Nobody wants to be that heartless guy who tells an 83-year-old woman to kill the flowers she planted by her driveway. Not when the 83-year-old woman is your own great aunt.
But there they are, bunches of invasive, exotic garlic mustard. And Aunt Diane is proudly showing them off beside the driveway at her Rosemont home.
“I planted hollyhocks here,” she beams.
The trouble is, these little white flowers are not hollyhocks. Far from it. It’s one of the worst invasive species we’re battling in Illinois. Not only does this plant spread everywhere, out-competing native flora, it actually produces toxins that destroy life underground. Trees are affected. Native plants disappear. Garlic mustard blooms early in the spring before anything else and smothers all competition.
Aunt Diane tells me how she bought what were labeled as hollyhocks at the local nursery.
Now comes the sad part. It’s my job to rip up garlic mustard wherever I see it. I kill it without remorse. But I just can’t bring myself to tell Aunt Diane to tear out this particular patch of garlic mustard. And I don’t.
She’s been good to me. No 83-year-old woman anywhere should ever be told by her own family that she cannot enjoy the flowers she planted. I can’t do this.
I stare at the garlic mustard.
“At least it’s blocked-in from spreading beyond the driveway,” I think. I’m rationalizing.
And there is Uncle Tom in the house, my great uncle, sitting inside in a comfortable chair, staring at nothing, coughing every few moments into a napkin he lifts very, very slowly. He’s not well. Hospice has been called. I came to visit my uncle one more time and pay my respects.
These are the uncomfortable moments in life we never want to acknowledge even when they finally arrive. For years, I would think of Uncle Tom and think of nothing but good times. We went fishing together. In fact, when I was a boy he took me on a week-long fishing trip I’ll never forget. Years later, when I was in my 20s in college, he came to visit me in Carbondale and we went out fishing again. To this day, I have never caught a bigger walleye than the walleye Uncle Tom netted for me during that first, boyhood fishing trip.
I was 12, maybe 13 or 14. Uncle Tom had rented a cabin for us someplace where we stayed for nearly a week. It was a guy’s trip. Aunt Diane went off to Duluth to visit relatives. Uncle Tom and I lived like bachelors, washing dishes at the cabin only when we felt like it. We played cards. We fished every day and caught more northern pike, walleye and perch than I’d ever caught. We fried fish for dinner.
One afternoon on the water, that perfect moment that all fishermen dream about happened.
"Let’s try this,” Uncle Tom had suggested a few minutes earlier. He was busy keeping the boat in position, managing everything on board. But he took a moment to sift through his tackle and handed me a jig with a yellow, plastic tail. “These twister-tail jigs work for walleye sometimes,” he said. He knew what he was talking about.
Until that moment, I’d been content to catch the ferocious little northern pike that would chase our lures right up to the boat. But they were always small pike, undersized for the table, and full of bones, and Uncle Tom had a better meal in mind.
Nothing beats a walleye fillet. Even as a boy, I knew the taste of walleye was like no other.
And so I began casting my yellow twister-tail jig for walleye, casting it exactly as I had been casting for pike. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling.
I had no idea what I was doing.
"Let it sink,” Uncle Tom suggested after I’d made a few quick, fruitless casts. “Then take your time.”
And then it happened. The rod suddenly bowed—then pulled hard. I had a big strike, something truly heavy. I could tell whatever I’d hooked was bigger than any of the pike we’d been catching.
Instantly it began peeling off line.
The next moments of this memory are a blur. I remember I was shouting. There was the net in the air in front of me, being held by my uncle, ready for his job. I remember the clicking squealing chatter of the drag and the sudden, on-the-fly lesson from my uncle about how to loosen the drag while I was fighting the fish. I was winning this battle. The line stayed tight—but didn’t snap. The drag-loosening crisis was over. Uncle Tom was coaching me, steady-voiced, and I remember feeling that what was happening was something adults dream about. And this was happening to me.
More blurry fragments of memory follow. I remember seeing Uncle Tom using both arms to lift the heavy fish out of the water, the bronze fish slashing in the net like a pike. And then there was the measuring tape, and Uncle Tom opening his tackle box to retrieve of those anyone’s-guess scales fishermen carry.
Uncle Tom shook his head and told me not to believe the scale after he read the number it showed. It was rusty.
“These things are never exactly right,” he said. I believed him.
And then my blur of a memory includes arriving at the boat dock sometime later, where the owner of the resort came down the steps to greet us. He’d heard the commotion on the water. I remember he had a long face with the unmistakable expression of someone who has just witnessed someone else win the grand prize. It was the greatest thing I had ever seen.
Believe it or not, I do not recall the exact weight of that largest walleye I ever caught. Fishermen do not need to recall numbers. The memories of the experience are what matter. All I know is there has never been a walleye like that since I was fishing with Uncle Tom.
And now my visit with Uncle Tom is over. I’m standing in his driveway, having just paid my respects, thanking him one more time, for the last time. He smiled weakly when I retold the story of the greatest walleye. But I don’t know if he remembered himself. He’s fading away. He coughs again, lifting the tissue slowly, his eyes straining. It breaks my heart to see him like this. But this is life.
Out in the driveway my aunt is telling me more details about the hollyhocks. She poses for a picture.
She knows I’m about to leave, and things are about to change.
She suddenly looks at me.
“He is my whole life,” she cries out, trembling, the distraction of flowers forgotten. “I…can’t…”
None of us really knows the difference we make in this world. We cannot do everything that we should. But we do make a difference, all of us, both by what we uphold and what we decide to ignore, and life will go on.