Tag Archives: family relationships

Fishing for Family

Bruce, Me, DeanSince January, I’ve thought and written a lot about the inevitable shift in my family relationships. In the days immediately following Dad’s death, I told my brothers that I wanted them to include me in their fishing trips.

One of my brothers immediately noted, “But you don’t like to fish.”

I told them it wasn’t really about the fishing. I knew that they had always connected through hunting and fishing. We are three brothers and one sister… three fishermen and one non-fisher person. I figured that if there were going to be future gatherings of family, they were most likely to happen around the activity that brings them together. My request was noted.

This summer, my brother Dean called to invite me to join a trip on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. With a lump in my throat (that’s what happens when the dog catches the bus), I joined Dean and brother Bruce on September 2, when we put in at Warm Springs, OR, for a 4 night floating-camping-fishing expedition.

Dean’s led this trip dozens of times, most often using his own 13′ raft, and Bruce has often participated. I was jumping aboard a trip with a lot of history, joining men with well-established habits.

What happened wasn’t really what I expected.

I imagined it kind of like a movie: after attending to the necessities of the day (breaking camp each morning, making camp each afternoon) and a long day of fishing and floating through dramatic volcanic canyons beneath blue skies, we’d contentedly kick back in our chairs and fall to talking about Dad, or Mom, or the burial, or our families. It would be a reverie of memories, longing and love.

I was right about the talking, but wrong about the quantity and the topic. The sporadic conversation centered on fish, insects, stars, geology and fish. Did I mention fish?

For example, did you know that Gary LaFontaine extensively studied caddis fly behavior underwater and designed the Sparkle Pupa fly to imitate rising nymphs (read more)? Or that they work so well because the sparkly antron fibers successfully imitate the gasses that build up under a real pupa’s shuck?

That makes me sound unappreciative. On the contrary. It was just one more life experience where you go looking for one thing and find something completely different, something all the more beautiful because it was unexpected.

I learned a lot. I had to confide that I’d never set up a camp, and I needed to be shown a lot. It turns out that Dean has quite specific ideas (inner smile) about how one does things. When you’ve made this trip as often as he has, you have long since figured out the optimal menu, way to organize a camp, method of packing a boat, and even how to do dishes (wash them with environmentally-friendly soap in one container, rinse in a second basin of hot water, and dip a third time in a basin with a few drops of Clorox for good measure). I also learned a lot about fishing, although the one that I hooked was by complete accident when the fish saw me pulling the line up to recast it (I’m told I got him on the rise).

I also was awed by the majesty of the canyons, river and sky of the Deschutes. How had I missed this? Within the first hour, the walls of the canyon rise up along side the river. The first few buttes stood back at a shy distance, their rising brown hillsides topped with rocky red crowns. In front of them, green water streamed serenely by. As we floated past rock gardens — shallow bars with water only inches deep — every rock gleamed in the crystal clear water. The canyon walls crept closer, and erosion revealed their geologic story of volcanic pressure, uplift, ash explosions, hot flows and cooling into a myriad of shapes, colors and textures.

The Deschutes near Warm Springs OR

Some lent themselves to flights of fancy, the way cloud formations beckon us to see images in their ever-changing shapes. Bruce thought the lone rock below looked like the head of an Argonath. I found myself remembering Dad being wheeled down the hospital hallway for an MRI reciting from Shelley: “My name is Ozymandius, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Ozymandius?

Small islands straddle the center of the river between the off-limits property of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation on one side and the many public campgrounds on the opposite shore. As we pass them, Bruce and Dean remembered their fishing luck on past trips; one island was so favorable they referred to it as “our island.” We tied up at one that could be circumnavigated on foot, revealing tree roots that waved in the water like red hair.

Tree roots in the Deschutes River

We did not go unnoticed as we floated down the river. Wild horses on the reservation stopped their slow stroll as they came down to the water to drink, the stallion keeping us under observation to make sure we posed no threat. Great blue herons heard our approach, crouched and flared out their five foot wide wings to beat slowly upstream ahead of us. Mergansers dove, kingfishers cried their piercing call and ospreys whistled and chirped, circling high above the river. We counted 43 osprey during the course of our trip. At one point, a young buck cautiously approached the river’s edge while Dean cast just 30 feet away.

After the sky flamed from orange to fuschia to grey, the nights were even more magical. With only the background noise of the breeze, the Milky Way made such a perfect, broad arc over us that I could imagine a circle of spray paint continuing past the horizon both north and south, cinching the earth beneath us like a belt. Thousands of stars blinked into view revealing constellations, many of which I’d heard of, but never identified. Each night, I watched shooting stars through the netting of my tent and listened to the chorus of crickets and the thumping of bugs trying to penetrate the thin layer of nylon between them and me. I started to bargain with God: “I’ll go to sleep if you show me just one more shooting star.” And each morning, I awakened to an orchestra of birds calling as the sun poured down the brown hillsides behind us, often punctuated by the cry of a frustrated osprey as it flew reconnaissance over the river.

As entranced as I was by the natural beauty of the area, I really noticed things about my brothers.

I watched Dean walk upstream to fish. I love to watch my brother walk, as weird as that sounds. He conveys preparedness in every fiber. It’s visible in the set of his face, the tension in his arms, and the way he plants his legs as he moves purposefully forward. He has such a sense of purpose, a guy who know’s where he’s going and what he’s going to do there. When he sits, which isn’t for long, he’s usually (as my Dad would say) “working the problem.” When we were en route to Maupin to pick up a rented boat from Deschutes River Adventures, his face reflected concern about making it on the river in time to set up our first camp before dark. Even more serious was his expression when approaching White Horse Rapids. His intensity of expression reflected the responsibility he felt as organizer and river guide. Once he met the challenges of the day, he was finally at ease. Dean is such a rock, and I love that about him.

Dean

Bruce’s demeanor is and always has been more relaxed, even graceful. There is a gentleness to him, in his stance and in his voice. His walk is loose and his movements, fluid. He stood up and demonstrated casting back and forth, side to side, until he popped the fly right in front of a big trout. It was almost like watching a dance as his weight shifted from side to side. Of course, I teased him and said, “Can you do that again?” (He obliged.) Bruce loves to share his passion for things, and his passion for fish may be unsurpassed. Although he had plenty of time to fish on his own, he seemed to really want to guide my progress as I attempted to lob or roll cast. As bad as I was, he never seemed frustrated or irritated, using the same, calm voice to direct me.

That voice brought me right back to being five or six years old, when he patiently illustrated a poem about an elf sitting under a mushroom cap umbrella. I still have the drawing.

I watched as he caught the biggest fish of the trip. “Are you getting this?” he asked, knowing that I had my camera in hand. After the fish was released, he showed me how his hand literally shook in excitement. Bruce is such a geek, and I love that about him.

Big trout on the Deschutes

On our last night in camp, after being chased off the river by a dramatic thunderstorm (complete with hail, 40+ knot winds and horizontal rain), I summarized my experience for my brothers, telling them that the trip was different than I had expected. Dean asked, “What did you expect?” I shared my little fantasy about deep talks under the stars.

“Oh no, we don’t talk about relationships,” Dean said, “This is a guy’s trip. We do stuff.”

One brother was missing, and that made me sad. His absence made me wonder aloud on the first night, “How are we going to stay connected as a family?”

The next night, Bruce replied, “I’ve thought about what you said. We’ve learned some things. We’re better off together than we are separately.”

We as a family are moving forward, perhaps in fits and starts, but making progress.

Hole in the Wall campground

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Chaos and Comfort

Friend card

My friend Sharon has been laughing at me all weekend. It started soon after my arrival when I began straightening up, knowing that her family was coming in the next day.  It’s what a good guest does, I said. But she and I both knew the truth. I’ve become a teence obsessive, an aftermath, perhaps, of feeling that things were so out of control as my father lay dying a few months back.

Every time I open one of her cupboards, my palms literally itch to organize them. Most of the cans are on an upper shelf, but why are the canned clams on the shelf below it? Why is the sugar in a baggie on the floor?

I itch, but I don’t fix. I realize that this is her home, and she likes it comfy.

Walking Saturday, our conversation turned to families. She has been “an orphan” for some time, one of four children born within a five year span. I talked about my evolving relationship with my brothers. A recurring question for me in the months since Dad died has been, “Who is my family now? Who are we to each other?”

There is choice involved now, you see. Dad gave us a reason to come together for birthdays or holidays. He was the draw. Though there may still be obligation, it is less compelling.

In families like ours, where there are more than two siblings, there are affinities. A pair might feel more like-minded and naturally confide in one another. Or having the distance of a couple of years and a sibling in between, they might feel less competitive. A common interest — like trout fishing — may foster a bond.

We grow up with a natural place in the family architecture. My Dad’s family referred to the eldest brother as “the handsome one,” the youngest brother as “the sweet one,” and my Dad, the middle child, as “the smart one.”

My friend and her siblings are finding their way. It’s hard to say if their paths will draw them together, or push them apart. They may become more intransigent, or, like my Dad, more tolerant.

You can rearrange cupboards but you can’t rearrange your siblings. Their comfort may be my chaos, but we are the only people in the world who carry the precious and intimate knowledge of our family from childhood forward.

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Re-forming as Family

Selfie portrait Betsy and Sandy

As my Dad grew more frail, his world shrank. Eventually it consisted of what fell within the four walls of my home, augmented by the daily newspaper and the Military History Channel. My world shrank, too.

Dad’s passing has left a huge void, but it’s also given me the freedom to renew relationships. Last month, I was delighted to host my niece (who is more like my younger sister) and then my brother Dean.

Instead of a visit focused on my Dad, we focused on us.

Sandy’s visit was originally slated for January 19 as a chance to say goodbye to Dad, a visit that was postponed when he died January 12. I didn’t know how she’d feel, returning to a house still vibrating with his presence, sleeping in the guest room that has been known as “Dad’s room” since December 2006.

I like to whine that I was kicked out of my room upstairs when I was 10, relegated to a windowless room in our concrete block basement when my not-quite-21-year-old brother moved in with his wife and newborn. I was still unable to sleep away without becoming homesick, and not happy about losing proximity to my parents’ room and the living room, where I could hear the murmur of their bridge games long after my bedtime.

Then I fell in love. There are few loves like that of a pre-adolescent girl for a baby. Having Sandy in our home was even better than the Brenda Bride doll I received for Christmas that year (its trick was to catapult the bouquet).

Sandy on Stinson beachSandy is all grown up now, of course. She’s been married to a great guy for nine years and has two adorable boys, 4 ½ and 6 years of age. It was so comfortable to hang out with her – not the same, perhaps, as when we sat squished together in the recliner in the Rec Room downstairs, watching TV – but still so easy. We had lunch on the dock at Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon, drove to Stinson Beach, and made a dinner stop in Davis before returning to Sacramento.

Dean’s visit was as different from his prior one as can be imagined. The day after Dean arrived last January, Dad’s condition rapidly deteriorated. Disquieting symptoms eclipsed one another in rapid succession. We frantically conferred, called hospice, implemented steps to increase comfort. We were riding on the roof of a fast freight train that raced out of control, hanging on around the curves, never catching our breath.

After Dad died, we were breathless. We knew we had done our best, but our best couldn’t reverse the inevitable end. We gathered with Scott, Bruce, Maddie and Tommy. We held each other, talked about logistics. The “boys”(they’re still “the boys” though the eldest of us is now 70) relegated the medical equipment to the garage and sorted through Dad’s small store of effects.

When Dean arrived in April, what we did first recall that traumatic week in January.

Then we played.  By happenstance, Todd was away, so it was just Dean and me. I don’t remember the last time that we had time together with no responsibilities, no competition for our attention, no agenda. Maybe we’ve never had free time like that.

My brother and me at TasteWe drove up through the rolling green pastureland to the Gold Country and enjoyed a delicious, slow lunch at Taste. We sampled Barbera at a few wineries. After returning, we went to a mindless but entertaining movie (Oblivion).  We just had… fun.

I’ve been wondering: who is my family now that Dad is dead? A family is not one organism. It’s a system of relationships. Every single combination of individuals is a relationship, with logarithmic permutations. Until now, we have had Dad as a connecting fiber. Family as we knew it blew up, but the component parts are gravitating back toward each other, re-forming.

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Planning My Father’s Memorial

sympathy cards

Every day for weeks, I have written a different set of remarks to share at my Dad’s memorial service on February 16. All in my head.

Do I talk about how he softened as he aged, what a remarkable role model he is for all of us as we approach the prospect of living into our 90s? Or focus on how he broke the mold of his family’s dysfunctional example and grew into a wonderful father? Should I summon dear memories from early childhood, like happy times wedged in the front seat between Mom and Dad, driving around Kensington, MD, looking at the strings of colorful bulbs strung on houses at Christmas, singing, “Here we go looby-loo…?” Could I use a symbol that had resonance for Dad as a rhetorical device — perhaps a river, or a rose? Do I tell how he was still my Daddy, and share how I cried one last time, cradled against his powerful chest, after he died?

I sat down this morning and wrote, just wrote. Didn’t outline, didn’t plan, didn’t try.

Planning Dad’s memorial has been like listening to several radio stations at once. My brothers are broadcasting on their channels, sharing their experiences and their ideas, and I swear I am transmitting on several stations of my own. I’m so busy listening to my thoughts and feelings that I can barely hear theirs.

And it isn’t limited to my brothers. Often, my husband has said something to me in recent days and I’ve had to say, “Start over. I wasn’t listening and I didn’t hear a word.”

Slowly, however, the noise is abating. I am feeling less agitated by the emotional bombardment. I am starting to hear some notes that penetrate the muck, a phrase or two.

It wasn’t like this when we planned my mother’s services in 1999. I wondered to my brothers: is it because we’re doing this more electronically than we did 14 years ago? Or because Mom pretty much scripted her funeral and all we had to do was implement it? Or that Dad was the arbiter in planning Mom’s service and this one is on us?

I am feeling more hopeful that we will come to a place like that described by Alexander Levy in The Orphaned Adult:

Gradually, with unconscious cooperation, survivors weave a commemorative tapestry from these bits and pieces of shared nostalgia…. Story by story, smile by smile, and tear by tear, these memories intertwine, creating a fabric in which an image of the departed is preserved, within which survivors are enveloped, and by which they are forever bound.

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