The Old Man and the See
No, that’s not a typo.
There I was, sitting on the couch with my wife, watching the end of “A River Runs Through It,” when it happened. Like it always happens at the end of that movie.
I start to cry when the camera shifts to the now older Norman Maclean, fly-fishing one more time on one of his beloved Montana rivers.
He stands alone in the river, his face weathered by the weight of memories, his hands shaking as he struggles to tie a fly on his line.
And right then, I start to cry. Not a how-tender-a-moment, tear-slowly-releasing-from-your-eye type of cry, but a full-out, convulsive sob.
I have seen this movie, what, a half a dozen times? And I always sob when the older Norman appears.
Now, in my sixth decade, I am thankfully no longer burdened by that temperament and convention of young men: We don’t cry. “Ha! Wait a few years,” I want to tell them. No, I find crying to be a healthy release and a voice that whispers, “Look here.”
“Here,” I had always thought, was that the old Norman reminded me of my dad in his last years. It wasn’t that the two looked alike. It was that momentary gaze of remembering and recognition.
“What are you seeing, old man?” I wondered.
Time’s almost up?
A conversation from the past replayed; one that should have gone another way?
Nurtured by the Great Depression and World War II, my dad had a take-no-prisoners belief that work meant survival, so he had trouble relating to me when I was young. He couldn’t identify with a teenage boy’s mind, filled as it was with dating, rock music, and sports.
But when I held a job in high school, well, then there was an opportunity for connection. He would pick me up at the grocery store where I served as a clerk, a smile filling his face. “How was work today?” he would ask almost breathlessly.
Our lives touched, but fleetingly so.
As I grew older and entered the world of adult work, I began to speak his language and relate to him more. I appreciated his hard-earned wisdom. I no longer sighed when he asked me “Did you read the business section today?” Instead, I started asking him.
I broke down sobbing at his funeral, so it was only natural that I would do so when I replaced the older Norman with him at the end of the film.
But this time was different. I saw the old man, but maybe for the first time I truly heard the old man’s voiceover narration.
"Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand in my youth are dead. Even Jessie.
But I still reach out to them.
Of course, now I'm too old to be much of a fisherman. And now I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn't.
But when I am alone in the half-light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.
On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.I am haunted by rivers."
My thoughts focused on two lines:
“…I usually fish the big waters alone…”
“…when I am alone in the half-light…”
And there was the real reason I was crying. I had heard that word and seen, not the older Norman or my father, but myself. I was projecting myself into the future, standing alone in the water, listening to the voices of my past.
Some of the voices make sense. They are the voices of friendship and love. But in the absence of their speakers—who have all passed away before me in my mind’s play—the voices are painful to hear. I want to turn around and see their owner once more. But there is nothing behind me except the rush of water and time. Those voices, as Norman Maclean wrote, actually haunt us.
Then there are the voices of broken friendships, or worse, friendships that simply ebbed away. Who said what to whom, or did what to whom? Or worse, who simply stopped calling or writing? What silly trifle caused us to stand there with our arms crossed in front of us for years—stubborn, expecting the other to apologize for whatever first?
Relationships, I have come to understand, are like tectonic plates: Sometimes we move into each other and live in harmony except for the occasional earthquake caused by ignorance, forgetfulness, or selfishness.
Others push unrelentingly into each other, and over time create unrepairable havoc.
And some others just drift apart.
Casting for connection
My dad retired in his early 70s. His days typically looked like this:
Eat breakfast with my mother.
Read the Chicago Tribune.
Eat lunch with my mother.
Watch a game show or two.
Eat dinner with my mother.
Go to bed.
All he knew was the world of work, so when he retired, there were no self-interests that called to him. He gradually wasted away.
I vowed to never let that happen to me, so I work to keep the old man in the river at bay.
Today, a semi-retired professional, I have my practice, my writing, my reflective walking, my occasional trips into the city to attend a lecture. And I have my cooking. I’m active.
I routinely connect with new people on social media. Sometimes a tectonic plate briefly touches and moves on. Sometimes, though, a plate moves closer, and its voice become the salve over those voices now fading in the distance.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” I see myself in that old man’s momentary gaze and realize that it’s not that I can’t be alone for periods of time.
It’s that I can’t fathom being lonely.
I need voices.
Many thanks to Susan Rooks, the Grammar Goddess, for her support. Thankfully, she is one of the new voices.
I am a certified executive coach and principal at Quetico Leadership & Career Coaching. I partner with individuals to remove the obstacles that stand in their way of being truly engaged in their work and of achieving their desired results. We work too many hours not to be.
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