Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Night Train

When my family moved back to Chicago, after our two-year stay in Florida, we joined the congregation of a Presbyterian church.  My father got very involved and became a deacon. My siblings and I got involved in the youth group and it was there that I met David.  He and I shared a lot of the same interests and we played together on the church basketball league team. He was much better than me.  David was actually good at many things.  He was a prodigy. 

When we were in junior high school he was playing violin in the youth version of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, painting things that got displayed in the city hall, performed in musicals, and was a champion hurdler.

David did not live in the same town as us.  He, his mother, and his stepfather lived in a large home in South Barrington which was not far away.  I used to go and visit them for the weekend.  David and I would do for skits his parents.  They were either parodies or short comedies based on old Bob Newhart albums that my father had.

David’s stepfather, Jimmy, was a pretty high-up executive at an oil company.  He was a quiet, sweet and gentle man.  When we went to watch David doing something you could see by the look of his eyes that Jimmy loved David very much.

Somewhere along the line, and behind the scenes for me, something happened with Jimmy. Apparently he started having struggles at work and he started drinking a lot.  It was bad enough that his wife, Carol, left him for a bit.  She asked my family if we could take in David in for awhile.  David slept on a makeshift bed with my brother and me in our basement room for several weeks.  We weren’t really aware of what was going on so we just had a lot of fun. 

One evening my father came downstairs and said, “David I need to take you to your mother.”   You could tell by the tone of his voice that something had happened.  They left and I went upstairs.  I found my mother in the living room leaning over the back of the couch, looking out of the big picture window.   I asked her “Mom, what’s going on?”  She turned around and sat down.  She motioned to me that I should join her. She took my hand and said, “You know that Mr. Bridges has been having problems and that is why Mrs. Bridges is staying with friends and David is here.”  I nodded my head. “Mrs. Bridges hadn’t heard from Jimmy for awhile, so she and Mr. Fogelberg went to check on him.”  I didn’t like where this was going. “Jimmy drove his car into the garage, closed the door and left the car running.  He’s dead.”  I started to cry.  I asked “Was it an accident? Was he drinking?”  She shook her head no. “He killed himself.” When you are twelve, or ever, these are things that are hard to comprehend. My mother said to me, “David is going to need a friend.”  I nodded my head again.

After Jimmy’s funeral David stayed with his mom for a week and then came back to our house when she went away with her mother to recover for a bit.  During the time that David was gone my Mom checked on me frequently to make sure I was alright.   At one point I asked her, “Why would someone do this?”  She thought for a minute and said, “Tom, I am going to give you my candid opinion on this.  I don’t why people kill themselves but I will tell you that I think suicide is the most selfish and cowardly act a person can commit.  Not to disrespect Jimmy but look at what he left behind. Carol and David, and probably a lot of other people, are going to be broken for a very long time because he decided his life wasn’t worth anything.  It makes me angry that he chose that rather than to come to his friends, who loved him, or seek help. Mostly it makes me angry that he just gave up on life.”

I don’t ride the commuter trains into the city anymore, but when I did not long ago there seemed to be a rash of people who would go down to Columbia Street at night or early in the morning before the sun came up and throw themselves in front of the trains.  They did it there because that was where the train picked up full speed.  They did it at those times because the engineers couldn’t see them. These were not people that were stereotypical at all.  Some of them were business executives, seemingly happy mothers, professors and young adults who had just begun to explore their lives. 

I started referring to these people who were overcome by despair as the ones who gave up, like Jimmy, and decided to take the night train.

As I have written before, after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s I spent three days in my bed paralyzed by despair until my daughter helped me out of it.  Later on I was still despondent as I adjusted to the fact that things that used to come easy to me became harder and harder.  I could no longer use tools and build or fix things; at certain times I could no longer use a pen or scissors; when I cooked I constantly burned my hands.

One night early in the process when I was particularly frustrated and a bit sad about what was happening to me, I overheard a heated conversation my wife was having with my daughter, Meredith, in the kitchen. Meredith was struggling with some homework or something, and was very upset.  My wife was trying to help her but I could tell she was getting to the end of her rope. I heard Meredith say, “I can’t do this.” My wife very calmly but very firmly said, “Giving up is not an option.  We don’t give up in this house.” It was something I heard her say many times before with all of our kids: “Giving up is not an option.”  That is a refrain that constantly goes through my head that I like a lot.

Over time I have come to understand that despair is the most insidious thing. When it gets inside you and grows stronger it corrupts your mind and your soul.  Unless you have a lot of hope and faith it will destroy you.  It is like some giant black-winged bird that swallows you into its belly and then flies away. 

I still don’t understand why people take the night train when life is so beautiful. I am not here to judge. I have never been on the edge like that.  I know that there are a lot of things that make this very complicated. It is just unfathomable to me. Even now when things are going really bad in my life I just look around. I think about what I have accomplished and am accomplishing. I think about the worth I might be giving to the world. I think about hope and my faith in certain things.  I think about my friends and family and the people who support me. I think about all of the things I love.  Because of this I don’t think I’ll ever be taken away by the black-winged bird of despair and most certainly I will never be a passenger on the night train, nor let anyone I know get on it either if I can help it.  I'd like them to know there is always help and hope. I know I got too much other stuff going on and I'd like to let them know they do too. I know it is not that easy and sometimes things get dark and cloudy, but you do what you can to save people from despair.

I really wish that everyone could let the night train race through town, blow its haunting whistle, without ever stopping to pick up passengers. I know that may not be realistic but at least we can try.