I was fishing on the Bulkley River when my Uncle Bill died in an intensive care unit after a protracted illness. He died on a Tuesday while I was getting my ass royally handed to me by fickle steelhead. The water felt dark and hard-hearted that day, and I felt as if I were doing penance for some nameless sin that I was not aware I had committed. Perhaps this was true. Perhaps it was just fishing.
Nevertheless, I spent several more fishless days before actually receiving the news of my Uncle’s death. When it came, I was overcome with sadness and a profound sense of guilt. He did not die alone, and he was not in pain, but I had not been able to say goodbye. I had not been there for him. Even worse, I had been indulging in the purest of pleasures—the open sky, the eagles, the sound of moving water. How could this be forgiven?
The only true things I know about forgiveness I learned from fly fishing. It was a necessity. So many tangles and f***-ups, so many big fish lost, so many days without even the hint of a fin—I knew early on that I could never continue in this pastime if I did not learn to clear my fishing life of self-criticism. It is a gift to myself, fly fishing, a sacred space where I may mutter the occasional expletive or stomp my feet in momentary aggravation, but in general, I raise my eyes up to the sky that surrounds me and let the river wash away all things.
A wise friend recently told me that she thought the practice of fly fishing had a lot to do with being able to “let go”. She used the example of tied flies, which are so precious individually, yet so easily lost. How difficult it is when you have spent so much time painstakingly constructing your box of little bugs to then give one up to a wayward branch or submerged log, but the euphoria of a day on the water seems to be found in so many moments of desire, loss, regret, infatuation, and struggle. A too-eager hook-set leads to the dry fly being pulled from the mouth of a hungry trout. A sizable fish snaps off the fly, and both are gone. And then, of course, there is the release. Once you have finally succeeded in netting that sleek, beautiful creature, you must let her go again with barely a moment to take in the incandescent markings on her sides, the grace and power of her tail. Yet, somehow fabulously, miraculously, all of these dramas of loss, acceptance, and, yes, even forgiveness make fly fishing an extraordinary affirmation of life.
When I think back to the way that my Uncle Bill lived and died, I wonder how he found the courage to face his final hours, to accept what was inevitable, but also incomprehensible. I know that he was afraid to die. I know that the task of preparing to leave this world was almost unbearable. Did he look up from the water and feel the sun on his face and know that no matter what the struggle, this much, at least, was good and beautiful? Did it give him peace? I hope so. I find solace in this thought, if not forgiveness. And in the end, perhaps there are some things for which I do not want to be forgiven. Instead, I keep on fishing. And I am working very hard at learning to let go.