I'm planning another trip by train to Portland. It's one of my favorite vacations. I don't mind the late departure, I don't even mind riding in coach. There is plenty of room to stretch out and I usually find someone interesting to talk to along the way. Planning the trip brought this 2008 column to mind:
Moments in time quickly pass us by
I stood on one corner of a busy street in Portland with my daughter and a young family stood on the other. The mother carried a diaper bag and the father carried their daughter. The spring day was unexpectedly wintry and sleet had slickened the streets. The baby was bundled in her coat with a soft pink fleece cap covering her head.
I glanced over at them and then looked away.
It was the sound of the man’s voice that made me look back. As he stepped off the curb, he lost his footing on the uneven pavement. He went down hard. What I had heard was his cry as he began to fall.
I knew that sound. Every parent knows it.
He’d made it when he realized the baby might get hurt. I watched – I had already started moving toward him – as he hit the ground. He took all the weight of the fall on his forearms and elbows and then immediately rolled to one side, the baby still caged in his stiffened arms. I saw the baby’s head fall back and strike the pavement. Not hard, but enough to startle her.
The man stood up quickly, obviously shaken, still cradling the baby. She’d taken a deep breath and was screaming. The mother fluttered around trying to comfort them both.
Those of us around them offered what we had: tissues to dry baby tears, cell phones, anything to help, but everyone seemed to be OK. There were no broken bones, but the man was obviously upset. He was embarrassed and angry with himself, his gut still twisted with fear. He would, I knew – because I’ve done it myself – hold onto that fear for a while. The next morning when he opened his eyes and stretched sore and bruised muscles, he would see it all again in his mind’s eye. He would blame himself again. He would replay it like a movie, going back to that scene over and over again.
The next afternoon we stood at the gate in the train station, on our way home. Beside us a couple, in their late 50s or early 60s, walked with an older man. He moved slowly, his back bent and his legs unsteady. They held on to him as they walked as far as they could go together. The woman – his daughter-in-law – helped him put his camera bag on his shoulder. When it slipped off, she put it back again. The son took photographs of his father. He snapped one photo and then another. Then, putting the camera back up to his eye, he took one more.
Each of them hugged the old man gently, and then they hugged him again. As he walked through the departure gate they stood together watching him go.
The man took another photograph.
There was a time, I thought, when the old man who walked so slowly in front of me had been as strong as the young father who stumbled on the street the day before. There was a time when the old man was the one who hovered and fussed and took photos to preserve a moment, to catch a minute and keep it forever.
There had been a time when the middle-aged man with the camera had been a boy; when he didn’t look at his father knowing that every visit might be the last.
Speeding toward home, I wondered if the young father was somewhere at that moment, holding the baby, running his hand through her hair feeling for the evidence of his failure. I wondered if the old man, a few rows ahead of me, was thinking about the little boy who had grown up and grown into middle age.
I wondered if the couple had driven away, lost in their own thoughts about goodbyes.
I looked beyond the child at my side, beyond the window and the little view of the world it held.
The miles and the minutes, as they do for each of us, ticked past.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org