“The decision to have a child … is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” (Elizabeth Stone)
I was at the gym, doing my usual workout on the elliptical machine, when I saw the story. A commuter train bound for Manhattan had crashed through a barrier at the Hoboken station. At least one person was known to be dead. More than a hundred were injured.
My daughter commutes daily from New Jersey to her job in midtown Manhattan, so I was pretty sure she went through Hoboken. Most trains do. As I checked the crawl on the TV screen, searching for the name of the line that had crashed, I reminded myself not to get crazy. Some fifty thousand people ride the commuter trains daily from New Jersey to NYC. What were the odds that the one fatality was my daughter? They hadn’t even announced the gender of the victim yet.
That occurred while I was riding the stationary bike. The one fatality was a woman. The fear started simmering again. The train involved was part of the Pascack Valley line. That didn’t sound quite right. I felt hopeful. Less reassuring was the news that the crash had occurred just before 9 a.m., in the heart of the rush hour. Right about the time my daughter would be crossing the Hudson to get to her office.
But in that same moment, I knew: Whoever she was, she was someone. Someone’s daughter. Possibly someone’s sister, spouse, mother. Somewhere out there on this beautiful early autumn day were people about to get the worst shock life can deliver. I cut my workout short and skipped a stop-off at the grocery. I needed to figure out which line my daughter traveled, and try to contact her.
Still Here. Still Safe.
When my kids were growing up, we discussed the usual safety issues: crossing busy streets, riding bicycles in traffic, not taking rides from strangers. As they approached the teen years, our conversations turned to safe sexual practices, drug and alcohol use. “If you’re at a party and your ride gets drunk, don’t get in the car,” we told them. “Call us. We’ll come and get you. We won’t be mad. We just want you safe.”
And then they were teenagers. My son, an avid Magic card player, started going to tournaments on the weekends, many of which were two to three hours away. He didn’t have a driver’s license, so he carpooled with local college kids. “Leave us the driver’s name,” we said, “and your destination.” The tournaments usually wrapped up around 10 p.m., and the kids went out for a bite to eat before the drive back. I remember those weekend nights well. My daughter would get home from a movie with friends in the late evening. That’s one in, I’d think. Midnight came and went as I puttered around, working on projects, reading. He’ll be home soon and then we’ll all be here, safe, and I can rest.
He always did arrive, and I sank into blissful relief as I turned out the light. The last one in. All safe.
After high school, when my son was working in China, then trekking through Thailand and the Philippines, and my daughter was traveling through Europe, northern Africa, and South America, I looked for the little pop-ups on Google that said one or the other of them was online. Reassured that wherever they were that night, they were alive and well, my heart rested. We were all still here. All still safe.
We Are Resilient. We are Fragile.
But on September 29, someone didn’t make it home. Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, was standing on the platform at the Hoboken station during the morning rush hour when the Pascack Valley train crashed through a barrier at high speed. She was instantly killed by the debris from the accident. Her one-year-old daughter was in daycare at the time. Her husband was out of town. Her mother was in Brazil, where Fabiola grew up and had lived with her family until recently.
At de Kroon’s memorial service, a friend said Fabiola was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, but who among us knows the right place from the wrong place before it’s too late?
I was reminded of this again in the recent devastation of Haiti and the southern U.S. coast by Hurricane Matthew. The United Nations described the hurricane as Haiti’s worst humanitarian crisis since the 2010 earthquake. Haiti officials report more than 1,000 deaths, and as I write this, Matthew has killed 28 Americans.
So many families for whom the last one didn’t make it home.
My daughter once suggested the Elizabeth Stone quote was true for children, too. To have a mother was to forever have your heart go walking around outside your body. I was touched by her words and recognized the simple truth in them, so I am widening Stone’s wisdom here to encompass everyone we hold dear: sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, spouses, partners, sisters, brothers, grandparents. We are so resilient. We are so fragile.
Tonight, when the last one is in, whoever that is for you, let your heart be grateful. No matter what difficulties the day has brought, you have been spared the most painful loss. Once again, you have been incredibly lucky.