“Last cast, buddy?” That’s how every fishing trip I ever took with my dad ended. I can’t remember how many times he said it, or how many times we went out together. Somewhere in the low hundreds, probably. As for how many times we actually caught fish, that number is less than 20. Catching fish always seemed ancillary to our adventures, right up until we arrived home empty-handed and my mom inevitably asked, “Did you bring us dinner, boys?”
Looking back on our best fishing stories, actually fighting a fish is rarely the focal point. There was the time we got my mom’s new car stuck in the mud, the time I caught a snake on the riverbank, and the time we found some alien parasite crawling inside of a salmon. The photo evidence from our trips backs this up — there are plenty of shots, but none that show a rod bent under the strain of a Chinook.
When I was about 22, I realized that one day I’d want to show my parents that I was grateful for the 18 years they spent putting up with my crap. In particular, I wanted to thank them for 1994-97 — when I was in high school, A.K.A the Climbing-in-a-Second-Story-Window-at-3am era.
My mom has always been easy to show appreciation for: She likes massages at a spa and for her three adult children to visit Oregon. She’s returned just about every material gift I’ve ever gotten her, even when my sisters and I chipped in on a car stereo for her completely stereo-less car. I figured she and I could go to a cabin somewhere and hike in the mountains for a week.
As for my dad, my idea was always to take him fishing in Alaska. I wanted to be up there, in the wild, on a boat, spotting bears, and, occasionally casting a line. I imagined thanking the old man for times I was a hassle, apologizing for getting in his face once or twice. Maybe we’d finally hook a few big ones too — because, from what I’d heard the fish in Alaska will just about jump onto your line, and I’m the sort of fisherman who needs that assist.
The plan seemed so clear in my head, but 10 years raced by and flights never got booked. I’d like to blame money, as Alaska trips don’t come cheap, but it’s a thin excuse. In 2009, I won $10K in a writing contest and spent it on trips to New York and Australia. So I guess the only explanation left is the dumbest one, I thought I had more time.
Then my dad got cancer. I was living in Amsterdam when my mom emailed the news and it felt like I’d pedaled my bike over one of the city’s light rail tracks and been smashed by a train. I’m not your man to live with no regret. I regret all sorts of things. At that moment, when we’d just heard that my dad was sick and we still felt endlessly optimistic about his chances to beat the illness, I regretted that I’d never taken him to Alaska.