My steps through the sand and grass were slow and deliberate. I held in my left hand a spinning rod and used my right hand to balance on air. Charlie, Luke and I hired a guide to take us freshwater fishing. We followed her, single file across a thin slice of land created by an oxbow in the Salmon River.
I had a sensation that stopped me in my tracks. It was my dad. He was there walking with me, with a fly rod in his hand.
“Charlie, dad is here”
“Of course he is here”. Charlie replied without really thinking. “He came here what, twice a year for as many years as I knew him.”
“No, I mean he is really here, now”.
I had not felt his presence so strong since the day he died 8 years ago.
We followed the guide down a short bank and onto a sand spit. I took the line in my hand, flipped over the bale and cast out. As I reeled in my eyes caught the shiny spinner come back through the clear water. I had expected my dad to say “cast a little further out” but Dad was gone. He had walked onto his favorite fishing spot.
I turned to the guide. “Do you know who owns Gustavus Lodge?”
“I do. But they are selling it. My parents came here every year. And when I was 15 I started coming here. I started guiding”.
“My dad came here so often, he didn’t bother to take his boots and his raingear home”.
“My parents left their gear here too. I wonder if they knew each other”
Mental calculations told me she had probably not met my dad. But her parents may have.
Michelle from the Bear Track Inn came to pick us up from the fishing excursion.
Michelle married into the Onley family. Her husbands’ father and mother built the Inn in this beautiful meadow. As an engineer, her father-in-law had all the necessary skills to make this place a destination in itself. He was gone now, but his wife Jane was still at the Inn every summer, June through September. She hoped to leave for the last time this fall and spend her time in Hawaii. Michelle would be filling her spot.
Michelle and I shared short conversations as I sat in the front passenger seat. She drove us down dirt roads to get us to our activities. I learned that her own father had died with Parkinson’s . Her closeness to him as she was growing up changed as she got older. She didn’t understand why. She loved him dearly, and he loved her. But when it came to his Parkinson’s, he did not share what he was experiencing. He called for her to come home when he knew the end was near. And when he was gone from this world Michelle realized she knew very little about how he had lived with Parkinson’s.
She watched me, and I felt she was more than observing me. She was absorbing me, comparing me to what she saw in her dad.
Monday morning I had a zoom meeting with a Parkinson’s support group in San Diego. Michelle and her mother-in-law Jane took me to a residence on their property where I would not be disturbed. As I set up my computer on the kitchen table, I invited them to stay and listen, and Michelle did.
I talked for about an hour. And when I was done, I turned to Michelle.
“You were a good sport to stay and listen to all this talking about Parkinson’s disease”
She put her hand across her heart and in a soft voice she said
“I never knew all these things my dad was going through. Your talk helped me understand how the disease affected his body, why near the end of his life he was like he was. Thank you for sharing your story.”
I thought about my own kids. They live so far from us that when they see me once a year at the most, my body had changed. Do they notice?
I don’t hide from them. But I don’t tell them the intimacies of the disease either.
Will they be like Michelle, somehow sorry they didn’t truly understand what neurodegenerative means.
Who holds the responsibility? The parent who suffers silently through years of the disease. Or is it the child who doesn’t ask the questions.
Michelle drove us by the Gustavus Inn on the way to the airport.
I saw a man walking on the gravel drive to the main building. He wore a faded red sweatshirt, baggy jeans, and a floppy old fishing hat. In one hand he had a fly rod, and in the other he held a creel. He set the heavy basket down and I caught a glimpse of his face.
There he was. My dad, in his heaven… and on his face… a smile.