In the final scene of the movie A River Runs Through It, the narrator, Norman Maclean, is alone on the river, trying to tie a knot. He is old now. His brother Paul has been gone for five decades. His wife, gone. Most of his friends, gone.
The narrator says:
Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand in my youth are dead, even Jesse. But I still reach out to them.
Of course now I’m too old to be much of a fisherman. And now I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. But when I’m alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and memories. And the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four count rhythm. And a hope that a fish will rise.
Only the river, which has flowed since the beginning of time, remains. It is the one constant in a full life, one of joy as well as tragedy and loss.
The Old Man and His Browning
Norman MacLean’s end of days are a lot like those of my father, whose hunting and fishing friends are now mostly all gone. My father will be 82 this year.
I think of Walter, who hunted upland game and waterfowl with us for 30 years until his wife Laurine died. Dad, my brother Matt, and I struggled to forgive him for putting away his Browning for good after she passed. He said he quit hunting because he had no one to clean his birds. That sounded so sexist to my post-modern ears, but it was Walter’s old world attempt to describe his sorrow.
Walter was only in his early 80s when Laurine died. He passed away in a nursing home about a decade later at 93, his lightweight 20 gauge (made in Belgium) never to be fired again. Physically, he could have hunted for most of the rest of his eighties. Dad and I stopped by the nursing home for a few minutes about a year before he died. He towered over us in his hunting years, but now was diminished in the wheelchair. The TV blared as we regaled him with stories from the last hunt. He said he was looking forward to seeing Laurine.
His Browning now rusts in its case with a son who doesn’t hunt.
Walter’s brother Albert also lived into his nineties – and hunted with us until his late eighties. He called it quits when he said the geese flying over him appeared as shadows, his eyesight failing. We didn’t argue with him, though he still had no problem knocking down birds. But it was time.
He lived for another five years after he stopped hunting. Right before he died, he told his son, who was 70 at the time, “When you turn 80, start another business. You’ll have more than enough time to watch TV when you’re my age and can’t leave the nursing home.” Albert and his son inspired me through the years to pursue my entrepreneurial calling.
Walter and Albert are now gone, as are most of my father’s friends.
My father scans the newspaper obituaries every day, something those who are left behind often do. I spent a two-week sabbatical with him and my mother in North Dakota last fall. Several times during the two weeks, he would look up from the paper and say, “Do you remember _______? He just died.”
If you get to live long enough, those you love pass on one after another until one day you discover that you are alone, in the half light of the canyon, astonished at the brevity of life. You have to decide whether to fly fish when only the river beckons, and the voices of others have gone silent.
Giddy at 80
About a year and a half ago, I got a call from my Dad. He had been out deer hunting, alone.
He said the November Dakota wind was howling up to 50 and 60 sixty miles an hour, the temperature plummeting thirty degrees in a couple hours. On his way home from the hunt, a large flock of mostly snow geese was circling a harvested field along the gravel road, trying to land against the wind. My father stopped the truck, grabbed his Browning and three shells, crawled and walked in the ditch for about 50 yards, crossed the road, shot three times, and knocked down eight geese. Alone.
He had just turned 80 several months earlier.
On the call with me not long after, he was giddy, emotional, like a boy who just had shot his first goose.
There is much to be said about the fellowship of hunting, the late mornings after the hunt in the coffee shop, the Ole and Lena jokes that make you groan, the story-telling while picking up the decoys after a slow morning.
But there’s joy in the hunt itself, in the act of netting a 17-inch brown in late fall. Norman Maclean may be alone on the river near the end of his days, but there’s no place for sadness.
Big Flies and the River’s Edge
I watched “A River Runs Through It” again not long ago, and the final scene, like always, slayed me. I fired off an email to my podcast partner Steve saying we need to promise each other that whoever remains on earth last will continue to carry on our fly fishing tradition, until like Albert and his failing eyesight, the trout become only shadows.
Steve responded, “I don’t see myself ever stopping. We will just have to fish big flies! And stay near the trail head. Wouldn’t it be cool to fish together in our 80s if God grants us both that much time?”
Yes it would.
And if for some reason I am granted days greater in number than those of my friends, and my kids are too busy to meet me at the river, I will walk the edges of the river alone.
What remains of fly fishing when the only companion left is the river itself is the joy that comes with the hope of a rising fish.