For the last week, almost every morning, I have been out in a two-person kayak with my father, dropping hooks to scrape the bottom of the ocean only to feel the swift tug and yank of silver-trout “hitting” our lines. With a sharp sweep of my rod upwards, I set the hook into the fish’s mouth and crank the reel, drawing the fish from the bottom to the sky.
Welcome to the world little fish.
Dad and I usually extended mercy to the fish, pulling the hooks out of their mouths and tossing them back into the water. Occasionally, one would become a “sacrificial lamb” as Dad called it and would use the fish for cut-bait. I never watched. I just liked pulling up the fish and returning them to the water. At the same time, I have to admit….I kind of hoped the fish guts Dad was throwing unceremoniously into the water would attract sharks.
We never saw them. We did see a sea turtle, a sting ray, a bunch of dolphins, and lots and lots of silver-trout.
Daily, I stare into the sun’s reverse corona nestled deep within the ocean’s depths. Daily, I dream about sliding out of the kayak and slipping into cones of light that do not quite penetrate to the bottom where pirate treasure, that one perfect fish, or the remains of Atlantis wait for me.
Yeah, I’m dreaming here. But it’s fun to dream when I’m out in a kayak being rocked by the ocean.
I love my father’s yelp of laughter when he sees my rod curving into a tight spectrum. I can hear his pride as I quickly reel up the catch and I can feel his burning curiosity as we wait to see the fish’s head and body come from the obscurity of the ocean’s iridescent shadows. His excitement is palatable and my grin is nothing more than a reverse reflection of the curve in my rod as I pull the fish into the boat, grab its body, and start wriggling out the hook.
Sometimes, the trout rumble at me. I pretend they are purring.
I know they aren’t happy, though.
That’s okay. I am.
When my father nearly died seven or so years ago, a huge part of me nearly died with him. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye. Parts of our fractured relationship were still barely held together by glue that was still tacky and not drying properly. When I picked up his spare rod he had set on a beach chair eighteen months ago and waded up to him to pretend that I was going to learn how to fish, I wasn’t prepared for the lift of my soul when I heard the line zing when I finally started casting correctly.
When I took the ladyfish off the line the first time on my own, I could feel my father’s perception of me change. Before, every time I landed a fish, he exuberantly reached for my line to help me and I really wanted to see if I could do it on my own. Finally, I pulled up a fish while he was sufficiently distracted, wrestled the hook out of its mouth and tossed it back into the water with a satisfied plop!
Dad’s laugh brimmed from his belly. I wasn’t his dependent. I was his partner.
I still can’t cast as well as him. Today, I tossed out some pretty sucky casts that barely went five feet….maybe because I hadn’t opened the bail. Duh… Other times, I was worried that I was going to hit my father in the face with the hook. I figured that wouldn’t feel too good.
Fishing with my father is an entirely different form of baptism and communion. It is not lost on me the Christian symbolism that is rife within these trips out into the ocean. But each time I put the trout back into the water, I watch as it awakens from its brief captivity in the air. It hangs in the water for a second, shakes its body, and then swims back into the blue shadows where I expect it will rejoin its school.
Sometimes, Dad or I, especially if we are fishing from the shore, will feed our fish to the local osprey (so long as too many people aren’t around….wildlife purists and naturalists wouldn’t want us to interfere with nature….). Dad has pretty much trained the osprey; as he approaches the shore, he will start waving the fish in the air to grab the osprey’s attention. Even before Dad is upon the beach, the osprey is circling and hovering over my father, patiently waiting for the point when Dad will throw the fish onto the sand so that the osprey might snatch it up.
Other times, when Dad has caught too many greenbacks (bait fish as he calls them), he’ll feed them to the snowy egrets that dot the shore. These birds have become so accustomed to my father that they follow him up and down the beach when he carries his cast net. My mother calls them his “disciples.”
Once, Dad cast out his line right when an egret was flying by and the line got snarled up in the bird’s wings and around its body. The bird crashed into the water and Dad immediately mourned that he had hurt the animal. Carefully and slowly, he stared reeling in the line while I waded/swam out to the bird that was frantically trying to escape. Gently, I cupped the bird in my hands and brought it to shore. The bird violently tried to peck my hands until Dad told me to carefully wrap one hand around its head and cover its eyes.
Once the bird could no longer see, it was immediately quiet. And for a few, brief, beautiful moments, Dad unwound his line from around the bird while I held this tiny, fragile body in my hand with as much are and compassion as I could. I wish there was a way that the bird could feel my desire for its well-being through my skin. What I know is that its body was so warm and its feathers so thin and filmy and yet so incredibly soft.
It was life. Life within the cups of my hands. Life which stretched out its neck when Dad finally freed it from his line. Life that unfurled its incredibly beautiful wings and stretched them out to their zeniths and went aloft into a glorious sky as the sun slowly started sinking into the water.
I still don’t want my father to die. But I also know that is naive and irresponsible. What I know is that when Dad finally goes, Jesus will probably meet him at the Pearly-Gates with a net, asking “You ready?” Go for it, Dad. I’ll be there later. I need to teach my kids how to cast, twitch the line, set the hook, and take the fish off the hook.
Love you. Mean it.