Routine

After a twenty four hour shift at the firehouse, my father would drive his rusty van to St. Joseph’s Village, still wearing his work boots and reeking of smoke. When the elevator doors opened to the fourth floor, the familiar smell of the nursing home would invade his nostrils. Down the brightly lit hallway, just past the bird cage that housed two finches, he’d find his mother sitting alone at one of the dining room tables. He’d share a knowing look with one of the nurses, then slowly approach the lonely woman. With a gentle touch to the shoulder, he’d search her blank eyes and say, “Hi, ma. It’s me, Tommy.”

She’d hesitate before returning his smile and he’d lightly kiss her on the cheek. He’d sit in the empty chair beside her, explaining that his wife, Theresa, was at home with the kids. “You know them, Nick and Kara and Daina and Mike.” And she’d nod with that same smile, pretending to know. Her eyes would wander to the group of strangers in the next room, sitting around a television set without seeing it. “Ma, why don’t you eat your oatmeal?” He would prod the cold blob with a spork and try to feed her, but she’d refuse. “Why can’t I go home?”

My father would convince a nurse to bring over some fruit. “Here, look, you love cherries.”

“…Please take me home.” She would grasp at his sleeves and he’d hold her hand, smiling and refusing to let the water escape his eyes.

“Please, Ma.” He’d scoop some of the smushed red mass off of the plate and shakily present it to the woman that raised him. Please–just eat the cherries.” Their eyes would lock and she would slowly accept.

It wasn’t until later, after the elevator had begun its slow descent and his mother’s cries had faded away, that my father allowed the tears to flow.

Charing Cross Bridge, London

Charing Cross Bridge, London, Claude Monet, 1901

The train is near the end of its journey. The cars rattle along in the predawn. By the time they reach London, the sun will have risen. Thompson rubs the sleep from his eyes, pulling the chain to announce the train’s crossing through another intersection. The buildings gather ever closer to one another; only thirty minutes until they reach the lumberyard. Thompson calls out to the new boy to shovel more coal into the engine—he still has to be told what to do and when to do it, but he’ll learn in time. The boy finishes his duty, but before he can return to the coal car, Thompson stops him.

“Have you seen The River before, son?”

“Yes, sir, my uncle lives not five minutes from it.”

“Well—hang back for a minute longer.”

The train comes around the familiar bend and, mere seconds before the train’s front wheels touch the bridge, the sky and London break open all at once. Everything is bright: the river, the banks, the buildings in the distance, the train tracks gleam in the new light, the coursing sky is a perfect reflection of the Thames. The boy’s mouth doesn’t fully close until they are well into the city. Thompson loved the night shift.