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Photo by Brian Grossenbacher.

Brothers on the water

By Sean Foley

I knew Patrick had a wedding the night before, but I didn’t know he’d be coming straight from it. His wine-stained dress-shirt hung untucked over his pants. He had no bag; he walked up my driveway from our mom’s car just after 5 a.m. with a five weight in one hand, a pair of cowboy boots in the other, and a hip pack and a pair of jeans slung like saddlebags over each shoulder.

“Jesus,” I said. “Get in.”

He woke up four hours later as I pulled into a Walmart near our put-in on Arkansas’ White River. I am nearly six years older than Patrick. We were always close, but looking back, which I do a lot now, I see how that gap often placed us at different life stages. The gap narrowed exponentially once he hit college—time condensed faster than it expanded. When this trip took place, I was 33, Patrick was 27, and we’d been fishing together often enough to justify the used Clackacraft I was towing.

“Go get something you can wear in a boat, in Arkansas, in July,” I told him. “Because that’s where you are and that’s what month it is.”

“I know what month it is.”

Ten minutes later he came out wearing basketball shorts and holding a shoebox. He stopped in front of the truck, pointed to his feet, and held up a box that said “Zapatos Excursiones.”

“Adventure sandals!” he screamed, although all my windows were down. He gave a double thumbs up.

“Well done,” I said. Patrick got in, eyed the cooler, and an hour later, we were in the water, streamers rigged on the eight-weights, and hoppers on the sixes. For three days, we addressed issues with the boat and our abilities as boatmen. We produced memories, if not fish. Someone kicked out a rusted boat plug on a hard bank. “While I don’t own a boat,” Patrick said, “I suspect the water should remain on the outside?”

Farther downstream, the used anchor-rope snapped at the exact place one would have assumed it would snap had one bothered to inspect it. Keeping us steady with the oars, I gave Patrick a nod—the nod big brothers give little brothers once a decision is made; a nod I’d given him for 27 years.

“No,” he said.

“Get in. I’m not holding here forever.”

“Fuck,” he said, resigned to the caste chosen for him. He set down his rod, slipped off his tank, and leaned over to grab a visual on the decade-old rope, frayed and broken and pulsing downstream. It rested four feet below on a bed of river grass that may recall its former life on the bank of a little smallmouth river a couple generations ago, before the concrete came upstream.

The anchor came back over first, then Patrick. “Boy howdy!” he said. “Thank God for these Zapatos Excursiones, huh?” He reached for the big fish-flask I’d tossed him.

We fished only a handful more times before Patrick relocated to New York. By 2020, he had settled into his life there, and my boat had settled into my garage.

While the boat didn’t move, it got plenty of use. I now had two boys: Eamon, our oldest, and Peter, who pulled the ultimate little-brother move by being born exactly two years later, thirty minutes before his older brother’s second birthday party. My boys shared a birthday, and got one joint party.

We spent hours in that boat. Peter sat on my lap and pulled at the tails of olive and yellow double deceivers I planned on teaching him how to throw. Eamon hung over the side netting imaginary fish. I dreamed of real rivers.

That was all my hopes were though—dreams. On July 4, 2020, Peter died in an accident. He was eighteen months old. I was with him and took him in my arms. The gravel road we were on ran above a seasonal ditch. The rocks were moist when I laid down and placed my hand on his chest. I will never leave that ditch.

As I drove away from the hospital, I called Patrick. He was fishing the salmonfly hatch in Ennis, Montana. We’d been doing this trip together for the past three years. I’d skipped this one.

“I just got done fishing. Why did you and Mom call me so much?” he asked.

“Peter died.”

“What? What?” His voice shook as it trailed. “No…”

Patrick was on the next flight from Bozeman. He spent the next five months in my home. He lived with me. For me, I think.

Trauma and grief enveloped me in a fog that didn’t burn off once the sun got high. Sadness, anger, confusion, and paradox are governing principles for a world that has your car and your house but which you don’t recognize. The rearview mirror shows one car seat. “Daddy, is that the garden where Peter is?” Eamon asks when we pass a cemetery. Why can’t he sit back there and talk to Pete again like he used to?

The therapists tell us that, since Eamon is so young, his development may be largely unaffected by Peter’s death. Am I to feel lucky that one son may be too young to remember his brother? I cry with my brother about my son not having his.

Patrick left a few days after Christmas, not knowing what we had just learned. On Christmas morning, my wife found out she was pregnant. Later, when we were opening presents, Eamon asked for “another baby named Peter.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I get it, pal. But if we have another baby, it might be a girl.”

“I don’t want a girl; I just want a Peter.”

In August, my wife gave birth to our third son, and we named him Conall. Seeing Conall was like seeing my friends the day Peter died. Real love and deep suffering look the same now. “I’m sorry for you” and “I’m happy for you” travel in gazes and hugs and translate anyway to “I love you.”

What I now know is that life, death, and resurrection circle each day, within each day even. Spring’s greens here in Missouri turn to summer’s browns, then everything falls apart once the sun starts setting earlier than I’d like. Suffering done well softens you; life, at this point, is a tenderizer, you are the meat, and you’re not holding the handle. After being beat on for a while, I began to see suffering everywhere, which is right where it’s always been. The incessant news of car wrecks or shootings, or seeing a child in a wheelchair, stops me now. I feel my friend’s divorces as they sit and tell me about their lives falling apart, too.

Conall is now just over a year old, and an incredible joy and gift. He is walking and looking like his brothers. And I am happy and sad too. Two years ago, I would have called that inconsistent. But now I know that grace travels like a remora on the underside of destruction. Grace is not earned, but accessed. It is moments and experiences that affect your understanding of your life. But it’s also the willingness to observe them, and the courage to trust them. And trust you should because they are yours and no one else’s. I’ve been given those, and I am thankful to have noticed some of them. The person I was before is gone. Suffering has broken me. On my best days, though, it makes me invincible.

I look at the boat almost daily. I dream that Conall can be with Eamon when he needs it, like Patrick has been with me. I dream Conall fills a seat and that I tie on something olive and yellow and that it works and that Eamon nets his fish. If the world gifts me with boys in each seat, I will row and be happy. But my boat won’t be as full as I expected it to be. Maybe no boat is.


SEAN FOLEY is a writer and Assistant U.S. Attorney in Kansas City, Mo.

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1 Comment

  1. Sean,
    Such a beautifully written memory of both pain I can’t imagine being a father as well and similar experiences I have with my brothers. Thank you for this reminder that childhood, fatherhood and life are precious and fleeting gifts.
    Thinking of you my friend.

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