The Pacific Salmon Charter sign glowed red and bright. “Let’s go fishing!” said my son Ben. We spotted the sign as we walked the docks at the Ilwaco marina on the Washington coast, catching up with each other, with time. Two years had gone by since we had fished together.
My son learned to fish on sailing trips among Washington’s San Juan Islands and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. Docks, marinas, and rocky beaches were his childhood playgrounds. In those Catching Time
days, I made sure he wore a life jacket. Ben was as absorbed in this pursuit as a dog sniffing a trail. He found me when he wanted an audience.
“Look Mom!” Ben would say, showing off countless catches: a few minnow on a line, a child-size net filled with slimy pink dock shrimp, and once, an entire bucket of confused, tiny, black crabs found under rocks on the beach.”I’m tossing them back,” he would announce, certain of more sea-faring days. After a day of watching Ben play like an orca, I cooked in the galley. Often our dinner was fresh salmon or halibut from a local market.
At night, waves gently rocked us to sleep. Floating above us, a universe of lemon drop stars sparkled in the endless black Pacific Northwest skies. In those ten carefree summers, time seemed infinite. I didn’t see the troubled water ahead until I reached it.
When Ben’s father and I charted separate courses, I wondered if the golden days and nights were over. Time wasn’t so infinite any longer. Sitting with Ben the year following my divorce sometimes meant sharing sullen silences, punctuated by angry outbursts. “Why do I have to live in two places?” turned into “I want to live with Dad.” In my grief, time seemed to stop.
On this summer adventure, we motored away from the Ilwaco marina at 5:30 in the morning aboard the Profit, a sturgeon fishing charter. To and from the fishing grounds, John, our captain, carefully navigated through the Columbia Bar, a treacherous series of shoals and sandbars, a major marine hazard for ships of all sizes.
I had made another kind of crossing in the past year with an unseen pilot. Ben had moved away with his father, separating us by 65 miles. The first night Ben and I lived in different cities, I fell on my knees. Not knowing what else to do, I prayed to the god of my childhood. “Jesus, Jesus, show me the way.” I was adrift, unsure, like an anchor that lost its place.
Showing up consistently and seeing regularly Ben turned into a passageway through the darkness. Week after week, I pulled up in front of Ben’s house as reliably as a returning tide. Off we’d go to spend a few hours together. Our relationship righted and moved on, the way a rising tide lifts a grounded boat off a reef. Whenever we parted, Ben turned, gave me a hug, and said, “I love you, Mom.”
Then he disappeared into his father’s house. Many nights my eyes watered when I pulled away. I cried an ocean inside my heart. I missed seeing many of the 24/7 ordinary hours of my son’s life. I cherished our face-to-face time more than ever. Gradually, I understood that in the deepest sense, he never left me. He’d made a seal on my heart.
Fishing for sturgeon in the Columbia River, the two of us sat in contented silence. Comfortable companions, we waited patiently for something to bite. When fish nibbled the line, Ben gently wiggled it in just the right way. He hooked the sturgeon like a pro.
It took the combined strength of Ben and Captain John to reel in the five foot long sturgeon. The prehistoric-looking fish thrashed around, the way our kites had whipped in the windy skies the night before. Ben caught his limit and mine, four enormous sturgeons.
“Where did you learn fish so well?” the captain asked Ben.
“In the San Juans,” Ben replied.
Homeward bound on Amtrak, we carried ice chests filled with sturgeon filets, one for Ben’s house and another for mine. At night, the train’s steady rumble put us to sleep. As the Coast Starlight reached Davis, Ben’s stepmother and his sister waited to pick up him up. The new man in my life was there for me. They all met one another for the first time before Ben and I stepped off the train with our bounty.
“Look at the fish!” he said. Smiles, hugs, and sturgeon for everyone. Seeing my son leave that day was as hard as ever, but I had one comfort. I had learned to experience time as a circle instead of something that started or stopped.
On the ride home, I knew I would remember our voyage until the wind blew through my gray hair. I closed my eyes and imagined how my son would someday be a grown man. I hoped he would remember the joys of his childhood through the years. I daydreamed that he would someday gather about him other children, and make their eyes bright, perhaps with a fishing tale.
This story appeared in the Mother’s Day 2010 edition of the The Benicia Herald.