Earlier this month I went fishing. My grandfather turned 74 and we made our way down to "the lake" to celebrate. From Dallas, East and then South. There are no direct ways, just a series of close enoughs. Longview, Tyler, Kilgore, Henderson, Carthage, Tatum, Center or some combination thereof, and finally Milam, little more than a stop sign coupled with a few helpful signs pointing towards the lake. Named for Benjamin Milam, a Texas revolutionary to whom I am distantly related. The lake is Lake Toledo Bend, sprawling sixty some odd miles along the Texas-Louisiana border. It is not a conventionally pretty lake, in the way Lake Como or Tahoe are, all glassy and still. They dammed the Sabine River without federal financing, and the lack of oversight shows. The lake flooded a larger basin than they expected, and they failed to cut down many of the trees in the basin as a result. The result is a submerged forest, treeless stumps jutting out of the water at irregular intervals, dead pines and oaks lurking under the often murky water. Attempts to water-ski outside of a few well defined boat lanes would best be ill-advised at best, an invitation to wrong kind of spectacle. It is a fishing lake first and foremost. I have always loved it. Though I will never be half the fisherman either of my grandfathers were and are, I love to fish.
I first came as a boy and that is perhaps why. I remember before the house was built coming with my grandparents to look at the land, a few scrubby uncleared acres on a point. I walked right up to the edge, snapped branches from the trees and threw them out in the water, eagerly waiting to see how long it would take them to get caught back in the mess of limbs clinging to the bank. Later, fishing from the pier that came before the house and sleeping in a trailer. Then, the house slowly forming- or at least so it seemed to me at the time- from the ground, a foundation that lingered for a time, bricks, plumbing, my brother and I hopping on the tractor digging the trenches for the water pipes, me standing on the back to drive the tractor a little deeper. The excitement at being allowed to use the tractor as a bulldozer to grab chunks and rock and toss them into the water to help form a retaining wall. My brother and I grabbing runners of St. Augustine grass jutting over that same retaining wall to plant in the front yard, taking every opportunity to throw dirt at one another. There was a certain thrill in all of it, the kind of thrill that is easily captured when you're boy, as a sense of unfiltered exhilaration permeates the entire experience. Catching bees in a jar and wondering if they'll make honey if you stick a few leafs of clover in. The absolute conviction that the scrap metal in the field behind your house can be turned into a shield, sword, or fort. The idea that if you throw a branch into a dammed lake it will somehow find its way to the ocean. I have grown older and traveled far from here. I have seen many lakes lauded by guidebooks, the glassy stillness of Lake Tahoe, rustic and ringed with mountains, casinos, and ski lodges; the placid calm of Como, villas littering the shore like a pageant; Lake Lucerne, an alpine fastness, the Lake itself somehow hiding amongst impossibly steep peaks. Yet despite all of that, none of them have ever filled me with the same sense of wonder I felt as a boy at Lake Toledo Bend, pulling blue gilled bream from the bank or gliding along the shore in a bank trying to ferret out a bed of "white perch."
I was reminded of that on my most recent trip to the lake, and I started to wonder what kind of boyhood James would have had. What would he have found wonder in? What kind of boy would he have been? Quiet, competitive and stubborn like me? Social and forgiving like my brother? What would he have looked like? How would his features have continued to come together? He looked so much like Kara, even in our 4D ultrasounds I could make out her features in his face. When he was born there was no doubt. Hair just like Kara had when she was a baby. Cheeks and nose like Kara. Blue eyes I used to humor myself and say looked more like my blue than hers. You can buy a program on the internet that ages faces, which I think renders an image similar to those that appear on milk cartons. I couldn't bring myself to do it, it felt too morbid. But my mouse lingered for a while on the link. I find myself thinking about what kind of joys he would have had, what we would have shared. Would James have liked to fish and tried to learn from me, or like my brother would he have found it a little boring and looked for something more entertaining like hunting? Would he have wanted a lake to water ski on? I am missing experiences I don't even know would have ever existed. I am missing everything.
The frustrating thing about losing a child is that you don't even know what to miss. The life you are mourning is incomplete, riddled with possibility. You're left mourning a construct of the child you thought you might have had, guessing at the glimpses you had of them for what could have been. As time passes and James would have been bigger, I find myself thinking more and more about the different times in his life I willl miss, from toddler to boy. It's a frustratingly incomplete process as a result, as you're left mourning potential. I always (and with no shortage of bias) felt like James had extraordinary potential- and I think every parent thinks that about their child. It's extremely frustrating never to know if you were right or just grasping at straws, to never even have the opportunity to be exposed as being helplessly biased in a parent teacher conference. There's no resolution. I don't miss James the baby or James the boy he never was. I miss James my son, each and every moment of his life that I'll never see. Then again, I'm not sure I'd want to miss anything else, as that would be just as incomplete.
Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers.