He Took Me Fishing
When our mom got sick with a pulmonary infection and needed hospitalization, my brother and I took turns staying with our dad. We knew that he couldn’t be left home alone at night. He’d become physically frail, and easily confused. As the sun would start to go down, he would need somebody to be there.
It took a little juggling, but we were always there to spend the night with him. I would drive an hour and a half after work to be with him. I’d try to visit my mom if time allowed and then go to their house to stay with my dad. He did not feel up to ever going to the hospital to visit her.
Naturally, as I drove, my thoughts would be about my dad, about the fellow he used to be and the kind of dad he was. A wonderful father, he laughed, he loved, he set examples. My dad used to work twelve hours a day, six days a week in his drugstore. I suppose I was seven or eight, when he was finally able to hire a pharmacist so he could have a half day off.
One thing we did was fish, together. We were not at all serious fishermen. I usually fished for bluegills or perch with worms for bait. My dad would fish with shiners or lures for bass or pickerel. He would spend a lot of time patiently fixing my tangles.
One winter when I was fifteen, I convinced him that we should build a sailfish; a twelve foot sailing craft on which one could sit. We spent all winter in the basement building it. In the spring, we were able to get it out of the basement with the narrowest of margins. I had a great time sailing it for a couple of years on local lakes.
I distilled the memories of my dad doing stuff with me and the way we related after I became an adult into a simple statement; he took me fishing.
So, there I was one night at my folks’ house, caring for my dad.
My folks’ home was not the house in which I grew up. They had moved to a new home they built when I was in my third year of college. Even though they had been in their home for more than thirty years, I had spent few nights there and did not have my own bedroom. But my younger brother did.
With my mom in the hospital, I shared the duty of taking care of my dad with my brother and it quickly became clear to me that he was a lot worse than I thought. Dad was much more
confused than I realized. It was upsetting. The frail, confused old man was not really my dad,
not much anyhow.
It was late at night. I had finally gotten my dad settled in bed. I was lying in my brother’s bed, in his old bedroom where I slept. I was just lying there, thinking about life, about getting old, about my folks, and about my dad.
When I was seven or eight, we got up early — before dawn — when the fishing would be “better.”
We parked in front of the bait shop. It was in a grimy part of town. It was very dark outside on an unlit street. The bait shop had not opened yet.
It always seemed amazing to me that it would open so early, while it was dark. Eagle Claw hooks, lures, weights and the like were displayed behind glass counters that were dirty. The fellow who ran the shop would dig his hand into the big box of dirt and come up with a bunch of worms or crawlers and count them out one by one. Or he would go to the tank where there were zillions of shiners swimming about and pull out a few with this tiny net.
We sat in the front seat of the car. My dad brought a thermos of coffee. The thermos had a plastic top with a cup handle into which he poured the coffee to drink.
I don’t recall if I asked for a taste or if he just offered. Back then, coffee was such an adult drink I don’t know if I had ever tasted it before, but if I had I must not have liked it.
My dad handed me the thermos top cup with coffee in it. He must have put a lot of sugar in it and a fair amount of milk. It tasted great. Warm, sweet and smooth, almost like warm coffee ice cream. I have a strong visceral memory of my first taste of coffee and think of the old Roger Miller chug-a-lug drinking song, “my first taste of sin.”
Listening for my dad, from my brother’s bed, to make certain he had not gotten up and started wandering, I thought of another memory.
My dad and I always tried to fish on opening day, getting up early to do it. But one year, I convinced him to camp by the trout stream, the night before we planned to fish.
We went the afternoon before opening day and set up our sleeping bags. We were going to cook a simple meal over a campfire before we slept under the stars.
Off we went to the stream. There was no campground there, just some clear space along the stream. It was late afternoon and we set out sleeping bags, gathered firewood, and started our campfire to cook hot dogs.
The local warden or fire chief – I don’t remember which — arrived. He told us that there was too great a fire danger. Since we had no permit, we had to put out our fire. We dined on cold beans from a can that night. Or maybe it was a can of sardines!
I have no memory of catching any fish the next morning. When we got up before dawn, others were already there, fishing.
My dad was quiet and I finally went to sleep. The next morning, he was up early and wandering about the house. He thought he was going to see the podiatrist that day. I explained several times to him that no, there was no appointment that day for that. I was getting more familiar with the extent of his confusion. My mom had somehow, intentionally or not, hidden it.
He spent a lot of time sitting on a couch in the family room with the television on. He dozed off frequently and no longer read the newspaper. I was not sure how much he understood of what was happening on the television. He asked the same questions repeatedly, searched for words, and spoke of confused things that had no meaning and made no sense. It was really sad and upsetting.
When it was later in the morning, I left to go home and to work in the office. I had to admit that I looked forward to leaving. Caring for my dad was unending, tiring and not fun. He would be alone for a couple of hours until my brother got there.
My dad and I had no meaningful conversations. They were not lengthy, either, except for the one in which he told me he was not well, didn’t know what would happen, and asked me to take care of my mom and brother. He also told me he had tried the best that he could.
I watched my dad doze off in the couch, his head back, mouth open, in a typical elderly, frail fashion. He looked very, very old. As I watched him, I thought that if he suddenly stopped breathing, I didn’t think I’d attempt to resuscitate him.
Then, he woke and said, “Hey, Harvey, do you remember that time we went fishing and slept out and they made us put out our campfire?”
© Harvey Silverman
Harvey Silverman is a retired physician who writes nonfiction primarily for his own enjoyment. A different, shorter, version of this story appeared in Reader’s Digest (Australia).