It was a model train exhibit, a second story creaky attic packed with eager faces and laughing children, that got me thinking about living in the absence of the dead.
Painstaking work, is all I can think about the tiny little houses, the boards upon boards of miniature wooden logs that assembled in a line so that the model train can chug on by.
Once, in England, my grandad took us on a real train. The black, coal kind that made me feel, even at six, like the modern world lost something crucial when we traded in tracks for tires. It heaved and swelled as it chugged along that track, laid again, painstakingly by the backs of men. He worked for the railroad, my grandad, and with his gravelly voice and rough, warm hands, he would explain to us all the parts and workings.
See that there? That’s the smoke stack. That keeps the train from overheating.
He loved trains. Trains and electronics. He used to make videos of our family vacations, and over the stream of classical music we would hear the whistle of the train and the steady chug, chug, chug, like a heartbeat as it passed over the screen for at least fifteen minutes. When he and my grandma would come to visit, we would take him to train anything, just for the satisfaction of the half smile that would come over his face as he stared intently at the inner workings and knobs.
I think about the way his eyes would have taken in this model train exhibit, the way he would have leaned in close to see the underneaths of it, the way his mind would create order and sense out of the moving parts. I think about the way his shirt would have smelled like flowers, the way, after he finished, we would have bought bacon sandwiches downstairs at the cafe. And again, I am filled with longing for those deep blue eyes to look at me, to take me in.
Painstaking work, this living in the absence of the dead.
Andrew, too, knows that longing. I see it in him as he observes the train models, nearly as thoroughly and quietly as my Grandad would have. In his mind, he hears his own grandfather as they stoop over the workbench, building a model of their own in time for Christmas.
That part, see, it clicks together with this one. There you go!
As we stand, side by side, silent in this room that is filled with the pounding of tiny footsteps and Christmas music, I squeeze his hand and his eyes spill over.
Mama, what does it feel like to die? A friend of mine asked her mother after her father died.
I don’t know, her mother responded. But it must be wonderful, since no one ever comes back.
They say that as long as they are in our memory, the dead are never really gone. Maybe though, dying isn’t the twilight of a life, but the dawn of it. Maybe we are creatures of the night, a cold mist, and one day we too will break into the dawn; explode into the shards of light. Maybe we don’t hold onto the memories of the dead to keep them living. Maybe we hold onto them to remind us that we are a linked people; that more awaits us.
Until then, we march on, breaking our backs in the painstaking, beautiful work, the chest-in-chest-out, heart up-and-down work we call living.