It was 16 years ago almost to the day that the Master Fly Fisherman above the sky decided it was time for my dad to go wade that stream where the trout always rise, where they always strike the fly you are offering, and they always finish the fight by landing in your net.
They say it gets easier when you lose someone you love, but they are wrong. As the years pass, you just get used to it, that’s all.
On the anniversary of the death of Stephen R. Markey, M.D., it was comforting to embrace many of the things my father taught me, about life, about the world, and about the outdoors. Those lessons are intertwined, and inseparable.
It was often while hunting in the woods, wading a trout stream, or fishing the lakes of the Canadian wilderness where he found refuge from the stress and pressure of a demanding surgery schedule, delivering babies at three in the morning, worrying about a patient that he knew faced a grim prognosis, or managing a large family practice.
It was in those outdoors places where some of our most precious time was spent.
My dad grew up dirt poor in rural Indiana in the Great Depression, then after serving in the Army in World War II, worked his way through Indiana University and the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago. He considered education the cornerstone of a successful life and used every locale as a forum for teaching.
If we were standing on the bank of the Pigeon River near Gaylord in Michigan, he made sure my brothers and I knew something about its hydrology, biology, geology, and zoology. Then we fished it.
The trout stream was also the ideal place for dad to tutor us on patience, presentation, and the value of keeping a low profile when in pursuit of those wary brookies and browns.
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You don’t expect to learn to split firewood from an M.D., but my father also shared that expertise with us, since he had used it to make a few dollars in his youth, when a little money often meant meals.
He also taught us stream etiquette, a seemingly lost practice of never crowding another fisherman, making a soundless entrance and exit from the waterway, and always leaving the creek bank cleaner than you found it.
And then there was the fish cleaning. You have never learned to clean fish until you’ve been educated by a surgeon, who was as meticulous and precise filleting a walleye on a rough plywood slab at an outpost camp in Manitoba as he was in the sterile surgical unit at the hospital.
My father also prized research and study, whether he was examining a difficult medical case or getting acquainted with a new fishing territory. He taught us the value of maps and data, so each time we flew off into the Canadian bush, we were already very familiar with the remote lakes we would fish.
There were also countless messages learned elsewhere, and every story had a moral, every conversation a keeper moment.
I learned true charity from a doctor who sometimes accepted butchered chickens or landscape work as payment, and far too many times in the eyes of his actuarial advisers, just said “that’s OK, don’t worry about it.”
I learned compassion from a man who continued to make house calls and see patients in the office into his seventies, and when a well-intentioned observer asked: “Doc, why don’t you just retire?”, he creased that already heavily knit brow, showed them a list of 40-some geriatric cases he was attending to in the nursing home, then asked: “Who will care for these people?”
I am grateful for the 76 years God kept my father on this earth. Many people’s lives were enriched by this man. He came into this world with nothing, accumulated great knowledge and skill, shared what he had with his family and those less fortunate, then left us as an old trout fisherman who still owned a wood-frame landing net, and as a family doctor who still carried a black bag, and used it to make a house call less than a week before he died.
I regret I did not pay closer attention when he talked about the most subtle nuances of fly fishing. I had a chance to be trained by someone who was very good at it, but missed the opportunity
Likewise, I can’t hone the blade of a knife the way he could. My father cleaned fish with knives he sharpened with diamond stones and achieved a surgical edge, and I should have studied that skill at his side.
My dad was also a master woodworker who was self-taught yet able to produce heirloom-type pieces of fine furniture in his basement shop. I watched, but did not learn, never realizing that the difference between fine carpentry and surgery is just a matter of the texture of the material.
I miss his wit, his wisdom, his robust laugh, and his ability to reassure a terrified 4-year-old that after a couple of stitches, everything was going to be OK.
But after 16 years without him, the regrets are few, the precious memories are still many.
I just hope that the next time a trout rises to take that fly, I play it the way he would, the way he taught me, which as it has turned out, was always the right way.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.