Mooselookmeguntic, August 4th, 1982. Day 37. Wind calm. Temperature in the 60s at noon under cloudy skies. Fished all morning and caught two landlocked salmon. Landed one and freed the other. Ginny not feeling up to a few cold hours in the boat so she tagged on after breakfast and we went out again. I knew it would be no good. The fish are done biting by then. But she wanted it that way and I set her up with pillows and her favorite camp chair. Didn’t broach the subject of the day and I sensed she was as happy as I to avoid it. Her pain is increasing but her ability to withstand it is on the rise as well. I watch her face like a lost man reads a map. According to her there are three gradations of pain and they all bring a kind of meaning to her life. I don’t understand this and I’m smart enough not to ask for an explanation. She wants meaning and I do too—who doesn’t? You could say that’s why I go out early in the boat and put a line in and hope to find a fish on my hook, even if the freezer’s already full and we no longer have friends or family to give to. Used to be anyone would jump at the gift of a landlocked; now those anyones are gone or far away or just plain not interested in our choices or our conditions. Mine and Ginny’s, that is. Well, let’s be honest: Ginny’s.
This is what I think about: Why do we humans run from suffering while animals tend not to. That first salmon, the one I kept this morning, gave me a good fight then turned itself over to its own ending. Human suffering comes from not turning ourselves over to our own ending. I don’t just mean death, I mean wherever we’re headed, wherever we are. Ginny says what do we know about the suffering of animals, and she’s right. Maybe their acceptance keeps them clean of it and maybe not. The second salmon, the one that went free, had a hard mouth—they say that of horses—and fought less and knew somehow it wasn’t bound for our freezer, I swear. Recently I’ve been waking up without the same lust for fishing I used to have. I go out in the boat and look into the water and, this is crazy I know, and I haven’t mentioned it to Ginny, I look right down into the lake, into Mooselookmeguntic Lake and I talk to the fish and I tell them, You’re not doing me a favor by taking my bait, boys. I may have had enough of mortality. I don’t mention my wife. I don’t mention anything except what they need to know, which is: Life doesn’t look the same to me as it once did. And dying is something I’m trying to get used to.
Impossibly, one Christmas my mother gave me a raccoon coat. It was not a new coat, but neither was it the worse for wear. The fur, or pelt might be a more accurate word, was not moth-eaten or sorry looking, if a bit dull, and my mother had replaced the entire lining with the same brilliant blue fabric that covered our living room chairs. She had rebuilt the coat from the inside and she presented it to me that Christmas, the Christmas I was twelve, with a beam of pride that broke my heart. Because the last thing in the world I wanted was to walk out into the jungle of New York City and through the doors of my school wearing a bunch of dead animals on my body. The last thing I wanted was a raccoon coat. I thanked my mother profusely, overdoing it to cover my shame. It was the shame of ingratitude, the anticipatory shame of arriving as I must in front of 610 East 83rd Street, my school, and being the laughing stock, the butt of the joke, the blushing target of everyone’s unmerciful teasing. Juanita Dugdale had worn a modest fur hat to school one day and for that she was crucified. I knew the consequences and my mother did not. Her plan was to save me in style in those cold New York winters but in fact she was throwing me to the wolves.
My older sister’s best friend Kate was the first to land a dart. She looked me up and down and smiled dangerously as we stood at the bus stop together. “Height of prep,” was all she said. I was grateful for the efficiency, the brevity of her blow. Others were not so reserved, or rather not so accurate in the delivery of their poison arrows, and several seemed genuinely confused as to whether or not the coat was made from our own pet raccoon, Mr. Peepers, who had come and gone in our lives several years before. I came home from school and stood as I always did in front of the cracker and potato chip closet above the built-in oven in our kitchen, and cried. I had not even bothered to take off the coat and I stood and hung my head and blubbered into the scratchy fur that came up to meet my face. Here it was, this hideous coat with its beautiful, elegant, blue as the blue sky lining, hand-sewn by my beautiful, elegant mother, and I had to choose. I had to either bear the shame or refuse the gift which at that moment felt like refusing the gift of life which she had also given me. With all its difficulties and uglinesses I hadn’t refused that gift, had I? the gift of life? It was difficult and complicated, even hideous at times, but I had chosen to concentrate on life’s beautiful blue lining and now, I decided right there in the kitchen, I would do that again.