For the first time ever, my 5 year-old son Super Boy and I took the 8:23am ET train last Wednesday from Ann Arbor (MI) back to our home in Wisconsin. And it was actually pretty cool.
My son, unlike many boys his age, is not overly impressed by trains. I realize that this is vastly unusual in the birth-to-five male demographic since the advent of Thomas the Train, but - hey, it is what it is. That being said, my son was "sort of" impressed that we were actually going to RIDE ON a train, and for around seven solid hours at that.
Unfortunately, his slight excitement waned quickly after being woken at 6:15am so we could eat breakfast, get dressed and make ourselves semi-presentable, and be driven to the train station in time for our train. The poor kid slept in between rude awakenings - in the car, sitting on the uncomfortable chairs inside the train station, while I struggled to carry all 46 pounds of him and wrestle our meager luggage onto the platform and aboard the damn train.
I tried in vain to wake him when the train pulled up to our station, and again when the train finally pulled away from the station to begin our long journey home. He bobble-headed enough to glance around sleepy-eyed, mumble the word "cool" and fall back into a deep and peaceful sleep. Leaving me to sit and stare out the window with my iPod earbuds firmly in place and veg, stewing over the fact that I had planned this trip home by train specifically because I thought he'd enjoy it. Super Boy slept for the first three solid hours we were on our trek home. Naturally.
During those three hours, I enjoyed some peace. Despite the fact that I was freezing (the air conditioning in our train car was surprisingly robust), I really found myself enjoying staring out the window at the passing scenery. And despite the fact that I was exhausted from our five days away from home, I couldn't sleep. Instead, my mind wandered blissfully. I found myself thinking about all sorts of things, both important and mundane. Things like Super Man's job search (it's going really well so far, by the way) and how our finances will hold up if it takes him more than 6 months to find a great new job (it shouldn't take that long, but you never know), my 20-year reunion coming up in four years, how nice it was to spend three straight days with my best friend from high school and her family (including husband and four - YES, FOUR - kids), what I wanted to blog about in the coming weeks, whether I want to try to revamp my novel-in-progress or scrap it and start with a fresh idea. It was nice. It was relaxing.
But then something crept into my stream of consciousness that shattered the peace and relaxation, that bothered me deeply and haunts me still.
We'd been rolling along peacefully, I'd been looking at great little swaths of farmland, quaint little towns full of beautiful (if slightly rundown) old homes and great little shops, and then all of a sudden, around Battle Creek, there I was staring out at the evidence of what must be a fairly large community of people who are essentially living in the crawl-space of a highway overpass, and in the midst of it all, signs of a family with children - young children.
While there was only a lone, middle-aged man sitting there at the time, if I had to guess I'd say that probably a dozen or more people must "living" there. And in one corner I saw a laundry line hung with a few quilts and some clothes ranging from very, very small to adult.
My heart skipped a beat and my stomach clenched as I imagined who those clothes must belong to. A single mom or dad with children? An entire family? How many kids, and how old? How did they come to call that particular piece of the world "home," and for how long will they call it that? Will they eventually make their way out of there and on to a better life with a roof over their heads and food on their table? Or, will this be the place where they'll all eventually perish?
Michigan winters, like Wisconsin's, can be very long and brutally cold. No one could survive that without proper shelter, and certainly not a small child....
It got me thinking about how close so many Americans are to living in those circumstances. How many people live paycheck to paycheck, making barely enough to cover the increasingly high costs of shelter, food, medical care, clothing, transportation, much less any credit card or other loan debt, and all it takes is a lost job to put them on the streets - kids and all.
While Super Man losing his job to "staff cuts" last month was a huge shock to us and certainly resulted in us immediately tightening our belts, we are not on the brink of disaster - at least not right now. We have the resources to make all of our bills and keep food on our table and live our lives more or less as usual for several months. We are fortunate in that way, and I never realized that more than when I was looking at that clothesline full of children's clothing hanging under the overpass.
My heart ached for the children who must be living there, and for the parents who are responsible for them. I prayed a silent prayer that they wouldn't have to be there long, that they would find a way to get back into appropriate shelter and to create a better life for their family. I pray for them still.
When Super Boy woke up at last, I was a little more somber than I'd been earlier. I held him close for awhile while he woke up fully, and I read him books and gave him his lunch that my friend had packed for us when we left her house, and I thought about how lucky we are, how blessed our lives have been.
Super Boy ended up enjoying his train ride very much, although he would've preferred to have a few little kids to play with as the hours wore on. As fun as I am, sometimes "just Mom" just isn't enough, you know. Nonetheless, he enjoyed looking out the window and watching as we pulled into Chicago, and then changed trains and passed back out of Chicago up toward Milwaukee. He counted buildings, churches, farms. And he said he'd like to ride the train again sometime. "But with Daddy and Super Girl next time." Naturally.
I'm glad that we took the morning train home that day. It gave me time to think about many things, and opened my eyes to something that is happening every single day around the country that most of us don't have to think about in the normal course of our lives. It's flat out wrong that we don't think about it more, that we don't do more to try to prevent it happening to ourselves and our families, and that we don't do more to change the system that forces so many into those circumstances. I'm grateful that I saw what I did that day, that my eyes were opened.
If I take that train again, I hope that Super Boy will be awake to experience the train rolling into the station and rolling back out with us aboard it. And even more, I hope that the area under the overpass in Battle Creek will be empty and that the people who lived there are all in a better place than they were last Wednesday.