Penny Berryman: Listening, looking, crying

Don Barone
WBT pro Penny Berryman

About the author

Don Barone

Don Barone

db has been in the reporting biz for over 30 years, won some Emmys and other awards, but is proudest of his four-decade marriage, his two kids and the fact he founded Tackle The Storm Foundation to help children.

LAKE HAMILTON, Ark. — Behind me, a woman stands on a dock. Alone.

She scans the waters of Lake Hamilton.

Listening.

Looking.

Crying.

I know that, because I made her cry.

And then I left.

This lady told me she was "a woman of the water, born under the sign of the fish, Pisces." And to her I brought tears.

And I did this by listening.

This morning, a stranger showed me her strength by opening her soul.

She spoke of miracles, of things bittersweet, of competition, camaraderie and compassion.

She cared about me coming there early in the morning, so she had breakfast waiting for me. She spoke softly while holding a 4 1/2-pound dog in her lap, rubbing the dog, dabbing her eyes.

I watched the dog watch her, saw unconditional love in the pooch's eyes, saw the same look in her eyes when she spoke of family and friends.

Behind me, Women's Bassmaster Tour pro Penny Berryman stands alone on a dock, watching the other WBT pros zoom by.

On her lake.

Without her.

And it hurts.

This was going to be Penny's year. She so desperately wanted to qualify to fish this WBT Championship. On her lake. On the lake where her husband won a tournament, back when they wed, almost 30 years ago.

But it wasn't going to be. A brain tumor saw to that.

Earlier this year, this woman standing alone on the dock was diagnosed with a meningioma, the most common kind of benign brain tumor.

It was found growing behind her left eye, misshaping the eye, damaging the nerves that make the eye move, and growing quickly so close to her optic nerve that she had to have surgery right away — right during the season.

The season of the championship on her lake. The season when the champion earned the WBT's first-ever berth into bass fishing's grandest stage, the Bassmaster Classic.

And as we stood there and watched the WBT boats fly by on this last day of practice, Penny waited for the next boat to go by.

She watched.

She wished.

She waved.

Then she turned to me and said, "They just told me, the docs, that they didn't get it all. Some of the tumor is still there."

As I drove away, the woman on the dock stood there, holding her 4 1/2-pound dog, with tears in her eyes.

And the dog didn't cry.

But ...

A 4-year-old and a carp

Sorry BASS, it began with a carp.

On Oologah Lake in Oklahoma.

"My Daddy and Mom loved to take us four girls fishing every weekend."

That would be Daddy Clyde, and Mom, Dottye.

All the following quotes come from Penny Berryman, though I'll point out when it's me doing the talking.

"Catching a fish is like Christmas, a big surprise with every bite. It's like opening a Christmas present when you pull that line out of the water."

"Saturday night fishing with Daddy was a big adventure."

Clyde has since passed away, "But I still have Daddy's tackle box in the garage out there."

Even though it was almost 54 years ago, she still remembers catching her first fish.

"I was 4 years old, we were at Oologah Lake, and adults were lined all up and down that cement wall and only one person was catching fish, so I just walked right over to him, sat right down next to him and said, 'Can I have what you are using?'

"And he looked at me kind of funny, kind of grinned and said, 'Sure.' He then reached inside something like a roofing bag and he pulled out some sweet bread, and he spit on it, wrapped it around my hook and told me to throw it out there. So I did with my little Zebco reel, then something almost pulled me off the wall. I laid back real far and he said 'reel that in, reel that in.'

"Well, I could hardly reel it in it was so strong so all the adults were coaching me so he told me to put the reel over my shoulder and run up the hill, so I threw it over my shoulder and just ran. Finally in the distance I hear this yell: 'You can stop running now.' This poor old carp, 5-pound carp was getting kind of beat up by being drug across gravel, but all the adults came running up to me, cheering, patting me on the back.

"It was like a little bitty kid gets to be a hero for a day. It lit a fire under me, I remember going out checking on that fish in the tub of water several times that night, even petted his back, but it just made we want to go fishing every weekend. That fish, the first one, lit the fire that still burns today."

Thirteen years later, at 17, Penny caught her first bass.

"That did it. I was hooked. When that bass exploded out of the weeds and took my bait, I'd never seen anything like it. From that moment on, I couldn't get enough of catching bass."

And for the past 29 years, Penny has been chasing bass as a pro — an entire wall of awards and plaques in her office attests to that.

Which is why it is so tough for her to just be standing on her dock, watching the WBT fly by without her.

"It's bittersweet. Yeah, that's a good word for it. I'm so proud of the ladies. I'm so proud to see their boats go by. My heart, my spirit is with each and every one of them in their boat."

That sentence may not have taken long to read, but it took awhile for her to say it. First it was just some watering of the eyes, then a dab allowed a small drop to flow down her cheek. Her dog pawed her leg, wanting to get up on her lap, while he stared at her face as the tears came. Then I saw change come over his face as well.

"It hurts not to be out there with them, but I'm going to be making a big sign to hang on my fence out by the lake and in big letters it will say, 'Good Luck WBT Anglers.' Hopefully they'll see it when they go by."

A sign on a fence, placed there by a champion.

It's like seeing Joe Montana sitting in the stadium crowd, Richard Petty in a lawn chair, or Mickey Mantle in street clothes. Just doesn't seem right, and when she told me about hanging the sign, it nearly broke my heart.

The dog soon came over my way.

The fire within

Penny Berryman carries with her the beauty of a sunset. The beauty of a khaki beach kissed by blue waves. Some would say "a looker," while others would mention the grace of Jackie O.

But I can only photograph her from one side.

The right.

The tumor has the left side. Her left eye.

"I started having problems with my left eye that I thought was contacts-related, didn't think anything of it, just kept thinking something was up with my contacts. Then one day I went to the side of the house to do something, and when I looked at our wrought iron fence, it started moving in and out like a wave. When I told my optometrist, he sent me to an ophthalmologist right away, who sent me straight in for an MRI."

The results weren't good. "They found a meningioma trapped under my skull that was reshaping the back of my eye and affecting the nerves that controlled the movement of the eye and was extremely close to the optic nerve. I didn't want to loose the optic nerve and be blind."

Patting her visor on top of her head, "It's a good thing I wear this. They pretty much cut my skull open from ear to ear, but this fits right over it, and is about as long."

After surgery, she had no depth perception for about a month. That meant no driving, either the car or her bass boat, and worse, no fishing. Even now, four months later, her left eye doesn't line up with the right eye 100 percent, still sits off center and seems to move around on its own.

Surgery took place on June 11, 2008, smack in the middle of the WBT season, the season of the championship on her lake. Penny Berryman could not compete on the third stop of the WBT, Old Hickory Lake in Gallatin, Tenn., on June 19, just eight days after surgery, but she made the fourth stop, Clarks Hill Lake in Evans, Ga., on Sept. 18 ... just a little over three months after doctors operated on her brain.

I was there. I saw her walk in and register with a patch over her left eye.

Today she told me why she did it, "I need to be by the water, on the water. I'm at peace when I can see the water."

Even if it is just with one eye.

The tumor within

"Not many people know this, but in the last week and a half they told me they didn't get it all out, the tumor all out. At some point, I'm going to have to go through Gamma Knife radiology to get what's left out."

I had no idea what to say to that, because what she said next left me with even less to say.

"The tumor also has wrapped itself around my carotid artery. They can't remove that."

All I could do was pet the dog.

Penny got up and showed me a photo of her and her husband, Dick (also an angler). Both had big smiles on their face as they hugged each other. It was before they knew of the tumor.

"We got married almost 30 years ago on Lake Dardanelle. After the ceremony, my husband and I escaped out onto the lake in a bass boat, and under a full moon, we just kind of drifted around and he pulled out a bottle of champagne and we toasted each other with the champagne. It was something I'll never forget."

Thank God for the dog. I just kept rubbing his back.

And then the lady of the water welled up and told me a final story, a story of faith, hope, and holding hands:

"Eight weeks after surgery, my left eye still closed, we had finally got the depth perception right with the new contacts. When I told my optometrist I finally got the depth perception back, he said, give me your hand, and when I reached out to shake his hand, he took it in his hand, and put his other hand over mine, and I immediately put mine on top of his, then he started talking to God.

"He told God all sorts of wonderful things. He told God I love the outdoors, and what it means to me, and how much I love fishing, and what this has done to me and asked that God help me out. And he talked to God with me and my husband in that room for maybe 20 minutes. I had never had anybody say a prayer like that, and the room just filled with this presence. And you could just feel it, and it gave me so much strength and it touched my heart so deeply.

"The very next morning, the exact next morning, when I got up out of bed and went into the bathroom, my left eye opened. And it continued to open for several more days, and then I could see out of it. Maybe it was just ready to, maybe it was just coincidence — but maybe miracles just do happen."

To the woman standing alone on the dock.

— db

Don Barone is a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. Other stories of his can be found on Amazon.com. For comments or story ideas you can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com

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