Mary flopped onto the seat, backpack flailing beside her. The bus engine rumbled underneath. She found it strangely soothing, a kind of droning lullaby.
Not that a lullaby would help her fall asleep, not today. She’d got the phone call at six-thirty. She’d listened, bleary-eared, as the voice on the other end said words like “heart attack” and “dying”: impossible, unthinkable words. Then a hurried shower, a few things stuffed in her backpack, a cup of coffee drained over a quick internet search for travel options, and a rush out the door to get to the Greyhound station before eight.
Dying. How could that be? He was always so big, so strong, so…so unbeatable. Unbeatable. Mary frowned at the word. It was the perfect word for her Dad.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
The man standing in the aisle had a kindly smile crinkling at his eyes. His light brown skin was framed by a dark beard, streaked with white. He wore a bright red turban on his head, matching the scarf draped over his white clothes. He motioned to Mary’s backpack, lying on the seat beside her.
“This seat, is it taken? There do not seem to be any others left.”
Mary sat up and glanced around the bus. Sure enough, it was right full. She suppressed a groan and yanked her backpack toward her. “No, it’s all yours.”
He smiled again at her in thanks, his head bowing slightly. He packed his coat and bag in the overhead bin, then sat down beside her.
“It is a good day for travel, is it not?” The man looked across Mary out the window. The January sun was dawning through the downtown skyline as the bus began pulling out of the terminal. Car tops glistened with frost. Puffs of exhaust glowed in the crisp sunlight.
“I find travel by bus to be thoroughly invigorating,” he declared fervently. Mary gave him a glance, assessing him. He was serious.
“Ah, but I see you do not share my view. No matter. I will be invigorated for the both of us.” He laughed out loud. Mary sank lower in her seat and turned her attention to the window. Remnants of frost skirted its edges in complicated whorls and swirls.
A memory came to her, uninvited. She was six years old. They were traveling to her uncle’s house for Christmas. Her Dad was driving, and he was yelling, in a rage. She couldn’t remember why, something about forgetting something. Her Mom was tentatively reaching toward him, trying to calm him down, trying to get him to pull over.
Mary was in the back seat with her sister, trying, as always, to ignore the seething anger, to pretend the danger didn’t exist. She was looking at the frosty window, tracing the pattern with her finger. She imagined it was a map, a map of another world. Elves danced in that world. Dwarves sang boisterous, merry songs. Children played there, unafraid, unscarred.
“I am on my way to see my new grandson,” the man beside her said. Mary shivered, shaking herself from the past.
“That is why I am wearing my best clothes,” he beamed at her. “Red is for joy, and white is for purity—perfect for welcoming a beloved child into the world, no?”
Mary looked at him, at the delight brimming in his face, and softened.
“What’s his name?” she asked, her voice thin.
“Aatma Ramandeep,” he said with pride. “It is a good name, an honourable name. It speaks of light: the soul infused with the light of God’s love.” He turned to her. “It is a good name for a baby, is it not?”
Mary was surprised to see melancholy in his eyes, a tender sadness tugging at his face. “Aatma Ramandeep,” she repeated carefully. “Infused with the light of God’s love.” She smiled at him. “It’s perfect.”
He looked down, his voice quieter, just a murmur. “It was my father’s name, you know. He wanted to be a good man, but he struggled. He struggled against the darkness within himself.”
He smiled again, turning back toward her. “As do we all, no?”
Mary again saw the kindness, the empathy deeply imprinted in the man’s eyes. She thought of her own father. His eyes had been kind once, too.
She remembered her Dad, laughing as they tumbled off the sled together, holding her tightly. She remembered looking up at him when they finally stopped rolling. His toque was all askew, the snow matted in his hair, his ears red from the cold. Her fear had been instantly pushed away by the firm kindness of his eyes.
“My Dad is dying.”
The words hung in the air between them, like frosty breath. A spasm of anguish shuddered through Mary’s body. She swallowed hard, forcing it down.
The man did not seem surprised by her revelation. He reached over and gently patted Mary’s hand.
“I am sorry,” he said simply.
“I’m not,” Mary retorted, surprised by a vehemence in her voice which she did not really feel. “I mean”—she paused, embarrassed—“I am sorry. It’s just…it’s…it’s complicated.” Tears began to pool in her eyes.
“Yes,” the man said, nodding his head, “it often is, with parents.”
He said nothing more, and Mary turned again toward the window. They were well outside the city now. The morning sunlight glittered off the snow-covered fields. Chimney smoke lifted lazily from a farmhouse roof, dissolving in a bright blue winter sky. The hydro poles sped by, dislodging another memory from her mind.
She was twelve this time. Her Dad was driving again, going very fast. She was in the back seat with her sister again, and her Mom was in the front with Dad. But something was wrong.
Her Mom was bent over double, whimpering with pain. Mary and her sister were crying. They were confused, not sure what was wrong. They were afraid, not sure what would happen.
Her Dad’s hand was stretched toward her Mom, hesitant, uncertain. He was speaking to her, words of comfort, words of apology. Apology. For what? He was crying.
He was crying. Why had she not remembered that before? He had been crying that night, the night they rushed to the hospital in a blizzard of fear and pain. The night her Mom had died.
“My Dad wept.”
The man beside her stirred. “I am sorry, what did you say?”
Mary shook herself again with a shiver. “Nothing, I’m sorry, it’s nothing.”
The man turned back to his book. Mary gave him a sidelong glance, assessing the man once again. He will be a good grandfather, she thought. Kind, yes, but also patient, and generous, and wise.
“Tell me about your family,” Mary said softly.
The man regarded her with a tilt of his head, as if deliberating carefully. Then he nodded, closed his book, and turned in his seat to face her.
In a flurry of animated words he told her about his family. He spoke of his elderly parents, who had moved to Canada with his siblings when he was a teenager. There were now living with his oldest brother. He spoke of his wife, who had gone ahead to be present for the birth. He spoke of his children: two sons, one daughter. His sons were in business together in another city, another province, no time yet for marriage. It was his daughter whose baby they were now rejoicing over.
“She is the jewel of my crown,” he glowed, then gave a lopsided grin. “She’s got me wrapped around her little finger—and now, with a son, our grandson, she will have me willingly under her thumb!”
Mary nearly blushed at the man’s unrestrained happiness, but he himself was oblivious to any embarrassment.
She wondered if her Dad had ever felt that way about her. He certainly had never said anything to her like this. For sure he had never acted like this man, gushing with enthusiasm about his daughter. She smiled ruefully, and then frowned as a memory came to her.
It was at her high school graduation, just last year. She remembered walking across the platform, legs shaking in her high heels, black gown rippling, holding her head high to ward off the nervousness. She received her diploma from the principal, then joined her classmates at the back of the stage. She remembered looking out over the audience, looking for her Dad.
And there he was, with her sister. His face was gaunt, his best suit hanging loose on his body. His hair was greying in the temples. Recent years had been hard on him, without her Mom. Why had she not seen it then? But she was looking for love, some kind of sign that he was proud of her.
And there it was. A nod. A nod. And the hint of smile, nudging at the edges of his mouth. A nod and a smile.
She photographed the image in her mind, saving it as a treasure in her heart. It was more than she hoped for, better than she had remembered.
The bus shuddered to a stop. They were in a small prairie town, just like every other, parked at a gas station on the highway.
It was a moment before Mary realized the man beside her had stood up. He was gathering his things. A pang of loss stabbed through Mary, irrational, yet there.
The man closed the bin, then turned to look at her. He held out his hand. In it was a simple, white candle, wrapped round with a red ribbon.
“Here,” he said softly, “I want you to have this. It is my gift to you.”
She shook her head slowly, looking up at him, eyes wide. “Oh, no,” she whispered, “I can’t accept this from you.”
He smiled gently. “You have need of the light more than I. Besides, I have a child to see.”
He pressed the candle into her hand, nodded goodbye, and walked off the bus. With a lurch the bus moved away, leaving behind a man embracing his wife in an icy parking lot.
Mary, however, did not see this: she was staring at the candle in her hand. Her tears began to fall freely now, dripping onto the words engraved in the white wax: Aatma Ramandeep.
– MWP 2016 (Epiphany)