In my first real memory of him—it’s 1992; I am 13; he’s 65—my grandfather is pulling a knife out of the utensil drawer in our first American kitchen, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The one with the curved handle, which makes me think of a little scimitar—something that disembowels rather than slices. It had come with us—sometimes the USSR made things well enough to be worth it. He drops the knife into his trouser pocket, blade tip down, like a pencil. “May God help me find him,” he says, storming past me.
I’d been mugged. Like a fool, too—near a busy street, in daylight. It was my grandfather’s fault, in a way—he had made me wear the jewelry that attracted my mugger, a young Russian guy with what looked like a real scimitar under his shirt. I hated wearing things—watches, sunglasses, even shoes—but my grandfather wanted people to see how well we were doing. It hadn’t occurred to me to say no—that’s not the way things worked in my family.
When the guy called me over, I stopped. When he explained what would be happening, I listened. When he showed me his knife, I began removing necklace and bracelet. When he asked my address, to keep me from squealing, I told the truth. It didn’t occur to me to do otherwise. So my grandfather was going to walk the neighborhood till he found him. He would put a knife in his belly while whispering hideous things in his ear. I could hear them.
Would it be the first person he killed? I knew, vaguely, about a dumbbell to the jaw for a fellow Soviet Navy man who’d stolen a care package from my great-grandmother. (“You’ll do without it, kike.”) A champagne bottle broken over a Soviet head after another anti-Semitic slur. (It turned out to be a colonel’s head, which meant prison time, which meant my great-grandfather had to bribe the judge, though that only got the sentence reduced.) But killed, I didn’t know. I’d been brought to America for a different future. No more violence, no crime. But even at 13, I understood how much I had shamed him by doing exactly as I’d been told.
Twenty-five years later, I’m sitting in a bar in Bellingham, Washington—you always remember the place—when I get a call from my mother. There are spots on his liver and lungs. It’s progressing much more quickly than the oncologist thought.
Several months before, he’d been diagnosed with stage 3 bladder cancer. Stage III was good—it wasn’t in the bone. But there was a tumor the size of a soccer ball pressing on his prostate, making it impossible for him to relieve himself. After an agonizing interlude involving three hospitals and a catheter, radiation and low-dose chemo destroyed the tumor. He “felt like a human being again.” Cancer is supposed to spread slowly through an old body, but his next checkup had revealed the opposite. “We’re talking about months,” the oncologist said to me. “Your mom said you’re getting married. You may want to do it sooner than later.”
You could say it was his turn. In the war, he lost an older brother and a hundred relatives. At the outset, he had poured scalding water on his older brother Aaron’s feet, but that delayed Aaron’s conscription by only three weeks. My grandfather managed to get the age on his own identity card revised down by a year so that he was drafted in 1944, when many draftees survived, not 1943, when they didn’t. He spent the intervening time picking pockets in Central Asia, where he’d run off just in case. After the war, he fenced cars, sold and bought contraband, and smuggled gold, narrowly avoiding the firing squad despite a KGB interrogation. (His associates, who did get the firing squad, didn’t give him away.) Four things mattered to him: his family, survival, the money to ensure it, and a bottle of good Armenian cognac, a currency that meant more than real currency.
In 1997, he survived a quadruple bypass. In 2004, after 55 years together, he lost my grandmother, and nearly went mad himself. He may have been responsible. He’d plied the Soviet surgeon who was going to remove her gallbladder with so much cognac the man was still drunk when the time came to operate. She ended up needing a transfusion, which was tainted, which gave her cirrhosis.
So he refused to hear of a transfusion to replace the hemoglobin shredded by his bladder cancer. We tricked him into it: He was told he was getting my mother’s blood. (With the doctor’s collusion, she made a show of having it drawn.) We lied to him about everything having to do with the illness: He never knew he had cancer. Knowing would have activated a fatalism that would have made his usual hypochondria seem like enthusiasm. Not knowing made it possible for him, beached like a big baby in the doctor’s examining chair, to say, as if he was haggling at the open-air market in Minsk: “What’s he saying? Think I can squeeze out another tenner?”
We lived on pretense and lies. When, after my grandmother died, a city assessor appeared to evaluate him for subsidized home care, the man who a moment before had been showing me a dance he’d learned in the Navy started gnashing his teeth and crying for Mama. Then he insisted the assessor was his daughter, and, just to make sure, pissed himself. Having been disabused of faith in the truth by his homeland, he had gotten, over there, such a running start in deception that in America he couldn’t quite stop. Not that he tried. I would talk about all the things we’d gotten—for free—from our adoptive country, starting with the plain fact of its taking us in. His answer was always the same: a catalog of everyone lost in the war and the anti-Semitic abuse of our Soviet lives. Then the capstone: “What, I deserve less than others?”
When it came to us, they were all lies for love. He lied about the reason he didn’t want to visit my parents in New Jersey (it was boring). My mother lied to him about my girlfriend’s having been previously married. When I handed him my debut novel, he gave me his best imitation of a man impressed, put it down without opening it, and went to get a bundle of mail that needed translating. (He found it suspicious that publishers paid out your advance over three years when the manuscript was already in their possession. “And what if they change their mind?”) Donald Trump would have given my grandfather’s embellishments of family station—he never told people that I went to Princeton, only that I was accepted to Harvard—an A+. He declared his devotion to me on the phone so loudly and baroquely (“Somebody says ‘your right arm for your grandson’s happiness,’ and I say ‘start cutting’”) that finally I understood it was to impress his home aide, not me. It was the transparency of these home lies that offended me—how little he thought he needed to try in order to fool me. For I was his grandson, concealed-from or not. I knew how to read between the lines.
I couldn’t bring myself to invent. I tried to. It was the mission before every visit. Everything would be so much simpler if I could just tell him what he wanted to hear.
So I punished him how I could. When I had no work, I told him. When my relationships fell apart, I told him. And when he lobbed the anachronistic Soviet absurdities that he continued to believe because he had never disturbed himself to get acquainted with his adopted culture—if I grew out a beard, I would get fired, the way management took special note of “unkempt” individuals in the USSR; if I was single, people would think I was gay; if I moved away from New York, people would think I was a loser—I lobbed back even harder.
But I never stopped visiting him down in Midwood, in south Brooklyn, where you start hearing Russian and don’t stop until you hit the Atlantic. If I stopped coming altogether, that would hurt him in ways I wasn’t willing to hurt him. And so I came, an ambrosial meal made by his home aide softening the distance until I found a new soreness to work over. What would we talk about otherwise? We had nothing in common. And I couldn’t bring myself to invent. I tried to. It was the mission before every visit. Everything would be so much simpler if I could just tell him what he wanted to hear. But I invented all day in my professional life. I wanted him to know the real me—that, for me, was love and respect, not the opposite. You told lies to people you didn’t think could handle the other thing.
But when he fell ill, all this fell away so easily that I was filled with regret and elation at once. I experienced the desire, in the time he had left, to offer him nothing but love on his terms. In doing so, I knew, I was resolving to lie better. I’d lost, but it didn’t matter because he was about to lose something much bigger.
The first visit of the new regime was momentous only for me—only I knew he was dying. The television—his cable package consisted of eight stations from Russia—was blaring as usual; he was arrayed atop a tower of pillows.
“Hello, princess and the pea,” I said, trying to make light, and kissed him on the cheek, smooth as always. He cut hair and gave shaves for 36 years by the Minsk train station, and kept himself as groomed as a playboy. His hair was as thick and silky as a teenager’s; I always ran a hand through it as I greeted him.
“Read these pills,” he said by way of hello, extending a vial. “Can you get addicted?”
The label said oxycodone. “I guess,” I said. “What is this for?”
“See,” he said, shaking his head.
“Why isn’t the A/C on?” I said. It was September, but as hot as July. So he’d be less frugal with the air conditioning, my mother had made up a story about the government paying 50 percent of every senior citizen’s electrical bill while the heat lasted, but he wasn’t running it anyway. What, you could trust the government to do what it said?
“We run the A/C all the time,” he lied now, shouting over the volume.
On the screen, a frightened young woman was telling a man with a broken nose that she didn’t love him. “You’ll change your mind,” he assured her. In the next frame, a woman berated a man: “Are you a man or not?” After a stab of dramatic music, the title of the film swelled on screen: The Road to Ruin.
“Very lifelike, that film,” he said.
For as long as I’d been coming to see him, the TV was our third, the volume having to go up by a bar or two every year. We always sat at the dining table, but sometimes I would look up from my pork belly or carrot salad—the menu got more chaste as the television got louder—to find him stealing a glance at the screen.
“Chaos is his weapon, and power is his aim,” the announcer intoned gravely in the commercial that followed the one for the film. “He overthrows governments and turns currencies to dust. He is an illness, and he won’t go away. Tune in for: Soros: Quant of Destruction.” Because he funded pro-democracy groups, George Soros had a rival only in Hitler, as far as the Russian government was concerned. Russian television relayed its line faithfully.
“Ah, fuck them all where they are,” my grandfather said, dismissing the screen with his hand, and winked at me. Sometimes, he dismissed things by pushing the air away with four fingers, as if they weren’t worth the trouble of an impassioned rejection. Sometimes by smacking the air left to right with the back of his hand. And sometimes, he ridged his hand as if he was about to shake someone else’s but then rotated it and opened the fingers slightly in a Yiddish-like gesture that meant: Just look at that asshole. Though I’d never watched his hands purposefully, I realized I knew their habitual gestures better than my own: the way the shelf of his pinkie moved around crumbs on the tablecloth while he spoke on the phone; the way he kept his palm on his forehead as he slept, occasionally opening it as if reasoning with someone, or calculating the make on a deal; the way he spit on his fingertips when he was counting money. Even at 90, his nails were clean and square, though the Navy tattoos on his hand, forearm, and biceps had dulled to a weak blue, and he no longer wore all the jewelry that he, too, paraded as proof of concept. Only the gold Star of David around his neck, which always banged into the home aide’s Ukrainian Orthodox cross as she bent to put a plate down before him.
“Jessica doesn’t get mad when you leave?” he said.
“Why should she?” I said. “I’m going to visit my grandfather.”
“But you could say that,” he said, “and instead go see a lady.”
“Shitty people do that,” I said. “Is your grandson a shitty person?”
“What?” The television was going off like mortars.
“Is your grandson a shitty person!!!” It lost some of its power on the second go. Everything I said sounded like an accusation because I had to yell it at him.
“No! You’re five stars.”
“Jessica’s out herself,” I said.
“With whom?” he said.
“A friend,” I said. In English, the word doesn’t have to reveal gender, but in Russian it does. I had thought about pretending the friend was female, but didn’t.
“And you allow that?” he said.
“He’s gay,” I said. “Nothing for you to worry about.”
His face darkened. “And why would she associate with people like that?”
“Because he’s a good person.”
“What kind of a good person can he be? No wife, no children.”
“The same is true of your grandson,” I said.
We returned sullenly to the television. I wasn’t doing very well in my plan to be more conciliatory. My grandfather had finished only six grades. Was reared in Soviet prudery. But there were things about him, like his derision for political power in all forms, be it Stalin’s or Putin’s or Obama’s or Trump’s, that felt like the hard-earned insight of a man who saw past his circumstance. I couldn’t let go of the feeling that he was too generous, too experienced—had been around too many people in too many places—to be a homophobe. But he was. When I mentioned a new girlfriend, the first thing he asked—his dread mixing with the need to speak decorously around his grandson, the result nearly biblical—was: “You lie down together, don’t you?” He’d met my girlfriend, Jessica, but had forgotten. He probably thought she didn’t exist. The problem was he was half-right. Just two months before, I had been set to propose, but we ran into trouble and were now separated.
The home aide, who was from western Ukraine, leaned into the living room. “Have mercy, kind people,” she said, meaning the television. “All day like this—my head is going to split into two. They sell headphones where he can turn it up as loud as he wants, but I can still watch it at regular volume.” I colored and apologized. My own brain was melting. Maybe that was why I was being so combative. Maybe because after nearly 15 years and three long relationships, one more had unraveled just a step shy of the threshold. Maybe because he was dying, and in this apartment only I knew.
The commercial that followed was for a travel feature on a once-predominantly Muslim region that was part of Russia’s imperial take when it steamrolled the Caucasus in the 19th century, its people deported and divided ever since. As the camera swept the virgin, snowbound peaks, the sighing, marveling voice-over said: “Learn why these proud, enchanted mountains couldn’t resist the advances of the great Russian beauty!”
The government propagandists working over Russian viewers also were not trying very hard—the falsehood before us was easily correctable by anyone with a phone. (This was painful to watch because it went along with a great deal of expertise. In another segment, a different set of political shills spoke about the number of electors in Pennsylvania with a facility to shame most Pennsylvanians.) And now our administration was lying the same way, finally giving the Russians proof—which, until now, they often had to invent—that, as they’d always claimed, we were no better. Never having learned how his adopted homeland was different from the USSR, now my grandfather never would. Now, when he said “they’re all crooks,” he was right.
The next Sunday I brought headphones. There were even more pillows under him. I tried to make the princess-and-the-pea joke again, but it turned out that he was sitting this way because he had blinding pain in his back. That was why the doctor had prescribed oxycodone. But he was refusing to take it because it would turn him into a drug addict. I had said so myself. As far as he was concerned, he was merely enduring a new set of discomforts before he could resume his normal existence, and he certainly wasn’t going to do so as a junkie.
As I berated myself for not having realized that I should lie about the oxycodone, I tried to distract him with videos from a performance by the band for which Jessica was the singer. They were months old, but it’s not like he could understand the time stamp. He seemed pleased to see she existed, but then his face blanched. His hand was shaking. “I don’t know,” he said. “It just started.” I didn’t know what to do, so I just kissed him on his silky teenager head.
The television was showing a musical revue headed by a pop star who’d been beloved during the Soviet period despite his Jewishness. A box of fake, ruler-straight hair sat on his head like a Star Trek-ish helmet. He’d made his name singing military anthems, and he cycled through several backed by a Red Army chorus. Then something surreal happened. He started singing “Havah Nagilah,” the Israeli folk song. In Hebrew. And the Red Army chorus began singing it with him. Then the audience, hardly any Jews in it, began singing, too. And waving their arms. And clapping. While a massive screen displayed Jews dancing in Jerusalem. Jews with sidelocks and skullcaps. It was like watching the Turks gyrate to Armenian music as Turkish soldiers brandished Armenian flags.
“You getting a load of this?” I said. (In truth, we were seeing an inversion without a difference. Russia reserves only the best for itself, and when it became capitalist, Jews, by virtue of being “excellent businessmen,” turned from pariahs into examples.) He was staring blankly at the screen—lost, I thought, in all the twisted implications. Finally, he said: “He was mobbed up, that guy.” He meant the crooner. I waited for more, for some politically incorrect but genuine remark that, I now realized, I had come to count on no matter how much I wished for him to change. Nothing came. He seemed to have changed so much in only a week.
The show went to commercial, an advertisement for a Russian oil platform in the Arctic. (“For now, there’s no other like her in the world.”) Almost everything on the television was poison, but I was grateful for its distraction. When he was well, we didn’t permit ourselves this indulgence that made forced proximity endurable for so many couples— he stole his glances, and I chastised him for it, sometimes killing the TV altogether in reproof. It felt rude to give attention to anything but each other, and we wanted to pretend we didn’t need any help. But his back pain had finally forced us from the dining-room chairs to the sofa in front of the screen. The illness was helping.
He turned to me and said, apropos of nothing: “After your grandmother died, I spoke to God. I said, ‘Grandpa, why did you take such a good person?’ And he said, ‘We need good people up here, too.’ Then I had this dream. I’m walking and I see a dinghy. But it doesn’t have oars. Your grandmother’s legs are the oars. She’s sitting at a table right there, eating breakfast. ‘They’re tired,’ she says. ‘Let them rest.’”
After she died, he bought a burial plot for himself, too—there was a discount if you bought two. The monument men messed up, making his memorial stone half a foot taller than hers. But it worked out—it looked like hers was leaning on the shoulder of his, which was how they often posed for pictures. His, unmarked, had been waiting for him since 2004.
We were disaster artists, all of us: On the way out, we came back to check the gas three times.
It was time for him to rest. The home aide lifted him up, instructing his unwilling legs. “Left a little. Left more. Now right. Now a bigger right.” It looked like they were slow-dancing. I remembered a dark evening during the catheter time. There was a blockage, perhaps caked blood around the meatus. This was too much even for the home aide, so my father and I went into his bedroom. Then, using gauze and peroxide, I cleaned the tip of my grandfather’s penis. It was one of the most painful, intimate things I’d ever done, the old man squirming and squalling like a toddler no matter how gently I went. After I was done, he wept again, now in gratitude.
Now, my grandfather rolled up in his blanket like a tamale, I kissed him goodbye. I was almost to the front door when I returned and kissed him again. We were disaster artists, all of us: On the way out, we came back to check the gas three times. With him, I guess, the worry was that the gas would go off before I came to visit again.
On my way out of the apartment, I heard a strange, droning murmur. The voice was exasperatingly familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then I realized it was … Vladimir Putin. I looked around, wondering whether I was all right. The room was silent, the TV off at last. Feeling mad, I lowered my ear to the headphones. That was where. If you left them plugged into the cable box, the sound stayed on. It seemed like a press conference. As we rolled my grandfather into bed and I went back and forth kissing him, the ghost of Vladimir Putin murmured softly into my grandfather’s living room about the bright future to which Russia was ascending at last.
I work from home, so I am out most evenings, but during this time, I saw and spoke to almost no one outside my family. After a while, the movement outside our membrane of grief began to feel spectral. I saw the city’s gleam as through dirty contacts, heard its noise as through water. I liked the feeling of invisibility this conferred, the excuse not to pay attention or participate. It reminded me of a clinical depression I’d endured once—unbearable while it lasted, but, bizarrely, sweet to recall. I’d been too disabled to do more than one or two things a day, the illness forcing something I couldn’t arrange for myself in the city in which there is too much of everything all the time.
One night before a Sunday visit, I had a dream in which I saw myself walking through a wood with a young man and woman. I was feeling an acute desire to make an impact—those were the words in the dream. We came upon a massive tree with a tiny opening at its base into which a stick no thicker than a finger was wedged. I pulled out the stick and the tree began to tip over. But it didn’t topple. It hung over like that, its heaviest branches nearly touching the ground, like cover from rain.
My mother sent a text. “He is very depressed about you are not being married, and him not being a part of it. Of course, he wants to have a great-grandchild. … For a change, we were looking forward to something new, young, healthy feeling in our family. But if not now, it will happened when it right time …”
It turned out that despite nodding along to my ersatz updates about Jessica, to whom I hadn’t spoken in weeks, he had become convinced we weren’t together. I called her, no longer sure who was manipulating whom, and asked if she could stand to join me for a two-hour charade at his apartment. She said yes. She embraced him, and my mother, and even the home aide, so closely that I saw on his face a wattage I don’t think I’d ever put there before.
“He went all around the world, but he found her,” he said, as if I wasn’t standing right there. There wasn’t even a wisp of doubt in his eyes. Finally, I had lied well.
You know how this story ends. With each visit, some new part of him fell away. His fabled hair went brittle and dry—he stared vacantly at the television while I ran my hands through it anyway. He began seeing a man in a fedora and long coat at the side of his bed. At night, he screamed for “the girls”—his home aides—to let him out, let him go. He could no longer shave himself, an even grimmer milestone in his case because he’d spent half a century giving shaves. Even in his impairment—I would tell him to stick out his chin, and he would, but then his face would collapse from the effort—it was clear he thought I was doing a shit job. But as I scraped the razor down his soapy cheek, cradling his face like a lover’s, sometimes he smiled like a boy without cares. That’s how it was with our people—reflexive disapproval, then begrudging acknowledgment that it had turned out all right. Behind us, the television broadcast a Russian game show. The two wives of a public figure—one ex-, one present—had been wired to a lie detector and were answering questions about their lives with the man, a large needle indicating to the audience whether they were telling the truth.
Other milestones you couldn’t predict. His eyelashes became as long and lustrous as Jessica’s. And the things that floated up from the mud barrel of his cracked psyche now obeyed an unreachable but magical logic. Once, as I was bending down to kiss him goodbye, he took my forearm with his mottled hand, and said, his breath like rustling paper: “Sometimes you’ve got this egg in your hands, and you have to carry it such a long way. Kilometers. So careful the whole time. And then you’re just a meter or two from the threshold, and poof. It’s gone.” It was nonsense the way poetry was nonsense, and enchanted the same way. As he lost his cognition—as he fell free of the self he’d hewn from his unkind lot—he sounded like the child whose youth had been stolen by the war, a child who had sat in him, waiting, for three-quarters of a century.
Oddly, our phone conversations, never long, grew longer, perhaps because it was no longer necessary to speak. Once, driving somewhere while speaking to him, I became lost in my thoughts. When I came back, he was humming an old song as if I weren’t there. He kept humming, softly and dreamily, and I just listened, even after I’d gotten to where I was going and parked, like when the home aides sometimes didn’t hang up the land line properly, and I stayed on, listening to the distant sounds of his life without me there to spoil it.
Things started happening to me, too. My left eyelid started twitching. I lost my sense of space and broke three cups in two days. I nearly punched a bus driver and crashed my car a half-dozen times. He was in the world before Stalin had control of the Soviet Union. Before anyone knew the name Hitler. The last of the Mohicans, he called himself—James Fenimore Cooper was one of the few Western authors who’d made it through the Iron Curtain, as he was considered an anti-imperialist. Not that my grandfather read books—he read the first page, then the last, then put them away.
Once, as in a fairy tale, the illness receded enough for him not only to regain sense, but to perform a miraculous feat. His home aide had pulled him out of his wheelchair to do leg calisthenics. My mother put on an old Soviet waltz, and little by little, he and the home aide started … twirling. He was, of course, more or less swaying in place, but there he was, dancing on the doorstep of death. He’d studied dance formally before the war, and the Navy had taught him the folk dances. There was no dance platform in Minsk that didn’t know my grandparents. Later, as I was leaving, I leaned into the living room for a final look. He winked at me, and I winked back.
That was our final communication. Shortly afterward, he stopped speaking, though once, the home aide pleading with him through a wall of tears to tell her who was that boy standing next to his bed, the last of him collected into enough of a gust for my name to come out. Not my Russian name—a diminutive in the Yiddish that was his childhood language. The home aides were his family as much as we were, maybe more.
All the feeling that surged through me after he passed halted during the funeral. I had no connection to the frozen man in the casket, nor to the two dozen old, round immigrant bodies that waddled into the funeral home though they hadn’t troubled themselves to visit during his illness. Nor the Hebrew the rabbi incanted—in the Soviet Union, we were savaged for a religion to which we had zero connection—nor the absurd pageantry of the farewell meal. It was only when I left the restaurant that the use of all this falsehood occurred to me. For 48 hours, I had enjoyed a reprieve from the truth. In the world of truth, he was gone. But all that excess and insincerity had blocked this off, given me something else to rage against, had given me to feel one last time like he was just around that corner, just on the other side of that phone.
I walked out of that restaurant with Jessica, by the way. The charade in his living room turned out to have its use not only for him. “Art is the lie that tells the truth,” Picasso famously said. I trotted out this line at almost every book talk I gave. In 15 years of professional life, it had never occurred to me to try it in my personal, too. That was the last thing he taught me, and the first that I learned.
The only thing that distinguished my grandfather’s apartment from every other in Midwood was the collection of clowns he kept in lieu of books in his bookshelf. Clowns. He didn’t know why—he saw one he liked in a window, the store owner kept calling, and he didn’t want to offend by declining. Surely that was only part of it, but I don’t know what the rest was about, and perhaps neither did he. But it was the single nonutilitarian thing in his home, the only thing that existed for no reason but pleasure.
Every time I came over, he pressed on me his antique liquor, his crystal, his leather jackets and furs—the barter bullion he’d used to keep us safe and provided for. But when we were cleaning out his apartment, I kept only two things. One was a clown. It reminds me that in two decades of weekly visits, a vast part of this man remained off-access to me, perhaps because it was off-access to him, too. I have never, at once, felt such intimacy and distance with someone, and I suspect I never will. He gave me the gift of an extraordinarily rare human experience, and it feels symbolic that it was not at all the gift he meant to give.
The other thing I kept was the knife.
Boris Fishman is the author of the novels Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo and A Replacement Life, and Savage Feast, a family memoir told through recipes.