Catch and Release

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It could hardly be classified as “white water rafting.”

I’ve seen Jacuzzis with more adrenaline-pumping and life-threatening streams than that “river” I was rafting in Oregon, but this particular hydro-adventure wasn’t any less memorable than the most exciting rafting trip I’ve taken.  During this aquatic escapade in the Beaver State, I not only accomplished surviving my first river rafting experience, but I also caught my first fish – the most memorable moment of the entire trip.

“But how will I know if a fish takes the bait?” I asked my older brother.  “You’ll know when you feel it,” he replied.  I’ll admit that I’m guilty of using that phrase, but honestly, I hate when people say that.  I thought every vibration was a marlin, and I thought every tremor was a shark.  But then – I felt it.  The bite, the pull, the excitement – the fish.  And my brother was right, I knew what it was as soon as I felt it.  In an instant, it was me versus the fish: a battle of Iliadic proportions between man and nature.

Okay, it was a 9-inch rainbow trout – but because it was my first catch, it was like catching Moby Dick.

I was the only one who caught a fish that day.  Everyone was impressed with my success, especially considering my equipment: a crappy lure on a crappy line attached to a crappy, $20 Batman fishing pole.  My dad gave me a pat on the back, my mom was genuinely excited for me, and the river rafting guide was just surprised that my Batman pole stayed in one piece.  But the reason why I was so high on my success wasn’t due to the validation from any of these people.  It was because my older brother was proud of me.  And until I caught that half-pound freshwater rainbow trout from some abnormally calm river in Oregon, he had never had such sincere happiness for me – and for whatever reason, his happiness for me was worth more than anyone else’s.  His approval was the most gratifying, and frankly, it was more satisfying than catching the fish.

A few years later, I saw my opportunity to replicate that feeling of accomplishment.  It was another fishing trip – this time, on a family vacation to a lake.  My older brother, my dad and I went out on this rickety little tin motorboat just as the sun was setting.  The hot, summer day was cooling off and the fish were jumping.

We made it out to our “secret spot,” and instantly, the lines were cast.  My dad wanted to catch a fish to eat, my older brother wanted to catch a fish for “the hunt,” and I wanted to catch a fish for my brother.  My dad was the first to catch one – it happened almost as soon as his line was cast.  He brought in a decent sized salmon, but we were all convinced there were bigger fish in the… well… lake.  My dad’s line went back out, and again, it was like he cast out his line with the fish already on the hook.  He pulls in another salmon – this one was bigger, significantly bigger than the first.  But we weren’t satisfied yet.  His line goes back into the water once more.

My dad gets another bite, and he starts reeling, when suddenly, THUNK!  My brother’s pole was ripped out of his hands and sent smashing into our tiny metal ‘boat.’  This one was big.  He starts reeling – he’s fighting – this one is big – this one is it – what the hell is on the end of that hook?!  He was legitimately struggling to bring this sea creature to the surface.  “Blake, I need your help!” he tells me.  Here it is…  If I’m not going to catch my own fish, I’ll aid in catching the fish.  My brother’s catch was becoming more visible as it was being reeled closer and closer to the surface.  It was huge.  It was the fish we were after.  I reach down over the ledge of the boat to help bring it in.  I grab a hold of its body; pull it onto the floor of the boat, but then —SNAP!  The line breaks.  The fish falls into the water and swims below the surface, never to be seen again.

Honestly, it wasn’t my fault.  That line could have broke for a number of different reasons, but that didn’t matter to my brother.  As far as he was concerned, that fish would have been dinner if it weren’t for my “help.”  He was upset at me the rest of the trip, and it was the shittiest feeling in the world.  If fishing with my brother was a game of some sort, this trip would have been a loss – and frankly, I had never hated losing so much.

On the surface, my older brother was the guy that everyone liked and almost everyone wanted to be.  He was an all-star wide receiver for the high school football team (in a very competitive, D1 league), he was funny, handsome, outgoing, and popular.  He made friends easily, girls loved him, and he could get away with almost anything if he smiled at you the right way.

My mom always tells me that my older brother also used to be the best older brother on the planet.  She says that he loved me like his own son.  He would hold my hand crossing the street, he would have a supernatural patience with me when I would break his toys, and he was always so perfectly gentle with me.  I always wonder what those days were like, because honestly, I don’t remember that brother at all.

I only remember him as being dangerous.  I think of my brother and remember the bipolar wishy-washy drug addict alcoholic.  Oh how much pain I could have avoided if I just didn’t care about him.  He was a waste.  A waste of talent, a waste of personality, and a waste of potential.  He was angry and pessimistic; he always had something to complain about.  In his eyes, he was always a victim of ‘life.’  Life was like this evil being constantly picking him, beating him down, and telling him he wasn’t good enough.  The alcohol, the drugs, the recklessness, those were just his ways of “coping,” as he would say.  “The shit I do is just an escape.  It doesn’t make me who I am.”  He was lost, misdirected, and confused, but he was still my brother.  He was family.  And no matter how much you despise family or the things they do, no matter how hopeless they may seem, you never give up on family.  That’s what I was told.  I wanted more than anything to have a solid, honest relationship with my brother.  I wanted to spend time with him, get to know him, tell him all of those things you only share with your brothers, but I didn’t know how.  I didn’t know how to communicate with someone who was so different from me.  Aside from DNA, I had nothing in common with this person – I actually enjoyed life.

I tried so hard to be excited about my relationship with him, but it’s hard to be excited for someone when they don’t really care about you.  I showed up to his football games wearing his number, and I would be the loudest one in the stands when he made a play.  Sometimes, I would wait by his room before he would get home from school.  I would desperately search for something to talk to him about, and hope that he was interested in what I had to say – interested enough to invite me into his room for more conversation.  For some stupid reason, that was what I thought being brothers was supposed to look like.  Every attempt failed.  I practically gave up.  I tried talking to him about fishing, and I expected the same type of half-assed attention from him that I usually get.  But this time, when I brought up going to the lake to catch some bass, his eyes lit up, and I could feel his full attention.  It was a rare feeling.

We started going to the lake every other week or so, and I looked forward to it more than anything.  Every other Friday, we would hop in his car, buy some live bait, and drive to the lake for an evening (or morning) of fishing.  He was always so ecstatic on the way there – and I was just excited that he was enjoying being with me.

We would set up shop at the same spot on the lake every time – the old boat launch, it hadn’t been used in ten years.  We would walk down to the edge of the dock and cast our lines.  From there, we would be able to sit around and talk about all those things you only talked about with your brother, and occasionally, we would catch fish.  Some days, he would be on a hot streak catching six or seven fish in a single hour, some days I would be the lucky one, and other times, we didn’t catch a single thing.  And it was never a competition – that was the best part.  It was just simple catch and release.  It was something we loved doing together, but it was never about the fishing.  Even on the days when all we caught was a couple of sticks and empty snags, we still considered it a success.  At home, I was nobody to him.  I was just the annoying little kid that lived in the room next door.  Out on the lake, I was his brother.

Things eventually started to feel a little different.  We would go to the lake, but I no longer felt like he was excited to spend time with me.  Instead, it seemed like he was happy just to leave the house.  Fishing turned into an escape for him.  The fishing adventures we would embark upon together no longer served the purpose of family bonding; it turned into a way for my brother to escape home life – I just happened to tag along.

I remember a time when my brother totaled his car.  He was doing 70 in a 35, lost control, jumped the curb, and turned his Nissan Altima into the size of a toaster by wrapping it around a telephone pole.  To top it all off, he was wasted.  Drunk off his ass and high on a combination of drugs I can’t even pronounce.  Somehow, he walked out of the car unscathed.  And if his undamaged body wasn’t enough of a miracle, the cops at the scene of the accident ‘forgot’ to test his BAC or run any sort of toxicology report on him.  He got home that night, and not a single member of my family brought it up.  We all knew what had happened.  We knew that he didn’t just escape a severe criminal punishment, he escaped death.  Nobody spoke to him, hell, nobody spoke to each other.  The very next day, however, my brother and I were on the docks by the old boat launch – our lines in the water.  We talked as though it never happened.

In the summer of 2007, my brother was kicked out of the house for stealing or getting high or a combination of a million other things.  It started with an argument between him and my parents.  There was a lot of yelling.  I was in my younger brothers’ room, trying to keep the mood light.  We all pretended like nothing was going on in my parents’ room.  Suddenly, our front door opened and then slammed shut, and for whatever reason, I decided to walk outside and see what was going on.  I watched my brother walk out the front door, and I just started following him.  It was over 100 degrees outside in the middle of July and I was walking on the asphalt with nothing on my feet – it hurt like hell.  I didn’t say anything to him as I walked behind him.  He knew I was there, but what the hell was there to say?  All he kept saying was that he was going to kill himself.  Life was pointless and there was no point to existing anymore.  He said his final goodbyes, gave me a hug, and told me to go back home.

I had gone fishing with him that morning.

As it turns out, my dad called the cops and he was picked up before he could do anything stupid.  He didn’t kill himself that day, but to me, it didn’t matter either way.

I’m really only scratching the surface of the amount of absolute bullshit my brother has gone through.  Between now and then, there’s been more alcohol, more drugs, more suicide attempts, more jail time, and more loss.  He lives his life in a constant state of misery, but when the going gets tough, miserable turns into absolute defeat.  He throws in the towel, does something catastrophically stupid, and somehow he dodges death yet again.

His life has gotten more and more difficult as he has become more and more of a train-wreck.  Through his actions, he continues to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole that becomes more and more impossible for him to get out of.  Naturally, it would make sense for me to constantly feel pain, worry, anxiety, and concern.  But I don’t.  I should, but I just don’t.  I gave up on him.  I stopped allowing his pitfalls to bother me.  Why?  Because just when I think he can’t fuck up anymore, he manages to do so.  Just when I think he can’t escape death one more time, he does it four times.  I meet the height requirements for this emotional roller coaster, but I just choose not to ride it.  I stopped caring about him, and it’s been easier for me.  Unfortunately, I fear that I’ll only ever start to care about him again when it’s too late.

My brother and I share the same blood, and we call the same two people “Mom” and “Dad,” but I only ever felt like his brother when we were fishing.  It was the only time our relationship ever seemed “normal.”  And in retrospect, I realize that our entire relationship was just a huge game of catch and release, and I’m the fish.  In the past, I would fall into the same trap over and over again; I would take the bait.  I would be painfully reeled back in to what I assumed would be death only to be let back into the water.  I started to learn to protect myself, though – I stopped biting.

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