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.