For the first time in three years I dialed
her number. My mother answered the phone.
I tried to speak, but my words, like a
snagged fly, got stuck inside me. "Hello,"
my mother repeated.
I freed my words. "It's, it's me."
"Randy! It's, it's so good to -." My mother cried.
Her tears swelled my guilt and drowned my voice.
A long silence. My mother asked if I still drove
a limousine. I remembered how she always yearned
for me to become a doctor. Knowing my answer would
pain her, I admitted I still drove.
Another silence. I hoped she asked if I still wrote.
She didn't. So I told her I had published several
"Fishing? I didn't know you were that into it."
"During the last few years I've been."
"I'm glad you found something you like," she said
sincerely, so sincerely I again hoped that she would
make amends, finally.
She didn't. She asked to meet. I told her I wasn't
ready to, but promised to call again. "I've, I've
missed you so," she said. I hung up, wondering if
something was wrong with me because I couldn't
forgive her and agree to meet her. Like an opened
dam, my questions let loose a rushing river of guilt
inside me. I reminded myself of her violent rages,
of how she often tried to stop me from playing what
I loved, football and stickball. My guilt ebbed.
Again, I tried to understand my mother's rage, how
she often beat me and my sister and told us we were
no good. For some reason I again tried to understand
how young men, many writers, artists and anglers,
rushed off to the trench-lined, bomb-cratered fields
of World War I, and were blown apart by modern,
rapid-fire artillery, all because in 1914 a chauffeur
turned accidentally onto a street harboring an schoolboy
Again I couldn't understand, and during the cold winter
and early spring I still couldn't.
I packed for my fishing trip to the Beaverkill. Eleanor,
my mother's employee, called. Her words iced my feelings.
I hung up, called the owner of the Roscoe Motel,
apologized and said I had to cancel my reservation.
He said he understood and would refund my deposit.
An hour later, I trance-walked down a white, hospital
hallway. Strangely, the long hallway reminded me of a
stream, but even though they shared a similar long,
narrow shape, the hallway seemed like the opposite of
a stream. It was colorless and lifeless, and made me
feel boxed in. I looked straight ahead. Instead of
seeing a beautiful run or long pool, I saw an open
doorway. On the other side, my mother sat on a bed. She
wore a floppy beach hat. I walked into her room. She
looked at me and smiled. "Do you like my hat?" she asked.
I told her I did, then thought of how, even without hair,
she was still beautiful. "I never thought I could get
cancer," she said. "Me, a woman who built up her own
business. Are you sure you don't want the business?"
I thought of saying yes and making her happy, but
then thought, It's taken me so long to get published.
Do I really want to give up writing? I said, "I'm sorry,
but your business is not for me."
The doctor walked in. He was tall, probably in his
late fifties. He wore a dark, pinstripe suit and
looked more like a banker than a doctor. He motioned
me to follow him out of the room. I did. He told me
cancer was unpredictable, but in his opinion, my
mother had about three months to live.
Not believing him, I asked, "How could this be happening?"
"I wish I had an answer. Your mother is very proud
of you. I once wished I had the courage to become a writer."
I thought it was ironic that my mother was always
impressed by doctors, and now, her doctor, was
impressed by writers.
"What do you write about?" he asked.
I expected him to laugh. He didn't.
"When I was a boy," he said, "I loved fishing
with my father. But when I got older I resented
that fishing seemed more important to him than I
did, so I turned my back on fishing, until he got
cancer. We fished together several times before he
died. I'm so grateful we did."
"I wish I could fish with my mother, but she was
never the outdoor type."
"Neither am I, but lately I've been thinking of
getting into fly fishing and spending more time
with myself. Fly fishing looks so beautiful and
Suddenly, he looked like a fly fisher, but then,
to me, so did almost everyone. I said, "In the
beginning fly fishing can be very frustrating,
"I've heard fly fishing is a real art."
"To me, the beauty of fly fishing is that you can
do it at different levels. Some anglers always try
to match the hatch and always changing flies and
leaders, but a few anglers, well they're less
scientific. They fish for the beauty of it all. I
remember I once met this old guy on the Beaverkill
who fished only what we call an attractor fly, an
Adams. He said that if he caught a few less fish,
what did it matter in the end?"
"What kind of fly fisher are you?"
I thought a moment. "I'm relatively new to fly
fishing, so I'm still not really sure. I guess,
right now, I'm a little of everything."
He smiled. "I like what you said about fishing
on different levels. Sometimes I wish I could be
a doctor on different levels, but if I did, well
- you know I just can't. How much would I have to
spend for a good fly rod?"
"The technology has advanced so much that you
can get something good for around three-hundred
dollars, maybe even less."
We shook hands. I walked back into the room and
looked out the window. The setting sun colored
the East River orange and the sky pink. The orange
reminded me of blood, the pink of flesh, and in my
mind, the river became a big vein. I looked downstream,
saw a fishing boat and realized that big, straight
rivers could be as beautiful as winding, trout streams.
Suddenly, smoke streamed out of the huge chimneys of
the Con Edison plant and dirtied the sky. Still I
said, "What a view you have."
"It's not so great," my mother disagreed.
Not arguing back, I stared at the river and wondered
if, in the fall, I should buy a saltwater fly rod and
fish the river for stripers. After all, big rivers
were a lot closer in shape and form to trout streams
than to hospital hallways. Are streams, I wondered,
estranged children of big rivers? If so are they also
searching for a way of making peace? But with my mother
so sick, this isn't a time to think about fishing or to
reflect on rivers. Am I a bad son after all?
I walked to my mother. For the first time since I
was fourteen, I touched her. She grabbed my hand.
I fought back tears and said, "I'm so, so sorry for
detaching from you. Maybe if I hadn't you wouldn't be here."
"Who know why people get cancer. I want you to promise
me that you won't blame yourself."
"I wish I could."
"You have to. Besides, being sick is worth having you
in my life again."
I lied and said, "You're going to be all right."
"We'll see. Your sister would love to hear from you."
I thought of how my sister often lied and how my family
always rewarded her by giving her more money money she
spent on drugs. I thought of how my family often told me
how wonderful my sister was, and how I should be a better
brother to her. I said, "I'm just not ready to call her."
"Well maybe soon. In the meantime, I want to read your articles."
"I don't think you'll like them. Most are about fly casting.
One is about fly fishing the Bronx and Saw Mill Rivers."
"I still want to see you what you wrote," she insisted.
The next day I showed her the articles. She looked at
one of the photos. "Is that you?"
"Yes. I'm fishing a pool in the Saw Mill River."
"What a beautiful picture."
"I used a tripod and took it myself."
"I love your fly fishing hat. Can you get me one?"
"Sure." I left the hospital, went to Orvis and bought
my mother a hat. When she tried it on I held up a mirror.
She looked at her reflection and smiled.
"I love it," she said. "Too bad we can't fish together."
"Maybe soon we can."
"I'm a klutz. Besides, don't wait for me. If the weather's
nice take a break from visiting and go fishing."
I didn't feel like it, in spite of her words, but hoping
to get my mind off of her illness and the thought that my
detachment may have caused it, I rode the train up to
Hawthorne, climbed down a steep bank, and waded into
the Saw Mill River, a stream I once described as having
stretches as beautiful as any Montana stream. But as I
fished my streamer straight downstream, toward the big,
fallen tree, I didn't see the Saw Mill's beauty, didn't
see, for example, its high, mosaic-like roof formed by
long branches and sun-brightened leaves. I saw only my
mother laying in a hospital bed. Was it because as an
overly eager writer I had unintentionally exaggerated
the stream's beauty? Or was it because a part of me, a
big part, felt I didn't deserve to see beauty or to feel
close to it? Abruptly, I waded out of the stream, climbed
up the steep bank, nearly fell, and walked to the train
A week or so later, I accidentally saw a medical ad for
a new cancer treatment. And so soon afterwards, my mother
underwent radiosurgery. Her tumors shrunk. My lies about
her getting better became the truth. Grateful, I often
visited my mother my way of making amends - and became
what she always wanted: a loving son, but still I couldn't
bring myself to call my sister, after I ran into her at
the hospital and assumed she was stoned again.
My mother's tumors erupted, and day after day I held
her hand and told her a new truth, "I love you, and
I'm grateful for all the good things you tried to do
for me, grateful you're my mother." She squeezed my
hand. I squeezed back.
My mother grew thinner and soon turned into a
flesh-covered skeleton. But she never blamed me
for her cancer. One day she said, "You should write
"I've already tried, many times but no one wanted them."
"You can't let the past write the future."
Surprised at my mother's insightful comment, I said,
"Well for now I'm happy enough writing fishing articles
and getting published."
"I want you to be happy. Can I ask you something?"
"After I'm gone can you promise me you'll call your sister
once a week?"
"You're not dying."
'We all are. Will you promise?"
"Yes, I promise."
My mother smiled and squeezed my hand.
A week later she died. I expected to fall into a
quicksand of grief, but the strange thing was I
didn't, so I told myself that maybe it was because
I had had a lot of time to come to terms with my
mother's passing, then I wondered if I was just
too terrified to face the horrible truth: my
detachment was the cause of my mother's death.
So I guess I was looking for an escape. I found it
by writing a story about an innocent angler who grows
up fly fishing and cherishing the beauty of the
Beaverkill River. World War Two erupts like a cancer,
and the angler feels he wants to fight evil, so he
enlists. After the war he returns a different person.
I put the story away, but during the next few months
the story grew in my mind and turned into an historical,
fly-fishing novel about the angler's father, a man who
can't make peace with the world, and who retreats into
fishing and into teaching literature. Afraid of conflict,
he wonders if he's a coward. And so does his son. To prove
he's not a coward, the son enlists. The father blames himself
and a war-filled world he can't understand. Years later
the father learns to accept a world he can't understand,
and to see beauty in nature and in man's discoveries,
often by accident, of life-improving technologies, like
I finished a first draft of the book. Proud, feeling
like I was doing what my mother wanted, I decided to
reward myself and take a short trip to the Beaverkill.
The next day I drove to my favorite pool: Barnhart's.
I looked upstream at the fast, riffled mouth, then
downstream at the slow, smooth tail. In the pool I
saw a reflection of my mother, of how, she once raged,
of how, because of the cancer, she calmed. Suddenly I
was grateful that rivers couldn't get tumors and wither
and die, grateful that, thanks to nature's way, rivers
were stronger than men and women.
I wondered, is it the strength, the eternity of this
river now bringing me back to fishing? Am I hoping to,
in some way, borrow traits from the river?
I walked along the bank to the tail, thinking how the
pool played a small, but important part, in my book,
then I wondered if rivers, like people, could really
play parts other than the ones nature assigned them.
Wading into the river, I thought of how beautiful
Barnhart's looked, in spite of the highway on the
top of its high bank, and of how the river's other
pools, Ferdon's, Covered Bridge, Junction, were
probably equally beautiful. I thought of how the
Westchester streams I fished were, in their way,
as beautiful as the Beaverkill.
Yes, it doesn't seem as if rivers can be beautiful
on very different levels, but if they can, does it
mean those on the lower levels don't have any beauty
and a reason to be?
No, I answered.
I didn't see a hatch. I opened one of my fly boxes and stared
at about thirty different nymphs. Suddenly I remembered what
I had told the doctor about how fishing can be done on different
levels. I opened another fly box, picked out an Adams and tied
it on. I pulled line off my reel and cast to the far bank. My
line and fly splashed on the water, simultaneously. Not my best
presentation. Though my cast was less than perfect, I thought
I could still get a good drift. I mended, watched my Adams
float downstream and wondered if boys and men could be sons
on different levels and, no matter what level they chose,
be equally okay. Something, maybe my mother's recent passing,
told me no.
My line bowed downstream. It was too late to mend. I retrieved
line and again cast.
My Adams turned over. My line landed on the water, then my
fly, gently. George M. L. La Branche, a real character with
a part in my book, would have been proud.
Again I watched my Adams. Yes, I have made mistakes I
wish I could erase or fix like a bad cast, but at least
I was with my mother all through her long illness. At least,
I have come to see that she, like the protagonist in my novel,
did the best she could, and so did I. And thankfully, I have
also come to see that making amends is like fishing. We can
choose, unlike rivers, to do so on different levels. ~ Randy