“Catch and Release”
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When I was a little boy my father would take me on day trips to the campground a few miles from our house. We had no money for gas, but he always made the walk seem like the beginning of a great adventure. We never took the same route twice—he always found some new path, some new detour or attraction to look at along the way. I was never told where we were going, only when, though we went to the same place every time. He would simply poke his head into the room where I might be reading, or call me in from the backyard and announce our departure, always in the same two words—We’re going. That and nothing more.
These outings were of the sort any boy would enjoy—hiking, relaxing by a campfire, fishing, the occasional boat ride. I loved to explore in the fall, running along red and yellow and orange carpeted trails, laughing as the wind blew in the treetops, making it rain colour and beauty. Soon my father would laugh and say he couldn’t keep up with me, and we stopped by an unused campfire to rest. He packed the same drinks in his backpack every time—two bottles of lemonade for me, three cans of Coke for him. Once I asked him why he didn’t drink beer like the other dads in town.
You wouldn’t want to drink lemonade every day, would you, he asked.
I tried to reply politely that perhaps I would.
Ah, he said, you think you would. But then it would lose its taste and wouldn’t be quite the same.
I kept quiet for a moment while I thought about this.
And so when I was younger, he said, beer tasted better but now I enjoy Coke a little better.
I nodded. A moment later he gave a pained sigh.
Just at the end of every day, we would walk towards the shore of the river at sunset to go fishing. It was my favourite time of day, but before we would reach the shore my father would put one hand on my shoulder and turn me around to face the sunset.
Look up at the sky, son, he said. You must always learn to appreciate these things. Beautiful days don’t come from nowhere. God worked very hard to make this day beautiful—He wants us to thank Him.
I always nodded and said that I would. Afterwards he would take me to the edge of the river and would carefully unpack our fishing rods. The river was the heart of the city. Its stream powered the generator for the local wood mill that employed ninety percent of the town’s workforce, including my father.
My father carefully checked the sturdiness of my now assembled rod. By now I was experienced enough to be handed it with only a brief nod, having long graduated from constant safety reminders and technical critiques. This was one of the few times in our time together that conversation ceased—though my father, of course, never made to shush me. It was an unspoken agreement, but one I knew well.
I considered my father very knowledgeable, for he was always able to tell what kind of fish we had caught. But he often told me that it didn’t matter what kind of fish it was, and that even though fishermen judged a fish on its size, that wasn’t very important either.
A fish can’t help its size and colour, son, he said. It’s what they do that makes them matter. A little way downstream there’s a fork in the river, one current leading to a beautiful stream and another over the waterfall and into the mill’s generator. Which do you suppose make it to the stream?
The first time he told this story I said I supposed the bigger fish did, for they had more weight to fight against the current.
But no! he said, suddenly excited. No, no, do you know which fish finally lick that current?
I shook my head.
It’s the little ones, son, he said. All the big fish are used to having everything easy, but it’s the little ones who had to fight and struggle, who had to work very hard, much harder than the big fish. So that when they came to a hard time like that fork in the river, they’ve learned how to fight because being little made them tough. Do you understand, son?
I nodded as if I understood.
My father made this observation many, many times. And afterwards he would always kneel down next to me so that we were eye to eye, and he would put a hand on my shoulder and furrow his bushy grey eyebrows the way he did whenever he tried to say something important.
Never be angry when life makes you fight, son, he said. The Lord tests us, but he has a plan for us all and wants the best for us. Don’t forget to trust.
He would stay crouched and look into my eyes until I said I understood, or nodded, or at least blinked, though of course it was years before I understood what he was really trying to tell me. Back then all I knew was that when my father started talking about the fish that meant it would soon be time to go.
* * *
Ten years later, my father’s words tended to swim through my head whenever I was alone at the downtown parking complex. It sounds strange, but it became a second home to me through my teenage years. On the rooftop level you could see the whole city lit up at night, or lay on someone’s car and stare up at the stars. Sometimes I dragged my buddies or my girlfriend there, and we could talk and laugh, or smoke, or run from old security guards and laugh about it the next day.
Sometimes I came alone, when the only cure for confusion was a long night alone on a city rooftop, just staring at the skyline and thinking. When I first found this place I used to sneak here by myself all the time. As the years slipped by I started coming alone less and less. Tonight I was here alone, because tonight was my father’s birthday.
My father’s life story being what it was, he was never a fan of big celebrations, or at least he disliked being made a big deal of.
Oh, there’s no need for such fuss, he would say. I’m just an old man getting a little older.
We were poor enough that we couldn’t afford too much more than the usual on special occasions, but when we lived in our small little town birthdays were community property. Unannounced and uninvited, people would pour to my father’s house after work instead of the usual pub, bringing with them plates of all different dishes their wives and daughters had cooked for the day. There would be a cheerful potluck supper, and people would mingle and dance and laugh until the noise reached its peak and then suddenly dropped. My father would always sound amused when he called out who had invited themselves to stay for the night. As an ignorant child I thought the other workers were very considerate to remember his birthday every year.
One day after such an evening I asked why his friends always slept over after a birthday.
Sometimes too much beer can just make you a little sleepy, son, he said.
I thought to myself that it must work quite well, because the men who stayed over slept like they could never be wakened—though they evidently did, because many times during the night they would try to stand up, stumble, and crash. It happened at least once every twenty minutes and was so noisy that by two-thirty I was still awake.
Later I decided to sneak out to the fridge, sidestepping over the bodies scattered like an obstacle course over the living room and kitchen. I opened the door and the ray of light from the open door swept over a fallen soldier—he gave a weary groan and rolled over. I inspected our stock—no milk, no apple juice. There was only half a can of Coke left in the top shelf. I reached up, grabbed it, shut the door and made to sneak back, drinking most of it in one swig on the way.
When I passed our living room coffee table I paused—dozens of open cans were crammed onto it. I picked one up, shook it a little, listening to it slosh around inside. And then, being seven, innocent, and naďve, I suddenly remembered my father’s description of it as a sleep aid. I had, of course, been strictly forbidden to touch it many times, but I decided that one drink couldn’t hurt. I poured the remainder of it into my empty Coke can and snuck back towards my bedroom.
And then something happened that took me five years to understand and another five years to get over.
Son, said a voice from the darkness, what are you still doing up?
I froze—at once speechless, motionless, lifeless, too scared even to panic. I watched him come into view, just enough moonlight coming in through the window to see his disapproving frown and furrowed eyebrows.
You know you’re not supposed to touch my Coke, he said. No good for growing boys.
He reached down and took the can from my immobilised fingers, fatally bringing it to his lips and taking a long drink. His frown instantly vanished, his face blank, his expression unreadable.
Go to bed, son, he said in a frightening monotone I had never heard before.
I made neither sound nor protest. I simply dragged my leaden legs towards my room, glancing once over my shoulder at my father, who was staring at the can as if transfixed, as though hypnotised.
The last thing I heard before I fell asleep was the sudden roar of an engine, its sputtering quickly fading into the distance.
* * *
I was seven when that happened. All they told me at the time was that my father had got into a car accident. It wasn’t until one day when I was twelve, in a blinding, sudden flash, that I realized what I had done. I was sobbing into my mother’s arms for what felt like hours, crying out occasionally that I was a murderer and killed him, and my mother stroking my head and whispering that I wasn’t and I hadn’t..
Over most of my teenage years I tried all I could to deal with the double burden, that of having no father and being partly responsible for his death. I alternated between therapy and drugs—the ones prescribed by my therapist and the other kind—for a long time until one day I walked into Dr. Lionel’s office and telling him he wouldn’t be needed anymore. Later that day I said the same thing to several other people of enormous wealth and maimed character, the ordinary looking people that ran my high school. It was a very sudden change, one that caused my mother great anxiety and me a good share of doubt. But somehow, it worked. And I worked—harder than I knew I could, driven by a sudden and desperate urge to prove myself. Or maybe I was just scared of disappointing an old friend.
Years later my mother once said that life had two kinds of people—those who choose circumstances and those who are victims of it. I asked if she was talking about Dad’s fish story. She asked what I was talking about. I shrugged and said nothing, but it made me think of people like my father, the relentlessly hopeful. They’re the people who see the advantages in the setbacks, the ones who bounce back and shove and look for ways to fight. The tough little fish. And sometimes they lose, like my father did—but they never quit like so many around them.
For the first time I can remember I stayed standing at the edge of that rooftop all night, right until dusk, ignoring the occasional stares of people heading for their cars, heading for another day at the office. I watched the sky come to life, watched shades of pink and orange and crimson dance and paint their way through they sky, leaving a beautiful opening for the sun to rise into.
I smiled, and asked God to let my father know that the sunrise was beautiful today, and that I appreciated it. And that I was doing just fine.
Someday, I'll write a story about dodgeball and they'll make it into a movie.