I'm a personal man; and that's totally by design. I don't often share the details of my personal life in my own articles or social media posts because, quite frankly, I view privacy to be a beautiful thing. But please, hear me loud and clear when I say this: We all have our problems. We all have our battles. And as is the case in this particular piece, we all have deep, heartfelt regret about particular instances in our lives.
Regret that keeps us awake at night and continues to chase us throughout the day.
Regret that eats away at our insides when we so blatantly fail to seize an opportunity.
Regret that can reduce a full-grown outdoorsman to a puddle of tears and utter confusion.
I write this article not to preach or impose my viewpoints on others; I'll save that for the politicians of the world. Instead, I write this article through blurry, tear-filled eyes in an attempt to save you from the gut-wrenching pain I've recently experienced—pain that makes you sick to your stomach. Although it will never do him justice, I also write this article as a heartfelt apology to my late friend, Austin Cruce.
So, coming from a self-proclaimed private guy, here goes nothing.
We all have friends in our lives. Some are "work friends" with whom we remain cordial for the sake of our careers, some are "college friends" with whom we shared some crazy and not-so-PG-13 experiences and a very select few—most of us can count them on a single hand—are friends who would walk to the ends of the earth for us. Friends who would walk across miles of broken glass if it meant helping us. A special breed of person who can make you laugh uncontrollably with a simple facial expression or have a three-hour phone conversation to console you during a tough time.
Austin Cruce was one of those friends for me. This man was the funniest individual on Planet Earth. Whether he was hanging his head out the window of his truck while howling old Garth Brooks songs to innocent passersby or texting you a ridiculously stupid late-night selfie "just because", he never met a stranger. Everyone with whom he came into contact immediately fell in love with Austin. I've never heard anyone say a bad word about him.
On November 4, 2015, Austin passed away unexpectedly just a few short weeks after marrying Lauren, the love of his life. He was just 26 years old.
My body went numb when I heard the news. My face and hands tingled. My mouth went dry. I couldn't swallow for the lump in my throat and it felt like someone stabbed me in my stomach. I looked out my office window as tears dripped onto my blue Yamaha fishing hoodie. One of my biggest supporters was gone and I didn't know how to handle it. I still don't.
My emotions go through different stages each day. Some days I'm mad about it because he was one of those people of which the world needed more. Other days, when I'm sitting in my deer stand or watching the sunset from my bass boat, I feel him with me and cry like a damn baby without telling a soul. But throughout this proverbial roller coaster of emotions, one sentiment remains constant: Regret.
Austin always asked me to take him fishing—and I do mean "always". I never got the impression that he asked because he wanted to catch fish. I'm sure he would have loved to get his hands on a fat 5-pounder, but it was evident that he just wanted to spend time with me. All he wanted to do was spend a day on the water together, laughing and cutting up, making ridiculous jokes and talking about the simple things in life. Lord knows he and I could have a spirited conversation about both women and nature.
And I failed him. I'll repeat that: I completely failed one of my best friends. I never took him. I will never, for as long as I'm blessed to live, have another opportunity to make things right.
I was always "too" busy. I always had somewhere to be. I always had a tournament to fish. I always had a guide trip to do. I was always on the road. I always had more articles to write or photographs to take. My selfish mind could not fathom taking time out of my day for someone who meant so much to me. And I absolutely hate that to the core of my being.
The above photo is a screenshot of the last text message Austin ever sent me. I forgot to RSVP to his wedding invitation and he personally texted me to ask if I was coming. I told him that I wasn't able to attend due to a fishing tournament. A damn fishing tournament, folks. I consciously chose to chase little fish around—which I'm blessed to do almost every day—instead of watching one of the best men I know marry his beautiful and very faithful fiancé. What a selfish and repugnant decision that was.
Leave it to Austin to find humor out of it with that funny picture. But I know him, and I know it bothered him; and I went fishing anyway. That was the very last time I ever heard from him.
In today's society, everyone—myself very much included—is so consumed with getting ahead. We work long hours, work our fingers to the bone and egotistically believe, whether it's consciously or subconsciously, that whatever it is we're doing takes precedence over any and everything else. That is unequivocally false. Self-serving decisions like the ones I made when I failed to take Austin fishing and attend his wedding are the exact reason this world is going to Hell.
We all have the time. Being busy does not and will never make us special; everyone is busy. What really makes one special is selflessness, compromise and careful consideration towards the feelings of those we hold close to our hearts. It's a shame it took me 27 years and the loss of a beautiful soul to grasp that concept.
If you don't have the time to take your buddy fishing, make the time. Don't make excuses. And don't let your love of this great sport hinder you from experiencing the beauty of life. It's not going to kill you to spend the day with your significant other instead of being on the water. It's not going to be the end of the world if you take a half-day from work to take your best friend or dad fishing. This is the stuff that matters. Fishing is just a supplement to a full and love-rich life.
Please, take it from me. I've learned the hard way this year. You never know when your last hug or conversation will be. Especially for the men reading this article: Don't be so worried about being manly. Bear hug your buddies and your women when you see them. Hold their hands and pray together in the boat. Tell them you love them when they pull out of your driveway. Pride is an ugly, deceptive beast and again, I'm living proof of that.
To Austin: I'm so, so sorry for everything. You deserved better and I'll never forgive myself for it. You put light into my life through some rough personal times and I'll never forget each and every conversation and heartfelt laugh we had. As tears continue to roll down my face and that familiar lump returns to my throat, I want you to know that I love you. I talk to you all the time when I'm fishing, and though it's not as good as the real thing, I know you hear me because you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. For that, I'm thankful. For your dedicated friendship, I'm thankful. And for the memories I'll take to my grave, I'm eternally thankful. 'Til the next sunset, my brother.