The last cast
Tim wanted to experience rural life. That meant, among other things, that he wanted to go fishing.
Until he moved to Vermont, he had lived his entire life in cities. Born in Taiwan, raised in Chicago, receiving his undergraduate education in Boston and his graduate education in the San Francisco Bay area, he had experienced a range of cities: international, Midwest, East Coast and West Coast. But he’d never experienced rural life until he accepted a job teaching at Middlebury College — in the process turning down a half dozen other job offers that would have kept him in more familiar urban environments.
And if he was going to live in Addison County, he wanted to taste the outdoors and experience what rural Vermont had to offer. In his imagination, fishing was one of those fundamental archetypal activities associated with living in the country. Indeed, he thought, fishing was the very epitome of country life. Who was I to argue with that?
So there I was teaching Tim how to fish for trout. I think he expected to drive up to a pond, pull out lawn chairs, throw a worm and a bobber out in the water, and sit back on lawn chairs. But that is not how I fish.
We started up at Goshen Dam, paddling a canoe around and trolling lures behind us, occasionally stopping to cast into a likely looking spot. Tim was not used to canoes. In fact, I don’t think he’d ever been in one. He was uneasy with how tippy they were. I assured him that we were safe — that I’d spent my life in canoes and had only tipped once. What I couldn’t assure him of was that we would catch any fish. On that first day, we didn’t. But Tim didn’t complain, and he seemed to enjoy the process. He certainly enjoyed the fresh air and beautiful setting.
As to the challenge of catching his first trout, Tim did not give up. Our next outing was to the New Haven River. It was late June, I think. Right around the start of summer. Again, wading around in thigh-deep water in shorts and old tennis shoes was a new experience. Yes, I acknowledged, there were leeches, crayfish and all sorts of other things living in the water. No, I reassured him, we didn’t actually have to worry about them.
Tim not only quickly got used to the experience, but he enjoyed it. And yes, we did catch fish that time. Several trout. That made an already enjoyable experience even more fun. He wanted to go again.
What Tim never did get used to, in our years of friendship, was knives and other sharp things. Afraid I was going to slip and cut myself, he would cringe when I’d pull out a knife to cut line, or clean one of his fish for him, or do any of the other numerous outdoor tasks for which a knife is an appropriate tool. He didn’t even like fish hooks. Too sharp. Too dangerous. He didn’t want to get poked. And for all his interest in fishing, and his delight in dining on fresh food harvested from the wild, he wouldn’t take up hunting. (Although when he knew I’d been out hunting, he would ask if I had “caught” anything.) I don’t think it was the guns as much as the fact that one needs a much bigger knife to clean a deer than to clean a trout.
And so it was horrifically ironic that Tim was the one to develop cancer, and to have to spend more than half of the next decade living daily around sharp objects. Getting poked repeatedly with needles, cut into with knives, living with no end of sharp, dangerous objects.
Enduring chemotherapy. Radiation treatment. Stem cell transplant.
And then all the years of enduring the damage done to his body by the “cure” to his cancer. He would never again be free of needles and knives.
Fishing is, I think, part of our inherited memory. It deserves its place as an archetypal “country” activity. It also builds memories.
Timothy Huang’s battle against cancer — or, really, against the damage done to his body by the cancer treatment — ended this week. While I will miss him greatly, I am thankful for our many memories. Today, as I say goodbye to him, I’m especially thankful for those few fishing memories with a city boy trying to turn country, experiencing the thrill of being attached to a fish by a long thin line, and a tiny little sharp pointy thing that in this case was an ally and not the enemy.