Last night my hero died. After my own father’s death, pap became my model of Christian masculinity. I wish I had done more to live up to his example. Today I rejoice for him. He has moved beyond this world of pain and has an eternity of peace and joy ahead of him.
I mourn for all of us that he left behind who are now that much poorer for want of his presence. However, I mourn knowing that I will see him very soon and will share that eternity with him, my father, and our heavenly Father.
Until then I will miss you pap!
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13,14
When pap got sick some time ago, I wrote this short story as a kind of tribute; an attempt to communicate what he has meant to me. I’m reposting it to say thank you for all that you taught me. I love you!
A Fish Story…of Pops, Larry, and Me
I stood on the bank looking down as the water slid by, uninterested. Where was it going? I knew that on this day it would pass by dozens of guys like me. Tomorrow it would be miles from here and some new river would have crept in and unobtrusively taken its place.
Next year it might get the chance to do its part in forming the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World,’ or driving a Thai peasant from her hut, or maybe find itself imprisoned in a concrete cage and tortured with chemicals.
But for now it just rolled on by not paying a lick of attention to me with my stupid expression and tattered pole.
My bobber fought to join it on the journey. It, like everything else, didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Suspended below was a worm that was not having a good day. He had probably spent the morning minding his own business and now couldn’t quite understand why life was so unfair.
So far his torture hadn’t attracted the audience I was hoping for. He was a gamer, passionately going through the routine, but it was hot and no one else seemed to care.
I had learned in biology class that the scientific name for earthworms is lumbricus terrestris. I still don’t know why that matters or why I need to learn about the geography of Southeast Asia. There are so many things that I don’t want to know. That worm probably felt the same way.
Enough said. It would soon be over for him.
Larry was a wily one. I had never seen him, but I could picture him anyway. Pops had touched him once, before I was born. Every June, when I came back for my annual visit to my grandparents place, Pops would always tell me that he had seen Larry over in the hole “just the other day.”
Pop loved to describe Larry’s gaping jaw, scarred from previous battles. He told me that the old fish had really lived and understood.
“Life is an education,” he would say. “Every day we are learning or we are dying. I guess that Larry still has things to learn.”
But this year there had been no sign of Larry. Maybe he had finally learned it all. Or maybe he just got bored and quite fighting the river. Perhaps he had kicked back and was floating past all those fisherman, smiling a big fish smile because he knew they were there. Maybe he had decided it was time to fulfill his lifelong dream of swimming through a hut in Thailand.
No. He was still there; watching me. He was probably wondering where Pops was. Why hadn’t Pop celebrated the end of the latest ice age by marching along the bank peering, searching, challenging?
But Larry couldn’t know. The war was over, and Larry had won. Mom said that Pop was with Jesus, but I had seen the wooden box lowered into the ground.
After today, Larry wouldn’t have to worry about me either. Every year I counted down the days until my mom would load up her station wagon and drive me the four hours to Pop and Gammy’s summer home. As we drove through the gates that announced our arrival, the anxiety that had built throughout the school year would leave me in an instant. Like that gasp of air that hits your lungs after surfacing from a deep dive, I would instantly feel alive and free. But this would be the last time.
Sure the house would be here, but I knew it would never be the same. I knew that, after today, Larry was rid of me. Truth be told, I doubt that I ever caused him any real concern. Pops, on the other hand, was what my English teacher would have called a worthy protagonist.
I closed my eyes against the tears that welled and could hear the familiar preface, “The first time I saw Larry he smiled at me.” Every year he told me the story before we ever ventured down to the river, and every year I would give the same reply.
“Pops, fish can’t smile.”
But Pops would patiently explain that there is a language deeper than words that all of God’s creatures understand. He would tell how Larry had challenged him, and he had no choice but to pursue.
And one year Pops had caught up.
“It was a perfect mountain afternoon. Not a cloud in the sky, and the air was so clean and bright you could taste it,” he would say.
“I was staring at the water when a long shadow caught my eye. A passing cloud I thought. Then my pole jerked ferociously and I knew what the shadow really was.”
For the better part of an hour, the two combatants waged war, joined by an almost invisible connection. But even the bravest of warriors wears down. Every creature has its limits.
That day Larry reached his. When the moment came, all the fight left his shimmering body. He followed along helpless…acceptant.
A pair of leathery hands lifted him into the horrifying and suffocating brightness. And then, inexplicably he felt himself falling.
Pops told me that as he pulled Larry from the water and held him up to look him in the eyes, an unexpected crack of late summertime thunder caused him to start and the giant fish had tumbled from his grasp.
Pops always smiled when he told me this, and I suspected that he was happy that Larry had gotten away. It seemed that it had been enough to wear the big fish into submission, to pull him from the water and look into his black eyes.
We continued to pursue Larry, year after year, but maybe Pops hadn’t really cared about catching him. As he had gotten older he seemed to focus less on Larry and more on me. In a way Larry became a silent participant in our comfortable triumvirate.
Over the last few years, Pops had seemed to wilt before my eyes. We still went to the hole and sat and talked, but he seemed increasingly distracted. He drifted off for minutes as if he was actually some place far away and had inadvertently forgotten to bring his body along.
Getting up and down off the logs that we used as fishing perches became increasingly difficult, and I saw the pain that the effort caused him. Last year had been the toughest. Our last fishing expedition was cut short. Pops had gotten cold. It seemed really odd, even to a dummy like me, since it was eighty degrees in the shade.
Before we headed back up the hill to the house, he told me that he loved me (which had strangely frightened me) and began talking about the river. He said that although we call the river by a specific name, that was just for convenience.
“The name is really a marker of time, not the river. The river is actually many rivers, and none. It is a part of a whole and it never stays, but also never leaves.”
“It is OK,” he said. “That is just the way things are.”
I could still see the intensity in his eyes as he said those words to me. I didn’t really understand what he said, that last time. But somehow I knew that he was right. It was OK. As I pulled in my line, I pictured Larry swimming around in that thatched hut, and I smiled.