Casting for Memories of Mom

How a quashed assignment, rediscovered journal entries and fly-fishing retreat helped me remember the importance of family and faith

Jane Pare O’Connor Morin gets a casting lesson from one of the guides at Casting for Recovery.

The words, in Mom’s beautiful and distinctive cursive handwriting, leapt off the page. I had searched, in vain, for years to find these notes; notes that my Mom — Jane Pare O’Connor Morin — shared for my story on the nonprofit Casting for Recovery almost two decades ago. Then, last May, during a Mother’s Day “purge” of old boxes in our garage, I found them. I was elated.

In 2005, I was asked to do a story on Casting for Recovery (CfR), which provides all-inclusive fly-fishing retreats for women, specifically cancer survivors. The organization first launched more than 25 years ago in Vermont, and is now headquartered in Bozeman, Montana. But its weekend retreats offer an escape for breast cancer patients and survivors from coast to coast, including New Hampshire.

“One of our mantras with Casting for Recovery is, ‘It’s not about the fly fishing.’ And sometimes that can be a contentious statement, because we have a lot of avid fly-fishers,” Faye Nelson, CfR’s executive director, told me. “However, the purpose of the organization is not necessarily to turn women into avid anglers. Our purpose is really rooted more in connecting women to nature and to each other. It’s mostly about the connections with each other. That’s really where it’s at.

“One takeaway (from CfR retreats) is the saying, ‘If you know, you know,’” said Nelson. “When we hear that a friend or family member has had a cancer diagnosis, any normally functioning human would have lots of empathy. But unless they’ve gone through that experience, it’s very hard to understand. What’s nice about our mission is that the women immediately feel comfortable when they pull up to one of our retreats, because they’re finally in a space where they feel that — if you know, you know — and they don’t have to explain themselves to anyone.”

Mom knew. By 2005, she had been dealing with breast cancer for more than a decade. She was initially diagnosed in 1992, had a lumpectomy and underwent radiation therapy. The cancer returned in 2001, with bone and liver metastases.

“The good news is that I’m still here, with a good quality of life,” Mom wrote. “Yes, with ongoing chemo, but the tumor markers were way down in the normal range.”

The more I learned about CfR, the more it felt like a great fit for Mom, even though the fishing bug apparently skipped a generation on Mom’s side. Neither Mom nor her older brother, Art, showed much interest. Mom’s younger brother, Bill, had regaled me and my siblings with tales of accompanying my Grandpere (Henry Pare) on his fishing trips as a youngster, but he didn’t pursue the pastime much past his collegiate years. 

That bug, however, bit two of my brothers — Mike and Matthew — big time. Back in 2001, we visited the High Lonesome Lodge on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Lodge manager Buzz Cox, a longtime guide from Maine, provided the three of us a master class in casting and catching. In the years since, my brothers have gone all-in on fly-fishing, and rarely travel without their gear. 

But the pastime never caught on with Mom, even though she, like Uncle Bill, loved telling stories of Grandpere, who worked for Public Service of New Hampshire and often was assigned to the state’s northern regions for months at a time. I remember the old sepia-tone photos lining his basement workshop — of Grandpere and his pals at their camps — and loved listening to him bring those images to life.

A CfR retreat, in my mind, would be a chance for Mom to meet women who had common experiences, and reconnect with memories of her beloved father. But when I asked her if she’d could commit to a retreat, Mom surprised me. She balked. Mom was a creature of familiarity, and taking a break from her routine to spend a weekend with a group of women she didn’t know didn’t thrill her. I understood, and told her that I’d find a different approach for the assignment. 

“You’ve got an assignment?” she asked me. 

“Yup,” I replied.

“OK,” she said. “Then I’ll do it.”

That’s what Mom did. If she could help out a loved one, she would. Always. So one sunny Friday afternoon in August 2005, I drove up to Manchester to get Mom, and together we headed off to the retreat. My plan was to chat with several of the facilitators and volunteer guides to get a few extra voices for my story. That didn’t happen.

JanefishingvtThe facilitators quickly accepted Mom into their ranks at the rustic inn hosting the retreat. They then showed me the door, telling me when I could come back on Sunday. It was clear that the setting was for the participants and the participants only. I gave Mom a big hug and a quick peck on the cheek, and left. 

Mom promised to keep a journal of her experience. But her recollections never saw the light of day. Only weeks after the retreat, my editors decided the story no longer worked for the issue they had planned. So they killed it. This isn’t unusual in the publishing world, but this decision was personal. 

I had asked Mom to go outside her comfort zone. And though she made “the best of it,” I wasn’t happy. That didn’t dissuade my editors. The same day I gave my West Coast editor an earful, Mom’s “journal” arrived in the mail. She preferred this method, taking time to collect her thoughts and respond in writing. I shopped the story around, without success. With a heavy heart, I put Mom’s five pages of notes into a manila folder, and filed them under “future projects.” Then I managed to misplace them.

In May of 2008, cancer finally took Mom from us. In the intervening 15 years, I’ve often thought of that special weekend retreat. And then the folder resurfaced. 

Mom’s notes go into great detail of all aspects of the retreat, and reveal her exceptional memory. All the women shared and compared their cancer journeys, assisted by the CfR staff. The topics ranged from medical procedures and post-op recovery to emotional challenges and the importance of developing a solid support network. 

The words also reveal Mom’s bedrock beliefs. In her world, there was nothing more important than family, and your loved ones took priority. But there were cancer patients and survivors at the retreat who admitted that they felt abandoned, who saw friends and family members withdraw after their diagnosis. Mom couldn’t fathom that reaction, and she showed her feisty French Canadien streak.

“As the talk circulated at the table, it was quite sad, and frankly infuriating, to hear that at this most difficult time in a woman’s life, her husband can’t cope and leaves, or selfish children are not supportive,” Mom wrote. “With everything involved — the fear and uncertainty — this last straw makes for a most stressful and lonely time. Fortunately, that seemed the exception rather than the rule. Once again, merci dieu for all the love in my life and my heart.”

Mom acknowledged that the group unanimously agreed that a “positive attitude is huge” when facing such a persistent and callous disease, and that support was vital for a cancer patient’s physical and emotional well-being. “The prevailing thought was that we are all sisters through this illness, and that we are ready to help each other,” Mom wrote.

Then, there was the actual instruction in the sublime art of fly-fishing — the very act of casting is considered therapeutic for breast cancer patients who have undergone invasive surgery. Participants were outfitted in the distinct wardrobe of the angler, including waders (Mom had borrowed a fabulous straw cowboy hat from her granddaughter, Kesley), and learned how to prepare the rod, reel, line and fly. Casting proved a challenge, as many of the movements differed from Mom’s favorite sport, tennis. By the end of the session, she was getting the hang of it.

“I found myself looking skyward and saying, ‘Dad, are you watching this? Pretty good, eh?’” she wrote. “‘So it’s in the genes, right?’”

Unfortunately, Mom’s proficiency at casting didn’t translate to landing any fish. She got skunked. If Mom was disappointed, she didn’t let on.

“I soon realized that only practice, as in any endeavor, will make you proficient at this particular sport,” Mom wrote. “The beauty and the quiet of the landscape, however, offer unique, welcomed balance for not catching anything.”

For Mom, the highlights of the retreat were the gatherings, the times when these strong, resilient women joined hands to help one another.

“It was all funny, apropos and even poignant with much applause from the volunteer guides and friends,” Mom wrote. “Here we were, 20 strangers on Friday, and leaving on Sunday with beaucoup hugs, vowing to ‘keep in touch’ with new friends, so grateful that our paths had crossed.

“If I came away with anything on this weekend, it’s the powerful value of family, friends and faith,” she wrote. “Also, as parents of daughters, we need to raise them to be strong, determined and centered in the important things.”

Clearly, like Nelson told me years later, Mom understood that the retreat wasn’t just about fly-fishing. Like almost any pursuit, there are lessons and rewards that extend far past the activity. Mom taught me that. That’s the message I’m reminded of on Mother’s Day.

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