M y wife thought I was nuts. You’re going fishing? NOW?”
“Yes,” I said as I grabbed a rod and stuffed lures into a bag (I didn’t bother looking at what they were). “I need to go.”
“It’s 45 degrees outside!” Sandie said. “Are you serious?”
“I need to go.”
It had been a harrowing two weeks. At dialysis, the old woman in the chair next to me had coded. They spent 20 minutes trying to bring her back. The techs were heroic; they performed CPR, and even used the portable defibrillator they had on hand to revive her…and they failed.
Meanwhile, I was hooked up to my dialyser, and I was unable to move. I couldn’t help, I couldn’t run. I could just sit there and watch as they set up panels around her to hide her away the rest of us and hear the defib recite operating instructions in an electronic monotone. When the EMT’s finally showed up, I watched as they wheeled her out, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. I couldn’t shake that image.
Two weeks later, my oldest friend’s mother, a woman who would’ve adopted me if she had the chance, died suddenly. I had seen her just the week before, and she was very happy. She and her husband of 49 years were looking forward to Christmastime and having their entire family around them. It was going to be a good time for all.
Then, she was just gone.
“You can’t go on a day like this,” Sandie told me. “The weather is horrible. What do I tell your parents. You know they’re going to worry.”
“You’re not going to catch anything.”
I laughed to myself. This wasn’t about catching. It was about healing. I needed to smell the salt in the air. I wanted to hear water on rocks and wood. I needed the routine of casting, retrieving, repeating. I need to pull myself back together.
I don’t remember the long drive to Port Isabel. That hour-and-a-half long drive doesn’t exist to me. There is something about a drive that allows you to split your attention between the task at hand—driving—and the thoughts that swirl around in your head. Images of the last fortnight reeled past my mind’s eye, questions were asked, answered, and created still more questions, and 75 minutes disappeared in a blink.
My first recorded thought was looking at the shoreline of the Laguna Madre along SH 100 and thinking, “No way I fish in that chocolate milk.”
Still, I sallied forth. This wasn’t about fishing. It was about healing.I found some calm, relatively clean water, in the finger channels in Port Isabel. I found a vacant lot between two houses. I parked, and got out of the truck.
The north wind stung my cheek and watered my eyes. Bits of sand, round shell, and other detritus picked up by the wind pelted my left cheek and pattered against my clothes and coat, but I only noticed it enough to know it was there. The sting felt good in a way, because I knew that I was feeling more than those two women felt, or would ever feel again. I pulled my jacket collar up, snugged the zipper as possible, and started rummaging through my tackle bag for a tail.
That’s when I discovered I hadn’t packed any saltwater baits. I have a variety of Kelly Wigglers, Down South Lures, Buggs, and Gulp! Baits, but they were all at home. What I had packed were a handful of plastic worms for bass.
I could have easily driven over to a tackle shop and gotten more appropriate baits, but this wasn’t about fishing. It was about healing.
I pinched a Berkley Powerworm in half, and threaded the rear three-inch section onto a ¼ ounce jighead and started casting.
There is a comfort in repetition. You can escape into the mundanity and rhythm of routine. Minutes blend into an hour, then two. Then, your mind slips into its own groove and a tempo that helps you sort your thoughts and through the bits and pieces of emotional grit that have been grinding at you.
The philosopher Carlos Castaneda once wrote that you can either make yourself miserable, or you can make yourself stronger, the work is about the same. That realization struck about the same time a fish hit my bait.
The fish lunged forward with power and a visceral brutality. Line peeled off my reel, and the fish stayed down. I put my thumb on the spool and snubbed the fish short of a barnacle-encrusted piling. I kept steady pressure on the fish and finally turned him. He came up in the shallows, and I finally saw my adversary.
The big gafftop flopped and croaked in the sole-deep water. His slate-gray body glistened in the coming gloom of early evening, and he croaked angrily and desperately as I stood over him. Gafttops are pretty good eating, and this one weighed about five pounds.
“This is your lucky day, fish,” I said. “I’m not looking to box any fish.”
I took the cat and somehow got the hook out of him sans pliers. I dropped back in the shallows, and the catfish disappeared with a swirl.
I reeled the hook up to my rod tip and turned to the truck to head home. I looked down and noticed in a footprint I had left earlier, pressed into the sand, was a sand dollar, no bigger than a quarter. I picked up the shell and examined it. It was undamaged, flawless. There was beauty in its simplicity. I dropped into my shirt breast pocket and headed towards my truck. It had been close to three hours since I’d parked.
I still think about those two women and what happened to them, but now I can think clearly. That sand dollar grounds me. The fishing trip saved me. But it wasn’t about fishing…
It was about healing.
Email Cal Gonzales at [email protected]