Marvin Stenberg learns there is more to life than just feeling sorry for himself.
Marvin “Marv” Stenberg sat on his five gallon bait bucket staring into the hole in the ice wondering what in God’s good name he was doing with his life. He jigged his line. Nothing. Fifteen years ago, when he retired, he’d vowed that he would give up ice fishing and he and his wife, Evelyn, would spend their winters down in Arizona, living in their camper and soaking up the sun in Sonoma Junction RV Park right on the shores of the Colorado River near Bullhead City, an hour’s drive north of where his brother lived. He’d maybe go for walks through Cactus Blossom Nature Center which abutted the river and, in general, just enjoy his retirement years, motoring around on a mini-bike and reading. But it didn’t turn out that way. Soon after he retired Evelyn had suffered a stroke and required constant care which was exasperated by the onset of Alzheimer’s the last five years of her life. Their plans to live the good life were not only put on hold, but never even got close to coming to fruition. Last summer Evelyn passed away and now Marv was left alone and feeling sorry for himself. A feeling he hated to admit to, but there it was. So he did the only thing he felt comfortable doing and that was to withdraw and spend time by himself. Which, he was finding, was fairly easy to do.
“Dad why don’t you come over for dinner? You know, get out of the house a little. Socialize. Remy and the kids would love to see you.” It was that or some variation of this request his oldest son would make on his weekly phone calls.
Marv found it was easy to make up some excuse, like he was busy with the garden, or remodeling the bathroom or cutting firewood, anything that was easily accepted, like his son and his family couldn’t have cared less anyway. Which certainly wasn’t true, but…See, feeling sorry for himself. Whatever the case was, it worked, and left Marv with a lot of time on his hands. In retrospect, more time than was good for him, that was for sure.
This particular fishing shack was the reincarnation of his very first one, the one he’d built when he was in his mid-twenties, fifty five years ago, just after he and Evelyn were married and before the kids started arriving on a regular basis every two years for the next ten years. That first ice house had been big and heavy and required a truck to pull it out onto the ice. Everyone called it The Beast. Measuring eight feet by eight feet square it was comfortable inside but way too big and ungainly, the half inch plywood siding not helping one bit. He’d learned his lesson. This new one was lighter and smaller. He could drive it down to the lake in the back of his pickup, unload it and pull it onto the ice himself, an accomplishment he was proud of. He’d built it the summer before last, the last full summer Evelyn had been alive, and, to be honest, he built it partly to give himself a break from the pain of watching his dear wife fading slowly from life. His three daughters were over constantly helping out during those last months, along with a extremely competent and gentle male nurse, giving him a chance to take a break, a break he used to construct ‘Something Useful’ as he called it. It turned out to be an escape from reality in more ways than one, which was becoming apparent to him now as he sat immobile on his bucket on a winter’s day in late February, staring into this hole in the ice, wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Bobby Johnson and his friends, the twins, Will and Ryder Jamison, lived less than a mile from where Marv now sat in his lonely fishing shack. They were ten years old and had more energy to burn than they knew what to do with. During the spring, summer and fall, they were bike riders and adventurers, exploring the hills and fields around the outskirts of town. During the winter they skated on the lake and rode their sleds down the big hill on the far side of the cemetery just down the street from where they lived, building up speed and sailing way out onto the snow covered ice, laughing and yelling all the way. Fortunately for them the town they lived in soaked up their energy like a sponge. Long Lake was located on the western edge of the metropolitan area on the shore of the lake that gave the town it’s name. With a working class population of just under two thousand and quiet, shady, tree lined streets, Long Lake was like a small town cast back in time to the mid part of the twentieth century. Bobby, Will and Ryder took advantage of the nearby forests, farm fields and ponds to live out their fantasies, their imaginations working overtime. Sometimes they were mountain men wandering the woods and hills exploring uncharted and treacherous land. Sometimes they were professional hockey players, skating on the rink they kept shoveled on the lake, playing for the Stanley Cup. And everything in between. In an age of electronic games, diversions and communications, they were definitely throwbacks. The boy’s parents kept their fingers crossed, hoping their energy wouldn’t lead them into trouble. So far so good on that count.
On this particular day Bobby woke up with a plan. Overnight he’d had a dream that he was an Olympic bobsledder racing down a steep icy track like the one he’d seen when he’d watched the last winter Olympics held in Sochi with his dad. He had a quick breakfast and then called the twins, outlining his plan. They all agreed to meet at the cemetery hill after school. With the plan set, Bobby got his backpack and headed out to wait for the school bus. He was tingling with excitement. The afternoon couldn’t come soon enough.
Back on the ice, Marv awoke with a start. He’d fallen asleep and almost toppled off the bucket, something that made him feel embarrassed even though no one could see him, closed up in the confines of the fishing shack like he was. He stood up, stretching his stiff joints, and looked out the small window he’d thought to put in toward the end of the building process. The sun was shining and he could tell the day was warming up. The fire in his small wood stove had gone out and he decided not to revive it. He was warm enough anyway having dressed in long under wear, a flannel shirt, jeans, a sweater, two pairs of socks, insulated boots and his insulated Carhartt overalls. On his head he wore the dark green wool stocking hat Evelyn had knit for him years earlier before her stroke. If on the one hand he was sad and lonely, he was, on the other hand, certainly warm and toasty.
He lived up the hill only half a mile from the lake on a tree lined street of small but tidy and well kept homes. He often walked to the lake and on his walk down to it earlier that morning Marv had bumped into Olaf Johnson. Oh, man, Marv thought to himself, inwardly grimacing as the old guy limped over to him, not this nutcase. In his mind, Olaf was just a goofy old man with nothing going on in his life who liked to talk too much, going on and on about anything under the sun, monopolizing and wasting Marv’s time whether the fish were biting or not. To his way of thinking the guy was lazy, too, preferring not to go to the trouble to build a nice ice house and be somewhat warm and comfortable during the winter fishing season. No, instead the nutty old coot chose to carry a bait bucket out to the hole he kept open in the ice and plop his line in and sit on his bucket out in the elements, no matter how cold or snowy it was. What an idiot, Marv often thought to himself, as he sat on his own bucket in the warmth and solitude of his little four by six foot shack, poking at the fire burning in his stove and trying not to fall asleep. What a complete fool.
“Hey there, Marv,” Olaf called out, coming up to him at the stoplight on the corner. “What’s the good word?” God help me, Marv, thought. The guy was so friendly and talkative…He felt the beginnings of a headache coming on.
“Not much, not much at all,” Marv said, struggling to be pleasant, hackles rising. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Olaf, or Ollie as he preferred to be called by his friends, which Marv refused to do, definitely not counting himself a member of that particular group of individuals. Overall the guy was just too much. Too much talk, too much friendly banter and too much trying to be Marv’s pal. And he certainly didn’t respect Marv’s invisible boundaries. Sometimes he would actually horn in on his privacy by coming right into his fishing shack. Just to chat, of all things. Why the nerve of the guy. “Just out doing some fishing,” Marv said, cryptically, hoping he’d get the hint.
“Good day for it,” Olaf said, looking around, smiling, ignoring Marv’s rudeness. The sky was blue and the temperature was in the low thirties. For the end of February it was a perfect day to be on the lake. A perfect day to be alone on the lake, Marv thought to himself, wishing Olaf would just leave. But he didn’t. The light changed and they crossed the street, Olaf limping along as they headed down the block to the city park where the public access to the lake was. He’d had a hip replaced four or five years ago, which he was more than happy to tell you about. A story Marv had heard too many times to count. He had to give Olaf credit, though, he did move around pretty good for an old guy. Where Marv was on the tall and thinish side, Olaf was just the opposite, shorter and rounder. Think of the characters ‘Mutt and Jeff’ and you might get the picture of the two of them together. Today Marv just wanted to be left alone.
“See you around, Olaf,” Marv said stepping onto the lake and picking up the pace. The weather had been clear for over a week and the snow on the ice was packed down pretty well. It made walking easy and Marv started following the path out to his ice house he’d trampled all winter long. He was carrying his bait bucket full of shiners, little minnows he’d bought at the local hardware store. The air was crisp and invigorating with no wind. The bright sun reflected off the snow making the ice crystals dance and sparkle. It was a beautiful winter scene, one Marv was oblivious to, wanting only to get to his shack and be left by himself.
Olaf didn’t take the hint, following along instead, yakking away a mile a minute as Marv made his way out across the snow and ice. Long Lake was a narrow, shallow body of water measuring two miles long by a half mile wide with the deepest spot being twenty five feet. It was fed with a tiny stream on one end and as well as natural under water springs. Marv’s fishing shack was near the outlet, a small stream that eventually fed into a bigger lake three miles away. The fishing was good for crappies, sunfish and bass with the occasional northern or walleye tossed in. Someone once said they’d seen a forty inch Muskie in the shallow water near the shore where Marv was now fishing, but the jury was out on that one. Marv, who considered himself a realist, had his doubts as to the authenticity of the whole story.
“What you going to be fishing for?” Olaf asked, oblivious to Marv’s desire to be alone.
Marv had clammed up on the walk across the ice. His fishing shack was about two hundred feet from shore near where a busy local road ran and about a hundred yards out from the public access. He was watching a group of three crows hoping around a small hole that had formed in the ice about a hundred feet past from where he’d be fishing. Probably from an underwater spring, Marv thought to himself. Then he let the idea drift off. What he really wanted was to get rid of Olaf. “Crappies.” He stated abruptly, in answer to the question, opening the door to his shack and setting his bait bucket inside. “See you around.” He stepped inside and slammed the door, standing with his head up against it waiting until he heard Olaf trudge off, crunching through the snow. Then he cracked opened the door and watched as the old guy moved about fifty feet away over toward where he kept his hole in the ice open all winter long. It was even closer to the local road and the stream at the outlet than Marv was. Olaf used a six foot metal rod with a chisel on the end to punch the hole open. Then he baited his hook and settled down on his bucket to fish. Marv quickly stepped outside. On the side of his house he’d placed a rather large pine tree that he’d scavenged from the street during a city wide pickup of Christmas trees a few months earlier. He’d been using the branches for kindling to get his little wood burning stove going. He quickly grabbed a few branches and stepped back inside, noticing that his pine tree was nearly stripped clean. He also noticed that Olaf was watching him but had quickly turned away when Marv looked over at him. Geez, Marv thought to himself. What’s the matter with me? He’s just a harmless old guy whose trying to be friendly. Shaking his head he let the thought pass as he stepped inside and busied himself lighting his stove, finally getting a fire going. He baited his hook and settled himself in on his bucket. Alone with his thoughts.
At lunchtime Bobby and Will and Ryder met up at the table they thought of as their own, located over by the windows on the edge of the noisy lunchroom. They chowed down their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, munched on doritos and eagerly talked about their plan to go sledding after school. After they finished they hurried outside to recess, running around the playground chasing each other with snow balls, burning off energy until an attendant corralled them, admonishing them to calm down. As they were being chewed out the boys cast glances at each other, grinning and sweating, eyes bright with enthusiasm, already getting geared up for their sledding adventure later that afternoon. The end of the school day couldn’t come fast enough.
Marv settled in to gazing into his hole in the ice. He’d been a machinist his entire life. In the early nineteen fifties he’d taken some engineering classes at the University of Minnesota, but school was never something he’d been comfortable with. He had a quick mind, was adept with his hands and could visualize and draw any object in three dimensions. Evelyn and he had been married for just over a year when she noticed an ad in the newspaper for help wanted at Butler Tool and Die in Northeast Minneapolis. Marv had applied for the job, was hired, and ended up working there for forty years, retiring at the age of sixty five with a plaque, a pocket watch and a nice pension. The next year Evelyn had her stroke and then came the onset of Alzheimer’s. He’d taken care of her for fifteen years until she passed away peacefully last summer, surrounded by himself their five children, and even some grandkids. Now here he was spending his eighty first winter alone, sitting in a little shack, ice fishing and thinking of the past. Not the way he’d envisioned living out the end of his life at all.
Evelyn had always encouraged him to be more open with his children, something he found hard to do.
“Just talk to them every now and then,” she’d say, especially when the kids were young and vying for his attention. “Let them know you love them.” And he did love them, he just had a hard time showing it.
If you asked his daughters, Tina, Sara or Julie what they thought of their dad, here’s what they’d say: “Dad was a master of the three R’s. He was reticent, restrained and removed,” was how Tina, the oldest would describe him. “Dad was certainly quiet,” Sara, the next oldest would concur, “But he at least was there for us. I knew I could always talk to him and he’d listen.” She paused and added, “But, of course, I had to bring things up first.” Julie, the youngest had a different take. “I learned a lot from dad. He taught me how to take care of a car and fix stuff around the house. To this day, I really appreciate everything I’ve learned from him.” To which the oldest sisters just laughed. Of the three girls, Julie was the one most like their father, the other two taking after Evelyn, a family centered, stay at home mom her entire life, who was as comfortable making bread as she was maintaining a garden. She was warm and loving, a good counterbalance for Marvin’s more reserved nature.
The boys Richard “Rich” and Flynn exhibited a pleasant mix of both of their parents better qualities. Rich worked as a software designer for a local engineering company and Flynn owned his own carpet installation business. Both boys were industrious, a trait they shared with their father.
“Dad could fix anything,” Rich would say, if you asked him to name one characteristic of their father.
“And he’d let us help,” Flynn would be quick to add.
“Remember when he let us help him remodel the kitchen that one time?” Rich would say, looking at his brother. “We were like, what, eight and six years old?”
“Yeah. I remembered we learned how to tear out cupboards and lay in new ones so there were level,” Flynn would say.
“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure he taught us how to use a table saw before I could even spell the word,” Rich added, laughing. Both boys had a great deal of affection for their father.
Rich was older than Flynn by two years and they were both older than the girls. The boys were close growing up and even to this day they were still were, living in southwest Minneapolis only a few blocks from each other. It was Rich who was taking it upon himself to call his dad on a regular basis to ask him to dinner. Tina did it too, also getting nowhere, much to the frustration of both of them.
“I don’t get it,” Rich said to Tina whenever they talked, which was often. “He throws up roadblocks every time I invite him over. He just seems to be withdrawing more and more ever since mom died.”
Tina just smirked. “What else is new?” To her Marv had been withdrawn her entire life. But she still tried to stay in touch with him anyway. She knew her mom would have wanted it that way.
Was Marv aware of any of the concern his kids had for him? No way. His awareness of the world had turned inward. He had sunk into a depression that was common for some old people when their lifelong partner passes away, a dark emotional hole deeper than the one in the ice he was currently spending this long, cold winter staring into.
Back in school the clock on the wall finally made it to three forty-five and the bell rang. The school day was over. Bobby bolted from his chair and was admonished by his teacher to walk. “Yes, Miss Jorgenson,” he said politely, slowing his pace momentarily before scooting through the door and hustling down the hall to where Will and Ryder were just exiting their classroom.
“Let’s go boys,” Bobby called out excitedly. His two friends fell in step with him as they wove their way down the hall and outside to the bus. The sky was blue, the sun low on the western horizon. The temperature felt warm, maybe thirty-five degrees and their energy leveled cranked up another notch. The bus ride home took fifteen minutes. Five minutes later they were making their way down the street to the cemetery. They went sledding there as often as they could. The hill was in the back on the lake side and so steep that hardly any vegetation could secure a foothold to grow. What attracted the boys was that the run was almost straight down, offering a ride of nearly one hundred feet before shooting them out onto the ice. It was an intense, high speed thrill that brought the boy’s hearts into their throats and dropped the bottom out of their stomachs every time they ran it. They couldn’t wait to get there.
Bobby and his dad had bought an old toboggan at a garage sale the previous summer and he dragged it along thinking it would be perfect to use to re-enact a bobsled run. The twins were just as excited to try it. They pulled the toboggan into the cemetery and through the grave markers all the way to the back to the top of the hill. They stopped to catch their breath and looked down over the edge. The hill was so step you couldn’t see the bottom, only the lake stretching out away from the shore, brilliant white snow gleaming in the late afternoon sun. The boys were so excited they could barely stand it. Bobby positioned the toboggan and climbed on, kneeling on the padded red nylon mat. He grabbed the rope handles on either side of the curved wooden front. He could feel his heart pounding and suddenly experienced just the briefest moment of fear. But he quickly stuffed that away as Will climbed on and then Ryder behind him. Then they were all on their knees, gripping the rope handles along the side, anticipation building.
“Ready?” Bobby called out.
“Ready.” Will and Ryder answered simultaneously.
“Let’s go,” Bobby yelled, pushing with his hands as Ryder, in the back, kicked off with his feet.
The toboggan slowly inched along to the edge of the trail and then tipped downward. In less than ten seconds it was rocketing down the slope. The boy’s world was blurred by clouds of snow billowing all around them as the toboggan picked up speed, faster and faster, all the way to the bottom of the hill. Wind whipping past them formed tears in their eyes that blinded them as they rocketed out onto the lake, unaware of what lay ahead. In front of them was a hole in the ice. The same hole that the crows had been gathered around all day. A hole that had become larger throughout the day as the temperature had become warmer. A hole wide and ominous and unobserved by the boys who, with their heads tucked down to help reduce wind resistance, were now racers, running a course, not in their little hometown in Minnesota, but in the Olympics, on a bobsled tract in Sochi, far, far from home.
Marv loved the years he’d spent at Butler Tool and Die. He worked in the design department where he and his team took in specialty, often one-of-a-kind, jobs. One of his first assignments was to develop a unique bracket used to secure a turbine to the floor for a local nuclear power plant north of Minneapolis on the Mississippi River. In addition to a special size and shape, a particular type of metal alloy was also required. After nearly a year of testing and numerous design changes they were finally successful, even winning an award for Butler given annually by the Tool and Die Makers Association of America. His career was off and running from that point on. By the time he retired he had been trained in computer aided design (CAD) and was proficient in the use of computer technology to perform the many functions his job entailed. His team worked on everything from microscopic components for cell phones to specialized screws used by a local corporation in their home security system devices. He even once designed a proto-type cylinder head for a upper Midwest motorcycle manufacturer. His job was both challenging and interesting. As technology advanced so did his ability to come up with innovative designs to meet the requirements of Butler’s customers.
But sometimes he missed those olden days when it was just he, his mechanical pencil and his mind coming up with drawings of solutions to the problems he was presented with. He remembered when his kids were young. Usually once a year he would take each of them with him to work. He’d show them around both the office where he spent most of his time doing his designs and the shop floor where the products he designed were fabricated and tested. He remembered how much each of his kids seemed to enjoy the product drawings that he showed them as well as the noisy hustle and bustle of the shop floor. In retrospect, those were good memories for him. And why they were flooding back to him on his particular day was anyone’s guess. But they were. He remembered Rich and his simple interest in the variety of the pencils he used for his drawings. He remembered how much Flynn loved being on the shop floor watching the tool and die machines stamp out parts. Even the girls seemed to like seeing where he worked. Julie, his youngest, especially enjoyed the pounding of the machines and the way the conveyer belts carried parts to various areas of the facility. He fondly remembered her starring with wide eyed wonder, smiling and happy, as a huge, noisy die machine stamped out rounded covers for thermostats. Those were good times and as they came back to him Marv realized how special they were, him being there and spending time with each of his kids. It had been part of what had made up a good life, one that he wouldn’t have traded for anything.
Man, Marv thought to himself, my mind is certainly jumping all over the place today. What was going on? Had he been asleep again? Had he been dreaming? He had no good answer but as he thought about it, he found he actually kind of liked that it was happening and where those good memories were taking him. Maybe he’d been gloomy for too long. Suddenly there was a tug on his line and he regained his focus, shaking his head to clear it. Once again he was back in his fishing shack, sitting on his bucket. His hand tightened on the pole and he pulled up a little four inch perch, flipping like crazy at the end of the line. He had just taken it off the hook and carefully placed it back in the water when there was a frantic pounding on his door.
“Marv, come quick.” It was Olaf. “Some kids just went through the ice.” He pounded again as Marv got up and swung open the door. Olaf was limping in the direction of the hole in the ice where the crows had been. “Hurry,” he yelled over his shoulder. “They’re in serious trouble.”
Marv stepped outside and he looked were Olaf was headed. A hundred feet away three boys were in the water and struggling to get out. They were trying to grab onto what looked like a toboggan and they were yelling for help. Olaf was limping toward them as fast as he could go. A bunch of crows were in the trees on the shore cawing madly. Marv took a step to follow and then stopped. He glanced at the pine tree stripped of its branches laying in the snow next to his ice house. It was nearly seven feet long and could come in handy. He grabbed it and broke into a jog, catching up to Olaf in less than a minute. They stopped fifteen feet from the hole. The kids were panicking now and screaming as the ice around them broke away, water flooding up out of the hole. Marv and Olaf could feel the ice they were on start to sink. They didn’t have much time.
“We need to get those kids out of there,” Olaf said, his voice urgent. “Fast.”
“Did you call 911?” Marv asked trying to access the situation, his mind working overtime, clicking through the possibilities.
“Yeah.” Olaf was nervous, shuffling his boots back and forth. “I don’t know if they’ll make it in time. Can we get them out, do ya’ think?”
Marv took in the toboggan, half in the water, half on the ice, and two kids hanging onto it. One other kid was in the water struggling to get out, the ice breaking away with each effort he made. Marv made his decision.
“Stay here and wait for help,” he told Olaf. “I’m going to try to get them out.”He flipped the tree out onto the ice so that it touched the near end of the toboggan and then got down on his hands and knees. “Hold the trunk,” he told Olaf. “I’m going out there after them.”
Olaf nodded, looking grim. “Be careful.” He gripped the base of the tree as Marv started to crawl out along it. “Watch the ice. It’s starting to break up.”
“You kids lie still.” Marv yelled as he crawled cautiously along the tree trunk out to the toboggan. “The ice is giving way. Be still and lay there. Try not to move.”
He could tell the kids were scared. So was and he tried to control his breathing. His heart was beating out of control in his chest. He could barely catch his breath. He forced himself to crawl along the tree trunk until he could grab the back end of the toboggan. He lay out flat on the ice, holding on to the toboggan with his right hand.
“Crawl up to me,” he yelled to the nearest boy, who was only two or three feet away.”Go slow and kept yourself flat.” He could see the kids were terrified. He tried to encourage them. He calmed his voice.”You’ll be Ok. Just come here to me.” He motioned with his left hand.
Marv was on his stomach to spread his weight out. Water from the hole was flowing up out of the lake onto the ice, covering him and soaking into his clothes. He felt a momentary shock as the freezing water hit his skin. He was half in and half out of the water. He knew that he only had a minute or two before the boys and maybe even himself started to freeze. “Hurry,” he called. Then he softened his voice and motioned with his hand, “Come on to me. I’ll help you.”
First one boy and then the other pulled himself along the toboggan to where Marv held on, and then up and over him to the tree trunk. By now Marv was nearly submerged in the icy cold water, but he stayed where he was, serving as a human bridge for two boys to use to get to safety. Behind him he heard Olaf yelling encouragement. A quick look over his shoulder and he could see the boys crawling along the tree truck to safety, Olaf helping them. They were going to be Ok. He turned his attention to the kid in the water. He was hanging onto the ice. His face looked pale.
Marv pulled himself along the toboggan to the edge of the ice and grabbed the boy’s hand. “Here you go, young fella’,” Marv said, trying to make eye contact with the kid. The boy was just lying there, his body probably starting to shut down. Marv felt an extra shot of adrenaline kick in. He made an attempt to pull the boy out, but the ice started to give way some more. Marv felt himself and the toboggan sink a little more into the lake. The boy, however, seemed to revive. He raised his head, now covered with water that was turning to ice. He looked at Marv. “Mister…Please…,” was all he said.
“I’ve got you, son,” Marv said. “Hold on to me.”
“Ok.” The kid’s voice was weak.
More adrenaline flooded Marv’s system. He knew he had to do something. He was starting to freeze because of the water soaking into his clothes. God only knew how long the kid could hold out. He made up his mind. He tugged on the boy’s arm and the kid looked up.
“I’m coming in for you,” he said, urgency in his voice. “I’m going to get you out.” He took an instant to gather his courage and then pushed himself forward into the water, wrapping his arms around the boy. He felt himself sinking and he could feel his body start to go numb. He fought to stay afloat, kicking with his heavy boots. He knew he had only moments before he sank. The boy was revived somewhat, working with the old man, feebly kicking his legs. “On the count of three I’m going to lift you,” Marv said, “You try to get up onto the ice.” He felt, more than he saw, the boy nod. He could feel the kid’s fear, but also his strength, like the kid wasn’t ready to die just yet. “Alright now, one…two…three.” At the count of three Marv mustered all of this strength, propping his left arm on the ice as he lifted the boy with his right, kicking his feet for additional force. The boy kicked his legs, too, and threw himself up and out of the hole. He slid a few feet on top of the ice. Marv put his hand on the kid’s butt and pushed with the last of his strength. He saw the boy scoot forward, grabbing the toboggan, pulling himself along to the end to where the tree was. Then he saw Olaf, who, after getting the other two boys to safety had apparently disregarded Marv’s order to say back. He was down on his hands and knees reaching for the kid. The last thought he had before he sank into the water and underneath the ice was that the boy was going to be safe. Then his heavy clothes dragged him down, his boots acting like lead weights. He fought to stay afloat but the weight was too much. He took in water, coughing and gasping, sinking completely under the surface. He flailed his arms, trying to swim upward but he couldn’t. He was panicking knowing that he was drowning. Suddenly he hit the muck at the bottom of the lake, maybe ten feet from the surface. He sank into a squatting position and sprang up toward the light of the hole. He was out of breath, struggling to reach the surface. Kicking, kicking, kicking, fighting with his arms, trying with all his might to make it. But his strength was gone. He was spent. He had nothing left to give. He blacked out, his arms extended upward, floating in a sea of darkness. Then all was calm. A quiet settled over him, a comfortable warmth unlike anything he’d ever experienced. All his frantic activity dissipated and Marv felt at peace, like he was in the most precious and deepest sleep of his life. Then an image came to him. It was Evelyn, his lovely wife of so many years. She was smiling at him and waving to him, maybe even calling out to him. He could tell she was happy to see him and he was happy to see her. She waved to him again, motioning with her hand, beckoned to him to come to her. Come to me, come to me, my dear husband, she seemed to be saying, opening her arms and ready to embrace him, like she was welcoming him home.
Later, before he came completely to consciousness, his eyes were closed and he could hear sounds. Was he dead? Was he dreaming? He didn’t know, but he felt comfortable and warm. Then it came to him that the sounds were voices. People were talking and the more he listened the more he was reminded of family gatherings so long ago. He had good memories of those times back then. What was going on? Am I in Heaven, he wondered? Curious, he opened his eyes. No, it wasn’t Heaven. He was in a hospital room. Light was streaming in from windows to his right. Surrounding his bed were his two sons, three daughters, grandkids and even some great grandkids were tossed in for good measure. It was like a holiday gathering. Everyone was quietly talking and somewhat subdued but became more talkative and animated when they realized that Marv had awoken.
“Dad, thank God you’re alright,” Rich exclaimed, reaching over to him. He’d been sitting right next to the bed. He put his hand on his father’s shoulder, gently rubbing it. And then it was like the room exploded with noise as his family gathered around him, everyone talking at once until it seemed he might swoon away with the noise and activity of it all. But he didn’t. He hung in there, slowly coming to grips with the fact that not only was he alive, but he was surrounded by his kids and grandkids and great grandkids, all of whom couldn’t wait to talk to him and offer words of encouragement. After months pretty much living by himself, it was almost more than he could bear. Almost. When he looked around and saw the smiles of relief on everyone’s faces, he had to smile himself. It felt good to be around so much energy and enthusiasm. For months his world had felt cold and gray. Now it felt different. It felt colorful and alive, full of light and sound. It was a good place to be. He was glad to be there.
He finally he cleared his throat and mustered some strength and said the only thing he could think of saying. “Thanks for being here, everyone. I suppose you’re wondering why I called you all together.” Which was a stupid little joke , but it was met with laughs and guffaws. And then the noise level really went up through the roof with everyone telling him in their own way and in their own words how more than happy they were that he was alive and back among the living.
He was in the hospital for a few days, kept under observation by a trio of doctors who, as they told Rich, were amazed that Marv had bounced back so readily.
“Well, he’s a tough old bird, that’s for sure,” Rich said.
“He’s got a lot of life left in him,” one of the doctors said. “He lives by himself?”
“Yeah, his wife, my mom, passed away last year.”
“Just keep an eye on him, then. His heart is good, his vitals are good. He’s old but in pretty good shape. He should be fine.”
So they got him home and settled, calling on the phone or stopping by daily to check up on him. But he really was fine, they realized, like the doctor had said, and soon the calls tapered off, with only Rich and Tina staying in close touch, taking it upon themselves to let their other siblings know how their father was doing. Or grandfather in the case of Jeremy, Julie’s youngest, who, at the age of ten was into building model cars and airplanes and had coerced his granddad into helping him. Marv gladly accepted his grandson’s offer, being it was something he could do with his hands, bringing him back to his tool and die days. Even if his vision wasn’t what it used to be, that’s where Jeremy came in, helping out reading the instructions and painting and putting the decals on the finished model. But, moreover, being with Jeremy was getting Marv back involved with the family and that was a good thing. Like Julie would say, talking to her brothers and sisters about it, “I forgot how good dad was with little details when it came to building things. And he’s patient, too. Lots more than I am, that’s for sure.”
And that was fine with Marv. He was enjoying his time with Jeremy. He’d drive over once every week or two after school and spend a few hours with him, working on a model or going for a walk around the neighborhood, since winter had passed and it was now spring. “Dad seems to be doing just fine,” Julie would say if she was asked. “I don’t think we could ask for anything more.”
And he was doing fine if you asked him. In fact Marv would even insist that he was doing great. Ollie (no more the formal ‘Olaf’) had started coming by his house to keep him company, and they had gotten to know each other better, finding they had a lot in common, both having had lost their wives, both being old but still active and both liking to fish. That’s why on the first weekend in May, on opening day of the fishing season, they were found together out on Long Lake’s public dock, next to the public access, getting ready to start casting for bass.
“Nice day for fishing,” Ollie said, fiddling with the Rapala he was going to be using. The sun was shining and the air a crisp forty five degrees. The breeze out of the west was at their backs blowing ripples across the water. Gulls floated above them, squawking and looking for handouts. Trees were leafing out. A sweet scent of spring was in the air and the water on the lake looked fresh and clear. Yes, a good day to be fishing, or to be alive, for that matter, in the larger scheme of things.
Marv was just going to use a spinner with a worm attached to it. He looked askance at his friend’s rig. “You’re not going to get anything with that get up, you know,” he said, chidingly. “Not a damn thing.”
Ollie laughed, looking with derision at Marv, standing next to him with a worm blowing in the breeze as it dangled off the hook of his spinner. “Bet ya.'”
“You’re on,” Marv said, casting his line out, turning his face away so Ollie couldn’t see the smile on his face.
They had developed a particular fondness for each other, these two old men, who once were lonely, but now were not. Life works in mysterious ways sometimes.
Every now and then they would talk about that day in February when Marv had gone into the water to rescue Bobby Johnson and Ollie (it turned out he played a significant role in the rescue as well) had not only had called 911 but then had hurried with Marv across the ice and grabbed both Will and Ryder, helping them to safety. A Hennepin County Water Safety Team had stormed out onto the ice and were just behind Marv and Ollie’s rescue. A young rescue guy in a wetsuit had jumped into the water as Marv was sinking to the bottom of the lake and pulled him out in just in time, saving his life. The local television stations made it a big story for exactly five hours, the two old men and their rescue of the boys making both the early evening and late night news, only to be replaced the next day by a more note-worthy world event. That was fine with Marv and Ollie. They did what they had to do and that was that. They didn’t need the adulation and were happy that it didn’t last long. And, in the intervening months, it happened they were not only becoming fast friends, they were even thinking about finally getting that RV Marv has always talked about and doing some traveling together.
As his oldest boy, Rich, said, “Stranger things could happen. At least dad isn’t depressed anymore.”
And that was true. But what no one knew, and probably would never know, was that there was just a little bit more to the story. After Evelyn died, being around the house was hard for Marv. If Rich thought his dad was depressed Marv couldn’t say if that were true or not, but he was sad, that was for sure. Home had become a place filled with memories that he knew he’d never experience again, memories of his life with the woman he loved for so many years and was now was gone forever. But was she, really? Was she really gone? He’d had that first vision of her when he was sinking in the ice cold waters of Long Lake, drowning. After he survived and made his recovery it started happening more frequently. Shortly after he returned home from the hospital she started coming to him at old hours, usually when he was in his easy chair reading, or sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee watching the birds flocking around the feeder in the backyard.
“Marvin, dear, how is your day going? Have you done anything interesting? Tell me what’s going on.” Her voice sounded so sweet, like the loveliest of birdsongs.
Of course, in the beginning these visions of Evelyn were disconcerting if not a little bit frightening. But once he got used to seeing her and accepted the visions for what they were and that they were really happening, Marv found himself looking forward to seeing and talking to her, telling her about working in the yard and getting spring cleanup underway. Or telling her about going fishing with Ollie, relating the tales his new friend would tell. Or telling her about working with Jeremy on the new model of a ’32 Ford Coupe they were building. Or simply telling her about all kinds of day to day things he knew she’d enjoy hearing about: how he was keeping the house clean, or where he was grocery shopping or how he was building a new birdfeeder. And as he talked to her (and that’s what he did, talk to her) he found that in relaying his stories and putting his day to day life into words, he realized that his life was full and active. He wasn’t morose and withdrawn anymore. Not at all. The fact of the matter was that he was actively engaged in living and involved in life and the world again. And, for her part, Evelyn was very happy for him.
“I’m glad you are doing something constructive with your days,” was usually the essence of what Evelyn would say. Usually she was smiling and usually she was wearing one of her favorite flower patterned house dress, a dress she would have sewn herself, colorful with a pretty floral pattern on it.
“I am, dear,” he would say, pausing and looking out the window, seeing new green daylily shoots coming up through the rich garden soil, thinking of the years he and Evelyn had worked out in the gardens together, beginning to miss her until she would say,
“You know, I’m always with you, don’t you? I’m never far from your side.”
He was starting to get that. Starting to see her everywhere he looked, really looked, or opened up his heart and allowed her to be there.
He once brought it up to Ollie. He tried to be casual about it, but really, it was impossible to do. After all, he was talking about seeing visions of a person no longer alive.”Do you ever see or talk to Helen?” he asked. Helen was Ollie’s wife who passed away due to brain cancer ten years earlier. “You know, see her around or have conversations with her or anything like that?”
But if he thought Ollie would think he was losing his mind, he underestimated his friend, because Ollie, normally one to talk on and on about anything under the sun had turned quiet and reflective before answering. “I do,” he said, hesitantly, “Sometimes.” Then he looked curiously at Marv before asking, “Why?”
“Just wondering,” was Marv’s answer, and Ollie looked hard at him, probing before nodding, like he found what he was looking for and knew exactly what Marv was getting at. And that was that. It was another thing these two old men shared, these visions of the women they’d each loved coming to them and keeping them company, and there was nothing more to say about it.
After spending most of the day down at the dock on that opening day of the fishing season, Marv and Ollie walked home together, saying good-bye as Ollie continued down the street toward his home the next block over. It was the first week in May and the gardens were looking good, tulips blooming bright colors of red, pink and yellow and the buds on the lilac brushes bursting forth on their branches. There was a lingering fresh scent of lily-of-the-valley in the air and house finches were singing in the trees. He’d seen his first bluebird of the season just the day before. After winter’s long, cold hold on the land, springtime’s rebirth was in the air in full swing. He almost felt like whistling. He carefully placed his pole in the garage and walked to the back door, taking a moment to wipe his boots on the outdoor mat. He opened the door. It lead into the kitchen. A faint scent of the morning’s coffee and toast hung in the air. He removed his boots, placing them on a small braided rug next to the door, and walked through the kitchen into the living room where he sat in his favorite chair, it’s green corduroy covering looking so warm and inviting. Across from his chair was Evelyn’s, a floral pattern wing-back with a small foot-stool in front of it. He pictured his wife sitting there, her hands busy with an embroidery project, her wire-frame glasses perched on the edge of her nose, the late afternoon sun reflecting off her hair. Next to her would be a mug of chamomile tea and maybe a plate with a sugar cookie or two on it. Her dress would be worn but pretty, tiny white flowers on a faded blue background. Just seeing her would make Marv happy, so happy that he wouldn’t know what to do.
“Tell me about your day, dear,” she would say.
Her voice would come to him like a calming balm reaching into his soul. He would smile at her and relax and whatever loneliness he might be experiencing would be swept away like a breath of fresh springtime air and he would suddenly become energized and alive. Then he’d start talking, telling her about his day and she would listen, smiling and nodding for him to continue. The hours would pass and they would be together in the quiet of their living room as the sun’s rays faded to evening and another day came to an end. And Marv’s world would be complete and everything would be the way it should be.