At some point I stopped being concerned about getting older. I was probably just shy of 60 when the feeling of creeping doom receded. Over the course of a few years, everything that could ache began to do so. The accumulated baggage of the aging process had gathered in one large sack of decrepitude. In spite of this, I began to care less about the parts that didn't work quite right. Ibuprofen helped. So did Bourbon. However, like all phases of one's life there are surprises, most of which aren't pleasant.
Six months is a long time when you suffer the indignity of incapacity. Perhaps the worst thing is having some middle-aged stranger wipe you because you're too feeble to exert sufficient toilet paper leverage to clean your own ass. You don't think about this shit when you're younger. Heck, not even when you're older. My six months of hell started with a minor heart attack followed by a stroke. At 72, I suppose it's not unexpected, though I'd expected it would be somebody else.
My heart attack was described as mild but the stroke was a whole ‘nother thing. I'm still confused about what happened. It was two days before the winter solstice and while watching television I forgot who I was or what the purpose of this body was. For a short time, I became something else. Fortunately, Kate was there with me and witnessed whatever it was that I was then not doing. We've talked about our mortality and our preferences. She's determined to go first and probably saw this as my way of skipping out early, so she made sure I got the immediate professional attention required in such a situation.
My stroke came when trout season was well over and the only hope for a tug on the line would come from fishing midges in some tailwater. From December through May I tried to put the pieces back together. Tons of physical therapy. Dogged determination to get back to my former incarnation. If I was one of the lucky ones, my recovery would happen faster than my baseline health was failing and maybe I'd have some semblance of normalcy in a year or two. My hope was to at least be able to fake it by May.
Early May is Hendrickson time around here. The Hendricksons, the first good hatch of the season, are the hatch of which I'm most fond. The renewal, the new start of things, is a magical time on the water. The warming trend in the air is mirrored in the water and the trout and their prey awaken. These large flies are the first signs of hope for the warmer weather that is a balm for my bum knee and swollen knuckles. Further, my near sighted eyes prefer to see big artificials over tiny wisps of cul de canard. And the trout are recklessly hungry. They're as desperate for a meal as I am for tug on the line.
My buddy Mark always seems to know when the Hendricksons are coming off because I get a call each spring at almost the same moment as the first hatch reports. We've known each other for more than 30 years, though if you'd told me at the time we met, I would never have predicted it. We met on the water during a spring spinner fall, fishing ten yards apart in a pool full of rising trout. We cleaned up. It was the sort of epic fishing that you remember and tell stories about for years. At that time, I had one of those fancy gas-powered micro-stoves that’ll make two cups of coffee in three minutes flat. When I took a break from the fishing to make a cup, Mark cast a longing glance my way. A spare tin cup in my pack birthed a caffeinated friendship.
We exchanged numbers at that time and have met every year since to fish the Hendricksons. Mostly, it's for a single day though sometimes we spend two or three together. It all depends on how good the fishing is and what other commitments we both have. Aside from fly angling and the love of caffeine, we appear to have nothing in common. We've never really delved into family and personal lives. Most of our talk is about travel and the sport and the quality of various whiskeys, cheap beer and locally crafted porters.
Mark is an itinerant angler, which I suppose is a nice way of saying that he's a trout bum. He appears to live simply; there's nothing pretentious about his angling gear or his conveyance. He always shows up in an ancient Ford pick-up with Idaho plates. I once sent him a package, a dozen special flies, to an address in Boise but that was years ago and I'm not sure if he's still there. I try to imagine what home looks like though I'm sure I'm guessing wrong. You can't often separate the wandering poor from disheveled trust funders. Regardless of where he fit on that socio-economic continuum, he's a good guy with which to share water and caffeine.
Mark is three years older than me though through the blessing of an active life or good genes he has the physical stamina of a younger man. He has that wiry toughness that makes you think his muscles are made of coiled iron and tough beef jerky. That spring he called me on cue. I brought him up to speed on my illness and progressing recovery. He seemed disinterested in that personal stuff and got immediately to logistics. The first Saturday in May, noonish. The field upstream of the bridge. I made plans without telling Kate.
By May I was in no shape to wade a river. I had graduated from a walker to a multi-footed cane but my right foot had a bad habit of dragging and turning at an awkward angle. There were times that I thought about having it removed. I was certain that an artificial thing would be easier to tame and control.
On the appointed date I was in a car driving north. Kate was behind the wheel. I still hadn't been cleared to do anything more than walk. She was being a good sport about the whole thing, though she thought it madness. Mark's pickup was at the first pullout along the farmer’s field just where we agreed. I was happy to see the field was fallow. I hoped it would provide easy off-road walking. Wishful thinking had become a key part of my world view.
When we pulled up, Mark was suited up and sitting on the tailgate of his truck nursing a styrofoam cup of gas station coffee. My beard was longer and grayer than it'd been in a long time. The final remnants of personal hygiene have given way to pragmatism. The less I trim my beard the less I worry about being able to trim it. Kate seems to prefer it scraggly as well so there's that too. When it comes to scruffiness Mark and I have converged. He's looking as unkempt as ever, though older, just maybe.
Mark wandered over as we pulled to a halt and managed to make some small talk about the weather and the water levels. Kate was a real trooper. She helped me into my waders and even stood by as I strung up my rod. I wished I had practiced at home once or twice because the normal moves weren't possible in this new body. But I managed even though I could sense Kate wanting to reach out and help at every moment. Mark's sidelong glances said something though what I wasn't exactly sure.
A wading staff replaced the cane and with a worried peck on the cheek Kate left us to make our way to the water. The first few steps went off without a hitch. Mark took the lead down the path as Kate turned back to the car. That's when I had my first stumble. Fortunately, neither of them caught it and after a quick recovery that practically threw out my back I was hobbling at a slower pace behind Mark.
Mark paused every dozen steps or so waiting for me to catch up. He made small talk to fill the spaces. We talked about off-season fly tying and some skunk fur he picked up off a roadkill and how it wasn't worth the trouble. As we got closer to the water the talk veered to the fishing and then just to an impatient silence as we approached the water’s edge.
Downstream a handful of guys filled the long pool. Trout rose sporadically to a hatch that was just getting under way. Large mayflies twitched on the surface though they weren't yet thick in the air. Ahead of us under the deep shadow of the far bank, the silver flashes of rises caught our attention.
Mark lit a thin cigar and asked what the next step was. That was more of a figurative question though in a literal sense I had to figure out how to make the one-foot drop to the gravel. Mark extended an arm and let out a grunt as I shifted my weight and hopped down. My knees and ankles didn't appreciate the maneuver but at least my foot landed about as correctly as it could. I was still upright.
This pool is a spot between spots. You can't see this section from above as the river curves out of view in a long riffle. From below the near bank looks like riffle and the left, while smoother water, doesn't look like much. This is a place I found by accident years ago. It has never fished particularly well but it is good enough and it’s sort of a secret which makes the fishing that much sweeter.
The wade in was slow and uncertain. The flows were just about perfect for this section; enough water to cover the low gradient riffle to just below the knee about half way out. At the mid-point of the river the ledge upon which the riffle is built disappears. There's a deep, glassy bowl midstream and upstream the ledge arcs to the far bank which is also deep and glassy. The frequency of the splashes was picking up.
I wavered in the current ginking up a fly, trying to find the right rise; close enough for a cast without having to take another step. Mark was still at my elbow watching closely. Apparently he was more concerned about my safety than I was.
I asked him if he was going to fish and he made some crack about not wanting to have to face my wife after I drowned. He nodded to the same rise I had selected and I made the cast. We both chuckled when the first cast only made it about half the distance. He because of my failure to make the drift, me from the relief at not having landed on my ass.
The second cast was made a bit more assuredly and the third was where it needed to be. By the fifth I was able to set the hook though that act threw me off balance and Mark’s hand to my shoulder prevented me from pitching back. A spunky rainbow came to hand quickly and was released.
Mark asked me to take it easy setting the hook and then proceeded upstream to work the far seam. I'm not sure how convinced he was that I wasn't going to drown but the hatch had picked up and the fish were recklessly on the surface. No doubt it was a temptation too great to resist, no matter what my cost.
Over the course of the next 15 minutes I cast to a half dozen fish rising in the close water. Most I quickly put down. Only one made a swipe at the fly and I managed to hook it and remain upright, though I lost it after a couple of head shakes. I saw Mark land two and hook a few more.
I was tired. Who knew a half hour of fishing could take so much out of you? Truth be told, the walk took it out of me but upon sight of the water I was restored. Now I was knee deep in a bit of trouble but the shore wasn't too far and I still had a few more steps left in me.
I went down easy in enough water to cushion the fall but not enough to drown me. Feet and stick downstream I skated along on my ass for a dozen yards before my good leg stuck and the current helped push me back to something resembling standing. Spring water is a whole lot colder than you expect it to be and now with my waders half-full I was unsure if I could make it to shore. A boulder sticking up a few feet away seemed a reasonable, short-term goal.
As I plopped onto the rock, movement out of the corner of my eye swiveled my head. A white-bearded, elderly gent swam past me, cursing. The string of “dammits” he sang as he glided along were wholly expected of someone in such a situation, I may have said a few myself during my own swim. I thought I heard him shout something about the “goddamned river” but the comment was lost as he sailed downstream. Mark seemed to have more trouble than I did getting upright but he did manage to take a knee in shallow water and slog to the bank.
After resting a few more minutes I shuffled to the bank and sat heavily. I untangled my lanyard from the sling pack and set them up high. Unclipping the shoulder straps of my waders I rolled them down to my waist and then scooted them under my butt. Raising each leg in succession allowed most of the remaining water to return to the river. I recalled an exercise in physical therapy that had the same movement. Perhaps that stuff isn't bullshit after all.
Mark's method of dewatering seemed to involve rolling about on the small beach on which he landed. I couldn’t hear him cursing over the voice of the riffle but his spastic motions and flailing appendages spoke volumes. He walked up with a limp. I could see by the way he held his rod that it was likely broken. His hat was missing and he was hunched over as if aged a generation by the swim.
“You're too old for this shit!”, Mark said as he sat down. He described how he saw me go down and when he turned to come to my aid he also went down. His gaze was hard to catch. He peered downstream sucking on his upper lip, scowling uncharacteristically. The creases on his forehead and cheeks still held the dampness of the river and the sand of the beach. His scraggly beard dripped.
I had two cigars stashed in an old waterproof fly box. Mark's offering was a disposable lighter that caught after about twenty tries. He nodded satisfactorily as the cigar caught. We rested in silence and smoked a while. The trout continued to slash at the surface unmolested. Whoops and groans came from downstream as fish were hooked and lost.
Before long our cigars were stubby and there was no question that our sorry forms needed to head back across the field. We scrambled up the bank like toddlers trying to surmount stairs. Saplings provided secure posts upon which to lean as we gained our feet. Mark followed me along the path. I stopped twice to allow him to catch up. There was no small talk.
Kate was surprised when I knocked on the car window and alarmed when she saw my dampness. But the smile on my face seemed to ease her worry. I had a fleece in the trunk that replaced the shirt plastered to my skin. I shivered at the immediate warmth. Mark had a full change of clothes stashed in a duffel and was soon looking as he had when we arrived though apparently fresh from the shower.
We briefly related the story of the swim to Kate which she found more amusing than we did. That joyful, evil laugh still warms my heart every time I hear it. She shared the joy of my first trout since the solstice and oohed and aahed at the few photos that Mark had managed to snap of my fish and the handful he had caught. While she's never quite understood my passion for this sport, she's always appreciated its importance and at least played along when tales of the stream were told.
Mark finished packing away his damp gear and snapped the tailgate of the truck shut. He mentioned heading to the Cape to see if the stripers were running, though I related the reports weren't good. Maybe north for some brookies, he suggested. I shrugged. Mark thanked me for the company with a shake and a wink. Kate got a kiss and a hug.
As he got into the truck, he turned and admitted that he had gone down just before I did but managed to claw his way back upright before falling again. He shook his head.
“Maybe we're both too old for this shit”, he said. The door clunked shut. The truck started and pulled out. Mark waved and drove south.
That was the last time I saw Mark. The next spring the call didn't come. The number I had for him was out of service. I still fished the Hendricksons. It was one of the best hatches I can recall. But it was different. Not good or bad, just different. The following year I could have sworn I passed that pickup truck driving up Route 7 but by the time I glanced in my rear view mirror it was too fuzzy to make out. I drove by the field and the spot by the bridge but he wasn't there.
When you're young you wade deep, fish hard and drink harder. You crap in the woods, talk shit around the fire and give little thought to the time when everything goes to hell and you're old. So far, this thing hasn't killed me, but I'm left wondering when it will happen again; when some small portion of my body will fail all the rest. I hope that I have my grandfather's constitution. A drinker and smoker, he lived well into his ‘90s and suffered countless illnesses that would never quite kill him. Until they did.