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When A Loss Means New Life

A loss can mean a new life as a character. Here’s Camila Kerwin with a story about remembering her stepfather.

Way before he died, my stepdad Bill took us fishing for the first time. I was about seven. It was me, my mom, and my older brother. We drove down from Miami to a place called Flamingo, way in the southernmost point of the Everglades. I remember I was really excited about the new red fishing rod Bill had bought me, and about the idea of going on a boat. So we’re piled in his Hummer, driving up to the bank of the water. My brother says the sound of the mosquitos was so loud as we got out of the car that he looked around to see if there was some sort of lawn mower or machine going somewhere. But I don’t remember that.

What I do remember is this: we get on the boat, and soon enough my brother is catching a fish. Then he’s catching another fish. He is, in other words, beating me at this new thing, the way he always beats me at everything.

So I’m angry. As a seven-year old, I am not good loser. Once my family had to pretend the highest score in mini-golf meant you won. I’m staring out at the water, writing off fishing as a thing I now hate, when there’s a tug at my line. “Looks like you got something,” says Bill. I leap up, scrambling to reel it in, amazed at what is happening right now. Bill is telling me to go steady, I don’t want to snap the line, and then, there it is: a beautiful, slimy catfish. This is the proudest moment of my seven years on earth. My family celebrates, and soon, Bill is telling me that we have to toss him back in now, since it’s catch and release, and because catfish are, in his words, not “good eatin’.”

So I let him do his thing with the fish and he hands me back the red rod. And soon I feel a tug again. “I think you might have another one!” says Bill. It keeps happening like that. I reel in a catfish, Bill releases it, gives me back the rod, and I reel in another one. My luck is endless.

I didn’t find out I’d been duped that day until years later. Because here’s what really happened: Bill never unhooked the first fish. He just kept pretending to and letting it swim out a little, so that by the end of the day, I would think I’d out-fished my brother.

This story’s been told so many times in my family I’m not sure which memories are mine and which ones I’ve borrowed. We tell it in part because Bill’s not around anymore. He died from blood clot when I was fifteen, and we do the thing people do when they mythologize dead people. We share memories about him, over and over, as a way of being with him. We dig up his cheesy catchphrases, like “Howdy,” and “my strength is the strength of ten men.” But the strange thing about remembering is that the more you do it, the further you seem to get from what actually happened. You embellish, you simplify, maybe you even make up some details.

Bill the character is such an incomplete fraction of Bill the person. And yet, it’s almost like he’s bigger now, if a little warped around the edges — like the parts that are left over exist under a gigantic magnifying glass. He’s become one big fish story: the guy who taught me how to build a birdhouse; the one who once buried dog bones on a beach before I’d arrived so I would think I’d dug up dinosaur bones; the guy who was so tall he had to duck under all the doorways in our house. These are the myths I remember and tell about him. But it can be painful to know that’s all I’ve got left: stories that are a little too spotless, a little unreal.

I think becoming a character is one of the most vibrant ways people can stick around after they’re gone. But still, every time I tell a Bill story, it’s like I’ve blown up this balloon as big as it can get and then let it go. I watch it get smaller and smaller until it’s a dot, and it disappears again. At least, until the next time I tell it.

When Camila’s not telling fish stories, she can be found doodling in a sketchbook or observing her orange cat.

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