The Great Plains are exactly that: a grand flatness that stretches as far as the eye can see. The wind has nowhere to stop and noises carry for miles, never lingering in one place.
This wide open space scares me sometimes. Its vastness is daunting and powerful like a god. I feel small and insignificant standing in a field of rocks and prairie grass or driving along a dirt road that is straight and seemingly never-ending.
Yesterday I went to the railroad tracks where my husband was killed 24 years ago. No one would know anyone died there. It’s just a ditch like any ditch anywhere. The intersection is a dirt road over a couple of tracks with a stop sign at the approach. This place of death was quiet as always – just a few cows mooing in the distance, a few birds chirping. Yesterday it was foggy and misting.
I parked 10 feet from the tracks and got out of my car. I heard a train blowing its whistle several miles north. The sound was faint, but it was traveling in my direction, the same direction the train came when it hit Bruce’s tractor. Southbound. In the meantime, I grabbed some raw cauliflower out of the veggie bag I’d packed and ate it as I approached the tracks. I took a few photos and let whatever I needed to feel be felt. It was mostly the same old same old – regret, sadness, anger; the same old question to Bruce: How do you NOT hear a train coming? I felt cocky. (To give you some perspective, click on the photo to make it larger. That’s our farm in the center. Bruce was less than a mile from home)
I wondered for a moment if I should stay there and wait for the train, watch it pass, recreate in my head the time a similar freight train sent Bruce’s tractor reeling and his body through the windshield glass and into the ditch. Did I want to feel the engine’s power? Feel its wind? Hear its roar? I walked back to my car, tossed the veggies on the seat and sat down in the driver’s seat. I left the door open.
I wrote a little to collect my thoughts. Yes, I thought. I’ll stay and wait for the train miles away. Since Bruce died I’d not been to the tracks when a train was going by. I thought staying would bring me closer to his final moments. And so I waited.
A minute passed. I glanced to the left and watched birds fly out of a field. Then I lowered my eyes to the paper I was writing on, read a little, and then glanced non-chalantly to my right. I sucked in a breath. There it was, barreling toward me like the freight train it was. The whistle blew as it approached the intersection, but I didn’t hear it coming. It was like white noise, nothing anyone would ever pay attention to given our world of never-ending surround sound.
I had barely a second to get my camera ready and jump out of the car to take a photo (click on photo to make it larger). All the while its whistle blew, but I didn’t hear it. I simply didn’t hear it. I just didn’t hear it.
Six weeks after Bruce died I had a dream. In it he and I were sitting on the couch in our living room. Even in my dream I knew he was dead and I asked how did this happen? How was it that he could be killed by a train going across tracks he’d known were there all his life? Bruce answered me calmly, as was his manner, “I didn’t hear it.”
Didn’t hear it? I didn’t understand that. “How do you not hear a freight train?” I asked him. He smiled and said, “I love you. I have to go now.” And I woke up.
Yesterday I stood at his death place, the intersection of railroad tracks and gravel road, our farm a few acres in the distance. Bruce told me in a dream 24 years ago that he didn’t hear the train, and yet know-it-all me didn’t listen. I chose, instead, to carry anger and regret in my heart and so much unforgiveness. But Bruce had never lied to me before, why would he lie to me in a dream? It was like Jesus saying to his disciple Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
My friend Rodney helped me understand what might have been going on in Bruce’s head that day as Bruce approached the tracks, oblivious to the train noise. Rodney is the father of a beautiful 5-year-old girl, and after she was born he said to me: “Bruce obviously loved you and Carlene very much. And I remember those heady days after Katie was born. When it seems like you have the world by the tail — a loving wife, a job you love, the home you’ve always dreamed of and wanted and especially when a new little baby daughter has entered your life — well, I remember I felt invincible, like I would live forever and nothing bad could ever touch me. I can, I think, get a notion of what was in his mind and heart that day. On the tractor, which is always a good feeling, all that horsepower at your fingertips, ready to turn the land, pull the harvest. The open air of the countryside (even in the tractor cab). Beautiful young wife at home preparing a meal, your new daughter ready to be held in your hands. I believe when that sudden and tragic end came, Bruce was one of the happiest men on earth.”
I left my anger at the tracks yesterday, and Bruce was there in my moment of stark realization. In the winds blowing across the Great Plains, in its vastness and acoustic starkness, his voice said, “I didn’t leave you on purpose. I love you and I love Carlene. I simply didn’t hear the train.”
My dear, dear Bruce. I know, my love, what you tried to tell me in that dream. Stubborn me finally understands. Rest in peace in this prairie ground surrounded by the wind and the rocks and the never-ending vastness. We are never-ending. No train can stop that. I understand now what you tried to tell me.