I’m afraid to go in but I’m more afraid not to.
The church is a small chapel, the kind you’d find in a small town like Belmont, North Carolina. I try to pull the wooden door open but it’s heavy, maybe that’s a sign. Yep. Not going in. I turn around and head for my car. People are staring, but I don’t care. They don’t know me. Last time I was here it was a month ago and it wasn’t a Sunday and I’m pretty sure none of them were there.
The stone path leads through some trees and shrubbery and into the parking lot. I lean against my old Honda and rummage through my purse, trying to find my keys. Where are they?
“Can I help you, Miss?”
I don’t look up. “No thank you,” I say. “I’m fine.”
My purse falls out of my hands and onto the ground. My life scatters across the parking lot. Bending down, I notice an older gentleman with white silk hair out of the corner of my eye.
He walks over and hands me my car keys. “Is everything okay?”
Our eyes meet and I say nothing.
Once I’m home, I kick my shoes off and walk into the kitchen. The house is still, quiet. I should be used to it, but I’m not. I stare at the large stack of mail that I’ve shoved into the corner of the bar, knowing responsibility calls, but I’d rather close my eyes and pretend it’s not there. Bills, bills, and more bills. Scanning each envelope before I see one that’s addressed to my mother. I’m not sure I can open it. My hands tremble as I slide my finger underneath the seal and start to read:
How does one start a letter like this one?
It has taken me sixty-five years to write this. I have started this letter many times but could never finish it. How could I? Because of me, you have suffered.
There are some things I remember and some I’ve tried to forget. When one lies for so long as I have, it starts to feel like the truth. But I know better.
I’m not the man I want to be. Nor have I been for some time. The darkness festers within me and eats at my soul. I want to be a better man, like the man I once was before the accident.
Even now, it is hard to speak the truth, but I cannot go on with this burden anymore. It has weighed me down, sinking me into waters, deep waters. And though I was not prosecuted by the law of government, I was prosecuted by the laws of life.
Soon after the accident, I started drinking. One drink leads into another, then another. I was hopelessly seeking refuge, but it never came in a bottle. My preacher told me that refuge only comes when one faces the truth, and until now I could never do that. I was too weak. I’m old and have not much more time on this earth. I need peace.
I will be at Riverside Park a month from now on May 4, 2000. Please let me confess what I have done.
Sitting at my computer, the lamp light flickers on and off. I know you are here, Daddy. I can feel you beside me. I have so much to say to you, though I cannot. It hurts too much, and the memories now have faded with time. How can I bring them back to life again? I thought I had closed this chapter in my life but now it has reared its head and opened a wound that had never really healed.
The woman you have written to is no longer with us. My mother passed away one month ago to this day.
Peace is what you want, but I cannot offer such a thing. You see because of your actions my family had to learn to go on without a husband, a father. Because of you, I had to move in with my grandmother who was a wretched woman. I had to make a new life for myself, one that was stripped of love. My mother was never the same after the accident. Her warm hugs turned into icy stares that looked past me. That day, I not only lost a father but a mother too.
I’ve tried to forget that day. The memories come to me in flashes as I was only four years old. I remember the heat that morning. The sun had torn its way through the clouds and had climbed above my head. I was sitting in the driveway, playing dolls, when a police officer pulled up in front of my house. They tried to make small talk with me, but I remember running inside, looking for my mommy. When the officer entered my house, he took off his hat and held it to his heart, and said, “sorry ma’am.” My mamma dropped to her knees, screaming. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I started crying too. I tried to hug my mamma, but she pushed me away. It was something she would do from that day on.
My dad loved trains. He used to bring out his toy train every Christmas and put it around the Christmas tree. He would tell us stories about the trains that used to pass his house when he was a little boy. He walked that way to work every morning, so that he could see the train. He knew the schedule by heart which is why I don’t understand how it could have happened. I knew two lanes of the track went into one lane over the river and they said that’s where he was, but that couldn’t be true, he would never have walked that way until he knew the train had passed.
Meeting you is out of the question. I cannot face the man who killed my father. I’m not sure what good answers will do at this point anyway.
I understand why you wouldn’t want to see my face. But please if not face-to-face, let me explain. I wish I never would have had to make that choice that rainy November night in 1957. It was never really a choice at all. Death was inevitable.
I was a young Father with three little girls. Mary had just been born right before the accident. We had many sleepless nights back then. This I remember was one of them. I had slept on the floor, next to her crib, pacifying her with my words as father’s often do. The hours of the night slid by me. When I awoke, I was late for my shift.
I remember my wife kissing me goodbye and I didn’t want to leave her as she also was tired and needed my help. My eyelids were heavy, but I could not miss another night of work. The road foreman had already given me one too many chances.
The route was as familiar to me as the back of my hand. I knew every stop, every crossing, and landmark.
It was a cold rain, one that felt like winter was coming soon. The passengers had already boarded the train and my crew had put the run switch in the start position. I could hear the engine turning over and smelled the exhaust.
Fifty miles in, the headlamp was glowing, bugs were flying in the fog, rain spit from the sides. In the distance, I saw movement on the track, a man with a hat, but the train was going too fast, I was trying to make up time. I blew the horn, I did. But the man looked as though he had frozen and couldn’t move. I wanted to stop the train, but I knew it would wreck, and possibly all who were on it would die.
That night, I went numb.
The police questioned me, and I knew what I was saying but couldn’t believe I was saying it. I should have told the officer that I was speeding, trying to make up time because I was one hour late to work, and when he asked me several times if I saw him, I should have told him yes, I saw him. That night and many other nights before, standing on Eagle Street waving his hat in the air, smiling like a young schoolboy.
The officer handed me a blue and white striped hat, one that a conductor like myself would wear. I should have given it back. But instead, I stood there, speechless, taking the hat and putting it on my head as though it belonged to me, but it did not. It felt as though my soul had left my body.
Words matter, this I know and knew then, but at the time I didn’t know what to say. I could have told the truth, should have, but I thought about my three little girls and my loving wife, and words left me.
I stare at the letter for hours.
Sunday morning, I put on my coat and try again. I feel drawn to going back. This time more than ever. Trying not to be seen, I sit on the back row and keep my head lowered as I read the church bulletin in my hands and listen to the sermon which today is about choices and the freedom to make them.
I hear crying. I try not to look up, because all I want to do is cry too.
After the sermon is over, crowds of people head into the aisle, pushing and shoving. I glance over and notice the same older gentleman from the other day stumbling and looking side to side. I grab his arm and help him out of the church.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
“Me neither,” I say. “Maybe we could walk together.” We start walking toward the parking lot. “I’m Tallulah, and you are?”
He turns toward me. His eyes are full of tears. “I have something that belongs to you.”
I do not understand but I follow him to be polite.
He reaches into the backseat of his car and hands me my father’s hat. “I cannot ask for your forgiveness because I feel I do not deserve it. I’m sorry. I should have said that a long time ago. I know those words are not enough. Nothing will be enough. I’ve earned this pain and will carry it with me for the rest of my life.”
I can’t speak, I just nod. I have pretended that I am a soldier going into battle. But I am no soldier and the only battle I am in—I’ve already lost.
Brought together by such tragedy. There is only one way to overcome.
I smile at him, this man who killed my father. I should be broken as I have spent my years for way too long but instead, I am somehow saved. Because of him, his letters, his honesty, I know what matters, and it is not what I have lost, it is what I have found, peace. “I forgive you.”