“Simple exchange of values. You give them money, they give you a stuffed dog.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Reading The Sun Also Rises during my first year at Syracuse University changed my life, and I became a devoted Hemingway disciple. It was this line, more than any other, that endeared me to the story. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s main character, has suffered a traumatic injury in the war, and he’s come to hold one simple truth in life: You get what you pay for. In typical Hemingway fashion, the concept is illustrated with a blunt and simple metaphor when Barnes considers buying a stuffed dog.
I sacrificed a great many of the things we are taught to work for throughout much of our youth: a full-time job, a steady income, security…
I gained… well, I saw almost everything in lower 48. I spent 200 nights, exactly, sleeping in that Jeep and fished my way from remote northern Maine down to the Keys, out to San Diego and up to Seattle. That was my “stuffed dog.” A simple exchange of values.
This morning I met a woman near Palatka, Florida named Jackie Bliss. Jackie’s husband lost his father to melanoma, and Jackie keeps the bait shop she works in, Bob’s Bait and Tackle in St. Augustine, stocked with strong sunscreen. I gave Ms. Bliss a Catch a Cure shirt, and a few surveys to hand out for the magazine I’m hoping to build.
I’m hoping to create a beautiful publication, showcasing a side of the sport that all of us appreciate but perhaps we find hard to articulate. I’m hoping I can find writers and photographers to wrap words and images around the beauty that draws us all back to the water. But most importantly, I’m hoping to build a magazine that you’re looking for, that you want to read, and you can help me do that here.
I spoke with Jackie for a moment, and we smiled and exchanged stories. I told her about my father, and she shared some stories about her father in law. She said the T-shirt was her favorite color, and with that I was back on the road.
We’d both lost something essential in our lives, a loved one. But now we shared this appreciation for the time that we do have, and a fight for a better future. A simple exchange of values. What was never traded, sacrificed or given up, is the one thing that I believe, above all else, defines us as a species: Hope.
It’s 1 a.m., so I suppose World Cancer Day is over. It was heartbreakingly beautiful to see the outpouring of support on all forms of social media in support of our battle against humanity’s deadliest foe.
I’m an optimistic guy, on most days I truly love my life and I’ve been blessed in so many ways. But I got to thinking about cancer, and what it means to me, what it has done to my family. And the temptation in today’s world of “share-everything social media,” is to remain constantly upbeat and optimistic in your presentation of self.
I’m reminded of a scene from one of my favorite films, Cinderella Man, when Paul Giamatti’s character, boxer Jim Braddock’s manager, opens the door to his New Jersey apartment to reveal that he and his wife have sold everything they own during the Depression. They’ve kept the apartment, “For appearance’s sake,” but it’s bare inside. I can’t help but wonder how many Facebook profiles that friends use to showcase recent meals, smiling faces and 24-hour happiness are hiding, to some degree, that emptiness underneath. And that might be fine, or even “strong,” had I not chosen a profession that demands, above all else, honesty.
I’ll shut the door on my apartment tomorrow, but on today of all days, it seemed a sin to keep it closed.
I’ve tried having a conversation with my Mom in which my father doesn’t come up, but it’s impossible. On the good days we laugh about how much we loved him. On the bad ones we don’t. Our house in Upstate New York always seemed big to the kid inside me that moved there from my grandmother’s basement at four, but it never felt as enormously empty as it has since he left.
Because in truth it’s not what cancer takes that makes the disease so awful. Sure, those last months spent with Hospice care, with the drugs making communication harder, with the nightly phone calls that you think might be the last… sure… they’re painful. And if I ever wish he were here, I think of those days and nights, and I’m glad he’s not… not like that.
But it’s the emptiness that it leaves behind that is the absolute worst. I know that I am not alone in all those moments when I’ve almost gone to dial his number, just wondering if he’d answer, somewhere. I know that there are millions like me, staring at their phones, wondering where that number goes, now.
It leaves so much behind: His shoes, suits, favorite books or old files. It leaves the hollow inside of everything that’s not him.
My father was the type of guy who never got so much as a common cold. I imagine he got in the habit of waking at dawn in the Army, where he served his country in Arizona and Alaska, and it never left him. Even at 77, he woke at 5 a.m. and was to work by 6. ‘Retire,’ was a word you used when going to bed for the night, not when discussing life and/or work options.
“He would have lived to be 100,” my mother always says. “Yeah.”
Saying that cancer “just takes a loved one,” is like saying that a wrecking ball only takes out the window it first collided with after the building that held that window crumbles.
I didn’t take great care of myself when my father was sick, which is no one’s fault but my own. I’ve rebuilt my life, because it is what he’d want, but it took a while.
If there’s a 27-year-old man that could have flown home to say goodbye, waded through a living room of Hospice nurses to hold a hand connected to an unresponsive father, and then continued with graduate school for a week, flown back to give the eulogy the next and then kept moving forward without missing a beat, I wasn’t that guy then.
I hope I am becoming a man capable of not only enduring that kind of pain, but using it for good. And the people at Outdoor Sportsman Group, B.A.S.S., and so many sponsors have helped and are helping me turn hurt into hope. I hope I am becoming that man in his memory.
I guess I wrote this because I wanted someone to know that if cancer comes into your life, steals a parent, a loved one, a friend… that you can get back up and be better for having known them, for having shared the part of your life with them that you did. I wanted that person to know that they’re still with you.
And as I sat awake wondering whether or not to write something so personal, I couldn’t help but think about what the purpose, the point of “writing,” as an art must be, at its core. And certainly we all have our own definition of that purpose, but I know that the writing that has most moved me, changed my life for the better, and inspired me, has in some way articulated an expression of one single sentiment: “You’re not alone.”
So if you’re feeling this way, or have felt this way, about a loved one cancer has taken from you, know that you’re not alone.
I was spending some time in my native upstate New York this past week, and my mother came across a collection of photos that my father’s mother, Agnes McCabe, rest her soul, gave to my Mom when my father and her were married.
In this one you can see my Dad, who served his country in U.S. Army Intelligence Agency from 1954-1957, standing next to the hide of a killed polar bear in Alaska, where he and the remainder of his unit were, or so I was told, on the lookout for any type of incoming attack from the then Soviet Union.
He rarely talked about the Army, but I do remember small details. He said that at times, migrating birds appeared to be something like aircraft on the radar, and we were terrifyingly close to starting a war that I can’t even imagine. When asked about the Army, and why he enlisted, he only ever said: “It had something to do with a girl.”
But had he not enlisted in the Army, having come from a poverty-stricken family, he almost certainly would not have been able to afford law school. Had he not become a successful lawyer, I don’t know that I’d be here, writing this blog.
When I look at events in this fashion, it helps me understand them and it helps me see a greater purpose behind even the smallest details.
My father, at 77, was almost the exact age of life expectancy when he passed. But he didn’t die from a heart attack or a car accident (although Lord knows, the way he drove, that certainly could have happened several times).
He passed from skin cancer, a cancer that has killed more people in recent decades than all other cancers combined, and a cancer particularly dangerous for outdoorsmen, and fishermen especially, because sun reflects off the water and makes us even more vulnerable to harmful UV rays.
Now some would dismiss his being diagnosed with this disease, and having a son who spent the majority of his life fishing as often as he possibly could, as a coincidence.
I see more, and perhaps it’s because I choose to see more. I have faith that there is more than might be apparent to us on the surface of things.
And that faith, even when this project has seemed daunting, difficult, unlikely or ill-advised, keeps me moving forward every day.
My favorite book is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. There’s beautiful language, it’s concise and moving and it’s important from a literary standpoint, but that’s not why I love it.
In the book, the fictional character Jake Barnes, because of injuries sustained in war, cannot be in a physical relationship with a woman, despite being in love with one.
When I first read the book, in my freshman year of undergraduate school at Syracuse University, I was immediately taken aback by what type of modesty and openness would propel a man to write something that many men would spend a lifetime trying to avoid the mere suggestion of. There are many causes for insecurity among men, and we all deal with them in different ways, but few seem as harsh as the one described by Barnes. What I loved most about the book was the honesty, even if it were fiction. It seems that some of the most honest writing is.
I think that to admire a quality without trying to emulate it constitutes some type of cowardice or hypocricy, so here goes.
I was on the train into Boston yesterday, working toward a Directed Study that would function in the capacity of a repeated Catch a Cure project, in Texas this time, and I was trying to post something on Facebook in commemoration of my father’s passing on that day, two years prior.
I just started crying. There have been plenty of times, his birthday, Father’s Day, talking to my mother, when I’ve swallowed those tears but the well where I put them must be full. I just miss him, I guess. Emotion isn’t typically terribly complicated.
When I was 24-years old I slept in the back of my Jeep Wrangler at the time for 200 nights, to fish my way across the country. I lost 42 pounds. Some nights, toward the end of that trip, were brutally cold, and I mean like 20-below, Ketchum-Idaho cold. I’d shiver myself awake in the night to blast the heat and fall back asleep. Since I was about 18 I’ve been covering myself in tattoos that I hope act as some means of telling my story even if I’m too quiet to. Some were smaller and took less than an hour, but others took three-plus hours and the needle lingered on the skin that barely covers the bone. When my father passed, I flew home from Boston, stood in front of a crowded church, and did my best to eulogize the man I loved. I say all of this to suggest that tears aren’t an easy thing to extract from me, by any means. I could count the times I’ve cried in the past decade on one hand, with fingers to spare.
And I was very hesitant to write this, but two notions gave me some solace. First, I am fairly certain that only a few human beings actually lay eyes on these words, and most of them know me well enough to know these things about me anyway. Secondly, I thought: perhaps, and more than likely, there are others out there feeling this too, going through what I’m going through, and what purpose does it serve for us all to smile and hide our pain so that we might, on the face of the matter, all seem to be utterly alone in how we feel?
Two years ago yesterday I was on a plane back to Boston, having visited my father for the last time, when my mother called to tell me he’d passed, and yesterday at that same time I was on a train into the city.
It’s pure coincidence that I was aboard public transport both days, but I find the circumstance strangely fitting.
On a train, or a plane for that matter, you both are, and are not, moving. You might be said to be sitting still while speeding over land at dozens, or hundreds of miles per hour.
And losing a parent, as many of you might know, feels oddly similar. I know it has been two years since I’ve held my father’s hand, heard him speak or tried to make him laugh. I know that time has moved, and me with it. But, like on a train, it does not feel as though I’ve moved away from the son who would call every night to exchange casual pleasantries and assurances that I am okay, along with questions about his well-being.
I remember the first thing I did when I’d heard that he’d passed: I tried to call his cell phone. He was a nervous guy, and because he was constantly afraid of losing potential business as a criminal defense attorney, he’d answer his phone no matter the time of day or night, without fail. It just rang. And rang. I was 27.
I’ve undertaken a battle against melanoma, the cancer that took his life, and absolutely everyone who has shared my content, purchased a T-shirt, donated a product or given a dollar has meant more to me than I can express. It feels like I am fighting back against the evil that did so much harm to my family’s life. It is not happiness, but it is some solace.
So when I thought about sharing this, I heard the voices of those who might potentially respond, and I’ve heard them aloud. “Nobody wants to read about cancer.” “Death is depressing, move forward, find happiness…” And I’m trying. Friends here at Emerson in Boston, friends from back home in New York, and so many anglers in Florida have made that so much easier for me than it might have been otherwise.
But I thought that perhaps out there there might be one other person, going through something similar, something equally painful, if not more so.
And I’ve read and debated and listened a great deal about the purpose of writing, or any art, but only one thing has ever made sense to me in a way I can’t shake. I believe that whatever we are saying, in words, images or with paint or drawings or photographs… should be some variation of one simple idea:
I could tell you, and I have, about the damage cancer, and melanoma, has wrought in my own life. I lost my hero and best friend, my father, I lost my health, which in truth was my own fault… but show me someone who deals with the loss of a parent at 27 and moves forward healthfully and I’ll show you a liar.
But I choose not to focus on or look at these things. Cancer has brought much more hope into my life that one might imagine. On the road with Catch a Cure, I saw the absolute best in people: Human beings willing to give of their time and energy to fight for the cause.
Few things in my life have felt better than donating the money I was able to raise to the Melanoma Research Foundation. I found Rick Roth, a man who embodies the spirit of selfless dedication better than most. The people at Hanes donated the T-shirts to be sold for the cause.
People who I have never met and barely talked to have shared my posts through social media to help spread the word.
It’s a funny thing, that when you start to move a stone away from the darkness, so that there might be light… you don’t need all the strength it would take to move that stone alone. If you start to push, so many others come to your aid. It is easy for many of us, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone… to look at that enormous boulder, to see a problem as seemingly insurmountable at cancer, and to let it lie.
But if just approach it with faith, both in ourselves and in those around us, “mighty forces come to our aid.”
Family is a thing that, the older you grow, the more you appreciate it. When you’re young, the gang’s all there and there’s nothing to soak in or be grateful for. If anything, you’re miffed about having to wait for the bathroom or share the last slice of cake. But as years tick by you find that these people, who wouldn’t have any contact with you were it not for blood relation, are the heart and soul of your future.
So my first stop in Florida was to see my cousin, Chris Critelli. Chris, a few years younger than me, has been an avid outdoorsman his entire life. He has even gone as far as becoming a certified diver (now in training here in Jacksonville) so that he can spend even more time amongst fish than most of us anglers do.
Videos and pictures he has from dives all around the Southeast are incredible. Just seeing the sharks he comes into contact with up close on the screen is amazing. I’ll see if I can send along some videos to you guys going forward.
Without a boat, it was tough to dream up a scheme that’d find us bass fast up here, but it was good to have a place to land. I’ll be moving on from here, but that have that spot to land, that spot that never moves no matter where it travels, is a comforting feeling for anyone.
We talked about fish and Florida late into the night, with the occasional reference to some crazy incident in the past. But whenever you jump, it’s best to first make sure you have solid ground to land on, and I’m grateful I did.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.