I was born in Baltimore on Sept. 11, 1955. I am white, a male and a lapsed Irish Catholic. I love my family, immediate and extended, but keep my feelings too much of a secret. My father is gone. He lived a full life and left behind five children and a dozen grandchildren. One of my sons was snatched by the sea on a day when the water seemed calm. How things happen sometimes does not make sense.
I did all my growing up in Baltimore and then married Boston. For a living, as I used to tell my sons when they were very young, I crunch and juggle numbers.Then I would demonstrate this by writing giant numbers with a Magic Marker on several blank pieces of paper, crumpling each page and juggling them. I spend most of my free time writing, reading and walking. The subway stop nearest my home is Forest Hills Station, the end of the Orange Line in Boston.
The Orange Line—at least, the portion from Back Bay to the southern terminus at Forest Hills—was reconstructed during the 1980s. I now commute every workday on the Orange Line. I know it well. I am intimate with the texture of the seats on the cars. I am familiar with the looks on the faces of the passengers when one more person insists on squeezing onto a packed train, when those standing—all strangers—have already used every cavity of space in order not to press closer together than they would if they had just joined together for a slow dance.
I once became so involved in conversation with someone whom I barely knew that neither of us noticed the train had stopped at Forest Hills, that more than the usual number of passengers had departed, that the train had lingered longer than it had at prior stations. Locked in our conversation, we did not even notice, after the doors had closed and for eight more stops afterward, that the train was then moving in the opposite direction.
But my stomach noticed the moment we reversed directions. I can no longer remember any of the words we spoke, but I remember very well the queasy feeling in my stomach, as if I had violated a law of nature by not getting off at the end of the line.
I remember, too, how my two younger boys, Thomas and Max, preferred to stand when they rode with me on the Orange Line. And I knew exactly why. They gravitated to that visceral feeling of imbalance, that stimulating inner tickle. Like kids spinning themselves dizzy, always laughing. They could feel so keenly the physical momentum that pushed them backward as the train sped forward and that thrust them forward as the train came to a stop.They could maintain their balance without holding onto anything. Thomas, as he did this, would cast a smile my way. He and his brother were surfing the Orange Line.
I was delighted by their delight, even as I hovered cautiously nearby, ready to put some part of myself—an arm, a leg, my whole body if necessary—between their heads and a metal pole or a hard seat, if either of them began to fall.
On March 17, 2005, I went in to work briefly. I met with two higher-ups about an important issue, and then I headed out of my office to Haymarket, the nearest Orange Line station. It was 10:30 a.m., and I was heading home to enjoy the rest of my Saint Patrick’s holiday.
If I actually stood down on the tracks (not a good idea), the subway station platforms would be at my shoulder-height.This was something I had never thought about before that day.
In Haymarket Station, you can see portions of one side of the station from the other side through openings in a partial wall that runs between the two sets of tracks. During my many waits in Haymarket Station, I had stared vacantly through these openings at people standing on the other side.
That morning, I looked through the opening and saw on the other side a large young man standing down on the tracks and desperately trying to pull himself up to the platform. A train would be coming through on those tracks any minute. I briefly considered jumping down and crossing over to the other side, but my eyes fixed on the live third rail and the terse warning sign above: a red lightning bolt. The thought of calling 9-1-1 on my cell phone or of running up to tell the station attendant flashed though my mind. Others would do those things. And all of that would be too slow.
I dashed up the stairs, ran across the station lobby and then quick-stepped down the stairs on the other side. When I got there, a scrawny young man who did not understand English and a wisp of a young teenage girl, together, were attempting to pull the guy up. They were unable to lift him even an inch off the tracks. He was a very big, very large, very heavy guy. As they kept trying to pull him up, I lay down and stretched out over the platform’s edge. With both my hands, I grabbed tightly onto the back of his blue jeans. I pulled upward for all I was worth.The three of us somehow managed to hoist him onto the platform.
The big guy looked Irish American, and he seemed inebriated. I assumed he had simply begun his Saint Patrick’s Day celebrating very early this year, but he must have been high on some more serious intoxicant.
I had to use all my wits to keep him from falling back onto the tracks. He kept imagining a phantom train arriving. He kept moving forward to get onto this imagined train. Finally, I convinced him to sit down on a set of steps about 10 feet back.To distract him, I told him bits of stories in rapid-fire succession.
But he kept looking past me to the tracks. He stood up, and I stood in his way and pointed to an advertisement on the wall and shouted, “Did you notice—?” He kept mumbling, “Here’s the train.”
At that point, I was prepared to tackle him if he headed toward his phantom train. I was sure I would not have the strength to pull him up if he fell again. Eventually, the police arrived in response to someone’s 9-1-1 call and escorted him out of the station.
A few months later, I found myself sitting directly across from the same guy on an Orange Line train. I did not immediately recognize him. Sitting there, sober and quiet, he seemed like a different person. It took a minute for me to feel sure it was him. He did not recognize me. I did not expect him to. I thought he might remember the event. I tried to think up a conversation starter, something like, “A few months ago, you were down on the tracks at Haymarket,” but I was sure such an attempt would be met with a blank stare. I sank back into my seat and waited for the train to make it to the end of the line.
At the end of the Orange Line is a cemetery, Forest Hills Cemetery. Eugene O’Neill is buried there. I have stood at his grave and pondered his long day’s journey into night.
I feel at home in a cemetery. Cemeteries are usually devoid of vertical people, chatty people, people concerned with trivial matters.They are full of horizontal people, profoundly quiet people, many of whom lived long lives and now have plenty of time to digest the full meaning of a life that had a beginning, a middle, an end.
Well, not exactly, of course. But that is the feeling I experience as I wander randomly through Forest Hills Cemetery. Though I bear a superficial resemblance to the vertical people, I have so much more in common with the horizontals. Sometimes I walk among them for hours.
In 2008, I dreamed about my father for the first time in a long time. He died in 1993. The day before the dream, I had talked on the phone with my sister, and she described herself and Mom having trouble finding Dad’s grave.The image of them wandering in the cemetery stirred my memories and surely stimulated my dream.
It was a happy dream, a happy version of my father, as if he were making a personal visit. He was fresh out of college—his
handsomest, happiest, most alive and aware self. After college, he served in the Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Block Island, which was torpedoed by a German sub, but he and nearly all his shipmates were rescued. After the service, almost by happenstance, he landed in the FBI, where he spent much of his career investigating bank robberies. He was a good father, a good husband, a good friend to many. In this dream, he said nothing. He simply showed himself to me, as if to say, “This is how to remember me,” or, “This is who I am.” The dream gave me a feeling of immense relief. It replaced the memory that had dominated my thoughts: my father, in his last years, physically shrinking away.
After the drowning in August 1995, the police began to search the ocean for my 10-year- old son’s body. I was too distraught to be of much help. I have since written about every remembered moment Thomas and I spent together his last day, a day we joyfully spent together, until these last minutes:
The beach is no longer life-guarded and is relatively deserted.We are at an unusual stretch where the surf has carved a large, deep pocket into the beach, creating a surprisingly deep pool of water between the breakers and the tideline. It is an invitation to the kids, calmer on the surface than the stretches of beach to its left and right.
I stand at the water’s edge, watching the kids closely. Max is finally going into the water a little bit rather than only digging in the sand or collecting shells. I decide it is better to be in the water with the kids. I go near the beach chairs to take off and toss my shirt. I speak briefly to my sister and then join the kids in the water.
I go in the water close to Max. I am there for only a moment when I hear Thomas and look over. He has been suddenly pulled off his feet and swept up in an undercurrent, his arms raised straight up as he lets out a yelp. I run as much as I can in the shallow water and then dive in and quickly swim up to him.
My sister makes sure Max and her son make it back to shore.They have been in water shallow enough to be outside the undercurrent.
I make it quickly out to Thomas and am holding him. I assume we will soon make our way back to the beach. Instead, together, we are losing control and being pulled out in the strong undercurrent, and the ocean floor is quickly beyond the reach of our feet. Just then, a series of harsh and high waves break on us with unusual frequency. I make an attempt to lift Thomas over these waves as they break, but this fails as the waves crest over his head. Exhaustion is now beginning to undermine my rescue efforts.Thomas is clinging hard to me; I can feel the fingers of one hand digging into my shoulder and those on his other hand tightly grasping the hair on my head. His weight is now on my shoulders. I cannot keep my head above the surface, and I breathe in water.
I experience the helpless feeling of heavily falling into empty space.We are drowning.Then, in one profoundly strong motion, I separate myself from Thomas’ weight upon me by grasping him and throwing him off. It is a strong heave. He is facing me as he sails into the air. I see his look of bewildered surprise as briefly and as clearly as one sees lightning flash in the sky.
I soon see Thomas 15 or 20 yards away and floating on the water’s surface with his face turned down into the water. We are still being pulled out by the current. Because the waves are high and we are now far from shore, I can no longer see my sister and the kids on the beach. When I first spot Thomas face down in the water, I am paralyzed by exhaustion. The water is deep, and the only thing my instinct tells me to do is tug him in by the upper arm toward the shore; so I do, for a good distance. I am too much in shock to do any clear thinking. I am hoping Thomas can be revived once we reach shore; I am dreading that I am pulling in my dead son’s body. Then I feel the return of energy. Because we are well beyond where the waves are breaking, I am able to swim out to Thomas and grab hold of him. He is unconscious.
Then we reach where the waves are breaking. I look back and get a brief glance at a large wave just before it breaks on us.We are roiled by this powerful wave. My last grasp on his arm slides right off; my last attempt to grasp any of him is futile amid the underwater surge of the wave. I get tossed and turned under the water, and my back bounces hard against the ocean floor. I come back up, and Thomas is gone. He has been pulled into the underwater current and is not seen again that day.
I assumed an ocean burial. I took little interest in the search for the body and began instead, almost immediately, to search the ocean of my mind for what of Thomas’s life was still in my possession and to commit that to paper, with the intent of sharing it with whoever would read it, as a poor substitute for the impact his life might have had on others.
The small police department had plenty of experience with drownings, apparently. Regarding the immediate grim task of recovering the body, they were familiar with the ocean’s patterns. I was told that the bodies often disappeared for a few days but then washed ashore on Assateague Island, a few miles to the south, driven there by the near shore currents.They wanted to know what color of bathing suitThomas was wearing.They thought that might help them spot the body from their helicopter.
I knew only one major fact about Assateague Island: Some unique breed of small horses—called ponies, I think, because of their size— lives there. The younger of my two sisters had described to me an experience that occurred years ago when she camped overnight on the island. She was having a dream, and in the dream, the thing that never happens in dreams happened: She died. She did not dream of herself almost dying and then wake up. She dreamed that she died. Imagine her surprise when she lifted her eyelids: She was alive, and one of these small island horses had its head stuck inside her open tent. Startled by her waking, the horse quickly galloped off down the beach.
Once, Thomas, a little boy then, was heading down our stairs, from the second to the first floor. I was in front of him. He was moving a little too fast and, halfway down, misplaced his next footstep. His forward momentum propelled him into a head-diving motion, but before his head hit the step, I was able to pivot and catch him upside down, my arms around his midsection.
My father, who was visiting and at that moment was just below us in the front hallway, witnessed it all. Just as I grabbed Thomas upside down in my arms, just inches from hitting his head on the steps, my father and I looked into each other’s eyes and experienced the moment as one.