Voices from the river

Voices from the River: The only thing to do today

by Jenny Weis

The only thing that made sense to do on our second marriage anniversary was to go fishing.

A voracious lifelong angler, my husband, Sam, introduced me to fly fishing. He supplied me with the rod, reel, and meticulously organized bead box I used today. The net I used to land the rainbows, Dolly Varden, sockeye, and white fish was a gift I’d given him for Valentine’s Day three years ago.

Heartbreakingly, four months ago, Sam died of leukemia. He was only 31 years old. In his absence, Sam’s fishing buddy, Eric, was the one to row me downstream today in his new boat, which used to belong to Sam. (Sam would be thrilled for him to have it now.)

The notoriously turquoise river was brilliant against the rich green backdrop of the Chugach mountains. A weekday, the banks were quiet without the usual traffic of Southcentral Alaska’s busiest river. We could hear the glacial silt tapping along the hull of the boat – one of Sam’s favorite sounds. The sun came through the clouds now and then to warm us up, and the fish were biting. All the things that could go right today, did.

But still, all I could think was, “Sam should be here right now.”

That’s what I thought when I stepped into Eric’s beautiful, wooden drift boat that they’d spent a winter restoring together a few years back. It’s what I thought when we saw a brown bear cleaning up some sockeye salmon scraps on the river bank. It’s what I thought when I caught and released each fish with a smile and a high five.

Knowing it was going to be a tough one for me, Eric was determined to make today the best day he could. He succeeded. He was ready with a flask for a sip of whiskey in celebration of the first fish of the day – Sam’s tradition. We talked all day about best and funniest fishing moments we’d had with Sam. He even humored me in shouting “F*CK CANCER” in unison, our voices momentarily filling the river valley before being quickly swallowed up by the rushing water and wind in the trees. In the familiar way we’ve both done with Sam many times in the past, we fished, floated, and contentedly ate up BBQ sandwiches in the car on the way home, making comments like, “not a bad way to spend a Monday, eh?”

While Sam was fighting cancer, I felt guilty so often about getting away from the treatment-world to go have fun. Though he and I knew it was good for me to have a break from caretaking, the thought of Sam daydreaming from a hospital bed about fishing or simply being out in the world always broke my heart. In those days, I’d laugh at a joke or smile, and the happiness would fade quickly as I thought back to him, sick. To put it bluntly, during his treatment, I was worried constantly that the worst would happen, and Sam would die. For all of us who loved him, we never felt completely happy during his long treatment with the relentless weight of that fear on our shoulders.

Over the last four months, we’ve had to grapple with the fact that the worst did happen and pick up the pieces of life without him. However, Sam gave us a gift as he died: he simply wished for us to be happy. (Well, and a few other gifts like a beautiful wooden drift boat and meticulously organized and well-stocked fly fishing closet begging to be used.) Now that he is gone, I know my only duty is to laugh at jokes and smile genuinely. There’s no more worrying or fear of death, only finding joy in life. Though painful, days spent on the river like today are a way I honor what he taught me, and continue to live as we did together when he was healthy, and as I know undoubtedly he’d want me to.

So you can see why fishing was the only thing that made sense to do today. But still, he really should have f-ing been there.

Jenny Weis is the Alaska Program communications director. She lives in Anchorage.

By Chris Hunt.