My father died last evening. I had the honor of being with him for the last days, hours, minutes and seconds of his long life. A former high school and college basketball star, Korean War veteran, college math teacher, gentleman farmer and fisherman – but never a “former” marine, my dad died on his own terms and with the same quiet dignity he lived his life.
I am not sure why I put Ernest Hemmingway’s short stories into my computer bag when I drove to spend the night with him on Thursday, but the Nick Adam’s stories always reminded me of the fishing lessons I struggled through with dad when I was a kid.
As dad now struggled during Thursday night and into Friday day and evening, I was reading him this part of “The Big Two-Hearted River:”
There was a long tug. Nick struck and the rod came alive and dangerous, bent double, the line tightening, coming out of water, tightening, all in a heavy, dangerous, steady pull. Nick felt the moment when the leader would break if the strain increased and let the line go.
The reel ratcheted into a mechanical shriek as the line went out in a rush. Too fast. Nick could not check it, the line rushing out, the reel note rising as the line ran out. With the core of the reel showing, his heart feeling stopped with the excitement, leaning back against the current that mounted icily his thighs, Nick thumbed the reel hard with his left hand. It was awkward getting his thumb inside the fly reel frame.
As he put on pressure the line tightened into sudden hardness and beyond the logs a huge trout went high out of water. As he jumped, Nick lowered the tip of the rod. But he felt, as he dropped the tip to ease the strain, the moment when the strain was too great, the hardness too tight. Of course, the leader had broken. There was no mistaking the feeling when all spring left the line and it became dry and hard. Then it went slack.
His mouth dry, his heart down, Nick reeled in. He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon.
Nick’s hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too much. He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down.
The leader had broken where the hook was tied to it. Nick took it in his hand. He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw. Nick knew the trout’s teeth would cut through the snell of the hook. The hook would imbed itself in his jaw. He’d bet the trout was angry. Anything that size would be angry. That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.
I stopped reading, looked up through tears, and my brother Don and I watched dad’s breath continue to slow until it just stopped.
We and mom, grandkids, great grandkids, family and friends will miss him.