Lonesome as a Train Whistle

“The Road goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can…”  -J.R.R Tolkein 

The word “sentimental” is sometimes wielded like a weapon. The dictionary describes a result derived from feeling rather than reason or thought. I welcome the word. Feeling illuminates the path in a way that cold logic cannot. 

On Christmas Day we were in a rented house far from home. In the house next door an elderly man lived alone. We had watched him preparing decorations for the grandchildren, bringing groceries and refreshments into the house in anticipation of the holiday visit. For a few hours that Sunday, his house was full of warmth and the sounds of family.  

As I listened to the sound of children playing, a memory arrived uninvited of a Christmas morning several years ago in the house where I grew up. The house was cold and empty that day, dark but for the glare of the computer screen. My family was diminished, scattered. My mother had recently passed on and my father, now crossed over as well, had moved to a nearby retirement community. I can still mark with certainty the last day that the whole family was under the same roof, the last time the house was filled with the warmth and light of fellowship.   

If we live long enough we will experience many such “lasts.” It is a bitter irony that in youth we hurry past the moments we will one day try to grasp, but will never again be able to reach. Every time I hear a lonesome train whistle in the distance it takes me back to the time when, safe and warm under the covers, a child’s imagination could board that train and travel to undiscovered country. Many stops along that journey became real places later in life and new memories to cherish.  

To live fully during our journey we must embrace each precious moment of this life as if it were our last, but to live joyfully we must release those moments to be able to grasp the next ones. This is truth, but it is armchair truth, difficult to realize when we are grieving, and a truth almost impossible to communicate to the young. Each generation has experienced the truth of this journey and attempted to warn its successors, yet it seems required of each that we forget the lesson so that every individual can discover it in their own unique way.

As a child, a train whistle stirred my imagination to travel to distant lands. Like so many before me, I could not wait to grow up, to leave home and to discover life for myself. Had I known that there is no return ticket on this journey, I might have lacked the courage to take it, and my life would not have been as rich or as rewarding. Knowing this lesson can leave a bitter taste, but without bitterness in its proper measure, the other flavors available to the palette begin to fade. 

Late in the afternoon on Christmas Day, the family of our erstwhile neighbor loaded up into a car with out of state plates. It slowly backed out of the driveway and paused for a moment. Hands waved, and the car moved forward slowly. Two beeps on the horn sounded, lonesome as a train whistle.


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