Last month I took a weekend trip on the Amtrak train. It was my first time riding in uncounted years, and that morning I excitedly snapped pictures as I watched new sights rush away through the window. On the journey home the train arrowed through the black of night, and the only sight out the window was the pale reflection of my own face.
A thin man in his thirties sat down next to me, resting his cane against the seat beside his knobby knees. He took a cell phone call and told someone that he couldn’t get to his medication right now, it was stowed. He hung up, laid his head back, sighed softly.
Every cue in his body language spoke of pain. Immediate and sharp. And the flash of his bright, blue eyes radiated with those secret depths that only someone on a lonely and arduous journey can possess.
I asked him if he wanted half of my ham sandwich. Maybe it’s odd to offer a section of sandwich to a complete stranger, but it seemed rude to eat in front of him. He declined. We sat in silence and I chewed quietly and quickly lest the ham aroma was annoying to the other passengers packed like sardines in the coach around me.
With dinner eaten and the train shooting through the dark, I turned to the thin man and asked if I could do anything to help. He shared his medical condition with me; the mystery illness that could not be properly diagnosed, the languishing visits to the hospitals, the fear of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. And not wanting to leave his son. Not wanting to die yet and leave his son.
The train trip lasted three hours. I thought, if our lives were exchanged, I would be sitting in your seat. My knees would be knobby. My hands weak and shaking. My jaw set with pain, my eyes hollowed out with words I’ll never know how to speak. My future winking away from me like a light bulb flickering out.
I care about you. With a different roll of the dice, I could be living inside your body. Living inside your fears. Coming to the final destination when I didn’t even want to be on the ride.
When he leaned his forehead up against the seat in front of him, hunched and exhausted, I did the same. He said his kidneys hurt bad. We stared forward at our feet and talked. I asked him if he’d like if I rubbed his back. He said yes, so I did.
I thought of my weekend. The two arduous days of therapy; my terrible past, my personal fight. The decisions that scare me. As I rubbed the thin man’s back I cried softly, and I felt such a great and intangible gift being exchanged between us on that racing train. I’ll never know why we met. But I’ll always remember we did.
Everyone we come in contact with during our day becomes part of our life story. Part of our memories and the thread that weaves our future. We don’t have to understand. We don’t have to agree. We don’t even have to like it. But it’s powerful to choose compassion. To acknowledge that we are only separated from one another by a seat on a train, racing toward alternate but interwoven unknowns.
I may not know who you are. But I care about you. I think you’ll believe me when you look in my eyes.