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I am five, and my grandfather is a lion.
The word to associate with this summer is zoo.
My parents and I live in the big, crowded city of Minsk, Belarus. My grandfather, whom I call Dada, spends the major portion of the year living here with us. Because both of my parents work all year long, he is my play-buddy during the summer, and naturally, we have become the best of friends. This summer, he develops a new fondness for the zoo, which then becomes our new Saturday ritual.
One such Saturday, we walk into the zoo, and we hear the usual welcome music, a rough mixture of animal voices. The smell, a rougher mixture comprised of: animal waste, buttery popcorn, and steaming hotdogs was at first gross and almost unbearable to me, but now it has become a smell I miss during the weekdays and, more importantly, a smell that Dada and I share a love for. As we walk up to the ticket booth, skipping the incredibly long line, Dada takes out our SuperPass and shows it to the elderly ticket-lady, who recognizes us and lets us through with a smile. The SuperPass is another thing that we share. I call it the “smiling card” because it has a big yellow smiley face in the center of the animal-filled background, and Dada and I smile smugly at each other every time we use it.
Our first destination, as always, is the lion’s den. Other children I notice obsess over shaking hands with the monkeys, riding the horses, or watching the dolphins do flips. But I prefer the lions. I can sit for hours just watching them walk around majestically, breaking into a smile every time that they gracefully shake their manes. They are so brave, so strong.
As we sit in our usual spot, with the best possible view of the lions, I tell Dada that he is just like that leader-lion slowly and boldly walking by us, the one with the splendid golden fur.
Dada grins. “He certainly is a beautiful creature,” he tells me.
I am six, and my grandfather has no more stories.
When I was smaller, Dada used to tell me stories, all kinds of stories. One that I remember well is the one about the coal-miner who brings a star home with him. The story goes like this:
One day, a coal-miner comes home and notices that there is no light in his hut. By nightfall, it becomes pitch black. It’s so dark that he cannot even see his own fingers held up in front of his face. So the coal-miner decides to go out and find light. As he steps out onto his porch, he sees a twinkling star hanging in the sky. Without any hesitation, he grabs his shovel and starts digging up towards the moon.
This is where I would butt in and ask, “How can he possibly dig up?”
And Dada would respond, “Because if a man has enough courage and strength he can do anything that he sets his mind onto, even if it seems impossible at first.”
In the end, the coal-miner finally reaches the twinkling star and brings it home with him. From then on, there was never again a moment of darkness in his home, just colors, bright happy colors. This is my favorite story. I like it as much as I like the golden lion at the zoo.
This summer, Dada doesn’t tell me any more stories. No matter how many times I beg him to tell me just one, he keeps saying that he doesn’t have any more. One day, he finally gives in. The story is about the coal-miner who brings the twinkling star home again, but this time, the ending is different.
Just like in the original story, the coal-miner gets his shovel and digs up towards the star. But, halfway up, he cannot go any farther. The muscles on his lean arm start to cramp up, and the shovel suddenly feels ten times as heavy as it had been before. At that moment, his feet slip and he falls.
And he falls.
He is still falling.
I had always pictured, the coal-miner as being a strong, young man. However after this new version of the story, when I close my eyes I see instead an old, gray-haired man—a man whose face covered in wrinkles has an expression full of agony and defeat. As he falls, I get up from the sofa and run away.
Never again do I ask Dada to tell me stories.
I am seven, and my grandfather doesn’t smile anymore.
This summer was a long, boring, and humid summer. There was no Dada, there was no lion, and there were no stories.
Dada left in the spring to spend some time in his old house in the village five hours away by train from Minsk. He didn’t come back for the summer and he didn’t come back for the fall.
Now it is the winter, and he finally comes back.
But he never actually comes back.
Ever since his return from the countryside, Dada has been locking himself in his room. When I ask him why he wasn’t here during the summer, he simply replies that the summer here is too hot and that the winter elsewhere but here is too cold. He doesn’t smile when he says this, and his eyes are empty. I don’t ask him any more questions. I hardly say anything to him. I’m scared of him because he doesn’t smile.
One day near the end of the harsh winter, I walk over to the zoo by myself. I stand in line for over an hour because I don’t have a SuperPass, and the new grumpy ticket-lady frowns down at me with her thick glasses and lectures me about not fooling around inside. The aroma of the place makes me crinkle my nose in disgust. Fighting the urge to turn and walk back home, I slowly edge over to the lion’s den.
It’s gone; the golden lion is gone. It’s nowhere to be found in the closed-off arena. It’s not behind the boulders. It’s not bathing in the pond. It’s not sleeping inside the cave. It’s gone. I realize that without the golden color of the lion, the zoo is nothing.
As I turn to walk away, Dada walks up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Sorry he fell,” he mumbles.
The next day Dada in the emergency room.
The next day he’s gone.
After the death of Dada I carried on. I carried on by continuing with my life and forgetting. This story is about the things that I forgot, things that I couldn’t carry—I cannot tell the things that I carry. The lion at the zoo I couldn’t carry; the coal-miner I couldn’t carry, because he fell, and Dada’s smile I couldn’t carry, because it was no longer there. It’s quite easy to write about these things because they do not belong to me. These are only the stories that I forgot, and stories that I don’t remember. But it is incredibly difficult to write about the things that are mine, like the day that Dada died, because it’s true.
It was a white day, a white day that smelled of medicine and alcohol and sounded of tears and beating hearts. At 12:14 my dad picked me up from my 2nd grade class and told me that Dada was in the hospital. Three hours later all of us sat side-by-side on a graffitied gray bench outside the emergency room. My grandma cried loudly in my mother’s arms, clutching tightly onto her gold necklace with one hand. My mother later told me that it Dada’s proposal gift to her. My dad had one arm around my mother and the other arm around me, and I was lying on his lap, staring at the blank green walls of the hospital.
I carried the weight of my dad’s arm on my shoulders, the many pounds of tears that were cried that afternoon, and the tightness with which my grandma clutched her precious necklace.
Suddenly the light on the door to the emergency room went off, and in the same second we were all up and crowded outside the door, watching in complete silence as the doctors walked out, pushing a white bed in front of them. At least that’s what I saw, a white bed. Or maybe that’s what everyone else in my family saw as well, and for a while there was only silence. Because none of us knew what to do with a white bed. It was too heavy to carry but too white for us to forget.
The first sound that was made was when my grandmother collapsed onto the bed, screaming Dada’s name, trying to pull off the white sheet covering his body. The second sound was when my mom started quietly sobbing into my dad’s arms. The third sound was the frantic screaming that went off in my head as Dada’s face emerged from under the whiteness of the bed sheet. He was so pale, and his hair was so extremely white, as if the white cover left some of its color, or rather lack of color, on him. His face was all wrinkles: around his eyes, around his mouth, along his nose, on his forehead. I would like to be able to remember the peaceful expression of my grandfather under all those wrinkles, but I cannot. Instead I carry the empty and dead expression. It was empty because there was nothing to take from his expression. Not a beautiful word, not an encouraging story. Not a brilliant color, nor a dazzling smile.
Maybe to understand is to carry. I understood. I understood death and what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the zoo, and it wasn’t the splendid golden lion. It wasn’t the coal-miner, and it wasn’t the brilliant colors occupying his house. It definitely wasn’t Dada’s smile. So that day I carried death and forgot everything that it wasn’t.
And I wrote about what I forgot.
Because I have finally realized that it is not the truth that matters.
Nor what I carry.
But what I forgot.