Recently a friend of mine, someone I’ve known most of my 42 years on this Earth, called late one night and told me his father had unexpectedly died. I hadn’t seen his father in years, and the last few times were merely in passing, but the news floored me. Honestly, it hit harder than it had when I found out my uncle had died, and he was still in his forties.
My friend, whom I’ve seen less and less as we’ve gotten older and older, was crying. I was crying. He said the funeral was this weekend and it was late notice, so I didn’t need to come, but he felt I needed to know. We told each other we loved one another and I knew I was going home for a funeral. Not just to be there for my friend, or for his mom, the recently widowed Mrs. D, whom I was even closer too than his father.
But I was going for him. To pay my respects. Here is why:
My friend and I lived a few miles apart on the same country road. Just for perspective, we lived about a mile and a half apart and there were only two houses between us. By both common interests and lack of options, we quickly became best friends. One day, sometime after we turned 16 and freedom from our arbored prison could be found by way of a license, I walked out to his house. I may have had my license but I still didn’t have a car. I had not called ahead to let him know I was coming, either because I didn’t feel like dealing with my father so I could use the phone, or because I was bored and just wanted to walk. Twenty minutes later I arrived at his house only to find out my friend was not at home. His father, who was in the garage, informed me his delinquent son had left some time ago and didn’t know when he was going to return.
While Mr. D was in the garage, he was not working on one of his cars or vans, or repairing some piece of lawn-care equipment (he had a love-hate relationship with his lawnmower, like a doctor who refused to give up on a patient he didn’t quite care for). His garage was a temple dedicated to all things dad, but it was not the modern man we’ve come to appreciate. Nor was it a “man-cave” that bespoke of thick brow ridges and barely concealed misogyny.
No, this was a working man’s garage. There was a space heater that looked like a jet turbine, a multitude of well used, but well-maintained tools hung on the walls like the swords from a battle-hardened knight. Nicked and plain, but well oiled and gleaming sharp. There were shelves of spare parts and nuts and bolts and wires. The A-Team would have had a field day in that garage. It was a garage like I wanted to have when I grew up. Mr. D wasn’t using any of it, however. He was tying a knot on a feathery fishing lure, hooked onto a fishing rod as I had never seen before. I immediately became intrigued.
Mr. D wasn’t much of a talker, he had a quiet dignity about him most people would never achieve either because they were incapable or they didn’t see value in that kind of life. I watched his rough hands tie the knots in the oddly colored line and I asked what it was. Like many young boys, fishing was one of those pastimes that connected me with my own father, but we had only ever fished in lakes. I had fished for years with my father but had never seen anything like that.
“It’s a fly, for fly-fishing.” He said absently
“Oh,” I said as if that explained everything.
“Don’t you fish?” He asked and looked at me. I had been eating that man’s food for about five years, and he knew I fished. He said with a kind of half smile he had perfected, egging me on.
“Yeah, but not with something like that.” I looked at that weird rod and reel, the lightness of the fly. Maybe he forgot the lead shot to weigh the line down. Or maybe it used a bobber. Maybe he was using some long forgotten form of fishing, like a medieval reel taken from a crossbow repurposed for fishing. I longed to try it.
“You want to try it?” He asked. Clearly, I was an easier read than I thought.
Over the next fifteen minutes or so he attempted to show me the basics of fly fishing. It did not go well. I think he explained the same thing at least ten times, but like many fathers he seemed to have an inexhaustible amount of patience when it came to something like this, sharing a hobby they love. I mean, it was fifteen minutes, so I guess it’s hardly inexhaustible but if I noticed how inept I was, imagine what he felt.
But, to his credit, he didn’t seem to mind. I was too heavy handed with my rod handling and I couldn’t quite get it down. I handed him back the rod, thanked him for trying to show me, and he just nodded his head as he took some line from the reel, then cast beautifully into his yard, the fluorescent line arcing gracefully back and forth over his lawn like it was a burbling mountain stream.
You wouldn’t guess this man, who looked on most days like a TV dad from the Wonder Years, was capable of art, of making something beautiful, but he did. He took a moment of disappointment for me and made it wonderful. He was often like that. He was quiet and quiet people are often easy to dismiss, but he was fearfully intelligent and had a dry wit that few too many people saw. My friend and I would be sitting in his living room and making our ironic observations on life, convinced of our teenaged coolness, and he’d lay out a truth that would floor me, like a sniper taking out a target from the comfort of his recliner.
Mr. D may not have been well known, but those who knew him well were fortunate. And while his life may not have been glamorous, he left an impact, like small ripples on the surface of the river of time, as if from a well-cast fly. From him, I learned that to do something well was more important than making it look good or flashy. That something done simply, but done well, was better than something that looked great but didn’t serve its purpose. Those ripples are being passed on to my children, to my students in their writing, and they shall go on to eternity. Thanks, Mr. D, and maybe I’ll give fly fishing another shot.
Originally published on Stupid Optimism
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