Train Tracks

Of course, it couldn’t be any other way.

Our train was headed north, full steam ahead.

We had a son, a home, our careers, our community — and on many days, while we knew we were extremely fortunate to have all of this, it felt obvious that it would carry on. It felt like we had it too good, that there had to be something that could go wrong, because things were going so well in the domains of our lives.

We figured that sure, tragedy would visit us, close to our hearts, some day. Maybe it would be losing our parents, or losing a friend in an accident or to some disease, or just the gnawing everyday fear about climate change and geopolitics and how they would wreak havoc on our son’s world as he grew up. These tragedies are the kinds that happen to everybody — while they are still devastating, they are the expected path of life.

Meanwhile, Jackson would grow up, go to school, have friends, play outside, have a life. We’d grow old together with him; grow our friendships with him, his friends, his friends’ families, our friends’ growing families.

All of that was on our track: we were headed in a direction, and felt that we’d be strong enough to cope and carry through those hard times, whenever they hit, because our family would be together.

Our train was headed north, full steam ahead — with some expected tragedy in the distance, sure — but all was well.

On September 20, just after our son’s second birthday, we found him in his crib, gone. He’d passed away in his sleep.

Some time in the night, our train turned unexpectedly. We’d gone over some switch, and when we woke up, our train was heading east instead of north.

Jackson was gone forever. Our plans and hopes were gone. The other track, the one we thought we’d be on, was visible, fading off in the distance to the north.

We’d carry on in some way, sure, but there was no option to go back, to switch tracks, or to change what happened. No way to see him again, no way to hold him again. No more toast and cream cheese, no more books, no more playing kitchen, no more gardening, no more listening to firetrucks in the distance, no more daycare pickups, no more zoo visits.

That northern track was still visible for a few weeks, and in short moments, we would forget which track we were on. We’d wake up in the morning, and think to go downstairs and get him. I’d reach 5pm, and feel sure that he’d be home from daycare soon. I’d see a toy of his, and imagine him playing with it only a few weeks ago.

These little illusions were devastating. My brain would quietly drift back to its old habits, and then get ripped back into present-day: it was like losing him all over again, and all because some cue from our old life made me forget my new track. 
The switch was silent, sudden, uncaring, and permanent. Nobody flipped it — it had been that way all along, only we couldn’t see it beforehand.

It’s been a couple of months now, and the northern track is fading in the distance. We can’t exactly predict how Jackson would do, and his smell has faded from the house (though his little lovey blanket still has some Jackson Funk in it.)

In my experience, accepting that Jackson is gone has been the surest way to ride out the waves of grief.

It’s helped to have time, to feel some distance from the northern track, and to not have our sense-memories drift us back into those little illusions. That brings acceptance: we can’t predict what would’ve happened on the northern train, and can no longer really see it, so it doesn’t feel as tangible, as obvious, as right-in-front-of-us, and that makes it easier.

It’s helped to think about how the switch wasn’t set by anybody. Jackson passed away in his sleep: nobody was to blame, nobody could’ve stopped it if they were there. He was gone in an instant, with a peaceful look on his face. Natalia and I don’t have to blame each other for some accident, or for some negligence — this was going to happen whether we knew it or not, and in many ways, I am far happier having been ignorant that our little train was barreling towards that switch. We had two wonderful years with that kid, happy until the last.

It’s helped to find areas of post-traumatic growth. We’ve talked with the SUDC Foundation, and learned that in the 800 families they’ve worked with, this has never struck a family twice. We’ve talked with other parents who have lost their children. We’ve been seeing a grief counselor. We’ve been surrounded by friends and family every day these past two months.

It’s helped to keep Jackson close in our hearts, and find ways to remember him: a garden in the back yard, with painted rocks. Saying good morning and good night to his urn. Talking about him, and encouraging others to do the same. Our lives are far richer for having had him for those two sweet years, and he loved every minute of them. It helps to remember that.

So: time, acceptance, post-traumatic growth, and keeping him close in our hearts.

The track was set long before we got there, and there’s no option to switch back. We didn’t choose this. We can only accept what has happened, and find a way to keep going.