Geneviéve Villamizar.

The last time I fished this spot was with this same friend and darn it all if we hadn’t stumbled upon fireflies while hiking out. Have you ever seen these Midwestern points of light in real life? All aglow and aglimmer, across a midsummer’s eve? It’s gasp-worthy magic. Though it is almost winter and fireflies are long past, our jaunt to the river still held promise, if only because of the memories.

At the easement access, we slid into our waders, joking about our lame seasons; I blamed the low water, warm river temps that kept many of us away for a chunk of the summer. Truly? It was mostly work and fatigue. 

We double checked our gear and the beer stash then hiked down to the river. Late autumn sunlight danced in everything: the tangles of wild autumn clematis, grass tops in the pastures and the riffles and runs coursing through the valley, just up ahead. 

Unless it’s an obvious, annual hatch, I never know what I’m going to tie on until I get to the banks and can zen out for a while. I turn on “soft eyes,” watching just above the film. I study the air just above it, zone out on the pockets and pillows, looking for snouts, fins, bulges, shadows. I look at the grass and shrubbery, watching for bugs. I push up my sleeves and pull stones from the river bottom — what’s wriggling? 

In years past, eagerness always cost me. Visions of water from the road above gave me the zoomies. I’d string my rod and miss ferrules. I’d drop gear in the river or forget it altogether in the truck. Somewhere along the way, I slowed down — letting in others’ stories and experiences, perhaps. 

This day, a bluebird November day with nary a hint of snow, felt like a streamer day. As had the last one — way back in June, maybe? Late runoff? I still had a yellow streamer tied on; I was surprised to note its silver mesh body. How had I not noticed that before?

Sitting on the river bank with my fishing buddy, stringing up and feeling like a Norman Rockwell cover, this massive Rottweiler, all feet, loose coat and wagging tail, joined up with us. Twin trails of slobber hung from his jowls beneath two huge pools of limpid brown — those puppy eyes. He stole me over, dragging contrails of slime, rubbing, wiggling, panting and pawing. “Conrad” read his tag; he wasn’t even two, yet.

This stretch of river was his home and the regulars seemed to know him. 

Doofus nature aside, Conrad was clearly a river dog: wandering far from the barn, checking out eddies, banks and boulders  — independent, safe, chill. He reminded me of my past river/bird dog, Zoe. Whistling him back over, the bond was instant. The distraction, compulsory. He settled in beside me, his hide warm. I rested my head on his flanks as the truth washed over me: I didn’t know how to fish anymore.

I have a brain injury.

Three years ago last month, I flipped my Ford on black ice. Within 24 hours, I couldn’t distinguish one graduate school course from another, let alone which professor taught it, or how to decipher peer review literature. X-rays, neurologists, MRIs, spinal surgery, neuro-psychologists — no test and no doc so far has been able to explain the inexplicable chaos of my mind for the last three years. 

I function in a seemingly harmless haze, often not knowing the day or time or what the heck I have committed myself to that day or that week — until I consult my iPhone, the Post-its, or the Sharpie scribbles on my left hand.

Talking to others with brain injuries, I’ve come to understand more what has happened to my grey matter — and my nervous system. Traditional docs, insurance policies and specialists have little to offer. So, I approach each day anew, discovering along the way what my limitations (many) and my capacities (extraordinary) are. 

Nothing is what it used to be, except perhaps the familiarity of our chickens and the comfort I find in messing about the yard. I don’t remember my conversation with you from yesterday and I often can’t tell — did I actually do that thing? Or did I simply think about doing that thing?

I can’t read books anymore. I can’t run anymore. And now, apparently, I can’t fish anymore. So — thank you, chickens, and your silly, goofy ways. Thank you yard, for your steadfast liveliness. Thank you, sun, for your light on my face; and summer fireflies; and the winter to come, bearing hoar frost and sun dogs. I thank our lucky stars for the promises of nature, rivers and all those other phenomena… in such peril these days.