He sat by himself on the narrow beach beside the big river on his 79th birthday. The water ran swift and shallow over pebbles, around boulders and between cliffs. He looked up. He wasn’t alone. A young couple stood on a high boulder overlooking the river.
He watched as the boy and the girl tiptoed to the edge of the rock. He stared at them. They stared at the water.
It ran clear over stones except in one area where it stood calm and black and deep.
They hesitated. He gestured at the dark area. She gestured at him, and he at her. The argument went on for a minute or two.
She backed away from the edge of the boulder. He shrugged as if to say, “I give up on you.”
Then he jumped. He spread his arms wide. As soon as he hit the water, he brought his arms down sharply to his sides. His head and shoulders were underwater for the briefest moment. Amid the large noisy splash he made, he waved. The smile lit up his face. His yell carried all the way to him, a wordless cry of triumph, of youth, of challenge.
He swam back to the base of the cliff, but before he reached it, she walked to the edge of the cliff. She no longer hesitated. She jumped. She slipped gracefully into the deep pool, her legs together, her arms at her side. Unlike the boy, she barely made a splash as she sank beneath the black pool.
He waited in suspense for long, long seconds. Finally her head bobbed to the surface. Then she swam a few strokes back to the river’s edge.
Seeing him staring, the boy waved. As the couple was preparing to leave, he asked them, “Isn’t the water too shallow? It looks like it’s only a few inches deep.”
“That pool there is deep,” the boy replied.
“I didn’t touch bottom,” she added. “It must be at least 14 feet.”
As the man hesitated, the boy continued, “Go ahead and try it. You still have a few minutes before dark. The water’s warm in the late afternoon. It’s great. You’ve got to do it.”
Because it was his birthday, the man felt it was time to try something new. If not now, then when? He was old enough to die, anyway. But jumping off a 50-foot-high cliff into an unknown river that looked 3 inches deep? Was that the way he wanted to celebrate—or end—79 years on the planet?
It was such a small thing. All it called for was a decision. If he smashed into 3 inches of water he would die. He would probably die very quickly, in minutes if not seconds. There would hardly be time to regret the mistake.
If he sank into a 14-foot pool he would live, not just to tell the tale, but to relive, rehash, relish and reimagine the experience. It—the challenge and response— might even keep him young a little bit longer.
The decision was not complex, difficult. It had no ramifications for anybody but himself. He was a widower. He lived alone. His children and even his grandchildren were grown. Really, no one would miss him. He’d lived long, perhaps too long, and more often than not, well.
Yet at that moment it seemed like the toughest decision of his life. After all, it could end his life.
It all came down to what he wanted to do—to chance, to dare, to risk. To jump or not to jump. Nothing important was at stake. Only his life, yet what was any life, more particularly his life, really worth? Not much. But in this place and time it seemed like a lot, the biggest decision of his life.
Would it matter? In the personal and not just the cosmic sense? Would it matter to anyone except himself? Would it even matter to himself? He’d lived his life, or at least the best part of it. What was left was so little, hardly enough to fill a teaspoon.
His health was good. He could survive longer, perhaps another 20 years if he were lucky, very lucky, and if luck were what he wanted. Or was he ready to end it now, here? Had he had enough of this life, this world?
It was the only thing he had left, this life. Should he throw it away on the belief the boy and the girl were right and the water was deep, and on the uncertainty that he could propel himself off that cliff precisely into the one deep pool in that oh-so-shallow river?
It was his 79th birthday, time to remain young and take a chance.
It was his 79th birthday, time finally to grow up, accept reality, learn his limitations and just enjoy what was left of his life.
Oh, the ache and agony of indecision. It was the one thing that had never changed, would never change no matter how long he lived.