When I was 14, my father taught me about fishing holes. We waded into the shallows of the Platte, the sun at our necks, muddy water lapping our ankles. He would point to the other side of the bank where the otherwise quick, singing water stilled and lay quiet. “That is where the fish rest” he would always say. He taught me to seek the calm that nature provides, despite its haunting chaos.
When I was 19, my father taught me that despite seeking out the fishing holes, despite the singing water around you, and the fish resting in the stillness, sometimes it’s more difficult to find the calm. At 19, my father died and I could no longer seek the calm. I could no longer find the fishing holes.
I no longer knew if I wanted to.
When I was 20, I found myself sitting on the dusty garage floor, sifting through boxes of my father’s things. They smelled of old pine needles hidden in the creases of tents and sleeping bags. There were boxes of camping gear, loved and worn until the seams split open. I found myself drawn to a box full of his fly fishing gear. In the box lay a tattered vest with a puzzle of pockets, still full from his last trip to the water’s edge. Tucked away were a pair of nail clippers, the place where his thumb rested worn perfectly as if reserving space for my own hand. My father’s legacy of fly fishing wrapped me in its arms, inviting me to explore.
I was told that there are five stages of grief when experiencing a loss. I walked each of these stages with my father’s rod. I journeyed the trails of hurt and sorrow with hooks stuck in my thumbs, as I untangled the inconceivable knots that grief grants the beholder.
“Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, reality, etc., relating to the situation concerned.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
As a woman in fly fishing, I immediately faced feelings of self-doubt because of the nature of this sport. When I first began to wade into the muddy waters alone, I found myself doubting my abilities, sure I would not be successful without my father pointing to the fishing holes beside me.
Shortly after my father died, I didn’t know if I wanted to continue fly fishing. Feelings of confusion and loneliness bubbled up from the frothing rapids despite my feeble attempts to distract myself. Eventually, the grief would creep in and I had little choice than to face it head on.
I realized how important it was for me to carry my father’s legacy and I wanted to do this in the place where I felt closest to him, the water.
My first time on the river was full of knotted line, broken tippet, and longing for my father. I spent the majority of the time in tears. I still often find myself, waders sinking into the soft riverbed of a mountain stream, overcome with emotion, denying that this could be how my life has changed.
Denying that I will ever live up to the kind of angler my father was.
“Anger can manifest in different ways. People dealing with emotional upset can be angry with themselves, and/or with others, especially those close to them.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
My father was always interested in teaching me to fish. When I was young, I was too interested in catching bugs, or jumping into puddles with rain boots on to bother with fishing. Now, I find myself full of questions and rising anger that I did not ask for more answers. I have questions about hatches and flows, and reading the water.
I’m angry that I refused to take off my rain boots and listen.
How do I tell what flies are hatching on the Blue in the morning? How much weight do I put on my leader? Why didn’t I listen to the depth of knowledge my father only wanted to share with me? If I had known this art form would become such an important piece in my life, maybe I would have taken the time to listen.
Why is it that we don’t recognize true value until it has floated away?
Maybe I would find knots easier to untangle. Maybe this is one thing grief asks us to learn. I still find myself stuck in this stage. I imagine my heart, like the fish resting in an eddy, will linger here for the foreseeable future.
“Traditionally the bargaining stage for people facing death can involve attempting to bargain with whatever God the person believes in.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
I found myself questioning everything I considered to be true about a higher power. I could not rationalize how a god that was supposed to be full of grace and love, could not hear me crying out, promising to give anything if only my father would live.
Maybe I was crying too hard.
Maybe I was sniffling too loudly.
Maybe they just didn’t care.
Now, as I stand in a river, I can sometimes see my father standing on the other side, directing my rod where the fish play. I smell the crisp pine air, and can hear him humming Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road.” I know as I leave footprints, where his once were, he is with me. We patiently toss our line into the water, over and over, watching it float downstream together.
My father lives on through me. I am my father’s daughter. It’s funny how maybe my negotiating was heard over the sobs and the sniffling, maybe just not in the way I was expecting.
“This stage is also referred to as preparatory grieving. In a way it’s the dress rehearsal or the practice run for the ‘aftermath’.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Depression can take on many forms. All too often I found myself avoiding the things I knew would bring me happiness. How could I feel nothing but pain after experiencing such a trauma? After finding the boxes of flies, full of creatures that I knew meant so much to my father, I forced myself to immerse myself in all things fishing. It became an obsession, which might have been the only reaction I could handle at that time. I reached out to friends of my father’s, begging them to return anything they might have that memorialized him. I was desperately seeking some sort of connection with him, and this was my way of finding it.
Out on the water for the first time on my own, while I untangled what felt like the hundreth knot, I realized I would have to undo each loop piece-by-piece. While getting the sharp tip of the hook stuck in my fingers, I realized this was my way of working through the grief, by untying it piece-by-piece, not being deterred by the sharp edges.
Being able to hold the tools that my father held, and trip over my own feet in the size 11 wading boots that he wore, I was able to rediscover my father’s voice. As time passes, I find myself forgetting what his crooked smile looked like, and how the scruff of his beard felt when he would kiss me good night. I have forgotten the way his blue eyes lit up when my mother walked into the room. But, when I am wading knee high in the icy, clear water, with the sun beating down on my neck, I can hear him say “Aim your line a bit more to the left, see where that water stills.” I can hear his laugh, sensitive and genuine. I can hear him tell me to work on my back cast and watch out for the trees. When my fly inevitably gets stuck anyway, he tells me “That’s okay honey, I can just tie on a new one.” I can hear my mom telling us to come in for lunch, and him gently telling her “just five more casts.” On the water, I can remember the purposeful sound of my father.
On the water, I can hear him, and that is what saved me.
“The acceptance stage is an indication that there is some emotional detachment and objectivity.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
The way my father died was full of strength, courage, and dignity. He made the choice for his body to no longer remain in this physical world, and I admire his bravery above all else. My father battled cancer not once, but twice. He journeyed the difficult path with pure, unfiltered grace. After a year of blue latex gloves, skin rubbed raw from alcohol swabs, and the forest green beanie to warm his hairless head, it became clear that cancer would win this fight. The last thing he could do to regain control was to make the decision to stop treatment. My father accepted his death long before I did.
Many of us never reach this stage of grief. If acceptance means there is “emotional detachment and objectivity” then I can confidently say I have not. Acceptance to me, however, has nothing to do with objectivity. Acceptance is the first time I packed my 25 year-old car and ventured to the water alone. Up until then, I had always fished with other people. They were a buffer. If something went wrong, someone else could help me fix it. I never trusted in my own abilities, in the talent that was flowing in my blood, to go alone. As I pulled on my waders, still damp from my last trip, and snapped on my waist pack, I nearly turned around and went home. I remember thinking back to the last time my dad and I spent together, to our final goodbye, and I found comfort. As my father lay in his hospice bed, with no tubes or needles, no beeping monitors or nagging nurses, he asked me “Will I see you again?” I thought carefully about the question. It didn’t feel right to lie, so instead I asked him “Do you want to?” He responded with a yes. I did not fulfill that wish in the physical sense, because he passed soon after I left.
But, I do see him, every time I step in the water.