Trains and loss are bound together. Watching a train disappear into the distance can be a woeful thing. Think of all the songs you know where trains symbolize sorrow and longing, like Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the folk song 500 Miles Away From Home, or Chris Isaak’s 5:15:
“What big dreams we had,
Now I watch those dreams all fade and die.
What big plans we had,
Now I watch those trains go rolling by.
Rolling by, rolling by.
I’m watching the trains.”
I met a kind, soft-spoken model railroader at a recent event who mentioned during breakfast that his wife of many years had passed away six months prior. I told him about my father’s passing and shared the lesson of grief: the death of a loved one changes you. He quickly nodded in understanding, and then told me about his wife’s long illness and how much he missed her. “She and I worked on our layout together; she did all the scenery and I worked on the trains,” he explained, voice cracking. “Oh my,” I said, “I can only imagine how hard it must be for you to be here without her.” Her death had broken him open, and yet there he was, upright, bearing his grief with a quiet dignity. I wished him well, touched his arm and started walking away when he pulled me back and hugged me.
Riding a train will change you. Although planes and trains take you somewhere else, in a train your perspective changes with the scenery. In the air, time is suspended; you ride through clouds inside a tube, dwelling within yourself as much as possible while time itself moves forward or backward. Perhaps you’ll be jarred from your bubble by a small child rhythmically kicking the back of your seat; or by the unexpected, violent reclining of a passenger seated in front of you. Regardless, we all want to get off planes as soon as possible. Not so with trains, where you can eavesdrop on conversations, watch the trees and houses and streets whiz by or feel the wheels and slow rocking of the car as it click-clacks along the rails.
Inside a train, we travelers but also observers; a loud whistle heralds our approach as we fly past a railroad crossing in the rain; we catch a glimpse of wipers sweeping across windshields of idling cars waiting for the train to pass. Pulling into a station, we peer out car windows to scrutinize passengers on the platform. We can wonder, “Who are you? Where are you going?” as they trudge or hurry, hauling luggage, briefcases, shopping bags, backpacks. We spy on wrinkled, worried brows; eyes searching frantically for loved ones; parents wearily herding more than one small child, distracted souls lost in thought. At the end of our journey, we are somehow transformed by railway sights and sounds as we too stumble out onto the platform. Others, still aboard, watch us as we, the observed, walk out of their lives.
I’ve sold a lot of my father’s trains, and there are still more to go (sometimes it seems as if they are reproducing). But now I feel a prick of loss as I pack each one for shipment. I want to hold onto them somehow because as long as they’re here, so is Dad, along with the rest of my family. Instead of being scattered across North America like Priority Mail packages, we will gather for Thanksgiving Day with Dad and pretend for his sake that all is well, keeping our thoughts and feelings to ourselves while we smile and laugh.
Without him, we are trains fading into the distance.