Posted by: riverchilde | February 13, 2013

Long black train

The morning that Alex stepped in front of that train, I think I knew subconsciously that he had died. The night before, our indoor corn plant had bloomed. In 30+ years of care and abuse, that had never happened before. The candy-like sweet aroma had permeated our house, even out to the back porch. We didn’t think we could stand the strong fragrance in our sleep, so we put it out on the front porch for the night.

On that fateful morning, I had overslept. The railroad track runs behind our house. We can hear the train whistle for miles. People who heard the whistle warning Alex to get off the tracks said that it was clear something was wrong. “It blew, and blew, and blew,” someone told us. The whistle sometimes wakes us at night, blowing when it’s supposed to be silent–a sign that something is on the tracks that shouldn’t be. The whistle blew like that on that morning, because someone was on the tracks who shouldn’t be. Alex.

And I never heard it. My alarm went off and I punched the snooze. I punched that snooze every 10 minutes for an hour, from 7:30 to 8:30. Alex was hit by the train at 7:50. I never heard the whistle, never fully roused from my sleep, until 8:30–and only got up then because if I pushed the snooze button one more time, the alarm would no longer go off that morning.

I got up, prepared for the day, headed out to a class. I encountered a worker in the street. He said neighbors had called about a strong odor in the area, and given that there had been a train accident at Larch, he had been sent to check it out. I laughed (laughed!) sheepishly, and suggested that the odor had come from our plant. Possible, he said, particularly since the neighbors who had called were one house upwind of us, and not downwind of the train accident. He took my name and phone number and left. (Our neighbors now believe that the odor was a sign from Alex.)

On the way to class, I crossed the railroad tracks and noted that a couple of official-looking people were walking around the area. It wasn’t unusual to see workers on that section of the track (the next crossing down from where Alex was hit), and I thought little of it, except to recall that there had been a train accident earlier that day.

Once in class, usually the highlight of my week, I was still tired and a bit disengaged. The teacher called me on it a couple of times–not in irritation, but in concern. I couldn’t figure out what his problem was. I’ve know this guy, studied with him for almost 15 years, give or take a hiatus or two. Our brains work alike, and we’ve become friends. In those 15 years, I’ve suffered bouts of depression, anxiety, distress, plain sadness and emotional tumult, and I’ve never tried to mask it while in class. Not once has he called me on my behavior in class (and I’ve been known to be a real pain in the neck from time to time). Sometimes I’ve been quite annoyed that he didn’t seem to take note of my “obvious” state of mind–I mean, he’s not my “official” pastor because I don’t belong to his church, but good golly, isn’t he supposed to immediately respond to the least hint of distress in someone? (I don’t like to ask for help–I just like to mope around like a teenager and hope someone notices. And at those times, my problems are of course so much more important than anything else going on in the world!) So on the day Alex died, when my pastor-teacher friend asked if I was okay for the third time in class, I was irked. All these years of wanting attention and today he calls me out in class just because I’m a little sleepy? I crankily got up and fetched a Diet Coke for a caffeine shot.

I know this is getting long. Hang in there with me. It’s important for me to remember all of this, because I always thought I would know immediately if something bad happened to one of my children. So how could I not have known that morning that Alex was gone?

After class, my teacher/friend immediately approached me. Really, he asked, is everything all right? I’m fine, I said irritably. You seemed uncharacteristically distracted, he said. I’m just sleepy, I insisted. OK, he said, just making sure. The incident and the look on his face puzzled me. What was up with that?

To this day, I believe that God had somehow wrapped me in divine cotton wool, and that perhaps I was already aware of what had happened and was being medicated by the Spirit. (Later on, a friend gave me the gift of her experience with Alex’s emotional passing via a “wave of peace,” which continues to sustain me. But that’s her story to tell, not mine.)

After class, I ran errands, and felt an impulse to head home early.  I attributed it to the fact that my daughter was home from college, and some of my former Girl Scouts were at our house scrapbooking. I wanted to get there in time to say hi and maybe chat a bit.

img2On the way home, I approached the train tracks again. The crossing arms were down and a train was passing by. Usually, the engine is pulling a mix of tankers, flatcars, boxcars, grain cars and sometime car carriers. This time, I watched as one black tanker after another rolled by. The whole train was made up of black cars. The words “long black train” came to mind, and I vaguely remembered that some deep-voiced male musician sings a song with that line in it.

Since Alex’s death, every time I cross the tracks I think of that long black train. A couple of nights ago, I mentioned it to my husband. He paled a bit. I told him of the words that had come to mind, and asked about the song. Did Johnny Cash sing it? No, he said, Josh Turner, and then remarked that he had always intended to sing the song in church, even buying the sheet music a few years back.  But Alex’s death had cast the song in a different light, and he  hadn’t  listened to it since then. He sang the chorus about the victory of the Lord, and we dropped the conversation.

Today I looked up the video on YouTube. I was already an emotional wreck (another blog to come on that!) so I was able to watch it dispassionately. Divine cotton wool again, maybe.

It’s powerful, it’s painful, and I refuse to accept some of the theology that commentors ascribe to it. (God does not condemn suicide victims to hell). Consider yourself warned.

And yet the imagery of this music video works for me because of a vision that my ever-practical, feet-on-the-ground husband and I (the more intuitive of the two) shared. Neither of us were aware of the other’s vision until we talked about them one night.

My husband’s vision was of Alex walking along the tracks, with the train bearing down on him. Alex is surrounded by guardian angels, screaming and screaming at him to get off the tracks. It’s so powerful an image that Eric wishes he could have an artist capture it for him.

longblacktrain1My vision was of Alex walking along the tracks, with the train bearing down on him. Alex is surrounded by guardian angels, waiting. At the moment of impact, the heavenly host swoops in and carries Alex to the Lord. Because, you see, Alex believed in the promise of his baptism. And God doesn’t break promises.

“‘Cause there’s victory in the Lord I say
Victory in the Lord
Cling to the Father and his holy name
And don’t go riding on that long black train.”


You are loved. As. You. Are.

Flaws, mistakes and all.

Fully and Forever.

So don’t go riding on that long black train.



  1. Since Alex died, I’ve wanted to paint something special for you both. but didn’t know what of… I may not do your vision justice, but I could try?

    • Jan, Eric has mentioned so many times how much he wishes he could have someone paint his vision. If you could even begin to capture its essence, that would mean so much to him! Thank you for offering the gift of your talents to us. You are a sign that the kingdom of God is among us.

  2. Hard to read this and not imagine myself there. I have a son, too, who’s just turned 15 and I wonder, wonder, wonder how I could possibly survive if he put himself in front of train. Your blog gives me some sense that one can continue to put one foot in front of the other living in the hope of Christ.

  3. Thank you Lisa!

  4. That fateful day, I had a dark cloud hanging over me and those who know me realize this is not normal for me. When Jim took the call, turned white and sank to the floor, I had no thoughts it could be Alex, my beloved grandchild, who long ago showed that he and I think alike.

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