by Dan Roberts
When Harold was twelve, he rarely thought about The Big One. He would leap from high places, race his Schwinn over steep ramps, play with fire, and defy The Big One with all other manner of bravado.
Then, one especially exuberant day, sporting a Superman cape made from his mother’s Christmas table cloth, Harold flew blindly into the gravel road by his house. Five hours later, Superman awoke in a hospital bed, bruised, but unbroken, which he credited to his super powers.
Doc Flanders said he was lucky he didn’t catch The Big One. That sounded like a good thing, but Harold wasn’t sure what he meant. “You gotta be more careful, boy. If the truck driver hadn’t seen your red cape, it could have been the death of you.”
Oh. That Big One.
Harold’s dad had briefly discussed the meaning of death a few years earlier when he said, “Your hamster is gone, and he won’t be coming back”, which sounded pretty permanent. So if that was what Doc Flanders meant by catching The Big One, Harold wanted nothing to do with it. He regretted missing whatever joys might have occurred during the five hours he was gone. Playing King On The Mountain with Chip and Ricky, crossing the tracks to the drugstore for a nickel Coke, and other such diversions that tantalize a boy on a summer afternoon.
So he vowed to be more careful. He started taking precautions, like gathering soft, forgiving things to land on, and looking both ways, and closing the cover before striking. Being careful served Harold well for a long time. It carried him relatively unscathed through teen angst, senior prom, driving, state college, the battle of Inchon, the ‘57 tornado, 28 years of public school science teaching, 61 years of marriage to his “Lady Laura”, and countless hours encouraging their children and grandchildren to join them in adulthood.
The Big One stayed at a respectable distance throughout the years, venturing near only once during a tricky surgical procedure. Having survived that, Harold’s life was good, his health was strong, and he remained mentally fit.
But age eventually began to erode the bricks and mortar of his careful existence. One brick at a time at first: arthritis, bad knees, irritable bowel. Soon entire sections of walls: vision impairment, COPD, a broken hip slow to mend. And finally, a total structural collapse when Laura passed away. That was Harold’s final step in a beautiful journey that would have been cruelly shorter if not for his mom’s red tablecloth, which he still brought out every Christmas. But now that he was ready for The Big One, it seemed in no hurry to oblige, as if to punish him for cheating it the first time.
With nowhere left to go and no one to go with him, Harold became an observer of life, enjoying the pleasures of others, but unable (or unwilling) to participate. His poor vision filtered out much of the remaining world left to him by Laura, and the effort to keep up with that world exhausted him. Like a weary traveler left waiting and forgotten at the terminal, he yearned to be taken home to rest.
Long ago, he had made a promise to be careful, and he had held true to it. But now, with no more King On The Mountain, nickle Cokes, and such, there was little reason to sidestep The Big One. Harold was fine with that, and he wished others who were not in his shoes could understand when he said things like “I’ve lived long enough” or “I’d like to just say goodbye and take a pill”. He wished they could comprehend that he was simply sharing his thoughts, not fishing for sympathy or threatening to end his precious life. A simple “I understand” would be enough, but , he admitted, for those who are still young, that might be a compromise too detrimental to their own journey.
So Harold waits patiently. He appreciates the value of life but does not fear losing it. He continues to be careful, because he believes how well one leaves life should be as honorable as how one lives life. He continues to take joy in small things and see the humor in all things, knowing that waking up breathing is the first blessing of the day. And his expectations are simple. When The Big One finally happens, and all are gathered in the chapel to say goodbye, he asks to be sporting his old red cape as a reminder of how this one Superman lived.