“I wish I had the boy,” the old man said aloud.
The old man wasn’t in the habit of speaking aloud before the boy left him. Now alone at sea, Santiago of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea mutters wistfully as his skiff is towed by a monstrous fish.
As the hours while away, this becomes the sunburnt sailor’s refrain:
Then he said aloud, “I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this.”
The boy’s parents forced him to abandon his master after an unlucky string of weeks without a catch. With no boy to help him, the old man’s worn hands cling desperately to a rope drawn across his tired frame:
“I wish the boy was here,” he said aloud and settled himself against the rounded planks of the bow and felt the strength of the great fish through the line he held across his shoulders.
The Old Man and the Sea is simple tale. An old man goes out to sea, catches a fish, and struggles to bring it back to shore. In one sense, the title tells it all.
The old man is an American hero in the fullest sense–brimming with optimism and the conviction that grit and determination can overcome any obstacle. Time may have taken his youth, but he will not be defeated: “I may not be as strong as I think…but I know many tricks and I have resolution.”
The old man tells himself that the fish is the one in mortal danger: “It is he that has the hook in his mouth…This will kill him, the old man thought. He can’t do this forever.” Alone, worn, and hundreds of miles from shore, the lonely fisherman fails to recognize the irony of his plight.
Aloud he said, “I wish I had the boy…I wish the boy were here and that I had some salt,” he said aloud.
Finally, the great fisherman has met his match in the great fish: Time.
The boy eventually leaves each of us behind. And every old man eventually finds himself outmatched, realizing too late: I am the old man. I wish I had the boy.
Where does youth disappear to? We are young and independent and reckless and invincible and then it seems suddenly we are old and frail and alone and fearful. The Psalmist writes,
“The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”-Psalm 90:10
Time is undefeated.
The tragedy of Santiago’s struggle is how blindsided he is. He fails to recognize that the fish he’s hooked is only helping him pull his own life thread taut before Atropos’s scissors. His fate is sealed in the very moment he expects his greatest triumph.
Optimism cannot defeat death. There is no hardworking oneself out of the grave. No determined denial will stop the rolling waves of time.
The Old Man and The Sea is not a cautionary tale; it is an inevitability. We can settle ourselves against the rounded planks of its bow and press hard against the rough salty truth of its pages, but I wonder whether we will recognize the irony when we hear a voice that sounds so much like our own taunting: “It is he that has the hook in his mouth!”
No old man has yet won his battle against the sea. And as we ward off fear, our hearts keep falling to the same worn refrain–I wish I had the boy.
The prophet Isaiah tells of a time not long from now when the bloom of youth shall return. In that day, the One untouched by time will come. He who walks on the sea, the Eternal who lives in unblemished youth will come in response to the fearful heart-cry of the Old Man. On that day all struggle will end, man and beast will dwell in peace, “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
I wish the boy was here.