I was sitting at the train station in Charleston, South Carolina.
The evening was a balmy 60-something — balmy in comparison with the 30-something I left behind in New York that morning. The station was clean, well-lit, and sparsely populated. I sat on a blue bench playing word games on my phone while waiting for Mary’s train to arrive.
“Last time I rode this train, it was an hour and a half late,” a man said. I looked up to see a wiry African-American man with gray bristle-y hair poking out from the edges of his Kufi. “Folks waiting for me in Savannah had to change their plans all around because of this train.”
I just smiled at him. My train experience is pretty close to nil.
A few minutes later my daughter texted me from the train. “Conductor says we should be in Charleston around 8 – 8:15.” Over an hour late.
The man was pacing the train station. On his next pass near me I told him what Mary had said.
He shook his head and sat down beside me. “This train never runs on time,” he said.
How we got from there to where our nearly hour-long conversation took us, I don’t know. Before I knew it, he was telling me about “Mama.”
“I was the lucky one,” he told me. “I took care of Mama. They was eleven of us, and I was lucky number nine.”
He shook his head and smiled, a gesture he repeated often as he remembered his mother.
“Mama was smart. She got her degree in journalism. You better believe we learned how to write. She and Daddy sent us to parochial school in New York — all eleven of us.”
I thought of how my parents valued education. My grandfather, my father’s father, never went to high school, but each of his children went to college and graduate school.
“Mama worked for Richard Nixon. She helped with his campaigns in New Jersey and he gave her a job with the federal prisons there.”
My father loves to tell people how he met Haile Selassie. Rubbing shoulders with the mighty.
“When my daddy was dying, he called me to his bedside. ‘Ali,’ he says, ‘Ali, you take care of your mama.’ I said to him, ‘Daddy, of course I’ll take care of Mama.’ But he says, ‘No, I mean it — you really take care of Mama.'”
He shook his head and smiled. “I was the lucky one.”
My father outlived my mother — but I watched him take care of her and I helped where I could. Making sure my mother was well-cared-for was a priority.
“I moved in with Mama.”
I moved in with my father.
“Mama fell and broke her femur. The doctors wouldn’t operate. They said nobody would operate on her. She was too frail. 90 years old. 90 pounds. All they give her was morphine to ease her pain. That was her last month alive. I kept her in her own home.”
We aren’t there yet. I try not to think about my father’s last days.
“I give the eulogy at Mama’s funeral. I look over at my brothers and sisters boohooing, and I said, ‘What you boohooing about? You didn’t come see her. You didn’t take care of her. You just feeling sorry for yourself.’ I said that to them. And they was mad. Hoo-boy! They was mad.”
He chuckled a little to himself. “But, you see, I was the lucky one. I got to care for my mama. When she died, I didn’t cry. I had given her everything I had.”
No regrets living — I could relate to that, too.
I’m thankful that my family pulls together. My siblings help — but I know that I’m the lucky one, too.
The train pulled in to the station and we both stood.
“Been real nice talking to you,” he said, and he extended his hand to me. “I’m Ali.”
I already knew that.
“I’m Sally,” I said, and shook his hand.
“Been real nice talking to you,” he said again.
It had been real nice listening.