No one ever saw me coming. Sure, in my younger years I may have been something to see. I had my share of admirers, but I never took any of those ladies, or myself for that matter, very seriously at all. For a short time, I thought I was on top of the world. It’s funny how one can make a few missteps and have it all come crashing down.
By the time I reached the age of 70, I was living alone in a home that was falling apart all around me. I didn’t have the ability, nor did I care enough to make any repairs. Eventually I even stopped caring about taking care of myself. I bathed only when I felt like it, which was a rare case. Laundry was a virtually unheard of activity. I was unhappy and lonely.
No one ever came to call. Who would want to come see an old man like me anyway? I had heard what the neighborhood kids would say about my house. But that’s all they saw when they looked in. They saw an old, run down house. They never saw the old, run down man living within.
Most days I would just sit in my house, waiting for death to claim me. But it seemed like it would never come.
The only solace I found in those days were the times I would walk to the river to go fishing. We tend to see a lot of rain in the state of Washington, so on those occasional sunny days, I would grab my pole and go for a walk. It wasn’t much to look forward to, but it was something.
I had a sort of secret place along the river. I had been visiting the spot for nearly 20 years and had never seen another soul. It was peaceful and quiet. It did nothing to alleviate my loneliness, but it was a good place to catch a few fish.
The last time I went there was different than any other fishing trip. A group of four youngsters found their way to my secret spot. They came running along and jumped into the river, not far from where I had cast my line. They hadn’t seen me or, if they had, they’d just ignored me. At first I was angry. All the noise and splashing would be sure to scare the fish away. So I started to pack up my gear.
But as I was gathering my things, I watched these kids, who couldn’t have been older than 20 or 21. They were having fun. Together. They were laughing and carrying on without a care in the world. At 73 years old, I didn’t have a care in the world, but I was miserable. Maybe that’s the difference in being a part of something, or having someone to be a part of something with.
I turned to walk away when I heard the scream. Startled, I looked back over my shoulder toward the river. One of the girls was lying face down in the water, her body being carried quickly downstream. Her young friends were in a state of panic. One of the boys was trying desperately to get to the girl’s unconscious form, but the current was too strong, and he was too inexperienced a swimmer.
On the bank of that river my mind raced. When I was around the age of these four kids, I had been a champion swimmer. I never went to the Olympics or even competed on a national level, but locally, I was on top for a few good years. I watched as this child could be drowning and wondered if I still had what it took to make my way down the river to save the girl.
There was nothing to do but try. I stripped off my overcoat and heavy boots and got into the water as quickly as I could. The cold temperature stole away my breath, but my muscles burned as I used them in ways that they hadn’t been used in ages. I was amazed that I hadn’t forgotten how to move in the water, even after all these years. The memory in my muscles came flooding back as I pushed my way downstream. I reached the girl, turned her over, and began the hard work of carrying her to dry land.
I pulled her onto the rocky terrain and collapsed once we were both out of the water. I lay on my back, barely aware of what was going on around me. That swim must have taken more out of me than I thought it would. I knew I didn’t have the luxury of catching my breath. What if that girl had water in her lungs? Someone would need to perform mouth-to-mouth and get her breathing again.
I tried opening my eyes, but all I could see was a bright blur. I could hear the voices of the other kids rushing toward us. I couldn’t make out everything they were saying. “Where did he come from?” “Was he there the whole time?” “Did you see how fast he was swimming?”
I felt my head being propped up. For a moment, my vision began to become clearer. The other girl from the little group was holding my hand, telling me that I was going to be okay. She was thanking me for helping Dana. I couldn’t speak. All I could think was, Who’s Dana?
I heard coughing and sputtering. When I looked over to the girl I had pulled out of the river, she was turning over and breathing again. Thank God! The boys that had been working to help her breathe rushed over to me. One looked like he was on a phone. The other checked my pulse. I heard him say, “I think something’s wrong.”
My eyes closed, almost involuntarily. I continued hearing the voices of these children, but they kept sounding further and further away. Eventually, it was like hearing them through a long tunnel. The only sensation I felt was that of the girl’s hand in mine. She never let go.
In the end, I guess that last swim was just too much for my old body to take. For several years, in my misery, I kept wishing for death to come. I guess the good Lord had His own reasons for keeping me around as long as He did. I died that day, with more joy in my heart than I had felt in more years than I could remember.