I remember I was sitting at my desk starting my homework when the phone rang. I checked the caller ID and saw it was my mom. She knew never to call me from six to eight, when I was usually just starting my homework, so I knew something was wrong. I answered the phone and said hello, maybe a bit too hastily or rushed. I remember my mom trying (but failing) to tell me in a calm, unwavering voice, without crying, that my grandfather had died.
She continued on, with her voice trembling stronger and stronger each second, that the cancer had spread to his lungs and that he had passed away peacefully in his sleep. I guess she thought I would take comfort in that he had died in his sleep, but I felt as if I wouldn’t be able to take comfort in anything ever again. I remember feeling like everything had dropped away. What I felt wasn’t sadness, exactly, because sadness still constitutes an emotion. It was the absence of sadness, the absence of everything. I was just numb.
When I was younger, I remember going to the Illinois Railway Museum with my grandfather every summer. My mom would drive down the familiar roads to his house, and I would sit in the front seat, eagerly peeking out the window the entire ride, with my velcro shoes barely grazing the floor. We would turn the corner onto his street and he would be waiting for us outside in his garden. As soon as the car stopped, I would jump out and run up to him, and he would give me a warm hug.
He would take me to the museum in his Oldsmobile, telling me stories the whole way. Once we got out, we would spend all day looking at the different trains. I remember being fascinated by the giants, weathering all storms, trundling along the tracks to their destinations, virtually impossible to derail. By far my favorite exhibit was the one that chronicled the death of the railway industry. It talked about how trains were an obsolete form of transportation, but the rails were laid across the country and couldn’t exactly be ignored or removed, so even though the industry was virtually nonexistent these days, the trains kept running.
I began packing right after I got off the phone with my mom. I think I may even have hung up on her, I don’t really remember. It was a Wednesday afternoon when I got the call, and the funeral was going to be that Sunday, so I had to come home as soon as I could get a train ticket. It felt weird packing a day’s worth of black clothes, knowing their purpose. I left a note for my roommate saying I had to run for the weekend, something came up, and that he shouldn’t worry.
I sat down and emailed my professors that I was going to be absent the next few days. I was wondering how much information is appropriate for such an email – do I just tell them I need to go out of town, do I get a bit more specific and say there was a family emergency, or do I charge in guns blazing and say there was a death in the family? I don’t think I could have brought my self to write that last one; it would be acknowledging a fact I had refused to acknowledge. I decided to just forget it and leave town that night. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.
My grandfather survived two wars and two divorces. His oldest son, my uncle, was killed in a car crash, and his youngest daughter, my aunt, drowned when she was a young girl. He’s lived, and he’s seen terrible things nobody should ever have to see. Things that beat you to your knees and make you beg for mercy. But he always kept fighting. He never once thought about quitting, always pressing on, moving forward, weathering all storms, trundling along the tracks to his destination, impossible to derail. He was immovable, imperturbable. And now, he’s gone.
And now I’m standing here on this deserted, almost dilapidated platform, years of disuse apparent in the cracks and slope of the wood, waiting for the 6:04 train to take me back to the town I know so well. I check the watch he gave me last June as a graduation present — any minute now. The air is crisp and the sun is just beginning to set over the trees. I can feel the rumbling of the train passing through the metal rails beneath my feet and the concussive horn blast lets me know the train will be arriving shortly. The familiar rhythmic beat of the engine entrances and envelops me. It peeks around the mountain, coming into view, the silver body reflecting the setting sunlight and sending millions of beautiful rays in every direction. The train slows down and stops at the platform, the mechanical doors open, and the smiling station agent beckons me onto the car.
I’m coming home, grandpa.