With equal forward and backward motions of the forearm over the right shoulder, the weight of the tiny dry fly soars in and out of view following the path of my rod over the glassy, quiet water. After a few casts, slowly letting more line slip through the chilly fingers of my left hand, it’s finally long enough. With a final motion, much of the line runs through my left fingertips, the rod tip goes down and, with luck, gently rolls out on top of the undisturbed water mimicking the gentle drop of a fly coming in for landing. A feisty and peckish brown trout sees the fly and rises. Seeing the telltale yellow and polka-dots at the surface, and feeling the instant satisfaction that the fly has made it to the right place at the right time, the fish takes, my rod comes up - setting the hook, and the fight begins.
Pushing off the inside of my right foot, my left ski springs out to a 45-degree angle and into action, allowing my body to glide, foot, knee, and torso aligned over top of the narrow ski. With that, I’m in motion down the trail. As the glide ends, my poles come down, my right foot lands and I throw the poles back, knowing the Velcroed wrist straps will catch them and return them to my hands. Repeating this skate over and over, the silence of the trees becomes louder. My skis etch hundreds of clean V-shaped lines through the freshly-groomed corduroy on a shimmering, magic white carpet of dry snow.
Sam taught me to do these two things. He gave them to me.
They are his very favorite two things in the entire world. Not just setting the hook or the take of the fish, and not just the glide through the woods – but the effort, the process.
This winter, friends in Anchorage and Wisconsin have joined me to venture into the stunning ski trails that Sam loved. I was pleased to see my skate technique come back instinctively, thanks to many hours with Sam on those very trails in seasons past.
On these outings, my heart’s been equal parts gleeful and sad. I always miss him – he’s always present. When I’m fishing or skiing though, missing him is physical. It takes over my insides and captures me. Catching my breath and looking to the deep, starry night sky contrasting the forest blanketed in white is now like a gift from him, rather than just the view from the trail. I know he’s there with me – I’d never have been there or on the river in the first place were it not for him.
Sam came into my life and changed me for the better. These two activities are vivid reminders of that.
With limited time and the energy of three humans, he equipped me with skills to lead a fuller life than I’d known or imagined. Like skiing - he gave me that skill and thus, those experiences. As I’ve cruised the trails this season for the first time without him, enjoying the woods, laughing at Birkie running laps around me, and feeling the satisfaction of burning lungs, I feel so grateful to Sam for empowering me and equipping me (quite literally) to experience the joy.
When we met, Sam couldn’t wait to share his two favorite activities with me. He persuaded his parents to go in with him in generously buying his new girlfriend not one, but TWO pairs of skis that first winter. Waxless classic skis, and fat Backcountry Touring skis. After I “opened” them, we immediately set out into the dark streets of Madison, where snow had freshly fallen. I was wobbly and nervous about falling. Sam was ecstatic. (Is there a word stronger than ecstatic? If so, he was that.) We skied and skied that winter, and every subsequent season we could of the short five winters we got together, with two being stolen by hospitals.
It was a cacophony – that’s how I’d describe my experience starting off with Sam’s so-called “silent sports.” The cold, dryness of the snow cackling against the edge of my skis was only the beginning. My poles would flail around, hitting the snow or sometimes my skis at all the wrong times. I’d breathe so hard, I couldn’t hear a damn thing around me. I’d fall. I remember my 'skiing noise' being so loud that I continuously felt the need to look over my shoulder because I couldn’t tell if another faster skier was coming up the trail behind me. Much of the time, it was just my own effort causing the ruckus – there was no one there.
In the summer, he'd overwhelm me with information on flies and lines and rods and rivers. In the winter, he pestered me on the technique that taught me to be able to go. Yes, he also eventually gifted me a pair of skate skis – meaning more skills to learn and more speed to gain. He literally couldn’t resist, his love for sharing these activities was obvious and his passion infectious. I came to know the unequivocal joy of fighting a fish and sliding on snow through the woods. Those parts didn’t require any teaching.
In the summer, we’d float the Kenai. At first, he’d have to set up my rod, line, and reel for me, later shaking his head at the fish I was able to catch while he was stuck rowing. Eventually, he’d given me the skills to do it myself.
Sam was a natural endurance athlete, a teacher, and lover of silent sports. Tall, skinny, stubborn, and scrappy, he trained his lungs to take him as far as he wanted to go as fast as he wanted to get there. For skiing and biking, it was never about speed, but he was fast and determined anyway.
My body isn’t shaped for speed. It’s shaped for muscling my way up a hill in a gear far higher than is appropriate. But Sam was right – his activities are fun, healthy, and addictive, as I now know. They revert you to childhood – the tug of a fish, or letting out an audible ‘weeee’ on a snowy descent - it’s pure joy.
You earn the joy through burning lungs, freezing finger tips, muddy trails, knotted fly lines, slippery rocks, lost flies, and falling. Lots, and lots of falling.
Though far from an expert, the broken rhythm of the cast and the cacophony of skiing have eased for me now, and I find myself lost in the silence and able to listen to what the trail and the river and seemingly, he, has yet to tell me.
Still, as I ski, I turn around to look and see if someone is coming up behind me on the trail. Usually, there is no one there. I smiled at the thought recently that maybe the sound had been Sam encouraging me faster down the trail and further into the woods all along.
Note from Jenny: Sam's sister Sarah sent me this to post for Sam's birthday week. Please join us in celebrating by checking out the #32forSam page!
This year has been adjusting to the realities of losing Sam.
Last year’s Christmas was in Seattle with my sister stationed out of an obscure Airbnb. Kate was staying elsewhere as she had a small trace of a cold and my brother feared of any possibility of infection. This exacerbated well-worn sibling dynamics between Kate and my brother. Resultantly, Kate, Mom, and I spent most of that trip lingering over cups of coffee at a café in an adjacent neighborhood that served Swedish pancakes and blueberry french toast.
Since Sam’s first diagnosis, he took risks that blossomed into a beautiful and meaningful life. He was driven by his work and Alaska adventures. He loved Jenny, Birkie, his parents, and his grandparents. He had a special place in his heart for Grandpa Sharky. They were besties from the very beginning. Sam idled his youth on Grandpa Giles’ fishing boat until, as Grandpa pointed out, Sam found girls. Presumably this was sometime in early high school.
I recognized right away that everyone in Sam’s world experienced Sam’s death differently. His death blew apart Jenny’s life. It hit my parents like a hurricane that required extracting a life that once was and rebuilding from the pieces that were left. For my sister and I, we were hit like shrapnel from a proximal storm. It didn’t affect our daily lives in the way it did for Jenny, my parents, and Sam’s closest friends and co-workers.
I’ve felt this year like the wound from his death has been festering deep inside of me, too deep from the surface to feel but I know it’s there. It’s as if I knew there was growing infection inside me and I wanted the pain to rise to the surface so I could feel the feels appropriate to the magnitude of the loss. This week the needle I needed to hit the hurt nabbed it just enough to catch the spot and all the feels flooded to the surface. It was a small comment, a friend remarked that she didn’t talk to her family too terribly much. She said, “Take my brother, for instance, I only talk to him two or three times a year.” Boom, there it was, the needle. This comment hit me directly in the hurt for two reasons. The first reason is that I too only talked to Sam a few times a year. Sam was fully engaged in his life. Even though I didn’t talk to him often, I always knew what he was up to and I always found a strong sense of pride and shared identity in how he pursued his passions and made a difference in the world through his work. The second reason it hit me hard was because I couldn’t make those calls anymore and will never be able to again. The needle point puncture of festering infection felt cathartic.
Finally, the weight of my emotion mirrored the magnitude of the loss. Sam’s birthday is a week on Monday. He would have been 32. Since the phone comment, I have been a leaky faucet of emotion missing him. My mom says it comes and waves. There will be a little comment or memory and it hits.
Christmas was hard not for the obvious reasons but because when my sister walked into my parent’s place in Florida, Sam’s clothes, shoes, and fishing lures were in the closet and the desk awaiting his return. It was a ghost of healthy Sam. The last time Sam was there, he was living a vibrant, healthy life. No one had any indication his disease would return and unfold like it did.
Today I am on a plane heading for Mexico. I am doing a weeklong sailing seminar with NOLS that ends on his birthday. When Sam died, I asked Jenny for a jacket of Sam’s that I could take on my travels. It is packed in my little duffel awaiting a new adventure. It is a physical representation of how I take him with me wherever I go and how his spirit is still alive and moving forward in me, as it is in its unique ways in all the people he touched.
I miss his spirit and his tenacity. I miss the silly sibling dynamics that used to drive my sister batty. I miss not being able to make those calls 3-4 times a year. I miss his passion for work, love, and life. I carry these things with me, stronger and with more conviction that ever before.
I miss you, Sam. I am so proud of the life you lived and I carry you with me wherever I go.
Happy 32nd birthday.
I love you,