Let Him Live
Lili-Ann, the older of my two younger sisters had a bit of a temper as a child and it wasn’t always benign. Grouchy, often. Angry, on occasion. Strong-willed contrariness, refusal-to-budge-ness. Not so these days, mother of two grown sons, she’s the kindest. But then.
As of the summer of 1961 (I think it was—so I’m twelve and Lili-Ann is seven), the tallest and longest bridge in all of Sweden was called Sandöbron (literally: The Bridge of Sand Island). My dad eventually came to retire (and die) at the northern foot of this bridge, but that is another story.
This story, however, revolves around the height (rather than the feet) of this bridge for it was a well-documented fact (some suicides and one or two construction accidents) that if you jumped (fell) from the crest of this bridge, you died on impact.
This, parenthetically, was something I (as a child) had serious trouble reconciling: water is so soft, how could you possibly die by falling into it? It was not until decades later that things finally clicked and only after learning that from the height of the Golden Gate or other high bridges, the water’s surface to the plummeting body is more like cement than cotton (or, say, water).
Okay, so every time we drove across this bridge, usually on our annual summer trip north to my grandmothers (who both lived well north of this bridge, while we lived well south of it), my dad or mom would comment on the accidents that had killed the workers and the fate of the suicide jumpers. At this point, however, I still pictured in my mind that these now-long-dead people had drowned rather than splattered.
It’s now summer again and we’re heading north a mile or two short of the famous bridge and Lili-Ann for some unfathomable reason or other (I was known as the angel child, you know) is flat-out furious with me. Well, said my mom, ever the diplomat, turning to Lili-Ann, if you want we can stop at the top of the bridge—it’s coming up shortly—and toss your brother over the railing and down into the drown-water (Lili-Ann’s name for any body of water deeper than three feet). This—and she brightened up at the prospect—was a perfect and obviously very fair plan, and she was all for it. A perfect solution to long standing problems. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Okay, it was settled then. When we get to Sandöbron, we’ll stop at the top of it and throw Ulf down into the drown-water. I, of course, was 99% in on the joke, but it was still an uncomfortable one—I mean, what if both Mom and Dad suddenly turned insane at the same time and decided that, yes, one less mouth to feed was not such a bad idea at all; and Dad was a lot stronger than I was—and they were two against one, well, three, for Lili-Ann would surely lend a hand. That was the incredibly unlikely 1%, but even so, a very uncomfortable 1%.
We’re approaching the bridgehead now, and then we’re on the bridge proper. It really is an impressive edifice, long, long and very, very tall. My notion (the version of the joke playing in my head) was that we were not going to stop at the apex, perhaps slow down, laugh at the joke and drive on.
Well. Not so.
Nearing the crest my dad slows down (98% sure) and reaching the crest he actually stops: 95% sure—5% a little too uncomfortable now.
Okay, not so funny, ha-ha, but a little funny yes. Lili-Ann looks quite pleased with herself (and her soon to be acquired new status as the oldest sibling), yet, yet, just a tinge (a blush, perhaps) of uncertainty.
My dad kills the engine. Turns around and looks at my sister. Okay, Lili-Ann, here we are. So now we’ll toss Ulf into the drown-water, right?
Okay, says Mom. Let’s go, Ulf. Say good-bye to your sisters.
I say good-bye to both of them, though my youngest (Pia) doesn’t really talk yet, as I recall—blissfully ignorant in other words.
So, says Mom, turning to Lili-Ann again, are you really, really sure that you want us to get rid of Ulf for you?
She nods, but her blush of uncertainty has turned a darker hue and you can tell that there now rages an internal civil war: To toss or not to toss?
Obviously, some deeper decency and sense of siblinghood had reared its beautiful head and was now confusing the oh, so recently certain waters. To toss or not to toss?
I’m not sure whether she chewed her lip or sweated or exhibited some other external signs of this monumental internal struggle, but struggling she was.
Shall we toss him? Mom asked again.
No nod this time, only the struggle.
And then, finally, with a gargantuan effort she pressed through her teeth an apogee of sister-benevolence: “Ah, let him live.”