It’s been nearly a decade since the funeral. He was an old man, far into his nineties, a father who had outlived his son and my classmate by a dozen years. I’d ridden a motorcycle four hundred miles, arrived early, and spent my surplus time in Sister, a small diner not far from the church.
I’d already consumed three cups of coffee when Oliver, the brother of another deceased classmate pushed through the door. I’d been a few years ahead of him in high school and until today we had little in common.
Oliver slid into the booth, taking the seat facing me and ordered coffee. We were silent until…,
“You knew I lost my brother last winter. He was home for Christmas from the air force,” he said.
“I heard. He drown, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did. We were going ice skating and he fell through the ice on the river. I saw his cigarettes and I knew,” he said, and his voice caught.
I glanced out the window, giving him what space I could and I didn’t look back until he resumed.
“The current took him. I raced down the river and caught up. He was on his back clawing at the ice with his fingers, his eyes wer open, and his mouth was moving. I dropped to my knees and crawled along, keeping up and pounding on the ice with my fists. Then I saw the ice cracking beneath me and a thought: Mama can’t lose both of us today. Then I laid down on the ice and worked my way to the bank and let him drown.”
For a long minute I watched tears roll down his cheeks.
“You did right, Oliver. You did the only thing left to do,” I finally said, placing my hand over his.
“I needed to hear that,” he said, wiping his face with his shirt sleeve, “because not a day goes by when I don’t relive the moment I made that decision to let him go.
The stress eased slightly. He had a second cup of coffee and I had a forth, then we headed for the church.