A Long Ago January Afternoon


My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular January day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the lanes.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I can’t bear to look any longer.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears.  The phone is ringing, futilely.

I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray for a sleep without dreams.


5 thoughts on “A Long Ago January Afternoon

  1. A few months before she died, I helped my mother burn a box of letters she’d kept for more than half a century. Letters sent to her daily, while she was in art school in Philadelphia, from Jimmy, fighting somewhere in Europe. They were head-over-heels in love, but there was a problem–she was Methodist and he was Roman Catholic–and his family forbade him to see her. He enlisted and was killed in action not long afterwards.

    Within a year or so, my mother left school and went to work in the ad office of a department store owned by my father’s family. He worked in advertising, too. She was beautiful, hurting, and desperately in need of comfort. He was very handsome, charming, and totally smitten. Soon, they married and began a life together that spanned more than sixty years, not all blissful. At some point, my father strayed, and their marriage never fully recovered.

    My father had been an excellent provider, and by most counts, a good husband, but his infidelity lead to years of emotional isolation from his family. Looking back, I often wish we’d been more immediately forgiving, as my mother was, but we had no back story, no context for forgiveness, and children are notoriously harsh in their judgement in any case.
    When my mother knew she was terminally ill and would likely pre-decease Dad, she gave me the understanding silently, as we burned Jimmy’s letters together. In some hearts, there’s room for one great love, and one only. To find it is bliss. Losing it is tragedy. Finding it once again, after losing it, is a blessing beyond measure.


  2. Thank you, Emily, for your fine writing ,and sharing, and the catharsis it brings–to many. In the near wisdom of late middle age, I’ve come to look at things a little differently. My mother’s sharing allowed me to forgive my father and, when the time came, to retire from the fire service early to care for Dad as an in-home hospice patient, something I might not have been inclined to do otherwise. And this, in turn, may well have saved my own life. Most of the men I began firefighting with stayed ten more years and are either dead or disabled now. But even more important, she taught me, by example, the necessity of forgiveness in general and that, to borrow heavily from a favorite poet of ours, has made all the difference. If you’ll excuse me, I have a little snow to shovel now. I’ll end as I began, in gratitude.


  3. there is a “rest of the story” here too. Ten years after the divorce and remarriage, my father returned and my parents remarried, in mutual acceptance and forgiveness until cancer took him five years later. Healing happens even when memories don’t fade.


  4. And this apparent paradox of healing–whether physical, emotional, or spiritual–may be the greatest gift of all.


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