Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Oct. 5, 2003 editions of The Kansas City Star
On the first day of our fishing trip, Daddy slept in. Lord knows, he needed the rest.
For the past few months, for the past 33 years, he’s worked crazy hours. “I’ll be home at midnight” became a joke around the house long ago. Often, mom would drive us by his office and look for the single light on in his conference room.
Sometimes, he worked around the clock. Sometimes, when he needed a vacation but didn’t have time, he’d put on sunscreen and sit in his big chair, listening to a wave machine. For a few hours, he imagined he was at the beach. Then it was back to work. He doesn’t know I know that.
He’s a lawyer, the friendly, Southern kind who wears seersucker suits and believes in helping people. He’s really good at it, too. It’s paid for our big house, and cars, and college, and ski trips and you name it. But it’s not all about the money. When clients couldn’t afford to pay, he’d take homegrown tomatoes instead, or whatever they could give. He doesn’t know I know that either.
This trip, he had his cell phone off. This trip, we were forgetting it all for a few days. No clients, no calls. Best of all, no cancer, no chemotherapy.
Even his Palm Pilot was holstered. Just last night, the batteries went dead and all the data disappeared. No big deal; they have it saved at the office. “It says zero appointments instead of 38, ” he chuckled. “I like that part.”
He had awakened at 12:42 p.m., but thought the clock said 2:42. We were scheduled to fish from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. He ran outside, still mostly asleep. “Wright, ” he called, “time to go fishing.” Back in his bedroom, he looked at the clock again. “What time does that say?” he asked. “12:48.”
He laughed and climbed back into bed.
“Sometimes, ” he said, pulling the cover up to his head, “I am so tired….”
Waiting on him to wake up, I remembered the ride over here. It was good. We blew by little towns, with names like Yellville and Flippin and Bull Shoals. Daddy grew up in a little town, a dot called Bentonia, Miss.
He was born Walter Wright Thompson in a small farm house, a pear tree right outside the window. He still loves pears. He loves a lot of things: my mother, me and my brother, his siblings Frazier, Will and Michael. He loves to watch golf on television, and he loves Ole Miss football.
Not long after being diagnosed with cancer, he got a letter in the mail from the Ole Miss athletic department. They’d upgraded his parking, just to say thanks for years of support. He almost cried when he pulled out the pass, which gave him a space practically inside the stadium. Dad hasn’t lost his humor; he calls the spot “cancer parking.”
We’ve always gone to games. Before I got paid to go as a sportswriter, Daddy carried me in on his shoulders. My love for sports started with him, a scrappy 5-foot-9 quarterback in his Bentonia High School days.
But everything in our world changed a few months ago. Just past his 57th birthday, in early July, my father felt a pain in his side.
On the morning he went to Memphis for an official diagnosis, he shined his shoes, like he does every day. Carefully, meticulously, from front to back, not missing a spot.
The drive this summer from our hometown of Clarksdale, Miss., to Memphis took an hour and a half. For my family, it seemed much longer.
As the doctors ran tests on Daddy, we held our breath in a small waiting room. My brother read. My mother prayed, wearing the watch the doctors had made my father remove. The watch dwarfed her arm, an image I can’t shake. It just seemed so indicative of the circumstances — a family trying to fill an unfillable space — and yet so inappropriate.
Afterward, Daddy needed me to steady him as he changed from his hospital gown back into a suit. He looked into the bathroom mirror. He was quiet. The doctor had told my father he had pancreatic cancer.
The doctor had said there was something else: hope. For a man like my father — a man who does not waver — that was enough.
So he was giddy months later when we finally made the time to go fishing. We passed signs for the Gaston’s White River Resort every 15 or so miles. We had this scheduled for early summer, but tests and doctors and treatment had taken precedent. For a few days, that was all on hold.
“Won’t it be fun, ” he said, rubbing my shoulder, “to catch a mess of fish? They’ll filet them for you right there. You can take ’em home to Kansas City or we can get a big stick of butter. I’ve got a recipe in my head….”
The man can snore. Wow. Clearly, I needed something to do since I can’t sleep with the Battle of the Bulge being reenacted in the next room.
On the cabin floor by his bed was an inspirational book written by a preacher named Max Lucado. “I’m into this stuff, ” he had told me.
I sneaked in and picked up the book, looking for messages. In other books, he’d written notes to me in the margins. I turned to the page where he’d fallen asleep. It was a chapter called Wilderness Places. I began reading. “The wilderness, ” Max explained, “is a long, lonely winter.”
In the bathroom, on the counter next to his toiletries, were about 15 pill bottles. He takes nine in the morning and five more at night. There was a note from my mother reminding him when to take what. She drew a smiley face on the note. They’ve been married 33 years. Many of her sentences these days start with “He’s got to get better….”
Sometimes, when he thinks you aren’t looking, he’ll lightly touch his abdomen, where the tumors are. But I have never heard him complain. He has missed almost no work; he even works the day after chemo treatments. The doctors have privately told us that he must feel like he’s getting stabbed most of the time.
Like I said, the man deserved this trip. He deserved the sun and the moon to dance at his bidding. He deserved for the tumor at the head of his pancreas to shrivel up and vanish. This time, we settled for fishing.
Day one. We made our way to the dock, past the game room where I taught him how to play Golden Tee. He looked down at the White River, located in this small Arkansas town near the Missouri border.
“I’ve wanted to do this for so long, ” he says, grinning, “that I can’t believe it’s actually happening.”
We’d both decided that fishing early in the morning was for the birds. We met our guide around 4 p.m. Ron Roderick was waiting. Rapids were forming upstream; Ron told us the generators on the dam had been turned on.
You can’t fly fish when the water is rushing, so we were casting from a boat. Ron grew up on the White River and knew just where the fish hang out. Sometimes, he thinks like a fish.
We stopped at one of his favorite holes. My line wasn’t in the water for three seconds before a fish bit. The next cast, another fish. And another. Daddy caught one, a big rainbow trout.
“This is the first fish I’ve caught in a long time, ” he said.
The fish practically were jumping in the boat. Every so often, Daddy leaned over to catch my eye. He grinned from ear to ear. People say we have the same smile.
In about an hour and a half, we’d each gotten our limit of 10 fish. We caught some cutthroat and smaller rainbows, which we threw back. Toward the end, we both hooked up with fish at the same time. Side by side in the boat, with blue skies darkening, we reeled them in together.
The rains came around 5:45, and we headed back in. The cold water felt like needles on our faces as we motored toward the dock. On dry land, Daddy shivered, warding off the cold.
We drove back from dinner, winding through the Arkansas hills. A light rain still fell. It was dark out. As we rode, he brought up the cancer.
“I’m not scared, ” he said. “I’m not afraid. I’ve been reading about people who have cancer and go into deep depression and that is not happening to me at all.”
His voice was calm and strong.
“I’m not freaking out, ” he continued. “A lot of people freak out when they hear they’ve got pancreatic cancer. It’s not the best cancer to get….”
He laughed and told a story. (He always has a story.) When his oncologist first met with him, Daddy said that he knew this kind of cancer was bad. The doctor looked up. “I wouldn’t want to get it, ” the doctor said.
Some of you probably know the stats on pancreatic cancer. I do. Daddy doesn’t.
“I don’t want to hear the odds, ” he said, as we pulled back into Gaston’s. “I’ve read Lance Armstrong’s book. I don’t care about percentages. I have faith that I’ve got a lot more living to do.”
Day two. In the boat, we passed two men whipping their thin lines back and forth. The small flies were almost invisible on the end. We had planned to learn how to fly fish, but the high water prevented it. That, and our total ineptitude.
Daddy stared through the anglers, looking back a generation. His own father had been a fly fisherman.
“That sure reminds me of my daddy, ” he said of my grandfather, a south Mississippi farmer and Air Force veteran. They called him “Papa T.”
Our guide, eager to teach us, jumped in.
“Well, ” Ron said, “you need to do it, too.”
“I’m gonna be back next year, ” Daddy said, “and that’s what we’re gonna be doing.”
Halfway in, we learned why Ron was the best on the White River. Sure, we knew that no one had ever not gotten the limit with him. But this, well, it was special: He stopped our boat right in front of a rival resort’s dock. Thirty yards down stream, six or seven boats searched in vain for fish. But Ron had a plan.
“What are they doing wrong?” I asked.
“Everything, ” he said, laughing out loud.
He told us to hide our bait; he doesn’t want competitors to know what he uses. Then, with the other fishermen watching, we started pulling one fish after another. If we were any good, if we didn’t keep missing bites, we’d have caught twice as many. With each one, we all laughed. This in-your-face angling appealed to Daddy.
After each bite, as giggles carried across the water, the competitors looked closer.
“Keep your bait down, ” Ron said. “They’re eyeballing.”
Of course, we both got our limit. We took a bunch of pictures. When we got to the dock, Ron shook our hands.
“That was great, ” we both said.
“That means a lot to me, ” Ron said. “Get your butts back here again.”
I sat at the picnic table near our cabin. Eight geese splashed down behind me. A heron barked. There was a symphony going on in the brush to my left. Chirping and snapping and rustling in the key of nature.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this trip. There’s a lot I want to tell him — how much I love him, how much I respect him, how much I’d like to be just like him. For my entire life, it seems, my dad’s been looking out for me. Worrying about me. Now, I’m worried about him. Desperately worried. When I try to tell him, though, the words garble. Some things are easier in print than in person.
I’ve been thinking about our card game the other day. We sat by the water and dealt hand after hand. He told me how he’d hated the Army. He told me stories about his daddy. He told me a story about beating up some guy twice his size, just for picking on his brother. Knocked out a lot of the dude’s teeth. Yeah, this country lawyer has always been a fighter.
Many of the stories, I hadn’t heard before. Even the old ones seemed new. We played gin for two hours. I won big. He let me win.
After four days, we went home. It was chemotherapy day, and I had to drive him to Memphis.
Once a week, he sits in a room with 15 other believers and gets the lifesaving drugs by IV. He hasn’t thrown up. Indeed, after the first treatment, he went and ate a sack of Krystal burgers, a Southern favorite, thumbing his nose at nausea. We joke that he’s too tough to vomit.
The chemo does knock his white-blood-cell count way down; he says it means the cancer is dying. It’s like when I was little, when peroxide burned on a cut, he always patted my curly hair and said, “It’s killing all them bad germs.” Did I mention he’s a pro when it comes to removing a splinter? I mean a real ninja with the tweezers.
He often talks to other patients, trying to pass along his positive attitude. Once, he went to a bald, shrunken woman and said, “Ma’am, you have the prettiest smile I think I’ve ever seen and I just wanted to tell you that.” She looked like she was going to cry. He knows just what people need to hear, and when.
I cranked the car outside of Gaston’s, the back seat filled with our fish and gear. Then I remembered. “Hold on for a second, ” I told him. I ran back inside and spoke to the man at the counter. I booked the same room and the same guide for next year, making sure to sign up for fly fishing lessons. I gave him my credit card and paid the $250 deposit.
As we pointed the car toward Memphis, I smiled. The man next to me was tough as nickel steak, and there would be many more fish to catch. Many more trips to take.
There have to be; I can’t imagine a world without him in it.
After a few minutes, I told him about the reservations. He smiled back.
“We’ll be here next year, ” he said, his voice lowering almost to a whisper. “I guarantee it.”
The miles ticked away. We pulled into the parking lot at the University of Tennessee Cancer Center. He told a woman in the elevator about his fishing trip. Upstairs, we met my mom. When they called his name, our family walked to the back of the clinic.
Behind the door to his right was a lot of news: some good, some bad. His white-blood-cell was so low he couldn’t get chemo. He couldn’t even eat lettuce, for fear of germs. His feet were so swollen, a side effect of chemo, that the shocked nurses prescribed medication. They’d been swollen the whole trip and he’d never mentioned it to me.
On the positive side, a scan showed some shrinkage in the tumor. My mom said Daddy’s lip trembled when they told him. Then he made a joke about buying a round of chemo for the room.
But before he went in to see the doctors, before he heard both the good and the bad, there was something he wanted to do.
He got the pictures from our trip and went to find a nurse, eager to show them off. He pointed to the fish, then to one of us together.
“That’s my boy, ” he said.