The Old Man on the Hill

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Sean Dietrich

By Sean Dietrich

DEAR SEAN:

My dad is in the process of dying. He has mild dementia and he’s bitter right now, and is lashing out at all of us around him, and I don’t know how to keep it together, honestly.

I just need you to make me laugh or something. I am so totally stressed with caregiving and I don’t even know why I’m here all the time, helping him because my dad was never there for me and my mom growing up, but left us when I was four years old.

Thanks,

FORTY-AND-STRESSED

DEAR FORTY:

There once was an old man who lived on a big hill. He was a bitter man, and his vision was bad. His weak eyes could see vague blurry shapes and colors, but only enough to get around.

He didn’t like people. He didn’t want to be bothered. We’re talking about a major-league jerk here. The blurry-eyed man lived for years on his lonesome hill, in his little backwoods shack by himself.

Every morning he would hike to the nearby river to fetch drinking water for the day. This was the hardest part of his entire existence. Because this was a very, VERY steep hill.

Thus, at sunrise he would carry a huge bucket uphill from the river, climbing a treacherous dirt path home. Always the same. Downhill. Uphill. Back and forth. Year after year. It was exhausting work.

If the man would have lived in town proper all he would have had to do was turn on a faucet. But embittered people make things hard for themselves.

One morning, he was on his way to the stream when he sensed a stranger nearby. He heard the voice of a little girl and saw the blurriness of her shape.

“Who are you?” he grumbled. “And what’re you doing on my river?”

The girl told him that she had wandered away from home and was lost in these woods.

“Well, you’re trespassing,” he said. “I own this land. Go on home, child.”

“Please don’t send me away,” she begged. “I don’t know how to get home. I’m lost.”

The man couldn’t help but notice how much this girl’s voice sounded like Laura from “Little House on the Prairie,” season one, episode 14.

The man waved her off and bent to fill his bucket from the stream. But his lower back muscles seized. He moaned in pain. He fell over and grabbed his back.

In a few moments, the girl said, “Here, let me do it for you.” And she fumbled the bucket from his hands.

Normally, the old man would have told the child to get lost. But he was out of breath, wheezing badly and his vision was oh so blurred. He needed help.

After she fetched his water, she offered to carry the heavy bucket up the steep path, but he snarled and said, “Are you outta your mind? It’s a long, hard walk up that hill, you’re just a child. Go home.”

But she would not take no for an answer.

So she carried his water. Or, at least, she tried. The kid was hopeless. He could hear her struggling, grunting, stumbling, tripping over rocks, falling, dropping the bucket, spilling the water and tumbling down the hillside. She had to refill her bucket twenty, thirty, forty times.

Finally, the girl finished the rigorous climb and brought the bucket to his cabin, whereupon she collapsed with a mighty thump. The child was out cold from exhaustion, and the bucket was empty.

Later that afternoon, she awoke in his cabin. The old man told her to go home. Then he left to fetch water once again. But she followed him, once again, and said, “Please, let me help you!”

“No thank you,” he said in a nice voice, for he was feeling bad about being such a dip-wad to someone who reminded him of Melissa Gilbert. “You are a clumsy girl, and you keep spilling my water. Go home.”

But the girl was relentless. She accompanied him downhill once more. She even held his hand, which he liked. And she insisted on fetching his water.

After she filled the bucket, she tried hauling it uphill, same as before. And he let her try. Only this time she was clumsier. She kept falling. Water kept splattering. When he attempted to help her, she wouldn’t let him.

Once again she stumbled. Once again she hit the dirt. She even cried. When they reached the cabin, she collapsed again. Pure fatigue hit her. And the bucket was empty again.

The old man felt bad about the way he’d behaved.

The next morning, she awoke to the smell of eggs and bacon. The girl got out of the cabin bed just in time for breakfast. The old man was so excited to have company that he was actually in a great mood.

After breakfast he handed her a leather bound book and said, “I wondered if you wouldn’t read to me? My wife once loved this book, and my old eyes can’t read it anymore.”

But there was only silence. The girl didn’t answer. Finally, she said, “I would, but I can’t read.”

“What do you mean you can’t read?”

“Well, I’m blind,” she said.

The man was moved to tears. He took her into his arms. “Blind? Land sakes, child! You’ve been carrying my heavy buckets, working yourself silly, suffering for my sake, and your life is harder than mine. Why would anyone in their right mind do such a selfless thing for such a fool as I?”

The girl shrugged. “Don’t ask me,” she said. “Sean Dietrich wrote this dumb story, and I’m just as confused as you are.”

Kids. What can you do?

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