My father-in-law Jim (known to family and many friends as “Cowpa”) was a big part of our lives. He was a kind, selfless man who always put the interests of others ahead of his own. He also had a keen sense of humor, and I learned a lot from him. No lesson is more lasting than the one he taught me the last time we fished together.
Jim was losing his battle with cancer. Although we didn’t discuss it openly, we all knew our time with him was limited. There would be no miracles. We needed to focus on making his remaining days as enjoyable and comfortable as possible.
So I was torn when Jim said to me one day: “I want you to take me fishing one last time. Next week when my friend Gerry is in town. He loves fishing about as much as you.” Jim tired easily and I was worried that he would push himself too far. That was his nature. He would ignore his own discomfort to ensure that Gerry and I got our fill of fishing.
“Okay Jim, but you have to promise to let us know as soon as you start feeling tired. I don’t care if that’s ten minutes into the trip.”
“Deal,” he said.
We got on the water around 11 in the morning. It was, thankfully, a cool day for mid-June. As we worked our favorite spots, I kept a close eye on Jim.
Thirty Minutes Out
“How are you doing Jim?”
“Good. I’d be better if you could find some fish.”
One Hour Out
I had found some fish, and things were picking up a little.
“Jim”? I interrupted him unhooking a nice smallmouth bass.
“Doing fine. Clearly out-fishing you.”
He was, but in fairness, I was only giving it a half-hearted effort. I made maybe one cast for every five of his.
Two Hours Out
The fishing was not spectacular, but steady. Jim and Gerry were sharing a sandwich. I was going to ask Jim how he felt, but there was no need. I could see no signs that he was tiring or that the pain, ever present, was bothering him.
Three Hours Out
“Doing fine, Mark. In fact, I feel better than I have in months.”
He DID look better.
Remarkably, he seemed to be drawing strength from the menagerie of fish we were catching, and from trading stories with Gerry about their days working together at the gas company. I stopped fishing altogether and just enjoyed their conversation. There was no fear in Jim’s voice; no regret. Just genuine happiness at being able to relive old times with an old friend.
Four Hours Out
“Mark, my arms are getting tired from hauling all of these fish into the boat. It might be time to start heading in.”
“Ok. You guys can get one more cast in while I get the boat ready.”
My back was turned to him as I stowed tackle, but I heard him say: “Wow. That’s a good way to finish.”
I turned to see him holding a freakishly large bluegill. “Jim, that is a monster. We should weigh it just for fun.”
There was no protest from the fish as I weighed it on the digital scale. Two pounds, six ounces. I pulled out my Connecticut Anglers’ Guide and declared: “I think you just caught the state record bluegill. Let me weigh it again.”
I turned the scale off to clear it, then double-checked the reading with nothing on it. It read 0-0. I weighed the fish again. Again, no protest from the fish. And again the scale read 2-6.
“Your fish beats the previous state record by two ounces. If you want to claim the record, we need to figure out how to properly document it. It might take some time.”
Jim looked tired now, but he said: “Let’s do it.”
I called my friend Dave, who, after checking with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, reported that we needed to get the fish weighed on a certified scale. Dave advised: “That’s the most important thing. Get it weighed right away and get a receipt. You can fill out the paperwork later. There’s a Big Y by your house. Take it there.”
On the forty-five minute drive to the Big Y, I had a nagging feeling something was wrong. The fish was big, but it didn’t look 2-6 big. “Stop worrying,” I told myself, “you weighed it twice.”
I said to Jim: “I can’t believe you caught a state record.” He was struggling a little now: tired, hurting and trying not to show it.
I almost blurted out what was going through my mind: “Are you kidding, Jim? You caught that fish on the last cast of your life, knowing it was your last cast.” Jim was studying me closely. To this day, I think he was testing whether he really had taught me anything.
“It’s just really cool,” I said.
At the Big Y, Gerry and I put the bluegill in a plastic bag to carry it to the deli counter. Having ridden to the store in my boat’s livewell, the fish was full of vigor. This time he protested. He began flopping violently around inside the bag.
“I’ll wait in the truck,” Jim said. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.
“This will be quick. We’ll be right back.”
We went straight to the deli. Ignoring the customers who were in line, I set the bag on the counter. “Can you help us ma’am”?
She looked first at the flopping bag and then at me. Her eyes were filled with disbelief and an utter lack of humor. Wondering if they had a panic button in the deli area, I figured I had maybe three seconds to explain myself.
“We think we caught a state record fish and need it weighed on a certified scale. Can you weigh it for us and print a receipt”?
If there hadn’t been customers waiting, she might have hit the button. Instead, she said, with less disbelief, but still no humor: “Okay, but I’m not touching the fish. I’ll need to adjust the scale to account for the weight of the bag.” She made her adjustment and placed the bag on the scale.
Then FLOP, and the fish settled.
She got a reading and handed me the bag and a receipt. My heart sank. The receipt read 1.63 pounds. I said to Gerry: “This fish is nowhere near the record. But how? I weighed it twice.”
“Maybe there was something wrong with their scale or the way she adjusted for the bag. She obviously wasn’t thrilled about weighing the fish, so maybe she made a mistake. Is there another grocery store nearby? Let’s get a second opinion.”
Back at the truck, Jim had dozed off, but woke briefly when Gerry and I got in. “How are we doing,” he asked.
“Good, but we want to get the fish weighed at another store, just to confirm this one was right. You up for it”?
“Sure,” he said as he dozed off again.
Thirty minutes later we were leaving the second store with our second opinion: 1.61 pounds. Gerry and I walked back to the truck in silence.
Jim was awake with the window down. He looked spent. All of the energy I saw on the boat was gone. But his voice was steady and strong. “You guys weighed that fish enough? Let’s go home. I could use a cold beer.”
I looked at Gerry and he nodded. “Jim, I don’t know what was wrong with my scale, but this fish isn’t a state record. In fact, it’s not close. I’m so sorry. Not just because it isn’t a record, but for all of the running around we put you through.”
“Why would you be sorry? You know what they say: ‘Records are made to be broken’. And as far as I’m concerned, I held the record for the last two hours.”
Then, he looked me right in the eye and drove the lesson home: “Thanks, Mark.”
When Jim passed away a few weeks later, I took a moment to say silently to myself: “Thank you, Jim.”