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One of a grandfather’s duties and pleasures is attending his granddaughter’s soccer games – in any weather, which means rain on the West Coast. Soccer season is rainy season.
I seized my IKEA umbrella, which matched my granddaughter’s school colours, and took to the soggy field, adjacent to a mall. Not as fearless as those athletic young women, but in good spirits. I waved discreetly at my granddaughter; she did not wave back but gave me an acknowledging glance.
The teams began to rush up and down the field, the rain coming down in sheets. Other supporting relatives stood cheering under their umbrellas, and after half an hour there was still no score. Then the ball came flying over the fence in my direction, rolled across a laneway toward a deep, water-filled ditch, and went in.
Since I was nearby I strolled over and crouched down at the water’s edge to retrieve the floating ball, but it was sitting behind a spiky tangle of blackberry branches and I couldn’t reach it. I prodded it with the tip of my closed umbrella. It drifted farther away.
I got up to increase my reach. But I could not get up. I lacked the strength to rise from my crouch! My leg muscles were useless. I was too old and too frail. My shoes were stuck in the blackberry thorns and I was unable to turn. I was too weak in the knees to rise, and before me loomed a dangerous ditch filled with Stygian waters.
I couldn’t move left, I couldn’t move right, and I couldn’t get up. I could only pitch forward into the creek.
I began to panic. Was somebody aware of my plight? No, all the spectators were facing the field. Should I shout for help? But what would people see? An old man crouching by the creek, shouting at an umbrella? And how would my granddaughter feel? The last thing a grandfather should do is embarrass his grandchildren. I’d rather die.
I gave it one more try. I planted the umbrella in the ground, collected all my forces and tried to climb up hand-over-hand. I strained and huffed and puffed, and something cracked and a piercing pain shot through me. Had I snapped a rib? Ruptured my gallbladder?
I was frozen in place, in terrible pain. My hands were dripping blood from umbrella spikes and blackberry thorns, and the hideous watery grave was going to take me. I was GOING TO DIE! I was going to keel over, my jugular ripped open by thorny branches. A feeble thrashing and my body would slowly float away unseen, facedown, along the lane where people were standing with their backs to the drama, and where my granddaughter was playing unaware and probably scoring a goal I would never see. Then I’d get stuck in a culvert and rot away unseen …
Did I really want to die? How painful would it be? Questions that old people like me ask themselves. We’re looking for a “good death,” with dignity and no pain. Floating away in a ditch is not dignified, and drowning would cause unpleasant convulsions.
I still had my pride. There was only one solution: forget my pride. I had to let myself fall backward into the dirty puddle behind me, roll painfully over onto my belly, crawl onto all fours and try to get up from there, all the while hoping that nobody would turn around to look.
I took a breath, dropped backward. I rolled, I crawled, I planted one foot forward, pushed off from my knee with one bloody hand and grasped the ruined umbrella with the other, the spikes ripping my flesh, and I slowly forced myself … not upright, but into a bent-over position, dripping blood and ditch water, hurting, hemorrhaging inside from rib or gallbladder injury, but finally able to stand with trembling knees.
I looked around. The world came into focus again. I was alive! I looked at the creek, sneered at the three-headed dog. I saw the ball and remembered why I was here. With the tip of my umbrella I poked it out of the thorny branches and floated it down a few feet, then opened the umbrella, scooped it up, carried it triumphantly across the lane and threw it weakly back over the fence.
Nobody took any notice. Nobody had been aware of this life-and-death drama behind the scenes. The field was alive with running girls. I turned and shambled across a little bridge to the nearest chain store. Too weak to climb the curb, I had to lurch around to the wheelchair ramp. I sank onto a bench in the store’s foyer. I was soaked and the umbrella’s spikes were sticking out.
It took 10 minutes to catch my breath. The passing people hardly looked at me. They had no idea that I had just escaped death by horrific drowning. They saw a soggy old man fiddling with a broken umbrella.
Then I worked myself to my feet and wobbled back across the parking lot, across the bridge and back to the field, where meanwhile a goal had happened, a goal for the team whose tattered colours I proudly carried. Had my granddaughter scored it, or had she gracefully let someone else score by skillfully passing? I rejoined the spectators and stood there just like a normal human being, but with a new lease on life. And I had not shamed my granddaughter.
Martin Machler lives in Sechelt, B.C.