The one that got away

Fly fishing, family and that book



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My dad was raised by a poet-activist mother and a venture capitalist father. He went to Yale, where his father went and where many of the buildings were designed by his grandfather. He started his own architecture firm in New York City, and made a name for himself designing schools and public libraries and YMCAs. He is rational and articulate and seems to know something about everything. When we moved to the suburbs, he made impossibly smooth wooden bowls on a lathe in the garage and gave them to friends for Christmas. Everyone likes my dad.

My mom comes from a different world. She's from a working-class town on Long Island, the daughter of a chemistry-teacher father who drank too much and a librarian mom who never paid enough attention. When she was young, she decided she wanted to be an artist, and after high school, she left home to study art at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Then she moved to New York and got a job as a receptionist at an architecture firm, where she married the boss.

When I was young, my mom made art steadily. She worked in colored pencil, and I remember the blue armchair she propped her drawing board over, the hours and hours she spent hunched over her work, the way she sat up straight and tilted her head to better see what she had done. She's an instant friend to anyone. She laughs at her own clumsiness. Like her art, she is chromatic, but some of her colors are dark. She's struggled with chronic kidney disease and pancreatitis for decades, and, recently, was diagnosed with bladder and urethral cancer, all of which intermittently land her in the hospital.

When I was young, my mom was a complication I didn't understand. My dad was simpler to be around. He coached my Little League team. He always wanted me to help him in the garden. He rarely got mad. He never seemed unhappy.

When I was 12, a few months after my first fishing trip, my dad and I left my mom in the ICU at New York Presbyterian to visit a fishing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She'd gone in to have a specialist repair a hole in her kidney. The surgery failed, and she lost so much blood the doctors wondered if she would recover.

It was cold in the city, and frigid wind gusted up the avenues and blew plastic bags into the sky. I can't remember much about the hospital: the beeping and sighing of machines, the way she looked threaded with tubes, the terrible exhaustion that must've been in her eyes and how it all made my 12-year-old self feel. But I do remember leaving the hospital with my dad in search of a tackle shop we'd found in the Yellow Pages. It was downtown, a few blocks from the East River. It had high ceilings and poorly lit aisles of tall-stacked fishing tackle. There was a man behind the counter who looked like he probably spoke with an accent. I remember this clearly: the burbling of a water-filter keeping the bait alive.

After that year, my dad took me on an annual fishing trip. We caught brook trout in Maine. In the Yucatán, I landed a bonefish, tarpon and permit in one day, which in the fly fishing world is called a Grand Slam and means something. We went to Belize, where we saw baby manta rays swimming in shallow, clear water. In Kamchatka, I waded across a wide riffle with a brown bear who fished for salmon with his nose in the water. By the time I decided on the University of Montana, I'd abandoned all other hopes for my future. I didn't want to play baseball or become an architect. I had already been to a bucket list of fishing destinations and felt there would be no other way to live. It wasn't just about catching fish; it was about the going, about the time spent and about the idea. Fly fishing offered the opportunity to know about something, and in knowing about something, to become an expert. And being an expert feels good.

I spent half of my senior year of high school near Stratford, England. I was there to study Shakespeare, but mostly I felt lonely and lost and wondered why I'd gone. I wanted to go fishing, but in England, as in most of Europe, fishing is a good deal more complicated than buying a license and finding a stretch of public water. I never made it happen, but I spent my entire trip trying, and just the trying made my stay better.

One day, I got the word "Angler" tattooed on my back in a seedy Camden tattoo shop. Aesthetically, it's a regrettable ink job. It turns out teen angst is next to drunkenness on the list of bad moods in which to get a tattoo. But I got it and I live with it, a reminder of a time when I understood fly fishing to be more important than anything else.

While I was in England, thinking about fishing, my parent's marriage was falling apart. I'll never know what they kept from me as a child—what they said with their eyes, with their bodies when I watched television in the next room. I was too young to be told, and maybe I'm still too young to realize, but the trip to New York Presbyterian was an act change in my family's narrative. Two years later, I would leave home for boarding school. My dad and I began taking our annual fishing trips. My mom lost a kidney. We stopped going on family trips to the Adirondacks. I saw less and less of them. I wonder now how much they saw of one another.

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