Truthfully, the story of my dad’s death isn’t unlike many others – he was blessed to be surrounded by family as he took his last breath, and every single one of us got the chance to tell him goodbye. And that is something I will be forever grateful for.
There was also a lot of emotional, family drama – and that is what makes this loss so tough for me – on top of it being my dad.
My dad wasn’t someone who ever wanted a big show, so we paid our respects to him at a small chapel in Ringgold, Georgia, a week after he died. There were friends and family there to share stories and pictures of him, and even during that short time, I learned a lot about the person my dad was and the time he spent on earth.
Even though it was a special day and I’m grateful to have been able to be there with my family, I knew I wanted to honor my dad in my own way when I felt the time was right. I wanted to honor him by doing something he loves: fishing.
So, this morning, my lifelong best friend and I rose before the sun and met Pensacola’s best fisherman, Captain Kenny Way at the marina. With beer and a go get ’em attitude, we set sail.
Or, Captain Kenny started the boat and we were OFF!
We caught bait first, then moved on to snapper (red and black). We caught around 15 snapper. And then we used one of the snapper as bait to catch a 7-foot bull shark! You can see the video on my Instagram stories @Orangejulius7
I’d informed the Captain ahead of time that I wanted to take a few moments to toast to my dad, and it was my honor to write something that I felt captured my dad’s spirit, but also offered some closure to myself, and hopefully to my friend, and maybe even Captain Kenny.
I brought along a few coins to toss into the ocean, and some fresh flower petals to sprinkle on the water – a signal to other boaters that we’d honored a life well-lived. Here’s what I wrote:
My dad was very much a skilled fisherman, and we went fishing many times – I have him to thank for catching the most fish nearly every time I venture out, even if I’m the only female in sight. But there’s two fishing trips that stick out in my mind:
The first was a very early morning trip. Early mornings are a necessarily evil when fishing, and my dad took that very seriously. On this particular morning, we had a bit of a drive – heading from our family home in Columbus, Indiana to a lake near Camp Atterbury. My dad had already planned our stops – because that’s the kind of man he was, a planner (sometimes to a fault) and he liked the journey just as much as the destination – donuts and coffee for breakfast, then a later stop on the side of the road to pick up live bait: worms that came packed in black dirt.
Once we got to the lake, the sun was barely rising. I was sleepy, still, and too young for coffee. But it may as well been noon for my dad – we unpacked on the sandy bank, and he threaded my first worm, and reminded me how to properly cast my line – the Mickey bobber flying through the air, landing with a splash on top of the water.
“Now, when Mickey goes under, reel it in fast,” he said.
So, I stood still and quiet, wondering if any blue gill were seeing the bait, while my dad doctored his line. There we stood, side by side, waiting for something big. The air was crisp and the water was so still, it looked like clean glass. I didn’t know it then, but it was likely the first time of many that I’d get swept away in an Indiana sunrise. It was all so peaceful.
So peaceful in fact, that my eyes glazed over, and then next thing I knew, Mickey was going under and my dad was shouting – “Reel it in, Holly! You’ve got one!” I tried to pull and get my line back in, but it was too late, and I felt so awful that I hadn’t been paying attention.
But thinking back on this moment now, it’s a perfect picture of my dad and I – he, focused and driven, no matter the circumstances, and me – willing to participate, but distracted by the scenery.
When I was in college, my dad invited me to celebrate the holidays in a cabin nestled in the mountains on the Tennessee/Georgia border. It was a small mountain town – one that seemed like it was made for locals, but was likely all tourists. The cabin had a large porch that overlooked a small creek, and a few fishing poles we could borrow.
My dad was determined to fish in this creek, so he bought a can of corn for bait – trout often mistake them for salmon eggs. We baited our hooks and my dad instructed me to cast upstream, so the line would move downstream with the current. I did as I was told, and we quickly discovered a major problem – trees really close to the riverbank.
If I remember correctly, we didn’t even come close to catching a single fish, simply because our lines kept getting caught in the winter barren trees. My dad untagled every line I cast – yet another thing about my dad – he cleaned up a lot of messes for me. He’s stood up for me numerous times – when no one else would – and he introduced to me to the cureall of every breakup: watching “Swingers”.
Since my dad’s passing, I’ve spent countless hours thinking about his life and legacy; what his life meant, what his death means, and how I’ll ever find closure in the numerous questions I have about our relationship. Through memories shared with me, those of my own, and personal items willed to me, I’ve gathered a few new tidbits about the man that he was and the life he lived.
Despite all of my questions though, I know that my dad believed that every person has a story. He believed this to be so true, in fact, that he worked as a reporter (focusing on sports) for many, many years in order to share those stories. It was a job not many would do, in a time when there was no internet, interviews happened face-to-face, and tape recorders were rare. My dad wrote his pieces on a typewriter, after taking notes on a yellow legal pad. He was a beautiful writer, spicy, willing to tell the ugly truth (even at a conservative paper), and he did it for very little pay.
My dad was a fan of the underdog – he was critical of the star players, overrated coaches, and wanted to get the real story from the bench warmers. He loved making people laugh, and perhaps his ability to converse with just about anyone, made it easier for him to share stories – whether in print or with locals at The Olympia.
He was fascinated with the unknown – he had a curiosity for just about anything, and would obsessively throw himself into his latest interest. He was brave, sharp, and he did things his way (and only his way).
I have absolutely no doubt that witnessing all of this has very much shaped the person I am today – and will forever be. But I also know that I have to continue to craft my story, too. During these last six months, I’ve realized a lot about myself, including the fact that the unknown can be… terrifying. But it can also be rather exciting, once you embrace it.
Today, I want us to take something familiar – physically speaking, these Presidential coins willed to me – and toss them into the unknown – the depths of the gulf. Consider it a way to throw your comforts, your faith, your purpose, into the great unknown: the future. Send with it a wish for yourself, a wish to keep crafting your story – whether to share, to keep, no matter if the result is picturesque or candid, planned or impromptu. Some stories are well-planned, but some simply happen…
It’s impossible for us to immerse ourselves into the unknown without love. My dad loved many things – fishing trips to Bull Shoals Arkansas with his dad and brothers, small towns, Red Vines, chess, Natalie Merchant, rescue cats, and reciting movie lines, among many other things. He loved people, too, and I feel really lucky that “I love you” was one of the last things he said to me, and I to him.
I’m offering these petals as a symbol of love and peace.
Finally, let’s toast: To family, friends, and finding comfort in the unknown. May the ones we’ve lost watch over us from their heaven – for my dad, I hope its on a lake, filled with delicious bass.