The Fishing Trip

Brian Hansen shares a story about a special time he shared with his Grandfather just before he died. He shares what he learned from that visit that showed him how to cope with his own illness. He also learned how to help his own grandchildren when he was diagnosed with cancer.

by Brian Hansen

My grandfather died when I was only seven years old. That is more than 50 years ago. I remember him, but it is a cloudy memory for the most part with but one exception. The one crystal clear image I have of him is of a confrontation we had only weeks before he died.

Perle, his old-fashioned name, was an avid outdoors man. He owned a fishing boat rental in Northern Michigan and would from time to time take me fishing with him. I recall that he sat much more quietly in the boat than I was able to, a fact of which he periodically and sternly reminded me. On one special occasion three of my cousins and I went fishing with him. I cannot remember anything about the fishing trip itself – whether it was a day when we caught our limit or were completely shut out by wily fish. But I vividly remember the trip back to the farm in his maroon Willy’s Jeepster.

I was seated beside my cousin Mary in the back seat. I felt towards her as most other seven-year-old boys did back then. I abhorred her and could not have explained why, other than to say “She’s a girl.” At one point Mary leaned over and whispered to me that she hated sitting beside me and gave me an elbow to the ribs. I gritted my teeth and told her with equal discust “Well, I hope you know I’m not enjoying this either.” I never was a very good whisperer, as my mother’s archive of my childhood report card attested years ago. “I’m not enjoying this either…” were the only words my grandfather heard. Taking my words completely out of context, he assumed that I was unhappy with the fishing trip.

Unknown to us at the time, this was the year Grandpa Perle would die of lung cancer. After a long bout at the Mayo Clinic, he had returned home to the family farm to die. As children, we were all kept from knowing that he was ill. As a grandfather myself now these many years later I suspect that this fishing trip was a pain-filled, last effort to impart something of himself to those who would outlive him. It was an effort to leave something of himself in the memories of those of us who would live after he had died. 

When we pulled into Beaver Creek Farm my other cousins jumped out of the Willy’s and headed for the farmhouse for some of Grandma Sarah’s homemade raisin cookies. I, however, was marched to the side of the Willy’s by Grandpa where I was given an old-fashioned tongue-lashing about the merits of good manners and appreciation for what others did for us. I recall fighting back tears and wishing I could get past the lump in my throat to explain to him that it was not the fishing trip that I had disliked, it was just Mary.

Weeks later, as he lay dying in the farmhouse, I knew that something was happening in there that wasn’t good. My mother and her four siblings along with their spouses were inside the farmhouse looking sad and no one was talking very much. I can remember climbing the weathered cement steps to the gray-green wooden porch and pulling open the battered screen door. Someone – my mother I think – met at the door and blocked my way. I was told to go outside and play with the rest of the cousins. I couldn’t come in now. It was not an age in which children were helped through the new and frightening experience of losing a loved one. I remember standing on the porch and again wishing that I could tell him that I loved him, and that it wasn’t the fishing trip that I had not liked.

A year and a half ago I was diagnosed with bladder cancer at an early stage and without any apparent metastases. As a bereavement counselor and minister I have been present when the bad news was given to a patient. At times while walking back to my car after visiting with a patient, I would wonder how I would react were it me. While my particular little neoplasm is much less virulent than that of Grandpa Perle or any hospice patient I’ve known, it is still a life-changing occurrence and an adventure into the unknown. My doctor has assured me that “If you had to have cancer, this is the one you want.” Since my kidney was removed a year and a half ago, and now with my more recent bladder surgery and therapy, I’m told that it’s probable that I will get to hang around for many years and see my three grandchildren grow up. That would be appreciated.

It has made me think of the lesson of the fishing trip and of a little boy’s wish to restate his love for his grandfather and fishing buddy. My grandkids are older than I was and they do know what’s going on with “Poppy” which has given me an opportunity to calmly and optimistically speak to them. This is their first brush with the reality of human mortality and I’d like to do all I can to help them understand and find strength for their own challenges in life. Talking helps not only them, but me. Being close to one another in our hurt and fear helps. Being able to share something of who I am with them is a kind of immortality, I think. Handling the experience of a life-threatening illness openly and with support for those affected also gives power, if not over the disease, then over the fear which threatens to isolate us from the very people who could be our greatest of strength.

For now, I think I’ll take the grandkids fishing.

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