DIFFERENT LEVELS OF FISHING AND …
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 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’d always yearned for me to become a doctor. Knowing my
answer would pain her, I admitted I still drove.
Another silence. I hoped she would ask if I still wrote. She didn't. So I told her I had published several fishing articles.
"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 apologize, finally.
She didn't. She asked to meet, but didn’t offer the apology I wanted to hear. I told her I wasn't ready to, but promised to
"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. Like an opened dam, my questions let loose a rushing river of guilt inside me. Again, I tried to understand the
violence of my childhood, and then the violence of war. No answers came, not once during the long, cold winter and the
I packed for my fishing trip to the Beaverkill. Eleanor, who worked for my mother’s employment agency, called. Her
words iced all 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, feeling I was in a trance, I walked down a white hospital hallway. At first the long hallway reminded me of a
straight, narrow stream, but suddenly 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, gurgling run or a long, slow 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. “It’s not exactly Saks Fifth Avenue.”
“Yes, I like it.” I thought even without hair, she was still beautiful.
"Now I know why some men wear even bad toupees.” My mother laughed, momentarily. “I never thought I could get
cancer, me, a woman who built her own business from the ground up. 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 peaceful."
Suddenly, he looked like a fly fisher, but to me so did almost everyone. I said, "In the beginning fly fishing can be very
frustrating, like golf."
"I've heard fly fishing is a real art."
"Well, then I guess I paint by numbers. In my opinion, the beauty of fly fishing is that you can do it at different levels.
Some anglers always try to match the hatch and are always changing flies and leaders, but a few anglers, well they're
less scientific. They fish to experience the beauty of nature. I remember meeting 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 than more so-called scientific
anglers did, would it really matter when all was said and done?"
"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, it wouldn’t be fair to my patients. 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
We shook hands. I walked back into the room.
“What did the doctor say?” my mother asked.
Not wanting to tell her the whole truth, I walked to the window and told her we talked about fishing.
“Fishing, that’s all?”
“Yes, he’s interested in getting back into it.” Outside 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, I didn’t live so far away. Besides, big rivers were a lot closer in shape and beauty to trout streams than
to hospital hallways. With my mother so sick, is this the time to think about fishing or to reflect on rivers? Am I a bad son
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 not calling you for so long. Maybe if I had you wouldn’t be here.”
"No one knows why people get cancer. I want you to promise me that you won’t blame yourself.”
“I wish I could.”
“You have so much of your life ahead of you. 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 stole and lied about her drug use, and of how my family always rewarded her by giving
her money, money she spent on drugs. I thought of how my family often told me that my sister was wonderful, and that 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 casting fishing rods. 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 two of my articles. She looked at one of the photos. "Is that you?" she asked.
"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. The next day 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 I want you to take a break from visiting and go fishing."
The next day was beautiful, but I didn’t feel like fishing, until I became desperate to get my mind off my mother’s illness
and off the thought that I had probably caused it by detaching from her with an ax. I rode the train up to Westchester,
climbed down a steep bank, and waded into the Saw Mill River, a stream I had described in an article as having pools as
varied and as beautiful as any pools in Montana or Idaho. I tied on a streamer and fished it straight downstream, toward
the big, fallen tree. In spite of what I had written, I didn't see the Saw Mill's beauty. I didn't see, for example, its high,
mosaic-like roof meshed together with long branches and sun-brightened leaves. Instead, I saw only my mother lying in
a hospital bed. Why? Was it because years before when I was a desperate-to-be-published writer I had unintentionally
exaggerated the stream's beauty to make my article more marketable? Or was it because a part of me, a big part, no
longer felt I deserved to see beauty and to feel close to it? Abruptly, I waded out of the stream, climbed up the steep
bank, and walked to the train station.
A week or so later, I accidentally saw a medical ad for a new cancer treatment. Two weeks later my mother underwent a
new kind of surgery: radiosurgery. Her tumors shrank. My lies about her getting better became the truth. Grateful, I
often visited my mother and held her hand—my way of apologizing—and I became what she had always wanted me to
become: a loving son. I couldn’t, however, bring myself to call my sister, especially after I ran into her in the hospital and
saw she was stoned again.
A year later tumors erupted in my mother’s brain. 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 a book."
“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, “So you don’t mind me trying to become a real writer?”
“As long as it’s what you want.”
“Well for now I’m happy 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. I wondered why.
Perhaps her illness had given me a lot of time to come to terms with life and her passing, but then I wondered if I was
just too terrified to face an ugly truth: My detachment was the cause of my mother’s death.
So 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. He enlists. After the war he returns as a different person.
I put the story away, but during the next few months it grew in my mind and turned into a novel, mostly about the
angler's father, Ian, 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. Eventually, so does his son, Everett. Ashamed of his father,
Everett enlists. Angry and afraid of losing Everett, Ian blames himself and a senseless, war-filled world. Years later, after
experiencing more tragedy, Ian learns to accept a world he can’t understand, and to see beauty in nature and in man's
great discoveries, such as new medical technology.
I finished a first draft of the book. Proud, feeling like I was doing what my mother wanted, I decided to reward myself by
taking 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. I looked downstream at
the slow, smooth tail. In the pool I saw a reflection of my mother: a once-raging woman who, because of cancer, finally
calmed in the tail years of her life. Suddenly I was grateful that rivers couldn't get tumors and wither and die, grateful
that, thanks to nature's way, rivers, like history, were stronger than men and women. Is it the strength, the eternity of
this river that is now bringing me back to fishing? Am I hoping to borrow, in some way, strength from the river?
I walked along the bank toward the pool’s tail. I thought of how the pool played a small but important part in my book. I
wondered if rivers, like actors, 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 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.
But if rivers can be beautiful on very different levels, does it mean that rivers that aren’t so beautiful don't have as much
of a reason to exist?
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 my mother’s 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 simultaneously on
the water. 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 and brothers 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, this time slightly downstream.
The front of my unrolling line landed on the water. My Adams turned over and gently floated down.
Again I watched my Adams. Yes, I have made mistakes that 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 hero of my novel, did the best
she could, and so did I. And thankfully, I have also come to see that apologizing is like fishing. We can choose to do it
on different levels.
The Way of The River: My Journey of Fishing, Forgiveness and Spiritual Recovery