“No, no. We can’t keep that one. Why? Well, this is a special fish. Look here, you can tell because of the gold belly. That’s right, you did catch it, but you can’t keep it. Well, what if this was the only special fish in this pond? No one else would ever get to catch one, and that would be a real shame.”
It wasn’t really a surprise. I heard it in my mother’s voice when she called after school: the ever so subtle tremble that let’s one know that something is very wrong. She tried so hard not to let on, but I knew nonetheless. I didn’t tell my sister. She would find out soon enough. The sun shone bright through the blinds of the living room. I sat in the light and stared straight ahead. There really wasn’t much else to do. The crying would come later, though my eyes were already turning red. I waited, probably for my family. Then, it wasn’t right to cry alone.
Why? What a stupid question. Asking it would only bring more questions, and trying to answer them would only make matters worse. What did it matter why? It only mattered that it was done. Finished. The realization calmed me. Sorrow turned to peace. It didn’t help. I swallowed a sob. There was a scratch of keys at the door, and a moment later, it creaked open. My mother’s eyes were swollen, her hair slightly disheveled. I didn’t ask any questions, and she didn’t offer any answers. She disappeared into the hallway, the creaking of the old floor following her. I heard her stop about halfway to her room. She shouldn’t have stopped. Each photograph that lined the narrow corridor was a window to a freshly wounded memory. She was staring at him, and he was staring back at her from the fishing pond and the kitchen. He squatted, showing me a crawfish that I was trying my best to escape from. He was cooking some fish, his silver strands of hair matted against his balding head, eyes wide and mouth slightly ajar as the unnoticed camera caught him in action. My mother missed him. The quiet creaking was replaced by quiet sobs and broken sighs. A moment later, a door closed. I drowned in the silence. My dad got home half an hour later, and he too vanished behind the door without a word.
“You know what I want you to do for me, don’t you Nicholas?”
“Obey God and get an education.”
“That’s my boy. Ya know, Mark, we’ve got to train these kids up when they’re young. You’ve got a fine young man here. It’s our job to make sure he stays right.”
An hour passed, but I hardly noticed. Time was irrelevant. The more it marched on, the farther he was left behind. My parents emerged from their room, collecting my fifteen year old sister on their way to the living room. The sun had moved on, but I sat in its shadows. I shivered. I didn’t care. My dad cleared his throat, breaking the silence. My calm shattered with the quiet, and I felt all the tears swell up in my temples, pressing harder and harder with each word that he said, until finally it all built to the climatic revelation and... release. The tears flowed freely down my cheeks and into my mouth, onto my hands. It felt good. All four of us sobbed. That was Monday.
Wednesday was the funeral. We drove to my grandmother’s house, a little cottage type house that hadn’t changed in nearly fifty years. The big oak tree still stood strong, just like it had when my dad was a boy. My grandfather had taught us both how to climb trees with that tree by lifting us onto a high branch and leaving us there. He sat on the porch and watched us cling to the limb in terror. He was a strong man for a long time.
When a leaf dies, it curls up and slowly changes color. It shows its most brilliant fall shades before finally turning brittle and curling up, when it falls to the ground to be buried under other leaves. My grandfather was not so different. In the years leading up to his death, he showed his best qualities in their most vivid display. He never stopped caring for those around him, even the nurses that cared for him in his hospital bed for the last months of his life. His passion for learning and teaching turned into his sole purpose. He taught himself Spanish and tried to teach me two years before he died. His unwavering love of his family kept him going strong. Even he could not hold on forever, though. Slowly, he began to cross to the darker side of death. His memory began to fade. Bible verses which for decades had been his favorite teaching method in matters of morals, were lost to him. He could not stay awake. He could not get up. He could not speak. He could not go on. He was too weak in the end, and he let go, falling slowly to be buried by those around him.
“You know what I want you to do for me, don’t you, Nicholas?”
“Obey God and get an education, Grandaddy.”
“We’ve got us a fine young man, here, Mark. Ya know, it’s your job to make sure he stays that way....”
I didn’t know why, but my father cried then. Funny how one never catches the small things until later.
The family was all there when we arrived. We were hurried into the back by my grandmother. Her eyes were dark and weary, her frame pulled into itself. The last few years had taken their toll on her. She had no tears left to cry. We set our things down and went out to greet the rest of the family. I lingered behind. Across the hall was my grandfather’s room. I went in. The room was in perfect order, as it should have been; he hadn’t slept here in months. Everything was in its proper place, exactly as he would have had it. I sat on the bed. The smell of his cologne was faint, but present. The dark silence of the room began to whisper. Shadows of memories long put to rest darted in my mind, each calling out for me to remember, each joining in the ever growing chorus of fond times reaching out to be revisited, until suddenly the place exploded into memory, loud and very real; I could see my time with him in this old room: the midnight snacks we had snuck into bed while my grandmother slept, learning to shave at five, and eating sticks of butter (much to my mother’s chagrin) under the dinner table. I cried. I tried to go into the next room, but the same thing happened - each room brought back old memory long forgotten, each gave a new reason to cry, and cry I did.
My dad finally collected me and took me outside. We walked around the fishing ponds. Most of my time with my grandfather when he had been well was spent at the three ponds he had dug into the backyard. They were huge, and each had its own type of catch. If anything at the old house represented him more than anything, it was his ponds. He could easily be found on a Sunday afternoon with his young Sunday school class sitting on the banks of the bass pond, passing around the rods and trying to see who could catch the biggest fish. Then he would fry what they caught and feed all of them. He loved to do for others. The water was still. No fish stirred the surface. The pond was empty.
The funeral was nice. I hated being there. I hated that it was finally time to say goodbye. The funeral home was small, but it was packed. About a hundred were seated in the tiny pews, and about two hundred standing in the sides and in the back. Both men who eulogized him cried. The family cried. All three hundred people cried, and from the curtain of my bitter tears I scorned them. Why should they miss him as much as I would? As much as I did? He was mine. My eyes stung with the dull dryness of miserable tears. I remembered seeing them in the mirror at my grandmother’s house. The shine was gone in them. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. It certainly felt that way.
It was at the burial that my grandfather performed his greatest work. I sat with my parents, silently weeping, all alone. A rough hand found my shoulder, and I looked up. An older man thanked me for my grandfather. A moment passed, and another came. One by one, dozens came, each with their own story of my grandfather and how he helped them, or how he touched them, or how he would be missed. I stood and looked around. Some cried, some laughed, some smiled, and some stood sullen, but they were all talking about him. Dozens of fishermen, all from the same pond, all gathered to talk about the same catch.
And then, it was over and I found myself, once again, at the water’s edge. It had all ended before I realized it had even started. A pair of bass rose curiously to the surface. I smiled. They had been there all along. I turned and walked slowly back to the house.
I never did fish there again. I, after all, had caught the special fish.