A lone robin hoping around the patches of snow that still covered my lawn reminded me that nearly one year had passed since my father died. A flood of emotion swept over me as I remembered our last outing just months before he died.
My dad and I had always been very close. I was the middle child of a family of five, the only boy and perhaps that is why my dad and I had such a close relationship. That is not to say that my father did not love my sisters and they were always included in every activity, but dad and I had that unspoken closeness that can only exist between a father and son. My earliest memories are of my dad putting me on his shoulders and carrying me across a stream while he was fishing.
It was well understood that dad was a fly fisherman. I never saw him use any other method. His first love was trout fishing but he fished for all types of fish, but always using a fly rod. It was this love of fly fishing that we shared from the time I was big enough to use a fly rod. I can still see the smile on his face when the Christmas after my 6th birthday I found a huge box with my name on it beneath the tree. Inside was a fly rod that my dad had made himself, a reel, and a fly fishing vest just my size, two boxes of flies that he had tied, and a pair of hip boots.
The following spring dad and I started a tradition; a fishing trip on opening day to my dad's favorite trout stream. During those early trips we would set up a tent and spend several days "roughing it" as dad called it. Later dad bought some land on the banks of the stream and, with his own hands, built a cabin. After that it would be our base of operations for our opening day forays and a place where the entire family spent many wonderful times throughout the years.
Dad had an uncanny ability to spot rising trout. I would fish through a pool while dad sat on the bank watching me. On more than one occasion, after I had finished fishing through a pool, dad would call me over to where he was sitting. Taking my rod he would point to a spot along the bank, make a cast, hook a fish and hand me the rod. Even after many years of fly fishing my dad could still spot fish that I missed and normally they were larger than anything that I had caught during my first trip through the pool.
Unfortunately, the years brought difficult times to our family. My dad loved God first and family second. In the family dad loved my mother first and then all of the kids, but when mom got cancer dad's life changed dramatically. Dad's life revolved around mother's needs and when she died it seemed my dad's reason for living was gone. He sold the cabin, stopped fishing, and just seemed to withdraw from life. Just a year after mother died dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Providentially my dad simply withdrew into his own world. He was never violent and seemed to be totally oblivious to the events that were taking place around him. My older sister moved home to take care of him when he could no longer make his own meals and attend to his daily needs. He was able to dress and feed himself, but most of the time he just sat in his recliner and stared expressionlessly out the windows that looked out over the back yard. The back yard contained a garden that my mother had built and tended and it seemed that dad just wanted to look at that garden.
At first he would respond with a yes or no when asked a question but with the passage of time he stopped talking entirely. Dad lived in an expressionless, silent world so unlike the man that we had all known.
After mother got sick dad and I no longer followed our annual opening day ritual, and after she died he told me that he was no longer interested in fly fishing. With the onset of his Alzheimer's it became obvious that we would never resurrect our old tradition. I visited my dad on a regular basis and I would tell him about the fishing trips that I had taken with my son but he never gave any indication that he heard me or was even interested in what I was saying. That was the most difficult part since my dad and I had spent hours fly fishing together and sharing our adventures together around a campfire. He was always interested in my fishing trips but now it was like I was talking to the wall. After each such visit I would leave and sit in my car and cry.
Last spring I got the idea that I was going to take dad fishing with me. We would drive to our favorite trout stream and dad could sit on the bank while I fished. I stopped by and told dad that I was going to take him fishing but his expression did not changed and I was not certain that what I had just said even registered with him. Despite his apparent unresponsiveness I was determined to take him fishing with me one more time.
I picked him up early in the morning and while we drove I carried on a non-stop monologue about all the times that we had taken this same drive and of all the great times that we had fishing together. Dad sat in the passenger seat staring straight ahead, expressionless and silent.
When we arrived at the stream I assembled my gear while dad sat expressionless on a picnic table in the access site. Taking his hand I led him up the path along the stream to a large pool where we had fished together so many times over the years. When we got to the pool I looked at his face hoping to see at least a slight hint that he recognized the place but his expressionless stare remained unchanged.
I led dad up to the center of the pool and had him sit down on a log. I told him that I was going to walk up to the top of the pool and fish my way back down. I would never be out of sight and I was confident that he would not move. He sat down and stared straight ahead, silent, unmoving, and unresponsive. As I walked toward the head of the pool a tear traced a path down my cheek.
I waded into the water at the top of the pool and looked back to make certain dad was still sitting on the log. He was right where I left him, sitting ramrod straight on the log and staring straight ahead. I turned back to the water and began to cast. Slowly I worked my way down the pool, glancing over at the log where my dad remained sitting motionless on the log. I missed a couple small fish at the head of the pool but through the deeper middle section I never moved a single fish.
When I got to the tail-out of the pool I reeled in my fly and turned back toward where my dad was still sitting on the log. As I approached my dad turned his head in my direction and motioned to me with his hand. As if in a dream I walked toward my dad and he reached out and took my fly rod out of my hand. He stood up and walked to the edge of the stream. Not certain exactly what he was going to do I hurried after him.
When he reached the bank of the stream he released the fly from the hook keeper, stripped line off the reel, flipped the line upstream and then made a flawless cast across and slightly upstream just below a small bush that was growing along the bank. The fly settled gently on the surface and floated a short distance before it disappeared in a slight dimple. Dad turned and handed me the rod. The brown trout that had taken my fly shook its head and threw itself out of the water. For the next several minutes I was busy keeping him from making his escape. When he slid over the rim of my net I realized that I had not breathed since dad handed me the rod.
Dad always taught me not to take a fish out of the water and since we always used barbless hooks it was a simple task to slip the hook out of the fishes jaw. I looked up and dad was still standing on the bank and he was looking at me. Before I allowed the fish to slip out of the net I pulled my camera from my vest and took a picture. As I lowered the lip of the net the fish gave a flip of its tail and disappeared back into the depths of the pool. I looked up and my father was smiling. Slowly he walked back to the log where he had been sitting and sat down, once again expressionless, staring straight ahead.
When I got home I had a copy of the picture that I took of the fish and had it framed. I took it over and showed it to my dad. It did not illicit any reaction so I placed it on the nightstand next to his bed before I left.
A few weeks later my sister called me and told me that dad had died. She had been with him when he died and she said that before he died he pointed toward the picture of the trout that he had hooked for me on our last fishing trip. She handed him the picture and he pulled it close to his chest, closed his eyes, and a smile flickered across his face. Then he opened his eyes and looked at my sister. "It was a good day," he said, and then he closed his eyes and was gone.