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Just Gone Fishing
"Grandpa, today I'll be your doctor and cure you!" I said as I walked into his bedroom wearing latex gloves.
He was breathing heavily and he had bruises all over his arms from the injections that he had gotten the same day.
"How are you going to do that, Michelle?" he replied.
"By giving you a big kiss on the cheek.” I said.
I kissed his cheek and he laughed with delight. He looked up at me with his hazel-green eyes and said, "I feel much better now Michelle, thank you."
I said, "Goodbye Grandpa, I love you", and I kissed his cheek once more, but this time I felt how truly fragile he was.
As I pulled away I felt the sudden urge to burst out in tears, but I pulled myself together because I knew that he hated it when I cried.
Little did I know that would be the last time I would ever see him alive.
I used to see him every day when I was a young girl. My grandfather always picked me up from elementary school and he would stand outside in his blue hat and orthopedic shoes, waiting for me. When I finally spotted him in the crowd, I would smile and give him the biggest hug I could manage. We would have a conversation in Russian and he would poke fun at my poor enunciation as we walked down the street together, holding hands.
Everything changed five years ago. I remember that there was a phone call in the early afternoon. I was around eleven years old and curious to see who was calling. I picked up the phone at the same time that my grandmother did. I wish I hadn’t, because even though I was young, I still knew what the word cancer meant. I remember when I heard that word, I quickly ran to my bed and hid my head under a pillow and pretended that it was only a dream—but it wasn’t. And I remember that my grandfather had to start chemotherapy. I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up on the Internet and saw photographs of the procedures and its side effects. I cried and wished I hadn’t looked that up.
Three days after my last visit with him, the sky was gray and it was raining so hard, harder than I had ever seen it rain before. It was late in the afternoon and I was home alone when the telephone rang. My mother was calling to ask me a few questions. I heard her voice crack throughout the entire conversation, as she tried to prevent herself from crying. She didn’t tell me directly over the phone, but I assumed from the tone of her voice, that my grandfather had just passed away.
Not long after the phone call, everyone returned home. Both of my parents were already aware of what had occurred, but my sister and I waited to hear directly from our grandmother. My parents, my sister, and I sat in the living room as we heard my grandmother slowly walk up the stairs. Each step that she took was a sharp pain in my heart. When she finally made it up the staircase, she immediately sat down on the couch and tears were streaming down her face. She sobbed and said “Grandpa has just gone fishing”.
Right before I went to sleep, I told my sister: "I don't know if I said the proper goodbye." I cried myself to sleep that night and I dreamt of my grandfather. There were images in my mind of him fishing. He stood there waiting for a fish to bite the bait and I was there, trying to reach for him. As I reached towards him, he reeled back a big carp and smiled at me.
When I woke up the next morning, my grandmother was in the bathroom combing her hair, preparing for my grandfather’s funeral. I went inside to see if she was okay, but then she asked me if grandpa would have liked her outfit. I wanted to tell her that she looked beautiful, but I could not reply. I walked away crying, unable to speak. All I wanted to do at that moment was go back to sleep and dream of my grandfather.
My grandfather promised me that we would go fishing the summer that he died. I wish we had, because I wanted to go into his fishing room one more time. His fishing room was where he prepared for his fishing trips. This room used to be my mother’s bedroom when she was a teenager. When she moved out, the room was transformed into his fishing room.
This room was the most organized chaotic place that I had ever seen. It was his sanctuary of old fishing lines and poles, and where you could step on a few pointy hooks, if you weren't careful. Everywhere I turned, there were fishing related items. Anyone passing by this room before one of his fishing excursions could see him inside preparing, and he would appear very happy, truly happy.
When I was around eight or nine years old, I remember standing by the door of his fishing room and taking a glance at what he was doing. When I peeked through the doorway it looked as if he was standing on top of the world. I saw him working inside, and thought he was the greatest person alive.
Once, daringly, I stepped inside his fishing room and searched through what seemed like billions of contraptions that lay across the room. I saw nets, many varieties of fishing poles, and tools that colored the room. It looked as if everything was discombobulated, but in actuality, it was perfect. What I had not seen were the small pointy hooks that were on the floor. I had stepped on a hook and I learned from that experience to admire my grandfather from outside the doorway.
After my grandfather passed away, I went inside my grandfather’s fishing room one last time. It felt like a completely different room. It was strange to see that the floors were cleaned and there wasn’t a pointy hook in sight. The only things that weren’t put away into storage were two photographs that were hung side-by-side on the wall. The two photographs were the portraits of my grandfather’s mother and father, my great grandparents. I had never noticed the portraits when the place was cluttered with fishing equipment. But since the room was cleared of everything, I noticed that the portraits were placed in such a way, that it seemed as if they were looking after my grandfather’s room. Those portraits are the only things left of my grandfather, in the room that will always remain, in my mind, his fishing room.
I don’t go back to my grandparent’s apartment, because it hurts too much to be reminded that he’s gone. My grandmother goes back there from time to time, but she never stays for long. I guess she feels the same way that I do, but we don’t talk about that. Instead she talks about the man she still loves. As she talks about him, I learn more about my grandfather, and he always loved it when I learned new things.
“What book are you reading Michelle?” he asked. He was sitting on the couch watching soccer.
I looked up at his face and saw him masking the pain that he was feeling.
“Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince” I said as my eyes traveled down toward his swollen feet. This, I knew, was from chemotherapy.
He smiled and said, “That’s good Michelle, very good. Always read. Always. Because the more you read, the more you’ll learn.”
I couldn’t respond because I was concentrated on the redness of his feet, as I was pretending to read.
He wouldn’t dare ask for the remote control that was not far away from him, so he stood up and hid the pain. He didn’t notice that I was watching him, because he thought that I was reading. But all I could do was watch him as he struggled to get the remote control.
Those were the same feet that walked everywhere to find a bouquet of flowers, in the freezing cold, when my grandmother gave birth to my mother.
Those were the same feet that stepped off the plane, which landed in his new home—the United States of America.
Those were the same feet that walked my mother down the aisle on her wedding day.
Those were the same feet that ran around, playing with his grandchildren.
Those were the same feet that ran as fast as they could when his father told him, “Run Sam, run”, because the Nazis were coming.
Right before my grandfather passed away, he told me about the time when he was a soldier, fighting in the forests of Russia, during World War II. He would meet with his comrades in the woods and strategize. I remember him telling me this personal story, and I was able to imagine him fighting for his family and for his own survival.
I would have never picked up the novel If Not Now, When?, by Primo Levi, if it wasn’t for my photography teacher, Mr. Solo, who encouraged me to read it. The novel is in many ways similar to my grandfather’s account of how he ended up in the forest and met other men who also sought revenge against the Nazis. The moment I began reading Primo Levi’s tale about the Partisans fighting in the woods, I instantly thought of my grandfather. Every line of the novel, allowed me to picture him, walking in combat boots through the forests. I could see my grandfather again.
We went fishing together as a family during the summers, and we would have small picnics nearby the lake. My grandmother would prepare enough food to feed an entire army. We would run away from the hungry ducks. We would get sunburned. We would laugh. And we certainly did take many photographs.
After my grandfather died, I wanted to find a roll of film my sister had shot during one of our fishing excursions. This roll of film captured what he loved to do most: fishing. I searched for weeks with my sister. We looked through papers, behind bookshelves, on the floor, but we had no luck.
One day I started moving my printer and saw a dark object underneath. I ignored it at first, but then I kept moving my printer and it started wobbling. I lifted my printer up slightly and saw what I had been looking for: the undeveloped roll of film.
I held the small canister in my hands and cried. When I held it in my hand, I felt closer to my grandfather. I felt like I was going on another fishing adventure—but it turned out that this roll of film brought me on a greater journey than I’d ever imagine. I learned in photography class, that making art, is a journey in its own way. My grandfather was my teacher who taught me about life. He led me on a journey that allowed me learn about his life, even after he passed away. This thought came about when my teacher, Mr. Solo, was having a conversation with his students during my photography class. The conversation was about how many of the world’s languages were quickly disappearing, but that wasn’t what got to me. He went on to recommend that we should talk to our grandparents and learn from them.
When he said this, I thought to myself, “I don’t have my grandfather any longer, he’s dead.” I began to cry in front of people I had barely met.
Everyone around me tried to calm me down, but I just couldn’t and I didn’t want to. We continued our class outside on our campus, to photograph interesting subjects. I didn’t participate that day because my emotions had gotten the best of me. Instead, I lay down on the grass, and thought about where my grandfather was, and how unfair it was that he was gone. When the class ended, I told Mr. Solo about the roll of film that I had found. He said we would develop it as soon as possible, and he kept his promise, because the next day, we did.
When the roll of film was developed and had dried, I looked at the negatives. My question concerning my grandfather’s whereabouts had been finally answered. In one of the images, I saw that he was leaning against a fence, holding onto his fishing pole and looking out towards a lake. I never had a doubt in my mind that my grandfather had left this world, and the negatives showed me where he was. My grandfather had gone to the place that he loved most. I suppose my grandmother was right when she sobbed, “Grandpa has just gone fishing”, the day that he died.