant worry that he would fall and get hurt. One day, while walking across the tundra on a fly-out walk-and-wade, Grandpa tripped over a hump of ground, and fell hard. I sprinted to him wondering how I was going to carry him back to the pickup point. When I got to him he looked up, patted the squishy tundra and, eyes twinkling, said, “I like this stuff!”
On his last day we floated the Moraine. The water had been unusually high that year and fishing was tough by Alaskan standards. He still hadn’t landed an “Alaska Rainbow” and though he may have been indifferent, I wanted one for him so badly. Grandpa’s casting was crummy at best, but he could just reach the seams if I stood in chest deep water and held the raft at arms length. For the whole day we fished like this, myself with arms straining, hoping beyond hope the the line to come tight against a big spotted ‘bow, and Grandpa happy to be there.
Finally, with two turns left in the river, it happened: rod bent, line tight, a rainbow jumping, and Grandpa laughing like a kid. I have a picture, grip-and-grin style, of Grandpa, 89 and me, 19, smiling like fools with his one big Alaskan ‘bow. I love that picture.
Last weekend I was fishing a blown out river in Washington and getting solidly skunked. I spent a lot of time watching the river flow by, lost in the rhythm of life, death, and casting. I’ll miss my grandfather when he is gone and the stories about him I’ll never know, but I cherish those that swim into my consciousness while I watch the water flow by.