I was amazed at how much the old cane pole could bend. It must weigh a ton! That pole’s gonna break for sure. When he pulled the fish out of the water and plopped it on the shore I was disappointed. I had expected something much more gargantuan. A shark perhaps. Still dangling from the line, the old man brought the fish to his backyard work area. I learned a lot from the old man next door. I grew up in a house on a lake. Much of my childhood revolved around that lake and the house next door. The old man and his wife had no children of their own. Looking back, I realize that I served as something of a surrogate child for them. I was eager to do so. The old man’s wife would occasionally cook dinner for me. She and I took a keen interest in the muscovy and mallard ducks that called the lake their home. The old man was always kind and gentle toward me. I liked him, not because he was wise, but because he had a calm manner about him. I had never known either of my grandfathers so I suppose he was my surrogate as well. I eventually came to understand that his stoic and detached nature was symptomatic of unhappiness in his own life. Still, the old man showed me many things growing up. He taught me how to fish. And he was the first to show me the face of immeasurable suffering.
The work area was an orderly collection of useful things he had stored along a wall adjoining his house. Saw horses, bricks, buckets, squirrel traps, clay pots, garden hose, shovels, hoes, chicken wire, wood scraps, fishing poles—a treasure trove in the eyes of a small boy. He opened up a rusty toolbox and pulled out an even rustier pair of pliers. He removed the hook from the fish’s mouth with such swift and brute force it made me wince. He then produced a slender boning knife and gutting board from his assembled treasures. The board, in particular, always held me spellbound. Not because of its grim purpose, but rather because of its ribbed surface. It was too concave to serve as a proper cutting board. With its gray color and weathered contours, it looked more like a piece of driftwood. I can still feel the smooth bumps of the wood grain under the soft tips of my five year old fingers. He pushed the fish firmly down onto the board with one hand and plunged the narrow tip of the knife into its delicate belly with the other. The fish seized into a “U” as the dark crimson of its insides spilled out onto the gray of the board. Does it hurt? I asked the old man. No, he said. Fish can’t feel pain. I stood there, considering his words. What’s he doing with his mouth? I asked. He’s trying to breath, replied the old man. I watched as its mouth opened and closed, its gills fanned out like a butterfly’s wings in a futile attempt to find oxygen. In this moment the full horror of the fish’s circumstances dawned on me. The immediacy of suffering and the inevitability of the outcome. He’s trying to breath. Not only is he being gutted alive but he is also drowning. I stared down at the upturned eye. The gasping mouth. Help me Brett! It hurts! Gasp. Oh god it hurts! Put me back in the water! Please! Please help me get home to the lake! Gasp. I don’t want to be here! It hurts! I imagined pushing all the red back into its open belly. Of running with it cradled in my hands, back to the shoreline and setting it free. Make it stop hurting, I said to the old man. And he did.
The episode with the fish faded quickly from the mind of a small boy. I continued to fish both as an adolescent and as an adult. In fact, I still avail myself of the opportunity to fish when it presents itself. But I don’t prolong the suffering of anything I happen to catch. Death comes swiftly if it’s a keeper.
The memory of the fish returned to me recently. I was speaking with a colleague when the subject of my recent divorce came up. Despite the absence of any close bond between us, he confided in me that he was going through a divorce. My wife is leaving me. She’s been having an affair with some guy and now she’s leaving me for him. I love her so much. I don’t know what I did wrong. I felt sick and panicked as I listened. Buried barely beneath the surface of his confession was a desire to understand the nature of his suffering. He hoped that I, having gone through something similar, could provide some insight. Though I was able to muster a few platitudes, in reality I had nothing. And I knew it. You, my good sir, are being gutted. Your suffering is both indeterminable and inescapable.
This wasn’t the first time I crossed paths with someone whose suffering seemed all too familiar. A month or two after my marriage fell apart I was at the grocery store. I had just walked in when I noticed a young woman standing on the exit side of the checkout line. She was just standing there, holding a package containing a men’s razor, crying uncontrollably. People stared with loveless eyes. Confused, I continued on my way to the produce section. Why is she crying? Did she absent-mindedly purchase that razor for someone who was no longer there? Had it been wishful thinking? Was she confronting the full magnitude of her loss right there in the checkout line? The pain in my own heart suddenly found resonance. I doubled back to find her. But she was gone. I wandered up and down the aisles with an unbearable pain.
I am not happy with you. Doesn’t hurt. Not really. A little pressure but that’s all. I don’t want to be with you. Gasp. What? There’s someone else. Wait. I can’t breath. This hurts. Just wait. I want a divorce. I don’t love you anymore. Gasp. Oh god. It hurts! This hurts! I don’t want to be here. Make it stop! I was gutted by my best friend. My very best friend. My wife. My love. I was not a perfect husband. Nor was I a victim. I did my share of damage to the marriage. But this does not negate the fact that I was gutted by the one person I trusted above all others. Betrayal and abandonment by that one person—the one you make yourself most vulnerable to—well, it’s emotional vivisection. In that moment I turned to a very dear friend for help. I remember crying into the phone Help me! Help me! Gasp. She’s leaving me. Please come get me. Take me home please. Make this stop. Gasp. I don’t want to be here. It hurts.
I always hoped that I would eventually be liberated from the suffering initiated by the collapse of my marriage. I spent over a year in therapy trying to undo the damage, to learn again how to trust others and myself. I imagined a magical moment when suddenly the burden would be lifted and the suffering would cease. In reality that moment was largely invisible. When will it stop hurting? my colleague inquired. It won’t. Look, you’ll get over it just as I did. But your moment of liberation is more akin to losing a limb after a prolonged period of necrotic rot. It’s gonna leave a mark.
It’s easy for me to understand why so many people go into denial after trauma. You were gutted after all. It’s tempting to fill that void with a shiny new person, drink, job, god, vacation, car, house…whatever. Distraction by any means necessary. There’s a veritable cottage industry of charlatans ready to mine the vacuum of other people’s suffering for personal gain. I actually sympathize with these hucksters. They seek distraction from the inevitability of their own suffering by peddling their fictions. Convincing others that their suffering can magically be lifted is their own way of filling the void and avoiding the work. It’s an ugly liberation after all. It’s not angelic. It’s a slow acceptance of the certainty of no turning back. That’s some scary shit. What’s done is done. You can’t push the red back inside. You can’t do an end run around it. We are not going to all meet up again one day in the magic kingdom for group therapy. The ugliness of it is. It. Just. Is. The best you can do is to change your relation to what happened. But that is a formidable and sour task.
The old man died and his wife was put in a nursing home. She too eventually passed away. As I entered adulthood I understood more about the sometimes awful things that happened between the old man and his wife. The house stood empty for years before someone eventually purchased it. During that time I would visit home and stand in the backyard of my parent’s house looking across at it. I thought of all the sunsets when I sat with the old man on his back porch looking out on the lake and the ducks. He would drink a single beer after working all day in his yard. I would sit next to him, feeling the cold brick of the porch on the bottoms of my feet. These were happy times for a small boy. One evening I pulled off my shoes and socks. Under the cover of night, I walked over to the abandoned house. The porch furniture was still there. And the sensation of the cold brick was just as I remembered it. I walked until I came to a pile of junk along a wall adjoining the house. A heap of useless wire, rusty nails, crumbling bricks, and broken buckets. Everything was in such a state of disarray that I almost missed it. I picked up the old weathered board and sat down with it in the grass. I folded my legs Indian style and ran my fingers over the smooth bumps of the wood grain. I held it up in the moonlight to see the gray that I remembered. The color was darker in the center. An echo of suffering past. I pressed the board tight against my chest and cried. I cried for the fish. And I cried for the old man.