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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Last Memory
In my father’s truck was this: an extra pipe, orange bailing twine, a bottle of Gink (“World’s Best Dry Fly Dressing”), a black film canister full of fishing flies (bought for a buck each from his barber), Dr. Grabow pipe filters, an “Emeritus” parking permit for the university, a Stetson cowboy hat size 59-7 3/8, a bottle of mouthwash, and dust and bits of hay and a few ear tags for the cattle.
This was twelve years ago and it is exactly the last memory of him I have before the Alzheimer’s. The last moment I had with the Regular Him, the man I’d grown to know both as a child and as an adult. The last moment I can conjure up that is pure and unadulterated by disease, when his smile was a simple smile and his words were confident and secure.
A simple moment: I was sitting in his truck, snooping around while I zipped on my raincoat, watching him fish in the Yampa River in northern Colorado. I was, in fact, wanting to notice the details of his life, which is why I checked the hat size and laughed at the mouthwash, because it was an old family joke—my mother hated how he tried to cover up the smell of tobacco, because then he smelled like pipesmoke covered in mint, she said.
He’d come up to meet me—a father-daughter day—in Steamboat Springs. I’d escaped for the weekend to think and to relax—because my own life was chock-full: two toddlers, a writing career, dog and chickens and gardens. I had a life that looked like the inside of his truck, full of a mishmash of messy and wonderful details.
So maybe I should forgive myself. For not having more solid memories of him before the disease became apparent. Somewhere in the next year or two, there should have been more moments like this one. Why aren’t there? It’s hard to know or remember exactly when the shift occurred, when I started noticing strange slips of memory, but there was a bit of time in there where we must have had a great conversation or happy moment. And yet. I have no memory before the slip of his.
Since I can’t recall or conjure anything into being between this fishing trip and his diagnosis, I often close my eyes and focus on what I do have: I’d been staying in the old hunting cabin he built the same year I was born. He and his brothers did most of the work, and none of them were carpenters, and so it was crooked and a bit falling apart. It was my favorite place to go, though, because it was familiar and alive and because my toddler handprint was put into the cement pad at the corner. He’d come to visit me for the day and asked I wanted to go fishing. No, I told him, I didn’t want to go that year – I didn’t even have a license – but that I’d like to go and watch.
Which is what I did that day. My father looked so happy, so fluid. He’d cast upstream, let the fly sink a little as it drifted down, and at a particular moment known only to him, he would jerk and reel the fly back in. I left the truck and sat in the mottled pebbles on the beach, sifted the small rocks through my hands. My father was smoking his pipe, an old corncob thing, out of fashion but his favorite, and he always smoked Middleton’s Cherry Blend tobacco, a red and white package I have known from earliest memory. He was wearing a bright turquoise Western shirt and Wranglers and had traded out his cowboy boots to brown hip waders. His hair was all white, as were the unshaved whiskers poking from his tough skin, and he was smiling even with the pipe in his mouth. His line periodically wisped above me close enough that I ducked.
“Had one a while ago,” he said at one point. “Hook didn’t set.” Then he mumbled to himself: the low levels of water, this particular fishing hole wasn’t the same, the drought. He had a snag. He waded out into the water, following the line, came back, successful, cast again.
Suddenly, he had a fish on the line. He bent backwards and sideways to get the hook set, reeled it in, crouched to take it off. A puff of pipe smoke filled the air, and then the fish, a rainbow, flapping its tail furiously, was slipped back into the water. The details of its mottled side flashed before it disappeared. “Oh my,” my father said, looking over at me. “That was a pretty one.”
Laura Pritchett is the author of the novels Stars Go Blue (Counterpoint Press, June 2014), Sky Bridge (winner of the WILLA Fiction Award), and Hell’s Bottom, Colorado (winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and the PEN USA Award). She is also the author of Great Colorado Bear Stories (nonfiction) and editor of three anthologies: Pulse of the River, Home Land, and Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers. She teaches fiction, nonfiction, and environmental writing at various workshops around the country and is a member of the faculty at Pacific University’s low residency MFA program.