This Is Us
The Father’s Day Fishing Trip I’ll Never Forget
I took my father fly-fishing for the first time when he was nearly 80. It turned out to be the only time.
Eleven years ago on Father’s Day, a month shy of his 80th birthday, I took my father fly-fishing for the first time.
When I was a kid, my father and I would play catch in the backyard with a football or baseball and shoot baskets or play “horse” on a hoop mounted on our garage, often until well after dark and sometimes, in the dead of winter, until our hands were so raw you could still feel the sting in your fingertips the next morning. As I got older, we ran, skied, and golfed together.
As it is for many fathers and sons, playing sports wasn’t just something fun for us to do. It was a common language and a way to bond, a portal for our connection.
As it is for many fathers and sons, playing sports wasn’t just something fun for us to do. It was a common language.
Golf was a particular passion for my father. He approached the game not with a country club attitude, but in a populist, Arnold Palmer kind of way. (He and Palmer were born in the same year, 1929, and my father idolized him.) My father was a self-taught player who hadn’t taken up the sport until his mid-thirties and then studied and practiced his way to becoming a single-digit handicapper.
He started teaching me the game when I was eight or nine. He patiently tolerated my childhood fits of rage at the driving range — when I would fail to keep my left arm straight or hit down and through the ball or execute whatever other invariably helpful instruction he was offering — and suffered through years of me hacking my way around fairways as a beginner. I honest-to-god shot a 149 once, and somehow it didn’t bother him.
Eventually, I learned how to make my way around a course in a less humiliating fashion, and our rounds became a regular source of joy. In high school and college, when I was home for the summer, we would play almost every weekend, sometimes on both Saturday and Sunday, occasionally two rounds in a day.
It wasn’t just the game I found compelling—it was everything the game involved. My father and I putting on our spikes together in the locker room and getting coffee in Styrofoam cups at the screen-door snack shop. The occasional 300-yard drive, crisply struck nine-iron, or long, snaking putt that found the hole. The high-fives and fist bumps, the groans and the swearing. Reliving shots at the 19th hole.
As a child, even as a teenager, even in my twenties, I had a sense of being allowed into a secret world, my father’s world. He never made a thing of it; he just included me. The message this sent was that he enjoyed having me around. Is there a more valuable gift a parent can give a child?
After college, I moved around the country for various jobs, eventually settling in New York City, but my father and I still played golf when we could. On one memorable round I played with him and two of his friends, I somehow managed to shoot a 79, the first and only time I ever broke 80. I’m not sure who was happier, him or me. Actually, I am sure. It was him.
My wife, Didi, and I got married in 1997 and had our first child, Abby, in April 2003. That fall, I went to see my orthopedist about a problem I was having with my hip. The previous winter, I had slipped on ice and felt a dull ache ever since. I imagined it was a pulled muscle or maybe a small cartilage tear, but the pain hadn’t gone away after almost a year. My doctor ordered an MRI.
It turned out I had a rare, incurable blood cancer that had presented as a lesion on my hip. I was an otherwise healthy 38-year-old with no family history of cancer or other risk factors, but there it was.
Between the time I was diagnosed and the period just before Father’s Day 2009, I had been treated for my illness and gone in and out of remission a number of times. I was forced to give up any sport that put undue pressure on my hip, which was unusually susceptible to fractures. No more running or skiing or basketball. No more golf.
In my early thirties, I took up fly-fishing and became obsessed. I love everything about it — the gin-clear rivers, the sight of a fish rising from the depths to take a fly, the all-in focus the pursuit requires and the uncanny Zen calm that can bring. I began fishing as often as I could, everywhere from the Catskills in New York to the famous trout streams of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
Fishing was something I could still do, but I had never done it with my father. When I realized his 80th birthday was coming up, I decided to invite him to join me on the river for a day. Although he was in excellent health, 80 is 80. And although I was in remission, cancer is cancer. Father’s Day seemed like an obvious choice.
When presented with an opportunity to try something new, my father often responded with something like, “That sounds great. Let me think about it.” It’s not that he wasn’t open to new experiences. He just liked to deliberate on things a bit before he decided whether to commit.
When I asked him if he’d like to go fishing with me, he paused for a moment.
Then he said, “Yes.”
Eugene Ben Gluck was born at Crotona Park Hospital in the Bronx on July 20, 1929. His parents were Russian Jews who had come to the United States to escape the pogroms in Ukraine. They passed through Ellis Island, lived with family members in tenements on the Lower East Side, worked in textile factories and other sweatshops, and eventually saved enough money to open a series of neighborhood grocery stores, in which my father worked after school and on weekends.
After graduating from Brooklyn Technical School, my father served in the Army during the Korean War and was stationed on the island of Okinawa. He never saw combat action. He liked to say that the toughest thing he fought were the mosquitoes.
When he returned home, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the City College of New York and got a job as a manager at the flagship Bloomingdale’s, on 59th Street.
That’s where he met my mother, Betsy — she worked in what was then called “personnel” — and they married in 1957. After the birth of my oldest sister, my parents moved upstate, to my mother’s hometown of Amsterdam, New York, where my second sister, my brother, and I were born.
My father worked for 21 years at the Amsterdam Printing Company, a business founded by my mother’s father and his two brothers. But after a family dispute, my grandfather and my father took a buyout and left the firm.
My father’s expertise was in direct-mail marketing, and he teamed up with a partner to launch Wilderness Camping, a magazine aimed at the growing number of people interested in the environment and outdoor sports. It started out modestly. Advertisers who couldn’t pay their bills sometimes bartered merchandise, which explained the array of canoes and cross-country skis in our garage. Eventually the magazine was bought by the company Ziff Davis and folded into Backpacker. There is a story my father liked to tell of a last-minute boardroom bluff that jacked up the value of the deal. It may even be true.
Around that same time, my father was elected president of the Amsterdam Board of Education. His successful effort to fund and build a new high school for the town was one of his proudest achievements. Another: serving as a county coordinator for Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. He kept a signed thank-you letter from Kennedy above the desk in his study.
In 1980, when I was 14, my parents moved our family to suburban Boston, where my father had taken a job with a company called New England Business Services. When that didn’t work out, he started his own direct-marketing consulting firm, Roll-Out Marketing, which he ran until he retired in the early 2000s.
But nothing ever meant more to him than his family. In addition to their four children, he and my mother have nine grandchildren and, as of April, one great-grandchild. I know he’s not unique in the history of parents and grandparents in this respect, but there was never anything my father wouldn’t do for any of us.
Slipping into a pair of hip waders and wandering into a trout stream for the first time, 12 days before becoming an octogenarian, was apparently included.
On Father’s Day weekend in 2009, my parents rendezvoused with my family and me in Amherst, Massachusetts, a small college town in the western part of the state, where my mother-in-law lives. I knew of a nearby river, the Swift, well suited to first-time anglers.
My father and I headed straight out at 7:30 a.m. Because it is the law in Massachusetts, we stopped for coffee and bagels at a Dunkin’ Donuts, then drove to the river access point, where I had arranged for us to meet a guide.
A good fishing guide is invaluable. They know where the fish tend to lie, which flies are most effective on a given river at a given time, and so on. I also hired a guide so I didn’t have to teach my father how to fish. I felt it might make him uncomfortable. This way, I could outsource the instructional part of the day, then fish with my father after that.
We met our guide, Marla, in the parking lot, exchanged hellos, rigged our rods, slid into our waders, and set off.
We had narrowly averted violating the first rule of the Sentimental Father’s Day Father-Son Outing: Don’t kill the father.
The path from the lot to the river runs through a stand of pine trees that smells like Christmas and is covered with old pine needles. It is mostly smooth, but there are some roots. A few steps along the way, my father stumbled. His rod went flying, his sunglasses sailed off his head, and he lay on the ground in a pile. Luckily, he was fine. We had narrowly averted violating the first rule of the Sentimental Father’s Day Father-Son Outing: Don’t kill the father.
The Swift River has a pretty, tucked-away quality to it. Tree-lined banks hold cool, slightly emerald-tinted water. Although Massachusetts Route 9 is nearby, it can feel as if you are in a secluded forest. A sense of peacefulness abides.
Marla led my father to an open spot where she could teach him to cast, and I walked downstream 20 yards or so to find a patch of water to fish myself.
The fly cast is, in a sense, an upside-down golf swing. In both cases, you have to generate maximum acceleration of the equipment in question (the golf club or fly rod) at precisely the right moment (when a golfer strikes the ball or when an angler stops the rod on the fore cast to “shoot” the fly line forward) to achieve the intended result.
If it hadn’t been clear to me before that my father and I were engaged in some kind of strange and profound role reversal, it was definitely clear now.
Naturally, I was stealing looks upstream to check out how my father’s casting was going. When I saw he was getting the hang of it, I felt an unexpected sense of pride. I thought of a scene from A River Runs Through It, in which the preacher father stands on the bank of a Montana river and beams with satisfaction at the sight of his young sons fishing. If it hadn’t been clear to me before that my father and I were engaged in some kind of strange and profound role reversal, it was definitely clear now.
Maybe half an hour later, Marla signaled to me to join them. They were ready to fish. We took a few steps toward the far bank, spread out enough to each have our own runs, and had at it.
Before long, I heard “Set!”—the guide command that translates to “Lift your rod, dumbass! A fish just ate your fly.”
My father did as instructed, and sure enough, his line went tight. He had a fish on. While Marla talked him through the process of netting his catch, I walked over to see what he’d landed.
My father’s first-ever fish caught on a fly was a gorgeous 11-inch rainbow trout, its namesake pattern lit up in full living color by the New England summer sun.
As much as anything, my father seemed stunned. Did that really just happen? Can a fish honestly be that beautiful? Can catching one truly make a man this happy?
Over the next few hours, my father and I caught more rainbows and some equally pretty brook trout, each of us enjoying the other’s successes as much, if not more, than our own. We didn’t catch anything all that big or rack up impressive numbers, but that was fine. No one was keeping score.
By around 12:30, things were slowing down, and the time we’d booked with Marla was coming to an end.
She moved us to a new spot. At first, not much happened. But then I got a fish on the line, and a moment later, I heard “Set!”
My father and I were both hooked up at the same time, a relative rarity.
In his years of playing golf, my father had notched three holes in one. Although a double hookup isn’t anywhere near as unusual, you wouldn’t have known it from the smile on his face.
That afternoon, we had lunch back at my mother-in-law’s. My father normally drove whenever my parents traveled, but when I walked them to the car afterward, it was my mother who got behind the wheel.
She told me later he slept the whole way home.
I wish I could say that was the first of many happy father-son fishing outings, but things didn’t work out that way.
I was busy with my job and family. (In 2008, my wife and I had our second child, Oscar.) I experienced additional recurrences of my illness. When we saw my parents, the visits were about chatting and meals and playing with the grandchildren. We didn’t prioritize fishing.
The truth is I never really thought about asking my father to go out on the river again. I suppose I might have if we lived close enough to make a habit of it, but we didn’t. In any case, why risk tarnishing a crown jewel of a memory?
In the summer of 2018, my father was taking a walk when he found himself dizzy and out of breath. He called my mother, who took him to the hospital. After a series of tests and doctors’ appointments, he was diagnosed with a failing heart valve.
He had the valve replaced that fall, and while the surgery was nominally successful, he was never really the same. He tired easily. He sometimes struggled to conjure a memory or thought. His speech was occasionally slurred.
The following July, we threw a party for his 90th birthday. All four of his children and most of his grandchildren were there, plus spouses and significant others. My father’s brother was there, as was his sister, who flew in from Israel.
After dinner, everyone shared their favorite memory of “Pop.” The details varied, but the themes were the same. The man would show up for you. He loved to tell a good joke. He was uncommonly decent and kind.
And then my father spoke. First, he recounted his career. His point wasn’t to call attention to his accomplishments. It was to express wonder that the child of immigrants who came off the boat without money or formal education or knowing the language had somehow managed to successfully build a career and raise a family. He seemed awed by the idea, as if he had witnessed a miracle, as if it had happened to someone else.
He expressed his love for my mother and noted they had been married for 62 years. He looked at her and repeated the phrase: “Sixty-two years.”
He finished by saying that he’d had a good life, that he was grateful for it, and that he owed it to all of us.
There were a lot of soggy “Happy 90th!” napkins.
The end of my father’s life was no less awful for following a familiar arc. He began having dizzy spells, then he started falling and winding up in the emergency room. He was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. There were procedures and medications and medications to treat complications from the procedures.
Because his decline took place over several months, many of his family and friends got to spend time with him before he died.
The last time I visited him was in October 2019, at a hospice facility near his home in Massachusetts.
He was frail, gaunt, and weak. His skin was pale and paper thin. He had stopped eating and was experiencing hallucinations from the morphine he was being given to manage his pain. At one point, he told me to look out the window — he saw a zeppelin flying by.
We talked about the news of the day and watched the New England Patriots play on TV. (After years of living in Massachusetts, my father had converted from a New York Giants fan to a Patriots fan. I said he was a wonderful man. I did not say he was perfect.) He asked about my family and job. Then he asked if I had any fishing trips planned.
He often asked me that. Over the years, we had established a routine where I would text him pictures of fish I had caught and later tell him the story behind them. At various points, I had sent him shots of bonefish I had landed in the Bahamas, redfish in Texas, striped bass off Montauk, rainbow trout in Montana, brook trout in the Great Smoky Mountains. My mother once told me he liked to show the pictures to his friends.
I told him I was planning to go to Idaho soon to fish with a friend. He seemed to take in that information, but then his mind appeared to wander. I was expecting another zeppelin.
“Remember the day we fished together?” he said. He paused for a beat; every sentence was an effort. “That was fun.”
He died peacefully a week later.
This Father’s Day will be my first Father’s Day without him. I plan to go fishing. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if I catch anything notable, I’m going to send him a picture.
He has been gone for almost half a year now, and his cellphone was shut off a long time ago. The text, obviously, won’t go through.
I’m going to send it anyway.
On the river that day, I may have played the role of the father. For one more time, I’d like to be the son.