Friday, March 9, 2007

Train Friend

I’m curled up in bed, wearing sweats and bundled in layers of blankets. My book light casts a moonbeam onto the pages before me. The before-bed reading that usually slows my brain and rests my thoughts is not doing its work tonight. Reading is not the answer right now. A memory reserved for a birthday and an anniversary swims up to the surface.

- - -

I was on a train headed up to my parents’ house. I usually took the Amtrak train up the Northeast Extension, through Philadelphia and New York City, for almost all of my holidays back home. Normally, I looked forward to the train ride because it was relaxing. After the conductor tossed my luggage on the overhead rack, I’d sleep until we crossed the border into Connecticut. Involuntarily, I would snap awake to watch the marinas, the craggy beaches, and the small skylines of Hartford and New Haven through my window. I knew I should sit on the right-hand side for the best view. But this time was different.

A few days earlier, I had received a phone call from a friend from high school. Sit down, she told me.

I sat.

“I had to call you. Kip is dead. He committed suicide last night.”

No. Oh, no.

I called JG instinctively, my voice tight inside my throat. He biked over to find me speechless, stiff in his arms. There was no processing or talking it out. I curled into myself, physically and otherwise. Knowing that one of my best friends, a polar opposite and complementary figure, was no longer alive was too much. I could barely breathe without crying.

That is how I ended up on a train up to Connecticut with no major holiday to speak of. I was relieved to find a seat by myself, but at the Philadelphia stop, a young man boarded the car and asked if the seat was taken. I shook my head. I didn’t feel like talking, but the man struck up conversation, asking me where I was headed.

New London,” I said, swallowing hard. “I have to go to a funeral.”

His face fell. “Oh. I’m so sorry. I hope everything goes well.”

“Thank you.”

My train friend paused, then struck up conversation on a different note. He told me about how he was headed back to Boston, after an interview in Philadelphia. He told me about graduate school and waved a book in his hand for emphasis. He told me about how he was looking forward to seeing his girlfriend and that, for Valentine’s Day, he gave her a bouquet of balloon-animal roses because he couldn’t afford real ones. I nodded along, quietly.

Our train rolled into Penn Station in New York and the man jumped up. “I hear there’s a Krispy Kreme stand here, so I’m going to grab one. Save my seat?”

“Okay.”

Five minutes later, he returned, bag of donuts in hand. “Do you like glazed?”

I was dumbfounded. He bought me a donut?

He waved away my dropped jaw. “They were having a special. Do you like glazed?”

“Yeah,” I said, “they’re my favorite. Thanks for this.”

He hunkered back down. “Don’t mention it. It’s the least I can do for a saved seat.”

I ate slowly and wondered - are donuts therapeutic? Do they ease tension and lighten burdens? Or was it simply because this donut was a gift from a stranger from Boston?

As the train rolled out of Penn Station, my train friend reached into his brief case and asked, “Did I mention that I wrote a book?” He pulled out a slim children’s book with a picture of a locomotive on the cover. It was a re-telling of The Little Engine That Could and I leafed through it with pleasure. He had brought the book along as a sample for his interview and it was very charming, indeed. After I returned the book to him, I fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the steady beat of the train on the tracks. In my exhaustion, I missed out on my ritual of watching the boat docks and rocky seashores flow by the window.

When we arrived at my stop, my train friend helped me with my luggage and said, “I really do hope everything goes well for you. It was nice talking with you today.”

I was so grateful to him that I could only whisper my thanks.

At the service that night, I cried quietly. Hundreds of people had come to show their support, so I was one of many standing in a room that was not nearly large enough to hold the love we had for Kip. Afterward, I waited in a long line to greet his family: parents who had seen Kip and me singing in chorus concerts since the sixth grade, giving presentations, and graduating; and a younger brother who had long ago measured his growing progress next to me. As I hugged them, new tears sprang into my eyes. What can a person say? I am so, so sorry. I miss him, too. I know that I can’t miss him more than you do and it hurts me so much to know that you are hurting more than I am. I am so, so sorry.

When I got to him, Kip’s dad put me at arm’s length. Eyes sparkling, he said, “You were one of Kip’s best friends. We’re so glad to see you.” He hugged me closely and I could feel him crying into his beard.

- - -

Oh, my train friend. If not for you, I would have been concentrating on containing my grief with the fragile strands of control I had left, too afraid to speak from the threat of crying. But you drew me out, distracted me with tales of locomotives and balloon flowers, offered me well wishes in the end, and somehow made me strong enough to handle was ahead. Could you tell that I was broken? Was it apparent that every inhale pained me? Whatever the case, I was thankful for your kindness. I still am.

Tomorrow is a dark anniversary for me and I have already stained the cuffs of my hoodie with tears. JG is sleeping beside me, but I’ll wake him up for a bit. I need a hug.

8 comments:

alyndabear said...

Big hugs to you over a tough day, sounds like your train friend was a blessing. Sometimes it really is fate who we meet in our lives.

janet said...

That is a beautiful story. I hope you made it through the day okay and thought of some of the more happy memories of your friend.

Jurgen Nation said...

I am so moved, so touched. RA, big hugs to you. This is a fantastic entry. Big, big hugs to you and I hope you're all right. I know how it feels to lose a friend to suicide. There's shock and grief and anger and sadness and so many emotions you didn't know could coexist with each other. If you need to talk, let me know. I know that there are others much closer to you, but the sentiment is there and I hope you know that you can act on it. Focus on the happy memories. Don't focus on the act itself. It will never make sense. Focus your thoughts and heart on your friend, the memories you shared and the fact that Kip changed your life for the better in so many ways that only a friend can. Big hugs.

Jummy said...

I'm sorry for your loss and I too thought your entry was beautiful.

Your friend will always be in your heart...I pray that happy memories will be the only ones that come to your mind in time.

dionna said...

This choked me up, it was very touching. What a blessing you had on that train, I wonder if he knew what an impact he had.

Mikaela said...

Much love to you.

L Sass said...

I'm sorry to be so late in offering hugs from NYC!! Thank you for sharing this story with us.

jen said...

this is one of the best blog posts i've ever read. thanks for sharing it. i'm very sorry for the loss of your friend, but you have honored his memory very well here.

where in connecticut are you from? i grew up in orange and went to college in new london, and i have a lot of affection for the state in general, especially southern connecticut and the sound. unfortunately, i think connecticut is really underappreciated and unfairly maligned by people who haven't spent much time there (much like dc actually). so it's nice to meet other folks from connecticut, who appreciate how beautiful it is.