Dealing with grief around Father’s Day

This is the bewitching hour for anglers: disorienting but delicious. At daybreak, time is suspended and most of the world still slumbers. Only the soft, distant cooing of a mourning dove breaks the silence. Its somber song belies the proverb: True, the early bird gets the worm, but also the revelation.

The rod I’m holding was handcrafted by my father, and for me, it is sacred: honey-hued split Tonkin cane imported from southern China, adorned with Coca-Cola-colored wraps, brushed silver hardware, and a smooth cork grip. It’s a fine casting tool, one I’d match against any of the $4,000 bamboo fly rods in the latest Orvis catalog in my study. I marvel at my father’s craftsmanship; a talent I didn’t inherit, as evidenced by an appalling litany of lopsided birdhouses and quasi-homicidal treehouses.

Not Dad, a man of many self-taught talents and quiet competence. He baked bread, brewed beer, and raised tropical orchids, patiently cross-pollinating them by hand with an artist’s paintbrush in a climate-controlled greenhouse he’d designed and built himself. At the time of his death, just a few years into retirement, he was constructing a high-performance trimaran sailboat. It loomed large in our backyard, and the local paper did a story that prompted a neighbor to dub my father “Noah” — a nickname that stuck.

In a little more than an hour, there will be the roar of outboard motors on this reservoir, the drone of landscapers’ leaf blowers, and the indignant squawking of Canada geese as the lake and its shoreline community rouse themselves. For now, though, the place is mine alone. It is like a gift from the moon: my private Sea of Tranquility, languid and liquid and altogether beguiling.

In the shallows, there are sunfish and gaily colored perch; in the deeper coves, pickerel and largemouth bass. The bass are ostensibly my quarry this morning, but in truth, I’m not after fish. I am angling to connect to the men in my life who’ve left me: my father, gone two dozen years, and my brother, who’s been in his grave for less than two. Ghosts now, both still haunt my waking hours, though for mystifying reasons they rarely inhabit my dreams. Since my brother’s passing has made me an insomniac, that scarcely matters.

Fishing here in Foxborough, my hometown, is my way of working myself back to them; of escaping the limbo of incomplete bereavement to retrace their steps and reclaim a life that once pulsed with their own.

For in the permanence of their absence, I’ve been living what sometimes feels like a stranger’s life. It is an existence, a life on hold, one steeped in a profound sorrow concealed by a cheery veneer. You likely wouldn’t notice it on most days even if you knew me well, but deep within, there’s an undeniable numbness. Only in rare and fleeting instances, when grief like a rogue cannonball penetrates the fortress of my brokenness and takes my breath away, is the spell momentarily broken.

One of the handcrafted bamboo fly rods made by the author’s father.William J. Kole

In the late 1970s, Dad disappeared into his workshop, reemerged with half a dozen of these elegant bamboo rods, and handed one to me. It was a time when girls and beer and cars and college and a young man’s determination to make his own way in the world had begun to distance me from him. A father and grandfather myself now, I see the wisdom behind the gift of that rod, if only because of the fatherly invitations that followed.

Come fish with me tomorrow, he’d beckon, and I almost always did. How could I not? Why would I not? He knew exactly what he was doing when he presented me with the rod in its sleek aluminum tube: He was breaking through my adolescent arrogance and aloofness to keep our relationship alive.

It’s the same premeditated logic he applied by patiently teaching me, at the easily distracted age of 10, not only how to properly cast and present a fly but how to tie one, starting with a tiny bare hook and using a vise and a spool of thread to daintily dress it with fur and feathers.

That bit of craft I did acquire. And to this day, I tie my own flies, not so much because it saves me money (it does), or because it’s extra satisfying to deceive a trout or a bass with a fly of my own creation (it is). When I can pull it off, it always feels like the ultimate act of cunning — never mind that a trout’s brain is the size of a pea. That truth seldom diminishes my self-congratulation, although it probably ought to.

Mostly, though, I tie my own flies as a simple act of homage: a loving gesture of tribute by a son to his father. I think he knew it would be like this; that long after his passing would separate us, I’d keep alive at least a few of the essential lessons he taught me as a boy.

As I run my fingers over the rod’s smooth varnish, the irony isn’t lost on me: This inanimate object — unquestionably the first thing I’d grab if my house were on fire — hums with possibility like a dowser’s branch or one of Harry Potter’s wands. It is my most prized possession and the tie that binds me more than any other to my dad.

In my sock drawer lies something that runs a close second: a faded letter he pecked out on an ancient Smith Corona electric typewriter when he knew he was dying. It is his postscript on that letter, less a command than an entreaty, that’s always especially haunted me: “P.S. Life is sweet . . . don’t mourn.”

The author’s late father, Bill Kole, sailing Buzzards Bay in the 1990s.Alfred Duelfer

Two decades later, more than a third of my own life, I, ever the obedient firstborn son, have failed him in that.

In my travels around Africa while on assignment as a foreign correspondent, I encountered moirologists — professional mourners you’ll find wailing at funerals. I’d make a poor one: They’re paid to sob on demand, and I, recurrent lump in the throat notwithstanding, struggle to produce a single tear. It’s something I can’t make any sense of.

In my extended family, I’m the one who delivers the eulogies, and I do it well, using the power of language to make my fellow mourners at turns chuckle, weep, and wonder. A friend once dubbed me The Death Whisperer, so it’s doubly ironic that I’m so hapless in my own grief.

One pitiful Valentine’s Day a few years ago, when my wife and I had to have our elderly golden retriever put down, I bawled like a baby and was inconsolable for days. I know this can’t be true, but what the hell: Did I love my dog more than my dad?

A letter to the author, written by his late father after he learned he was dying. It says:

“I am now and will be forever Your loving father.”

And then on another line it says:

“P.S. Life is sweet . . . don’t mourn.”

Then it is signed in handwritting, “Dad.”From William J. Kole

I‘ve gradually come to suspect I suffer from something psychologists term prolonged or complicated grief. It’s an inability to work through the five classic stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The Mayo Clinic describes my plight, and that of millions of other Americans, as involving an unshakeable grief that “continues to be intense, persistent, and debilitating beyond 12 months.”

The symptoms are numerous, but a few that have dogged me since my father’s remains were cremated and the body of my brother, two years my junior, was lowered into a freshly dug grave include these: excessive drinking; sleeplessness; detachment; bitterness; resentment at the choices they made in life that hastened their premature deaths; and then guilt over feeling that resentment.

Misery loves company, and with the coronavirus pandemic taking more than a million American lives, I have had plenty of that. Experts say complicated grief affects up to 10 percent of us who’ve lost someone. And a lot of us have lost someone.

During the darkest hours of the public health emergency, there was a minor resurgence of a time-honored and evocative Japanese coping technique: the wind phone. Mourners stepped into old-fashioned telephone booths placed near the sea or in ornamental gardens, dialed their dear ones’ numbers on disconnected rotary phones, and poured out their hearts — their words carried aloft upon the breeze to those they’d lost.

My loved ones, though, weren’t tragically taken by COVID-19. Their deaths were at least partially self-inflicted through decades of excessive smoking and drinking. If that distinction should matter in some tiny, twisted way, it doesn’t to me. In my abject inability to grieve these losses in a healthy manner, I’ve inadvertently hit the pause button on my own otherwise vibrant and full life. They’d hate that, which makes it all the more maddening.

In the meantime, in this purgatory of grief in which I find myself, the lake has become my wind phone.

I imagine the water’s surface as some sort of metaphysical membrane ­ — a portal separating my world from theirs. Whether that’s a bridgeable gap is something I’m still working out, but the possibility seems highly dubious at best. I’m on one side, they’re on the other, and the likelihood of any meeting is purely theoretical. It has, however, delivered this epiphany: The dead don’t punish the living.

Dying, journalist Howell Raines wrote in a memoir, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, is not an intrusion; it’s merely a completion of the natural cycle of a life. As for the heartache? Author Jamie Anderson frames that perfectly: “Grief is just love with no place to go.”

Even so, I’m still stuck. In early spring, when we discovered the rose bushes we’d planted on our property as living tributes to my father and my brother didn’t survive the winter, I felt as though they’d died all over again. It’s a nonsensical thought, but then I’m coming to realize there’s nothing logical about this kind of bereavement.

Left: The author’s brother, Brian Kole, holds a trophy bass in June 2018. Right: The author with an underwhelming catch hooked moments later.From William J. Kole

On Neponset Reservoir, I glance over my shoulder to see how much room I have for a backcast, warily eyeing the branches of the gnarled old oak behind me, and begin that rhythmic back and forth that marks the fly caster, feeding out line as the graceful arc before and behind me lengthens. With a practiced snap of my wrist, the rod loads and shoots my line out into the depths, unspooling precisely where I’ve willed it: into a narrow trough framed by two thick patches of lily pads. It’s a perfect place for a bass looking to ambush a frog or a minnow without venturing too far from the protection of the weed beds — a game fish’s safe room in the event a hungry osprey dares to mount the aquatic version of a home invasion.

Think like a fish, Dad encouraged the adolescent me — another childhood lesson that somehow stuck.

Most fly-fishers prefer rivers and streams, but I’ve always had a thing for the serenity of still waters. Moving water is mysterious and alluring — the philosopher Heraclitus famously said one never sets foot in the same river twice — but lakes and ponds are constants. They’re known quantities, something I find comforting in an age when we’re all buffeted by relentless change.

But from a purely angling perspective, still waters are not without their challenges. Trout in rivers lie in wait in places where they can conserve energy — the bottom of a riffle; the slack behind a boulder; the undercut beneath a bank — and let food items drift down to them on the current like sushi on a conveyor belt. In lakes, by contrast, they’re constantly on the move for a meal. Few things are as exciting as seeing the approaching rings of a rising fish that’s cruising a contour line, or as unnerving as trying to anticipate where it’ll surface next and dropping my fly there in time to give it an enticing little twitch.

Neponset Reservoir is troutless, but a pleasant memory has lured me to this very spot. My brother, a highly competent spin caster, once took an enormous largemouth here using one of those jointed minnows that wiggle seductively when retrieved. They were his go-to lures, and he alternated between two color schemes: silver and black, which he’d dubbed Oakland Raiders, and gold and black, nicknamed Pittsburgh Steelers. The big bass fell to one of the Steelers, and Brian beamed as he lifted the 8-pound fish for the obligatory grip-and-grin shot.

Minutes later, retrieving a fly I’d let sink to the bottom in all the excitement, I had a vicious strike. I felt nearly certain I’d hooked that fish’s twin; I was so sure of it, I let out a whoop that echoed across the lake. It turned out to be a baby bass that would have gone ounces, not pounds, had we bothered to weigh it. We laughed so hard we spilled our beers and nearly capsized the rowboat. I dutifully posed, thumbs up, for a tongue-in-cheek victory photo.

That evening, at home, I combined the two images into a diptych and had it framed: Brian and his trophy on top; me and my fingerling below. He loved it.

Eighteen months ago, as a ventilator breathed for him, I brought that photo into the ICU, hoping it might bring a measure of comfort to us both. I can’t speak for Brian, who never fully regained consciousness, but I’ll always treasure that photo and the layers of memory it captures. I can’t look at it now without recalling the exchange between Norman Maclean and his preacher father in the 1992 film adaptation of A River Runs Through It. It’s the morning after the murder of Maclean’s brother, Paul, who had been dangerously up to his chin in gambling debts. Robert Redford narrates:

“And finally I said to him, ‘Maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman.’

‘You know more than that,’ my father said. ‘He was beautiful.’”

The line scarcely has time to straighten when everything goes taut, and in a moment that I’ll forever find electric, I’m tethered to a fish. The species scarcely matters. This is the nanosecond when both predator and prey become aware of one another, and it’s the ultimate “oh crap” moment for both of us.

Never mind that as a diehard catch-and-release fisherman, I’m a poor excuse for a predator, or that the pulsing, panicking, zigzagging form in the depths — the creature I’m already imagining as a 10-pound trophy bass — is probably a sunfish masquerading as a largemouth by planing hard sideways against the water as I reel in, giving itself the illusion of a heft it doesn’t possess.

Sunfish proliferate here, and on any given day, they’ll dominate my catch. While being unhooked, they have an amusing tendency to pee wildly in an arc. It’s a habit that inspired Brian, who had only a high school education yet a vast vocabulary borne of a penchant for reading newspapers, to give them a funny faux Latin name: Sunfishis pissonus.

I laugh out loud at the memory, flushing a red-winged blackbird from the reeds at the water’s edge. Then that damnable lump returns to my throat.

The fish doesn’t know it, can’t know it, but this encounter isn’t about death, it’s about life. My sole desire is inhabiting, however briefly, a realm I can barely discern, let alone understand. And yet there’s something familiar, even vaguely primordial, about the experience. All of us, the living and the dead, began our days in liquid form; and like Norman Maclean, I, too, am haunted by waters.

I will release this fish. Both of us will survive to fight another day. I could never kill anything that swims in the life-giving waters I shared with my brother and my dad.

William J. Kole, recently retired after three decades as a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, lives in Rhode Island. His first book, The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging, will be released October 3 by Diversion Books. Send comments to

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