The sound of my alarm fractures what is left of the night. I glance at my phone – it’s 4:30am. As my feet hit the floor, I am guided through the room by memory rather than sight. This routine has become second nature. I layer my clothes, grab my things, and head for the door. I quietly make my escape no sooner than the cold winter wind slaps me in the face. I hate this part. The frigid air rests upon my bones as a part of me is begging to go crawl back into bed, but my anticipation to be with him quiets the noise in my head. A year ago I would have had to explain this to my mother. She was always against this routine, saying “It’s not safe for a woman to venture out into the wilderness alone in the dark, regardless of the reason.” But the moment she died in my arms was the moment I no longer had to be held accountable for mornings like this.
90 minutes later, my taillights leave behind the pavement and illuminate the grooves I’ve helped create on this dirt road. I click on my headlamp, gather my things, and begin to navigate my way down the trail. As a child, I would have been terrified to wander through the woods on my own without so much as a nightlight to guide me for fear that the darkness would swallow me whole, but life has since taught me that fear does not come in the form of threats in the shadows, but rather from threats of losing what is loved most – in the brightest light of day – no matter how loudly you scream or how hard you clasp your shaking hands as you pray for the world to pause, if only for a moment. As I reach the end of the trail, I find my place on the riverbank and put my things down. I turn off my headlamp and close my eyes. The earth beneath me is damp and as she slowly exhales, I feel the mist of her cold breath surrounding me. It smells of mossy trees that I can’t yet see and of wet leaves desperately clinging to branches that showed promise through countless storms that they’d never let go. It smells of Ponderosa pines and of Junipers. This place smells like him, even in his absence. I lose myself in what it left of the moonlight as it dances upon the surface of the water and my anticipation builds as it slowly invites the first hues of the sunrise. For a moment their reflections join on the water’s canvas – neither one in control of the time given to say goodbye.
I was just shy of 8 years old when I began to understand my father. Our home life was a mixture of chaos, instability, bouts of laughter through suppressed tears, and a united unconditional love for me. He was an incredible carpenter. A master of his work, he understood the angles, grains, and art of design as though he, himself, had developed the trade. It wasn’t a lack of opportunity that kept him from progressing and giving us a more stable lifestyle, but rather a love for the bottle and an addiction to what had become his refuge alongside the river.
He sat me down at a makeshift table inside of our spare bedroom. This is where he would spend the majority of his time – drinking, smoking, and tying flies that resembled tiny works of art. I noticed he had arranged his things and that he had created a place for me to work beside him. “Now, just watch how I do it and then give it a try. It’s ok if you fuck it up. You’ll get the hang of it.” I was wise enough to know what he was doing, but I accepted the space as my own. It was a gesture that stemmed from his own guilt, but he could have placed a crown upon my head and my sense of treasured importance in his life would have felt the same. This time, his guilt stemmed from the night before, when his alcohol-soaked behavior had him spewing slurred insults towards my mother, who just as belligerent, was crying too hard to argue back. This was a normal occurrence in our home. They fought about money, our dependence on food stamps, and about the discriminate distribution of the pills they had managed to get prescribed – each one arguing that they deserved more. I’d often dismiss myself to my room and sing – both hoping they would acknowledge my absence and stop fighting or hear me singing and find solace in believing that I was somehow unaffected and unaware of the underlying reasons for their hostility.
In front of me on the table was an array of marabou and pheasant feathers, along with hair from elk, deer, and various shades of dyed rabbit fur and dubbing. Spools of thread in almost every color were lined up beside tools I didn’t yet understand how to use. Most of all, there was my very own vice, clamped tightly to the table in front of a chair that had been placed just for me. I felt awkward entering his space, but I sat down and studied where everything belonged – my imagination running wild. I managed to get my hook positioned in the vice and as instructed, followed his lead. “We’re tying a Caddis fly and if we do it just right, they’ll bite it in a heartbeat. Just you watch, Snoozie.” He always called me that and regardless of the storms he created in my life, it always drew me closer to him like a moth seeking the only light left in the world. He wasn’t the best father. Some might argue that he wasn’t even a good one, but he was mine. Learning to tie flies didn’t interest me at the time, but I was desperate for the attention just as badly as he was desperate for the connection. As he held a small group of elk hairs in one hand, he very carefully wound the thread around the base of the hook with the other. His hands were dry and cracked, his fingernails yellowed from smoking.
Movement from outside the window caught my attention and although I tried to ignore it for fear that my father would sense my disinterest, I couldn’t help but turn away. From where I was sitting, I could see directly into the neighbor’s bedroom. Their house was unlike others on our block. Up until that day, I wasn’t even aware anyone had lived in it. It was constructed of large stones, cracking cement, and overgrown vines that reminded me of reading, “The Secret Garden” but instead of flowers attached, there were spider webs with decaying Pandora moths caught in them. Through their window I could see the neighbor’s fighting. She was throwing clothes onto the end of the bed as he was screaming, tossing things into the pile of clothes as his arms gestured aimlessly around their room. I tried not to watch, but my eyes were glued – my father continuing to talk to me but too engrossed in the details of tying his fly to notice my distraction. I watched as the man, skinny and with sunken eyes, grabbed the woman. His face was right up against hers, screaming words I couldn’t hear. As she turned her face to avoid his venom her eyes caught mine and for a moment, the world was silent and still. Her pale complexion and steely eyes pierced through their window and into me. Slow motion and panic collided as I turned away and stared at the vice still holding my hook. I shouldn’t have been watching. I wanted to help her, but I had seen the same look in my mother’s eyes before and I knew that a fight like that was no place for a young girl to interject. I wouldn’t understand it until years later, but I had already become a master at compartmentalizing. I drew the blinds and never looked out that window again.
The following morning, my mother was dressed for church. She wore a floral printed skirt, pink lipstick, and beautiful boots. She always dreamed of having a real pair of leather boots and the few times that she had mentioned it, I sensed it was a dream she’d had for years. It became clear that I wouldn’t be joining her as I showed her the flies we had tied the night before. “Dad said, you can pray while you’re fishing but you can’t fish in church. So can I go?!” She smiled and allowed it. I can’t recall ever attending church with my mother again after this day.
As we drove, I turned my face to the sun and welcomed every bit of warmth it had to offer me. Garth Brooks crackled through the dusty speakers of our old GMC pick-up and the sound of my father’s voice filled in the gaps of Friends in Low Places during moments of lost reception. The smell of menthol cigarettes whirled around the cab of the truck – a smell that would remind me of him well into adulthood. As soon as the tires traded the pavement for the gravel that lead to the river, the smell of Kool Kings would be replaced by that of peppermint schnapps, the sound of its brown paper bag crinkling as it left its spot hidden under his seat. With every turn of the pot-hole peppered road, our anticipation would grow. I’d sing louder as he’d pull harder from the bottle. This drive became a routine that I would spend much of my adult life desperately trying to recreate, swapping only the alcohol and nicotine for coffee.
Numerous days had been spent exploring the banks of the Deschutes river. Tiny trinkets that became my treasures and holes dug near the water’s edge that would be filled with tadpoles I was never allowed to take home. Some days I would simply spend hours studying my father. His cane fly rod swinging back and forth, back and forth. At home his jaw would be clenched and his heart often closed off, but not here. Standing waist deep in the river, the monster that my father had a tendency to be would transform into a man whose soul was at peace – tiny droplets of water catching the light of the sun and weight of his sorrow – crying off the line of his backcast as it transformed into a forward cast, laying his line flawlessly into the still water directly behind the bolder that broke the river’s current. My attention would be focused on his fly and more often than not, a rainbow trout would burst through the water’s surface and my father became a boy, full of uncontrolled excitement and adrenaline. I’ve often wondered if there were moments like that in his childhood. I didn’t know much about his family but I knew he was left alone much of the time, having only the company of his brothers to guide him through his adolescence. Even on the days when a trout didn’t welcome his fly, he’d still stand in the water until the unforgiving universe pulled the sun away for the day. Some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed include my father, his back to me as he stood in that river, embers from his cigarette gracefully falling through the air, illuminating what was left of the evening before disappearing either into the wind or into the current.
On this particular day, I knew my father had bigger plans for me than simply wandering the riverbank aimlessly. Although he had always made it known that he enjoyed our time together spent on the water, he had never been persistent in teaching me how to fish. “I’m not casting your fly for you so if you ever plan on catching a fish, you better get out here at catch one yourself.” He waded back a few yards to accommodate for a depth that I could stand in. His fly rod felt enormous in my small hand and I was immediately intimidated by my lack of knowledge despite the hours I had spent studying him.
“Imagine there’s a clock. Right above you is 12 o’clock. Behind you is 2 o’clock, and right in front of you is 10 o’clock. Bring the rod back, pause, and bring it forward. Don’t pay attention to the line just yet. Just start with this.” He put his hands over mine and stood behind me. Together we moved the fly rod. Back and forth, back and forth. At first it felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t familiar with someone being so close to me. We weren’t that kind of family. But after a few minutes, I had it down. He laughed in pride and kept his hand on my shoulder as I repeated this same motion over and over again. I had no sense of direction. No idea how to control the line. No idea what I was doing, but my father was proud and once again I felt as though he had placed a crown upon my head.
Within that week I was the proud owner of my first fly rod and standing waist deep in the river became our routine. During the night he would teach me different flies to tie and during the times he was at the bar or arguing with my mother, I would create my own designs – still singing my favorite songs – and give them names as if they’d be famous in the world of fishing someday. One was the Poko-Prince – a fly that currently sits in a shadow box at my grandfather’s bedside – others were given the names of past pets or random insects I had learned about in school. It wasn’t long until I asked him to take me to the store to pick out some supplies of my own. I filled my small basket with feathers I had never seen and colors of dubbing that matched what I had seen in the magazines. There were different threads, tinsel, and furs that begged to be part of my next masterpiece. As we wandered the isle, I followed closely behind my father. I watched him put a few things I had picked out in his jacket pocket. Conflicted inside, I asked to go to the bathroom. I found my way and sat inside the stall. Guilt consumed me. For the first time in my young life, I had a passion and he knew it. Part of me wanted to run home, not just because I knew that what he was doing was wrong, but because I knew my father saw my desire to have these materials and felt justified in stealing them. I debated on whether or not to confront him and ask him to put them back, but I didn’t want to humiliate him. Despite his shortcomings, he was beginning to take pride in being a father and I knew he treasured the bond we were forming. As I sat there, sitting on the toilet at the store with my pants pulled up, I heard the bathroom door open. I scrambled to gather toilet paper and tossed it in the toilet, flushing down with the clean water and all of my guilt. I decided to keep my mouth shut and told my father I would meet him in the truck. I never spoke a word about seeing him put my things in his pocket, but I also made it a point not to waste one bit of the materials that I had wanted so badly.
We returned to the river every weekend and found our spots to stand. Most of the time we would say nothing for hours except for when he caught a fish. We’d celebrate, he’d let me remove the hook, release the fish and we’d find our places in the river again. Often times, I’d look over at him, cigarette balancing between his lips, and admire the broken man with the lost soul who had found his place in the world. Even if it was in the middle of the river. Sometimes I’d catch him watching me, beaming with pride when my backcast and forward cast would result in my line laying flawlessly into the only hole I could reach – the hole in the shadows just below a downed Ponderosa. It was during one of these moments, when I felt his eyes on me, that an unfamiliar feeling was vibrating through the cork grip of my rod. “Dad! Dad!” By the time I could find the words to scream, he was by my side. “Snoozie, reel in! Reel in! Not too hard. Let him get tired but don’t let him run. That’s it.. That’s it.” It was a surreal feeling. As I backed my way up towards the bank, I realized what I had done. I had caught my first trout on a fly that I created. More importantly, I was becoming my father’s daughter. It was on the bank of the Deschutes river that day that we decided we needed a fishing handshake. Like two children in a fort all their own, we fumbled with hand movements and words until we had perfected it. With pinky and thumb sticking out, we switched to wiggling fingers, and ended with the action of our mouths swallowing a hook. Twist twist, wiggle wiggle, crunch crunch.
Months went by fishing side by side, mastering our spot on the Deschutes before the consequences of their addictions and a lack of work rendered us homeless and had us migrating to Southern Oregon, where the Rogue River quickly became our new sanctuary. We found shelter living at the Palm Motel and despite having only one bed, you’d be hard pressed to find two parents who could create a more comfortable space to sleep on the floor as inviting and as warm as my parents created for me.
A few years went by, but the unfortunate circumstances didn’t end. By that time, I had survived years of witnessing drunken fights, rehab graduations, and many evenings when their relapses ended up with the police knocking on our door. I had sat at the hospital bedside of both parents – watching them administer charcoal during accidental overdoses and hearing the doctor tell my father, “If you don’t stop drinking, you will die. Your body cannot take this anymore.” I’d watch him detox and wait for the familiar smell of peppermint to return once he was released back home. Eventually we were forced to succumb to the inevitable. My mother and I would be moving to California to live with my grandparents, and my father would be returning to Nebraska, his home state, as he was not welcomed into their home. We had lost everything that was put into our storage unit so there wasn’t much to pack. I begged my mother to let me stay a few more weeks, which she reluctantly agreed to. My father and I spent our nights in a tent – dreaming about when the stars would align, and we’d find ourselves fishing in up in Alaska. It wasn’t long before my grandparents found out about my living situation and purchased a one-way ticket down to Santa Cruz.
I handed my ticket to the bus driver and jumped back down the stairs to give my father one last hug. “This won’t be forever. We will fish together again, Snoozie. I am sorry for my part in this.” There were no words that could be said. Only tears that I could no longer hold back. He reached out his hand, thumb and pinky sticking out. “Twist twist, wiggle wiggle, crunch crunch. Goodbye Dad, I love you. This isn’t forever.” Despite the painful events that had led up to my departure from Southern Oregon, nothing could have prepared me for the sting that felt all-consuming as I made my way to the back of the bus and took my seat. I pressed my hand up against the glass and my eyes remained glued to him until the bus pulled away. I watched his hand wipe the tears from his face and just as I did when I watched the woman with the steely eyes years prior, I turned away and focused on what was in front of me.
It was in summer of 2016, after weeks of giving him daily salmon fishing reports, that the doctor’s words finally became reality and my father passed away. In his wake, I turned to my mother to share my fishing stories with. “You were your father’s best friend and his greatest joy in life, Suzy. Don’t ever forget that.” A few months later, she followed his lead and passed away in my arms, knowing with every breath that she, too, was loved unconditionally.
He wasn’t the best dad, but he had never promised me that he would be. For every lesson that he failed to teach me, he taught me the lessons that I’ve needed the most in life. He taught me patience, persistence, and what it means to be passionate about something. He taught me that a few hours standing in the river can heal more wounds that an hour in church ever could – that the bank is my pew and the fish that swim before me are the congregation. He taught me to appreciate the journey, the process and, unintentionally through his addiction, taught me to never let a day in this life be wasted. Through his suffering and struggles, he taught me how to adapt to changes, find the silver lining, sing through the chaos, and to always keep moving forward.
It is because of him that I wake up at 4:30am, layer my clothing, and drive 90 minutes to sit upon the bank of the river. It is because of him that I close my eyes and absorb everything that Mother Nature has to offer before the sunrise provides enough light for my first cast. And it is because of him that I have become my father’s daughter.