Trains and loss are bound together. Watching a train disappear into the distance can be a woeful thing. Most train songs are about 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 jolt of a passenger reclining backwards. 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.
Aboard trains we are travelers but also observers; the loud whistle heralds our approach as we blow through a railroad crossing in the rain, a glimpse of wipers sweeping windshields of cars waiting for the gates to rise. Stopped at a station, we may ponder the faces of passengers passing by our rail car window and wonder “Who are you?” or “Where are you going?” as they trudge past with luggage, briefcases, shopping bags and backpacks in tow. We spy on wrinkled, worried brows; eyes frantically searching the crowd for loved ones; distracted souls lost in thought. Transformed by the sights and sounds, we too eventually stumble out of the train at our destination, while others, still aboard, watch us as we 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. We are not scattered across North America like the hundreds of Priority Mail packages I’ve shipped to buyers this past year. Now that Dad is gone, we no longer pretend for his sake that all is well, hiding our real thoughts and feelings behind smiles and laughter.
Without him, we are trains fading into the distance.