I had a dream last night. I was standing on a terrace of an ancient house. I knew that I had found a new place to live and I would have to move from this place. It looked out into a thick forest., gray and full of smells of a Northern autumn. The scent of something dying or dead but unseen. As I walked to the edge of the terrace I saw Can, looking up and saying goodbye. I stood there watching as he ran off into the woods and I woke up, The dream made me curious to know what had happened to Can.
I hadn't seen Can in years. The last time was a mixture of sadness and acceptance. He had returned to Izmir from America for the summer and he hadn't called to let me know. I happened to see him walking on a crowded street with his friends one summer evening. At that moment, I had understood that the link that had connected us had withered. I hated the thought of it, that I wasn't to be a part of his life any longer. That I wouldn't be there to watch how it would all unfold.
But it was time to accept this fact that I had become, whether I liked it or not, a memento of his past. I knew that this is the way it has to be, Can would go off and make new friends and eventually marry and have children. The moment to call his name escaped me and he was gone.
His father had come to the private course with a mission. To find a private English teacher for his son. In order for him to go to university in the United States. We sat speaking in the corridor between my classes. Mr. Kulduk, his serious determined face, reminded me of Humphrey Bogart. "Have you heard of my son?" he asked. I shook my head. "He is a famous swimmer in Turkey." Indeed, despite my own ignorance, Can Kulduk was practically a legend in world of swimming in Turkey.
Immediately I was intrigued. His father and I settled on a fee and arranged for classes three times a week, two hours a day. The next day- and I recall this with exceptional clarity- when I arrived for the first lesson, his mother showed me in and Can came forward to shake my hand, his tall lanky body and an overbite smile that completely disarmed me. Whatever serious, professorial presentation I might have prepared about how I much I would be expecting from him had suddenly vanished from my head. It was a smile from one old friend to another.
Years later when I told him later, about that moment, "It was like I had already known you for years." Can agreed, "I felt the same way when I met you too."
I suppose I had been anticipating a rich family and a spoiled only child with an attitude. The kind of teaching that focuses you on grammar and homework and passing through the lesson as quickly as possible. Nothing could have been further from the reality. Despite his being an only child, Can could not have been more respectful. Respectful and yet warm and casual.
His atmosphere in his home was, in a word, elderly. Furniture from another generation, a sepia feeling of brown paneling and well-worn cushions. Monstrous and heavy bookshelves and faded curtains on windows overlooking a park. Undoubtedly Can was the youngest thing in the room.
I wondered many times if Can had ever felt that he might have missed something because of all his time spent in the pool. Would he might have been a different person- a more complete person- had he not dedicated all of his time to his sport, had not spent so much of his time in the silence and loneliness underwater? But most of all, I couldn't help wondering if it had been worth all his personal sacrifice.
One time, in the middle of our lesson, he took me into his parents room. His over-sized portrait painting taken from a photograph dominated the wall. Medals with red and white ribbons hung in bunches like grapes. Some were in glass cabinets, an early attempt at organization perhaps, and the rest dangled from hooks.
"Impressive," I said.
"Really?" He replied as if it was the first time he had thought about them.
He reached up and pulled one down and handed it to me."Here,"
"But this is yours. It belongs to you." I told him.
"I want you to have it." He said with a smile."I have a lot of them." He mentioned this without any conceit but as a statement of fact. (I still have that medal; it is in my pocket as I write this, as a matter of fact.)
One afternoon, he asked me if I would like to come to watch him in a meet. Up until that time, I had never actually been to any of Can's swimming competitions. He was my English student and a friend who swam professionally. (I have never considered what it actually meant.)
That day, when I arrived, Can spotted me in the crowd of fans, friends, and family and ushered me around them all. We spoke a little before the swim meet. He seemed happy to see me. I asked him if he expected to win. And he smiled. "It isn't about winning. This is about my time." I was confused. He slowly carefully explained. "In Turkey, I am one of the best. And I always win. Now I have to compete against myself. For my best time." I had never heard anybody talk like this before. It would have sounded a bit arrogant coming from anybody else.
And yet, from the moment he leaped into the water, extending his long body into a arch, the arrowhead of his hands splitting the water, the audience held their breaths. The silence ran on as under the water, he continued. The other swimmers emerged but Can passed on meter after meter, still under the water, more than halfway across the pool before he finally broke the surface. Even the parents of the competitors felt silent. I caught his father's face as he turned back to look at me in pride. Can remained in the lead from the beginning, reaching the other end of the pool, he turned underwater and pushed off the wall without disturbing the surface and back he went, halfway across the pool without coming up for air. To the other end, and back again, his lead increasing. To the opposite end and back. It was practically superhuman.
For Can, I imagine, it was just another competition, for me, unfamiliar with it all, it was nothing short of a miracle of athletics. Afterwards, I congratulated him and asked him about his performance. "I should have been faster. It wasn't good."
Over the months, our English lessons continued although the goals gradually changed. He had decided that he would take TOEFL courses in the USA as soon as he arrived. I had become obsolete, it seemed. He asked sheepishly if it would be okay if we just practiced English and if I would correct him. Although he never admitted it, Can rarely took much interest in my homework and, after all, it seemed selfish for me to steal whatever free time he could find for himself to fill in my tiresome forms. Instead, by mutual agreement, we spent the afternoons talking about his life, his romance and his prospects for the future in the USA.
It was a critical year in his life. I watched him visibly change from a lanky teenager to a man. As the time for his departure approached, he seemed ready to make the change and set out on his own. The American adventure was going to be the beginning of his real life.
On the day before he left for the USA, he suddenly appeared at my home to say goodbye. It was unexpected. By then, I had realized he had many other friends to say farewell to and, despite all his warmth, I was after all only his English teacher.
We sat in under the tangerine tree in the garden in front of my home. It was clear that he was nervous, maybe a little sad, about leaving everything behind and I tried to reassure him. "Oh, you will love it there. Florida's beautiful."
"And you will make a lot of friends there, you know."
"Yes, I have Turkish friends there."
"I think you'll forget me.."
He laughed. "Never." And then he paused for a moment."Let's make a deal. We won't get out hair cut until I come back. How's that?"
"Swear? Next summer is a long time away. You mean it?"
He pretended to be offended. "Of course."
I kept that promise, never quite sure whether I was being made a fool of. It was the longest I ever went without a haircut and I grew to hate it. No matter how I stood, I always seemed be on the wrong side of the breeze.
During the months that followed, as he struggled with his TOEFL classes and exams, every letter he sent me showed his progress, his English improving with each post. A postcard from Niagara Falls reads:
I just want you to know I remember you and love you. My forever friend. See you soon, Can
This was before he began thinking in English, a language which usually shames men from speaking about love for one another. Later, as his English improved he would find more traditional and more hollow ways to express himself.
One summer evening, as I was preparing to leave work, I was told that somebody was waiting for me. It was Can. To my shock, there he stood with his hair down to his shoulders.
He told me about his life in the USA and how his dream of being in the Olympics had faded. "In Turkey, I was important. But the level of competition there is so much more difficult. I always have to work so hard and I still cannot succeed."
"But you are still in training, right?"
"Yes, but I don't dream about the Olympics anymore." There was a touch of sadness in his voice but it was also something he had resigned himself to. And that, for somebody who had dedicated so much of his life to that dream, every day pushing himself harder, and never surrendering, for somebody made of that kind of stuff, it could not have been an easy thing to accept. He was, however, ready, I think, to live a normal life- apart from swimming and competing- and he was not looking back. He was ready to start a new life without the legends.
June 17, 2009ROCHESTER, Mich. - Former Oakland University swimmer Can Kulduk passed away on Wednesday, June 3, losing his battle with stomach cancer at the young age of 32. Kulduk, a member of the swimming and diving team from 2000-02, was a tremendous competitor both here and in his native country of Turkey."This is very unfortunate news and the entire Oakland University Athletics family is deeply saddened by Can's passing," said Director of Athletics Tracy Huth. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."A native of Izmir, Turkey, Can competed in the backstroke events for the Golden Grizzlies and held a top time for the Golden Grizzlies in the 100-yard backstroke. He graduated from OU in 2003 with his bachelor's degree and earned a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 2005."The OU swimming family is mourning the loss of one of their own, in the passing of Can Kulduk," said OU coach Pete Hovland. "Can was a man of few words yet attracted those around him by his dedication and conviction to the sport he loved. He was the perfect teammate and a great friend to all those he touched. His quiet demeanor and reassuring presence will surely be missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends here in the U.S. and in his home country of Turkey."
The Friends of Can Kulduk have established a Facebook site where you can pay your respects.