The one that got away 

Fly fishing, family and that book

In the early fall of 1999, when I was 12, my dad picked me up from school on a Friday afternoon. Hurricane Floyd was still spinning itself dry somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean and had left a high-pressure system of brilliantly clear skies and autumn air in its wake—which was good, because we had plans.

We were headed to the Adirondacks, to Old Forge, N.Y., to the South Branch of the Moose River. My dad had learned to fly fish there 40 years before. We—my dad, mom and I—returned every August, but this trip with my dad was different: It wasn't August, and it was the first of many trips without my mom. A fishing trip. It was also the first time I read A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean's autobiographical novella about fly fishing and family.

The story, published in 1976, is about Maclean's family during the summer of 1937, his last summer fishing with his younger brother, Paul. It all takes place before, during or after a fishing trip, and Norman's prose on the subject is treasured by fly fishermen: "Poets talk about spots of time," he writes, "but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment." And, "Something within the fisherman tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart. ... Many of us probably would be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect." Over three nights and days in the Adirondacks, I finished the story. It was the first time I'd ever heard of Missoula or the Blackfoot River or read sentences I knew were beautiful and true and weren't for 12-year-olds. It was the first time I'd felt romantic. In high school, I read the story again and again. By junior year, I'd decided I wanted to be a fishing guide and that someday I'd like to write about fishing, like Norman Maclean. When it came time for college, I applied to only one school.

I've been guiding fishing trips in western Montana for a few years now, and of my prowess I can only say that I am busier and better than when I started. I row people down the Blackfoot often, through the canyon Norman and Paul fished in the summer of 1937. Usually my guests ask about the story, and if they don't, and especially if we aren't catching anything, I tell them about it. I tell them about the Presbyterian church where Maclean's father was a pastor and which still stands on Sixth Street. I tell them that once I got my hair cut by a guy who never flips his "Closed" sign and who claimed to have cut Maclean's hair. I tell them what they already knew or had at least hoped when they planned their vacation: that A River is a strand in Missoula's cultural DNA. That the plaque memorializing Maclean in front of the First Presbyterian Church was not just put up by people who know the book, but by people who knew the Macleans. What I don't tell them is that I haven't read the story in years.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA

The first time I became aware of just how removed I'd become from A River, I was back east, at a college lacrosse game, watching a childhood friend play. This was in Massachusetts, where lacrosse is a thing, and I sat in the stands with my mom and my friend's family. My friend's grandfather, Dick, is the sort of blue-blooded, bullish WASP who believes playing lacrosse and going to Harvard are elemental. He crawled over a few rows of stands to give my mom a physically robust but emotionally flaccid hug and said, "How are you, Mo?" He was trying to sound sincere, because he knew that my mom knew that he knew her health was bad. Then he shook my hand vigorously, and said my name, "Jamie," like I'd gone 21 years without one and he had just solved the problem.

"How is it out there in ... Wyoming? Just like A River Runs Through It?"

I wanted to cold cock him and make him bleed on his polo.

After the game, on the way back to my parents' house, I bludgeoned the subject with my mom. She agreed that Dick could be condescending, but she submitted that maybe he didn't mean anything by the comment. Still, I stewed. He'd invaded something I'd once held sacred, something he surely didn't understand.

I didn't either.

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I basically grew up an only child. Occasionally one of my half-sisters would come and stay for a while, and my cousin lived in the guest room for a bit, but our nucleus was made of three, though we never acted that way. My relationship with both my parents was good but separate. We never ate meals or saw movies together. It was rare for the three of us to ride in a car together. Even on those family vacations to the Adirondacks, my time was mostly divided between fishing with my dad and trips into town or to the beach with my mom. This isn't evidence of a tortured childhood. If anything, I was privileged, lucky for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that I felt loved and safe. But it was always my dad over here, my mom over there.

My dad was raised by a poet-activist mother and a venture capitalist father. He went to Yale, where his father went and where many of the buildings were designed by his grandfather. He started his own architecture firm in New York City, and made a name for himself designing schools and public libraries and YMCAs. He is rational and articulate and seems to know something about everything. When we moved to the suburbs, he made impossibly smooth wooden bowls on a lathe in the garage and gave them to friends for Christmas. Everyone likes my dad.

My mom comes from a different world. She's from a working-class town on Long Island, the daughter of a chemistry-teacher father who drank too much and a librarian mom who never paid enough attention. When she was young, she decided she wanted to be an artist, and after high school, she left home to study art at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Then she moved to New York and got a job as a receptionist at an architecture firm, where she married the boss.

When I was young, my mom made art steadily. She worked in colored pencil, and I remember the blue armchair she propped her drawing board over, the hours and hours she spent hunched over her work, the way she sat up straight and tilted her head to better see what she had done. She's an instant friend to anyone. She laughs at her own clumsiness. Like her art, she is chromatic, but some of her colors are dark. She's struggled with chronic kidney disease and pancreatitis for decades, and, recently, was diagnosed with bladder and urethral cancer, all of which intermittently land her in the hospital.

When I was young, my mom was a complication I didn't understand. My dad was simpler to be around. He coached my Little League team. He always wanted me to help him in the garden. He rarely got mad. He never seemed unhappy.

When I was 12, a few months after my first fishing trip, my dad and I left my mom in the ICU at New York Presbyterian to visit a fishing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She'd gone in to have a specialist repair a hole in her kidney. The surgery failed, and she lost so much blood the doctors wondered if she would recover.

It was cold in the city, and frigid wind gusted up the avenues and blew plastic bags into the sky. I can't remember much about the hospital: the beeping and sighing of machines, the way she looked threaded with tubes, the terrible exhaustion that must've been in her eyes and how it all made my 12-year-old self feel. But I do remember leaving the hospital with my dad in search of a tackle shop we'd found in the Yellow Pages. It was downtown, a few blocks from the East River. It had high ceilings and poorly lit aisles of tall-stacked fishing tackle. There was a man behind the counter who looked like he probably spoke with an accent. I remember this clearly: the burbling of a water-filter keeping the bait alive.

After that year, my dad took me on an annual fishing trip. We caught brook trout in Maine. In the Yucatán, I landed a bonefish, tarpon and permit in one day, which in the fly fishing world is called a Grand Slam and means something. We went to Belize, where we saw baby manta rays swimming in shallow, clear water. In Kamchatka, I waded across a wide riffle with a brown bear who fished for salmon with his nose in the water. By the time I decided on the University of Montana, I'd abandoned all other hopes for my future. I didn't want to play baseball or become an architect. I had already been to a bucket list of fishing destinations and felt there would be no other way to live. It wasn't just about catching fish; it was about the going, about the time spent and about the idea. Fly fishing offered the opportunity to know about something, and in knowing about something, to become an expert. And being an expert feels good.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA

I spent half of my senior year of high school near Stratford, England. I was there to study Shakespeare, but mostly I felt lonely and lost and wondered why I'd gone. I wanted to go fishing, but in England, as in most of Europe, fishing is a good deal more complicated than buying a license and finding a stretch of public water. I never made it happen, but I spent my entire trip trying, and just the trying made my stay better.

One day, I got the word "Angler" tattooed on my back in a seedy Camden tattoo shop. Aesthetically, it's a regrettable ink job. It turns out teen angst is next to drunkenness on the list of bad moods in which to get a tattoo. But I got it and I live with it, a reminder of a time when I understood fly fishing to be more important than anything else.

While I was in England, thinking about fishing, my parent's marriage was falling apart. I'll never know what they kept from me as a child—what they said with their eyes, with their bodies when I watched television in the next room. I was too young to be told, and maybe I'm still too young to realize, but the trip to New York Presbyterian was an act change in my family's narrative. Two years later, I would leave home for boarding school. My dad and I began taking our annual fishing trips. My mom lost a kidney. We stopped going on family trips to the Adirondacks. I saw less and less of them. I wonder now how much they saw of one another.

My dad left my mom a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 2009. She called to tell me. Then he called. When this happened, my mom lived in a big house on a narrow street in Massachusetts. My dad spent weekdays at his architecture firm outside of New York, living in an apartment complex. He joined my mom most weekends. My mom spent most of her time alone, in bed, sometimes sick from her kidney and on dialysis, sometimes sick from her pancreatitis, sometimes sick from the infection in her urinary tract. She was always too sick to draw. But what made her depressed, what made her scream into the phone and cry and wail and slam doors and collapse in a heap on the floor, was her husband in his apartment in Connecticut and her son so far away in Montana.

After the divorce, I talked to her daily, sometimes several times a day, and often, she was halfway incoherent. She would tell me that no one loved her. Sometimes that included me because I was selfish and inconsiderate and thought she was uneducated and dumb. She said I was too much like my dad.

A month after my dad left her, I flew back to New York to spend Christmas with her family on Long Island. A few days before I arrived, my mom disappeared. My uncle called the police. She wouldn't answer her phone. No one could find her. I don't know how many times I called her. We all called her, helpless because that's all we could do, and all she had to do was not answer. Finally, my cousin was able to hack into her email and find the hotel she was hiding in. She said she was sorry to make everyone worry. She told me I couldn't understand.

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Though A River spends much time describing moving water or the swirl of a feeding trout, what propels the narrative is Norman Maclean's relationship with his brother. Paul is a drinker, fighter and gambler. He owes money to the sort of people who don't fly fish. As the story unfolds, Paul's problems consume Norman, who feels helpless to help his brother. Toward the end of the story, Norman Sr. asks Norman about Paul. He tells Norman, "You are too young to help anybody and I am too old. By help I don't mean a courtesy. ... Help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is that we can seldom help anybody."

A few weeks after her disappearance, my mom called my dad and told him she was going to kill herself. She was alone in the big house in Newburyport. My dad was at his apartment. He called the police. She could see the neighbors watching from their windows, she said, as the cops restrained her and put her in the back of a patrol car. She was admitted to a Boston-area hospital, where she was kept for a few days. I don't think my mom is suicidal. Someone told me once that suicidal people don't say they are going to kill themselves, because if you are willing to make such a claim, you are really pleading for help.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA

For a time, I staved off the guilt of being so far away from her with daily phone calls and a general commitment to being there for her. I listened to her rage and wither and rage over the phone. Her anger was aimed at my dad, sometimes at me. Conversations with her were manic; rational and constructive, then desperate. She didn't just miss my dad; it's that she was helpless to stop the upheaval. Nothing made sense to her. She didn't make sense to me. I didn't know how to help her, and in any compassionate sense of the word, I stopped wanting to. A piece of me wanted her suffering to stop only so my suffering could stop. After a day on the river, I'd check my voicemail with bated breath, feeling relieved if none of the messages were from her. I questioned my love for her, whether the love a son is supposed to feel for his mother is no more cosmic or intrinsic than a love forged by years of proximity, and if that love isn't as shakable as any other.

My dad already had a new girlfriend. I don't know when they started dating, but I've speculated and I've concluded that I don't care, that I can't care. What did matter is that in the months following his departure from my mom's life, absurdly, unbelievably, he seemed happy. And so, when my mom needed me most and I had nothing to offer, my dad didn't need me at all.

During the worst of the divorce, when my mom was somewhere near the bottom, my dad would call to check in. "I know this is hard for you, Jamie," he'd say, "and if you ever want to talk, it's important we talk."

"I know, thanks" was all I ever mustered.

I didn't think his offer was disingenuous, but usually I felt too frustrated to say anything at all. It was easier to nod and say thanks and agree that this was all very hard and that someday it would get better.

When it came time to move out of her house, the packing was left to my mom and a team of movers. My dad went skiing in Colorado. I was in Missoula, studying creative writing and making plans for my next river trip. I called him and asked why he thought it was okay to be on vacation while my mom was packing up their defunct lives. Until then, he had been the voice of reason and calmness against her wild outbursts, but now he seemed as selfish and inconsiderate as my mom said he was—and as I felt I was being.

For the first time in my life, I questioned his actions.

He told me there were some things he didn't have to explain.

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My dad visits Missoula every fall now for a few days of fishing after most of the tourists are gone. Last year, we spent an afternoon on the lower Clark Fork casting blue-winged olive imitations to rising trout. We ate fried chicken and threw the bones in the water. We took turns casting. The fish were everywhere and it felt good to show him how to catch them.

My parents don't speak to one another much anymore. If they do, it's about money or insurance, and usually that doesn't go well. But I speak to each of them regularly. My mom seems to be feeling better, drawing and laughing and making friends as easily as she used to. My dad is happy and busy with work and his girlfriend. When I think about what I could have done differently—what I should be doing differently—to help, to be a better son—I know I should have talked more: to friends, to my half-sister, to other family members. I would have been better off if I'd been able to say things, if I'd taken my dad up on his offer to talk. But I didn't, because the problem with my dad's offer wasn't his sincerity or my willingness to accept it. It was the wrong offer.

I never wanted to talk. I just wanted him to do the one thing he always seemed too good to do: apologize.

A month ago, I re-read A River. It was powerful for the memories it stirred from the mud: the sound of my mom's voice sweetly quavering when she called to say she was being left; the smirk on my dad's face when he first donned a Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop hat; the flood waters their 25-year marriage had created at its end. And I remember Dick in his neat polo shirt invoking A River while he watched his grandson play lacrosse.

Maclean was 74 when A River was published. If he'd been at that lacrosse game, if he'd shook hands with Dick and listened to our exchange, I wonder what he would have thought. I wonder what he would have made of my frustration, my confused defense of his work. Would he have been able to tell by the redness creeping into my cheeks that my understanding was no deeper than Dick's?

Once I read the grandest and truest story about fly fishing, a story that articulated my own vague beliefs and truisms, so that fly fishing became an act that could transcend everything.

Despite his demons, Paul Maclean was forgiven with a fly rod in his hand:

"Once he quit wobbling," Norman writes, "he shook himself duck-dog fashion, with his feet spread apart, his body lowered and his head flopping. Then he steadied himself and began to cast and the whole world turned to water. ... The images of himself and his like kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of light."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA

But that's no longer the whole story. It's the moments between the moments—the moments not for 12 year-olds—when A River turns from a pastoral ode to fly fishing into an elegy for family. Now, 13 years after first reading it, I'm a member of a very different family and I've come to know that there are some pieces that can't be picked up. Nothing—not fly fishing or rays of sunlight caught in falling drops of water—can transcend the pain of helplessness.

Eventually, Paul's vices get the best of him and he's beaten to death with the butt of a revolver. His murder creates a rift between Norman and his parents that is bridgeable, but just barely; it cannot be repaired. They talk about Paul's death tangentially. They talk about Paul selectively. The book's final dialogue is set years after Paul's death, when Norman Sr. says to his son, "You like to tell true stories, don't you?"

"Yes," Norman says.

"Then he asked, 'After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don't you make up a story and the people to go with it?

"'Only then will you understand what happened and why.

"'It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.'"

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When I was 12, on that first fishing trip on the South Branch of the Moose, the fishing was bad. What Hurricane Floyd had deposited could still be seen in the swollen-brown brooks and rivers of Upstate New York. The South Branch was high and cold and mostly unrecognizable from the river I swam every August.

We fished for two days. I didn't have waders yet and shivered most of the weekend, though I was too excited to care. The skies stayed intensely clear, the sort of crystalline weather that settles on the back end of a storm and reaffirms life. I didn't catch a fish, but I tried ceaselessly. I tried because I didn't know enough to know that the river was too high and fast. I didn't know enough to search for a calm backwater. I didn't know enough to know that trying was futile.

In the weekend's last moments, my father caught a 14-inch brook trout. I remember standing on a jeep-sized boulder with him as he cast into the pool below. The fish ate a muddler minnow, which was one of the three flies I knew existed. He stood with arms raised to keep the line taught. The fish thumped desperately against his rod, the white edges of its fins glowing underwater.

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