This is reposted here from Trout Unlimited's Voices from the River blog series. The original post can be viewed here.
by Jenny Weis
The only thing that made sense to do on our second marriage anniversary was to go fishing.
A voracious lifelong angler, my husband, Sam, introduced me to fly fishing. He supplied me with the rod, reel, and meticulously organized bead box I used today. The net I used to land the rainbows, Dolly Varden, sockeye, and white fish was a gift I’d given him for Valentine’s Day three years ago.
Heartbreakingly, four months ago, Sam died of leukemia. He was only 31 years old. In his absence, Sam’s fishing buddy, Eric, was the one to row me downstream today in his new boat, which used to belong to Sam. (Sam would be thrilled for him to have it now.)
The notoriously turquoise river was brilliant against the rich green backdrop of the Chugach mountains. A weekday, the banks were quiet without the usual traffic of Southcentral Alaska’s busiest river. We could hear the glacial silt tapping along the hull of the boat – one of Sam’s favorite sounds. The sun came through the clouds now and then to warm us up, and the fish were biting. All the things that could go right today, did.
But still, all I could think was, “Sam should be here right now.”
That’s what I thought when I stepped into Eric’s beautiful, wooden drift boat that they’d spent a winter restoring together a few years back. It’s what I thought when we saw a brown bear cleaning up some sockeye salmon scraps on the river bank. It’s what I thought when I caught and released each fish with a smile and a high five.
Knowing it was going to be a tough one for me, Eric was determined to make today the best day he could. He succeeded. He was ready with a flask for a sip of whiskey in celebration of the first fish of the day – Sam’s tradition. We talked all day about best and funniest fishing moments we’d had with Sam. He even humored me in shouting “F*CK CANCER” in unison, our voices momentarily filling the river valley before being quickly swallowed up by the rushing water and wind in the trees. In the familiar way we’ve both done with Sam many times in the past, we fished, floated, and contentedly ate up BBQ sandwiches in the car on the way home, making comments like, “not a bad way to spend a Monday, eh?”
While Sam was fighting cancer, I felt guilty so often about getting away from the treatment-world to go have fun. Though he and I knew it was good for me to have a break from caretaking, the thought of Sam daydreaming from a hospital bed about fishing or simply being out in the world always broke my heart. In those days, I’d laugh at a joke or smile, and the happiness would fade quickly as I thought back to him, sick. To put it bluntly, during his treatment, I was worried constantly that the worst would happen, and Sam would die. For all of us who loved him, we never felt completely happy during his long treatment with the relentless weight of that fear on our shoulders.
Over the last four months, we’ve had to grapple with the fact that the worst did happen and pick up the pieces of life without him. However, Sam gave us a gift as he died: he simply wished for us to be happy. (Well, and a few other gifts like a beautiful wooden drift boat and meticulously organized and well-stocked fly fishing closet begging to be used.) Now that he is gone, I know my only duty is to laugh at jokes and smile genuinely. There’s no more worrying or fear of death, only finding joy in life. Though painful, days spent on the river like today are a way I honor what he taught me, and continue to live as we did together when he was healthy, and as I know undoubtedly he’d want me to.
So you can see why fishing was the only thing that made sense to do today. But still, he really should have f-ing been there.
Jenny Weis is the Alaska Program communications director. She lives in Anchorage.
On Monday, Sam and I would have been married for two years. As they've been much of the summer, my emotions are mixed. I'm happy to mark and celebrate our partnership. But I'm also heartbroken and a little unsure how I'll handle it without him.
I know usually anniversaries are meant to celebrate the marriage and not the marriage DAY, but our marriage happens to be documented in great detail on this website. Maybe I'm focusing on the day we got married because it was such a bright spot in the midst of a few really, really hard years. (Here's the blog post I wrote about it back in 2015. )
Anyway, before I head out to "celebrate" the only way I know how: listen to music in Hope and fish the Kenai River this weekend (likely the very thing we'd be doing together if he were here), I wanted to share this story from Annie Young and a little bit about the day we got married with you.
Wedding Day and Marriage Day
by Annie Young
Pete and I got married in October 2009. It was a typical wedding in Milwaukee and I was a typical bride (well- maybe a little crazy but still MOSTLY typical). Although of course for Pete and I it was such an important day- one that I had waited 5 years for. ️ I wanted it to be perfect while still trying to be flexible and fun. I enjoyed planning all the details. We invited all of our family and friends to celebrate such a special occasion. And of course this included the Weis family.
I didn't realize or understand until years later how special it was that Sam came to our wedding. He was in the midst of his first battle with leukemia. I remember Pete calling me in 2008- we were engaged- to share the diagnosis. He was over a year into the treatment by the time October 2009 rolled around and while contact had been steady, visits were limited due to cancer, law school, separate cities... The fear of catching a virus or infection from an unknowing friend or stranger was terrifying. So social interaction wasn't high priority. But there he was at our special day. I can remember exactly where they sat for dinner- to the right of the head table, near a window. I am guessing that he was probably there just to see with his very own eyes that Pete was actually going to get married.
Well, Pete did. (even though pete initially forgot our marriage certificate... a whole other story) We said "I do" at the church and went to the reception that evening. We made it through dinner with drinks and dancing to follow. Pete and I were doing our best to enjoy, walk around and thank all the guests for coming! I noticed at one point Pete talking with a group of people and I ventured over to see my new husband (such a fun word to say...). It turned out he was talking with Sam and the Weis family. I came up next to him and he turned around with one of the most excited faces I've ever seen in my life. I assumed it was because of the day, his wife, our marriage! But no... instead he said:
"So Sam and I were thinking that we would go to Real Chili really fast and come back. What do you think?"
You see the Real Chili was Sam and Pete's favorite spot. And while I know Pete was excited about the fact that we were husband and wife, he was also beyond thrilled to have Sam there. A friend that easily could have stayed home. And clearly I was going to be with him day and night, but Sam was only there for a couple of hours!!!
He was inspiring others to live by the phrase carpe the effin diem long before he named his blog. And my husband was hoping to seize that moment with a bit of Real Chili. In hindsight, I know Pete wasn't sure when an opportunity like this- a special outing with his best pal- would come around again. However I didn't have much time to think it all through...I said:
"Pete, please don't leave our wedding reception to go to Real Chili with Sam" (Kate remembers all of this in vivid detail!) They stayed.
Years later Sam would even agree that it was probably the right call to stay. And that he wasn't really sure if Pete was serious and even then he wasn't sure that he would actually asked me.
Fast forward 6 years to August 2015. Sam was fighting cancer again. Pete and I were headed to Madison. Sam and Jenny were getting married and they had this idea that Pete should be the one to marry them. It was going to be outside but it was literally pouring down rain. If that had been my wedding 6 years earlier- I would have freaked out, moved everything inside. The rain didn't stop them. They just got a tent.
I was truly in awe- the love between the two of them brought a whole new meaning to "in sickness and in health." I don't remember much of what was said because I was terrified that our 3 year old son was going to pull the tent down at any moment or our one year old daughter was going to start screaming. I just remember feeling like it was somehow perfect. Like somehow all this "stuff" that seems so important isn't always necessary. And sometimes we just have no control. The true meaning of being flexible and embracing the moment kept coming into my mind over and over again.
Towards the end, the rain had backed off to a sprinkle. We were headed to eat donut cake. I remember this picture snapped of the two of them walking to their car after it was official. They were smiling, laughing, loving each other. It captured what Sam and Jenny did best, finding the joy and love in any situation. I will never forget those smiles and that look. It's a large reminder to keep it all in perspective.
Over the years and watching Sam on his adventures with Pete or with Jenny, I've slowly learned to relinquish control- at least a little. I am still the planner and organizer in our family, but Sam taught me to live just a little bit more in the moment. To look for the hope. To keep my cool. To play one more game of Candyland. To hug my kids just a little bit tighter. To send a text to a friend just because. To head out for an unknown adventure (still tough for me not to know all the details... but if I know 8 details and pete keeps 2 a secret- that's a win.) To find the good in an imperfect situation. To play and laugh in the rain.
If I could do it all over today- I think I would have sent them to Real Chili.
Without further ado, about 50 seconds of our 2-minute Marriage Ceremony...
Sammy, marrying you was my favorite thing I've done. I love you.