One morning, late August, I carried my coffee down to the dock at a lake called Mille Lacs. I remember this particular morning well. The sun was already bright and high above the evergreens and oaks, and fish lay scattered on the beach in front of the cabin. Everywhere on the beach, in fact. While I had witnessed the littering of fish throughout the summer, I had never seen such a battering of carnage. The fish were substantial fish, some a foot in length, with bluish-gray scales reflecting morning light like prisms. I scanned the landscape; this litter continued down to the farthest reaches of the shore—a massacre.
When I was a kid, finding a dead fish was as exhilarating as finding a nude photo in an encyclopedia. I would peer into the fish’s open cavities and study the forbidden secrets of nature. But on this August morning I had not come upon just one fish, but dozens. Overwhelmed—one must bury the fish before they attract maggots—I decided to deal with the carnage after I finished my coffee on the dock.
Mille Lacs, 18 miles across, mimics the ocean with its vast, gray moodiness. The movement of water has always provided me with great comfort, perhaps because the waves mimic the pulse of blood surging through my body, making me feel, in some way, eternally connected to nature. But the wind that morning was like the director of a loud, disjointed orchestra: flapping thick sails, clinking flagpoles, rattling boats, gurgling buoys, and knocking waves onto the shore. As the lake surged I felt the melancholy that has loomed over me all summer.
I live in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, so my quest for this ancient comfort, moving water, is not hard. Every summer I divide my weekend time between two family cabins, one on Mille Lacs Lake in the northern forests, and the other at Ottertail Lake at western prairie border. This year, during each of my trips, talk turned to fish. Dead fish. These lakes, and lakes all across the state, were experiencing epic fish kills due to the record-breaking heat that had hit the country. Most of the fish had died because the heat caused an increase in lake algae growth, which depleted the fish’s oxygen supply. And other species just plain couldn’t survive in water where the surface temperatures were as high as 80 to 90 degrees; the fish weren’t, after all, tropical.
In July the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued a press release stating that the record heat was, indeed, likely responsible for the unprecedented fish kills, but that the phenomenon was not totally unusual. “Fish kills are usually not serious in the long run. Most lakes contain thousands of fish per acre and the fish kills represents a very small percent of that total,” the statement said.
Yet, on the ground, the old timers whose families had lived on these lakes for generations said they’d never seen anything like it. A fish kill of that magnitude wasn’t normal. And if one dipped a toe into the water, one knew something was awry. Unlike most years, we didn’t have to inch into the frigid lake, clenching our jaws, protecting our private parts. The water just wasn’t that cold.
Still, sitting on the dock, I couldn’t ignore the fish for long. The steady cadence of waves carried more lifeless remains to land. Some of the fish were whole, their bodies weighted so that they floated with their heads down and tails up; some were already partially decomposed, flesh separating from bone, making them appear like floating masses of torn white tissues paper. It was time to bury the fish.
I took the last cold sip of my coffee, found a shovel, and dug a series of holes in the sand. Next I went the length of the beach in front of the cabin and scooped the fish into a series of piles. Most of the fish looked to be Tullibee, but there were other species I didn’t recognize. After I had finished making the piles I marveled at the mounds of scales, spines, hollow eyes, and white meat. I had never seen anything like it, so much carnage. Next I spilled the corpses, pile by pile, into their graves. With each push I felt the weight of the fish, of their flesh. The fish, still coming in, were almost hypnotic, the way they undulated on the ebb and flow of each wave. I was witnessing, I realized, a slow, quiet funeral march.
As I sat and studied the waves my mind wandered, as a mourning mind will, to the void recently created in my life. I felt, in a primal way, the weight of my grandfather’s death.
My grandpa was a bright-eyed man who loved his grandkids fiercely, and in turn we adored him. He smelled of mentholated Chapstick, always carried a nail clipper, and wore hats to protect his decades-long bald head. He was sturdy in presence, organized by nature, and his disposition hinted of early years in the military, where young men learned to be respectful and honorable. Anyone who met my grandpa would be greeted with a warm handshake and a pat on the shoulder. He would then ask after the well being of that person in perpetuity; to him, all people mattered.
When people offered their condolences after Grandpa’s death they usually asked his age. When I said that he was 84, I watched relief creep across people’s faces. They believed, I suppose, that my grandpa got his fair share of years. Seeing them relax I usually said, “Yes, we were lucky.”
But the truth was that my grandpa was a healthy man. He exercised daily. He ate well. His heart was good. His biceps were stone-cold pipes. And even after his diagnosis, before he was bed bound, he labored up and down steps with an oxygen mask strapped to his face hoping to build strength, hoping to recover.
The other truth was this: he didn’t have to die when and how he did.
Mesothelioma is a lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Grandpa had worked in automobile service stations and on the railroad; both industries have well known histories of exposing workers to asbestos. At the service station, brake pads and other common products contained the dangerous asbestos fibers, which can get into workers lungs. At the railroad, asbestos was everywhere, often used in boilers, pipe insulation, gaskets, brakes, and clutch linings. Like so many products in our history, asbestos use continued long after people knew it caused harm. As he went about making his livelihood, my grandpa was inhaling a slow but sure time bomb.
At his funeral another railroad engineer told me that there are still buildings full of asbestos at railroad yards; and that warning signs instruct workers to be careful to not disturb the asbestos. “You know they probably have bean counters somewhere calculating the cost of cleaning up the mess, verses the cost of settling wrongful death lawsuits,” he whispered, shaking his head. He confirmed what I knew, but what none of us had yet discussed directly: that human action, or inaction, ultimately suffocated my grandpa.
When I first read the autopsy report that confirmed the suspected cause of his death I was not prepared: His body is received clothed only in a buttoned short-sleeved dress shirt and black Hanes briefs, he [sic] then wrapped in white cloth sheets. Lotion with a clear plastic covering is over his face. A yellow metal band is on his left ring finger. He is a well-developed and well-nourished man who appears his stated age. This opening statement read to me almost like poetry, the writer’s intimate observation of my grandpa as flesh, as departed, as lubricated, as wrapped. Upon finishing the report I doubled over in sorrow.
This too shall pass. People often offer this ancient phrase when speaking of the pain of losing someone, and I heard it often the summer of my grandpa’s passing, which was also the hottest summer on record. I want these words to also apply to the droughts, to the fires, to the heat, to the melting ice caps—to the dead fish. I want this to be true not so much for me, but for my precious nieces and nephews, the great grandchildren my grandfather held in his arms before he died, to whom his gaze spoke, live a long and fruitful life, little ones.
But I don’t think this will pass.
I sometimes wonder if we have held out on making real progress on halting the destruction of our climate because we believe, deep down, in the goodness of humans; we believe that despite all of our downfalls we are programmed to evolve, to find redemption, to not harm each other. Little by little, year-by-year, we will continue to see the results of our actions; the voices of the scientists, academics, politicians, meteorologists, and activists who have warned us will fade. Instead we will confront the danger—as sorrow, as warning—within the weight of our own flesh; within the weight of those we bury. We all know them, the sweet ones, our loved ones, who would do others and us no harm. And then there are the reprieves, like now, the end of a cooler summer, clean beaches, days where we can pretend all is well, everything is normal.
In a pamphlet that the Hospice nurse delivers when a loved one is dying, it says that near the end of a person’s life he or she might start to breathe like a fish out of water. This eventually became true of my grandpa. Within weeks of being diagnosed with mesothelioma, in the summer of 2012, his body, fit, strong, agile and whole, even at 84, became fragile; his muscles seemed to evaporate as he withered away with dignified beauty. Whether we liked it or not, a lovely, gentle, ever-present man was leaving us.
While he hadn’t been feeling well, my extended family and I had assumed that he was dealing with a pesky pneumonia. So, when we heard news that, no, this was it, the end, we journeyed, stunned, to my grandparents’ house in Wyoming to say our goodbyes. In the house, which has a distant view of the Big Horn Mountains, we did the death waltz, moving quietly about each other, passing hot dishes, wiping our eyes, and taking turns to check on Grandpa, who mostly slept. While he was in tremendous pain, and needed a fan to persistently blow into his oxygen-starved face, Grandpa kept a peaceful smile as he whispered his words of parting. We also tried to comfort Grandma, pressing a soft hand against her back. There were few words; she was about to lose her partner of 63 years.
Grandpa finally passed after most of us had left. In his final hours my mom called to tearfully report that he’d go soon, she thought, because he was showing the sign—he was gasping for air, like a fish.