The Old Man and The River

A short story

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River Twilight (photo: Paolo De Faveri)

“Are you alright?” asked a voice with a cheer in it.  Perhaps I looked more dispirited than I wanted to disclose or maybe he was just one of those upbeat types.

“Yes, Thanks.”  I mustered a faint reply.

The smoke from the distant embers of a dying winter campfire sauntered into the night above the river.  There was no one around.  It was too cold and too late, even for those diligent dog walkers to be taking any leisurely strolls by this frosty riverside in this remote town.

The moonlight glistened on the water surface and revealed a broad smile on the man’s face.  He wasn’t walking a dog, but he looked elderly, perhaps a good 30 or 40 years older than me and justifiably bundled up to handle the midnight chill.  He was of medium height, about as tall as me, with round and puffy cheeks, and a shining bald head atop with striking grey hair on its sides.

It was way past midnight, possibly closer to the morning hours, but I didn’t know.  It didn’t matter to me.  I had no idea what he was doing this late all alone, but I didn’t care.  It didn’t matter to me.  Nothing mattered to me.

“You are not thinking of jumping. Are you?”  He asked, with the smile still intact, peeking at the slope in front of us leading to the water current, mild, almost stagnant.

“Do I look suicidal to you?”  I asked, annoyed at the unexpected intrusion.

Thin stretches of ice from along the banks extended almost all the way to the middle of the river where a small current of water kept it from being completely frozen; two more weeks and you can skate across.

“You know I’ve lived here all my life.  I remember the times when I used to walk along the bank here and it used to be full of woods and the downtown behind was nothing more than a general store, a butcher’s place, an Irish bar and a burger joint.  It is amazing how this place has grown over the years.”

Surely, standing here in the middle of the night and listening to an old man ruminate over his nostalgic life story should put me out of my misery.

“Now-a-days they have statistics for everything – softens the shock to the people receiving the news,” he snickered, “like the fact that this river claims about 5 suicides in this town every year.  I would hate to see you end up becoming just another one of those numbers.”

The winter coat he wore looked clean and well maintained, but the scarf around his neck looked in disarray, suggesting he might have been in a hurry to get out.  He looked like all respected elderly men do, the sort you’d feel compelled to hold a restaurant door or an elevator door open to let them in.  His most distinguishing features were his eyes.  He had a gleam in his eyes and they sparkled even more in the reflection from the water surface as he turned his face to look at me.

“I don’t know if you made up your mind, but I think you are thinking about it.”  He said solemnly.

I felt too numb inside to pay any attention to what he was saying, and continued to stare ahead.

“I live in the top floor of those apartments you see tucked behind the Main Street.”  He went on.  “I like the place because I get a good view of this river through my bedroom window.  At my age these things matter you know.” he chuckled inwardly, “On a clear night, if the moon’s out like tonight, I can enjoy the luxury of relaxing in my bed, while looking out the window watching these trees dancing to the gentle breeze along this river side.”

The apartments he was referring to are a gated cluster of three-floor housings in a nearby subdivision, but the downtown itself was a good 20 minute stroll from here and it would have taken him at least half an hour to walk down from there.

“I was looking out tonight and noticed you standing here for more than an hour.”  He said.

“Just enjoying the moonlight.” I replied.

“I wouldn’t call this weather enjoyable son.  Please don’t think… about anything.  Go home.  Go to bed.  Wake up and look at the sunshine tomorrow.”

Condescending old fart!  He thinks he knows everything.  Just like my parents.  I talk to them but I might as well be talking to a wall.  They are completely clueless and utterly incapable of ever understanding the vacuum that is my life.  They mean well, but that’s all it is… they mean well.  Oh… how they mean well!  I know they will sacrifice anything for me.  They were obsessed with providing me a “better” life than what they had growing up.  They did the best they could to put me through good schools and set me up for the future.  Now they just expect that I lead a “successful” life.  Afterall, they worked too hard and made too many sacrifices to see me “fail.” They hear fairy tales about how well the kids of my generation, kids of their friends and colleagues do.  Those stories build their perceptions of my ideal existence for them and those perceptions turn into expectations, expectations they never reveal but hold me to, and measure me by silently.  They just want everything to work out for me so I can match this outlook of theirs, without ever truly understanding what I am going through.  Every time I talk to them, anything I say to them, I can imagine them measuring up my words against those expectations.  The more I realized this the more I felt the vacuum build inside me.  The debilitation and the degeneration within became more and more unbearable.  Eventually, I cut down my conversations with them to common banalities.  Hello.  How are you Dad?  How is Mom doing?  I am doing great Mom!  Yes, I am eating well and work is great.  I am quite healthy and I feel great.  How are you two doing?  Ok, I will talk to you later.  Bye.

I don’t blame them, how can I?  They mean well.  So do my friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  They all mean well.  Well wishers – the world is full of them.  Add another one to that list.

“I don’t pretend to understand what you are going through,” he said, “but I remember how I felt when it first surfaced as an option for me.  My wife died 5 years ago.  We were married for 40 years and I had no recollection of life without her when she passed away.  Our three children, a son and two daughters grew up here, but after graduation, they all moved out and settled out west.  When you hit old age, it is not just the fear of death but the conversations surrounding the anticipation of it that gets to be exhausting.  Every year, we would see friends in hospital practically on their deathbed, we would hear about acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances perish, or put in the hospital to perish.  We knew our time was coming, but through it all, what comforted us was the fact that we had each other.  We always did.”  He gulped, staring into the water.

I didn’t want to hear his love story.  I was not interested in his life story.  Doesn’t he realize it is of no consequence to me?  The emptiness inside me is indescribable and extra-ordinarily overwhelming.  The doors that are open lead me to the great abyss; the walls all around me close in to come squash me to a pulp.  The silly idealism of self is vanquished by cutthroat hypocrisies of reality.  The foolish romanticism of love is butchered by the ruthless agonies of betrayal.  I enjoy no simple pleasures of living; only suffer prosaic drudgery of endurance.  No one can help me.  I can’t help myself.  I can’t help him.  I am of no use to him.  He is of no use to me.

The full moon dodged in and out of the sparsely scattered clouds.  The clear sky with the river breeze made the cold night even colder.

The old man didn’t stop. “We brought our children up the best way we knew. She was the good cop and I was the bad cop and I know now I was also a bad father.  I was especially harsh on my son.  He was the first-born, and the only way I knew how to raise him was from how my own father raised me.  We are all a product of our times, aren’t we?  But I was wrong… completely wrong.  I wanted him to be tough, responsible and become the leader of the family.  Anytime he cried out for help, instead of embracing him with love, I asked him to toughen up.  Anytime he would make a mistake, instead of nurturing him along, I would punish him with discipline.  By the time I realized my follies, the distance between us had grown too wide.  I didn’t make the same mistakes with my girls, but they grew up fond of their only brother and while they have their affections for me as a father, they still haven’t forgiven me for my severity against their brother.  We still meet for Thanksgiving and say all the right things, but I can see the detachment in my son’s eyes.  He’d much rather be somewhere else, the only reason he endures my company is to serve the bonds of obligation painfully.  I don’t blame him one bit.  It was my fault and my fault alone.”

He was choking up now.  The cheer in his voice was long gone.  If he came here to play the hero and rescue me with some spirited words of encouragement, he was doing a pretty poor job of it.

“When my wife died,” he turned to me with tears swelling up in his eyes, “I didn’t know how to continue.  I questioned the purpose of carrying on further.  The warmth in my life was gone.  I woke up to a bleak desolate feeling day after day and year after year and only a couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that the solitude is never going away.  It is here to stay with me till I die.  Withered by old age, beaten by inescapable loneliness and tortured by a guilty conscience, I stood here two weeks ago just like you are right now my friend, and wondered if the best recourse was to end it all quickly.  I didn’t because I thought I couldn’t leave without apologizing to my son and letting him know how much I love him.  We don’t get to do over our life and I can’t fix my wrongs and bring that childhood back to my son that he deserved, but the one lifeline I am hanging on to… is the hope that I can mend my relationship with him before I pass away so that he is not suffering in the future because of my mistakes. But in the back of my mind, I wonder if I am using that as an excuse because I don’t have the guts to end this pain by jumping into that river.”  He looked straight into my eyes.   “I don’t know if you feel as if everything is collapsing around you or if you find your existence unbearable, and I don’t pretend to have an answer for your problems, but you see, if there is no reason for someone like you who has a whole lifetime ahead of him, how can I be expected to hang on to this sliver of a hope at the brink of death?  How can I justify my own existence in my twilight days?”

His plea was too earnest for me to suspect that he was either fabricating his story or manufacturing his rational. He could have just called the cops, let them handle the situation and went back to bed.  Instead, he chose to walk down here in the middle of a cold night to try to hang on to his hope and reinforce his belief at some sort of redemption before he can die  peacefully.

But I had to ask.  “You said it yourself.  I might end up as just another slice of statistical data you read about in your newspaper.  What difference does it make to you if I find a reason to live or not?  There are millions of people dying every year.  By the end of this day there will be hundreds younger than me committing suicide because they feel they have no reason to live.”

“Yes, but they are not dying in front of me.  You are.”  He said feebly, collapsing to his knees with his shoulders slouched forward.

I didn’t realize how long we’ve been here.  The biting cold had taken a toll on the old man and he looked pale and tired.  I could see a faint break of dawn over the river on the deep horizon.  I gripped his arm with one hand and helped him up with the other.

“The Coffee House on Main Street has to be open by now.  Let’s get some coffee.”  I said.

We walked back silently to the downtown area into the Coffee House.  I helped him into a seat and asked for a couple of cups of coffee.

He took a few sips and looked up at me.  The gleam in the eyes was back.  He fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out what looked like a silver heart key chain with some engraved initials.

He pulled the keys out of the key chain and handed the key chain to me.  “A gift from my wife with my initials,” he smiled pointing at it, “I want you to keep it.”

I refused but he insisted.

“Give me your keys and your mobile phone.”

I obliged.

He separated my keys from my key chain, hooked them to his silver heart and handed it over to me.  Then he punched his mobile number into my phone and called his number.

“Now we’ve exchanged our numbers.” He chuckled. “See, I am up with modern technology.  Don’t hesitate to call me if you ever feel like talking.”

We split from the Coffee House our own ways to our lonely abodes.

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I went back to the riverbank for a stroll the next evening and was surprised to find the old man there again.  He was throwing a few breadcrumbs for the geese when I walked up to him.

“You must have volunteered at the local suicide hotline to bring that riverside statistic down single-handedly?”

“No, I am here every evening.” He said with a smile, “You see I have nothing better to do.”

We met a few more times that winter. He would call me every now and then for a cup of coffee at the Coffee House.  I ran into him at the Library a few times.  I found out that we shared the same tastes in books and he had an active interest in movies and boasted an impressive collection.  I also found him to be an engaging debater, with an opinion on every topic, but not overbearing in how he expressed them.  I helped him with getting his groceries moved to his apartment a few times; in particular I was concerned about him walking on the icy pavements carrying a grocery bag in his hands.

As the weather turned warm, I ran into him more often by the riverside.  One day he brought a little kid with him and introduced him to me as his grand son.  “My youngest is visiting me and brought her son along.”  He had an ear to ear grin that day and that was the happiest I had seen him.

I asked him if he met his son yet.

“No, I’ve tried inviting him over a few times, but he always comes up with reasons to avoid.  I am sure we will meet for Thanksgiving.  I am looking forward to it.”

Little did I know then that he didn’t have to wait until Thanksgiving.  He started falling ill towards the end of that summer.  He lost the spring in his step.  It took more of an effort for him to walk to places, like he was used to doing, especially to the riverside.  The few times we met there since, his poor health showed in his face.  Gone were the puffy cheeks, sucked into a tired, scrawny, wrinkled face.  He still had the gleam in his eyes and brushed off any mention of his health with a characteristic “I’ll live.”  After a while, he became too weak to even make those occasional trips, and was relegated to watching the river from his bedroom window.

I met him a few times at his place, and occasionally at the Coffee House when he was up for the short walk from his place. I was very concerned about his well-being and asked him if he could consider moving in with me into my place.

“It’ll make me feel better, plus, I enjoy having you around.”  I said.

He would have none of it though.  He could be very obstinate when he wanted to be.

“I’ll manage fine on my own, plus I would hate to cramp your lifestyle cowboy.”  He said, making a sly face.  “Seriously, you should move on with your life.  I am probably over-simplifying it, but I was extremely lucky to spend all my adult life with my wife.  But there are plenty of people who find that right fit in a second or third chance.”

“You are right,” I said. “You are over-simplifying it.”

“Fair enough.”  He laughed out aloud.

He never felt offended by the fact that I rarely talked about myself.  It didn’t stop him from opening himself to me.  He talked often about his children and grand children and his friends.  “They are dropping like flies….”  he would chuckle, talking about his friends.  Sometimes he would repeat the same stories he told me before, but I didn’t mind as long as they kept him engaged.

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The summer gave way to autumn and the leaves started turning color.  My conversations with the old man were mostly over the phone.  I called him at least once in two days to check on him and he came to expect those calls from me.

So, I was surprised to get a call from his phone one day.  When I answered it, there was a woman’s voice on the other end.  She introduced herself as his daughter.

“My father would really like you to stop by.”  She said, “It would really mean a lot to him.”

“Of course, I will be there in a few minutes.”

Knowing his ill-health, and knowing that he had refused to admit himself into the hospital, I feared the worst.  When I got there, I was not entirely surprised to see both his daughters along with his only son there.  He looked very pale and very weak, but was propped up against a pillow on his bed.  His son, perhaps as old as me, was sitting on a chair next to him, and looking at his face, it was clear he was crying.  I looked at the old man and I saw a look of contentment that I hadn’t seen before.  I suspected that he had that heart to heart conversation he so desired with his son.

As I walked into his room, his daughter said.  “Please come in.  My father has mentioned a lot about you.”

I looked at him slightly alarmed, when she continued “We can’t thank you enough for all the help with the groceries and being there for him through these tough times.”

I mumbled an indiscernible Thank you for I had a lump in my throat when I realized the old man couldn’t talk aloud.  He whispered into his children’s ears when he wanted to say something.

I spent a few minutes talking to his son who seemed like a pleasant guy who was quite distressed at his father’s condition.

The old man gestured to me indicating his wish to say something to me.  When I approached, he leaned forward and whispered into my ear one more time.

“Get on with your life.”

I bid good-bye to everyone and as I walked out of his room, I looked at him one last time.  He looked back and winked at me with a smile, as if to confirm that his final wish of mending fences with his son was fulfilled.

As I stepped out of his apartment and started walking back to my place, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t see him again.

A couple of days later, I got a call from his son mentioning that his father passed away earlier in the day and that his father would have dearly wanted me to be one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

Later that night, I walked back to the riverside almost involuntarily.  A thin fog from the adjacent woods descended down and hovered over the river.  I stood there staring into the water half expecting to hear his cheerful voice from behind.  I pulled out my key chain and looked at the silver heart with his initials on it.  I unhinged the heart from the key-chain and  tossed it into the water.  As I stared at the river disappearing into the autumn fog in the horizon, for the first time in my life, it hit me hard.  I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of loss… not the type that brought me here on that fateful night when I met the old man, but the type that makes your heart ache at the loss of a dear friend… at the thought that you will never see him again… perhaps this is what they call grief, grief at losing a well-wisher.  Until I met him, I had always taken my well wishers for granted, never valued them enough and even discarded them with harsh judgments at their first misstep.   I left the riverbank with that lasting impression of him, serene and satisfied, winking me goodbye with his children by his side.

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