Cross Country Train

My dad never actually said “life, at its best, is an adventure”… but I know he believed it with all his heart. I have had wonderful adventures in my life, including on various trains. And I have always done my best to hold back any anxious misgivings and give my kids the same opportunity.

In 2002 our son Eric, at age 16, accompanied his 78 year old grandmother Jane (my mom) with her growing dementia, on a train trip from Los Angeles across the country to visit her other son (my brother) Peter and his family in Cleveland Ohio, her brother (my uncle) John and sister-in-law Ruth in Binghamton New York, and her godson Tom and his family on Long Island.

My mom so wanted to go “back east”, thinking that returning to a place where she was before she had lost much of her mental facility could help her recover that which she had lost. I saw her quest as quixotic, but I still admired her drive to be whole again. She could have done a non-stop plane flight alone to any given destination, if someone was at the airport gate on the destination end to pick her up, but she still had a fear of flying and some of her flights would have involved plane changes which there is no way she could handle. She was comfortable with the train, but due to the extent of the dementia, could not negotiate the big train change in Chicago’s Union station on her own.

Since neither my partner Sally or I or any other adult was available to accompany her at this point in time, we thought to send our son (her grandson) as her travel partner and chaperone. It was an interesting duo, with each contributing certain capabilities and status to the paring. He was intelligent, caring, understanding of his grandma’s situation, and judged by us capable of negotiating the trip. But he was a minor and in the official judgment of the world they were traversing, not capable of taking the trip on his own, without special provisions. She was, in the official view of Amtrak and anyone they encountered along the way, his accompanying adult, even though he in fact was the more responsible party.

So we got the tickets and prepped our son as best we could with information “cheat sheets”, talks about changing trains in Chicago’s big, crowded Union Station and how to handle various emergencies, and that technological device that really made the whole thing possible – his cell phone. We took them to Union Station in Los Angeles and put grandma and grandson on the Amtrak “Southwest Chief” from Los Angeles via Albuquerque New Mexico and Kansas City Missouri to Chicago. We gave them both a kiss, wished them “bon voyage”, and watched their train pull out of the station to begin their adventure together.

So I recall that we got a call from our son somewhere along their journey to the Windy City that things were okay so far and then again when they had successfully boarded their second train, the “Capitol Limited” in Chicago that would take them to Cleveland, where my brother would pick them up. Our son really relished his role and rose to the occasion, sounding so relaxed, responsible and in control on the cell phone conversations.

Their journey went without any significant hitches. After spending several days in Cleveland they again boarded the “Capitol Limited” to Syracuse New York where my Uncle John and Aunt Ruth picked them up and drove them back to Binghamton for several days stay before returning them to Syracuse for the next leg of their journey to New York City and several more days with Jane’s godson Tom and family on Long Island. The Binghamton leg of the odyssey was highlighted by a car trip to Jane and John’s childhood home of Watkins Glen and a memorable walk down the gorgeous glen itself, a rushing stream tumbling over rocks and through tree shaded grottos traversed by a foot path which was a sort of thousand-step staircase. The New York City leg featured Tom taking Eric, without his grandma who stayed with Tom’s mom (her dear friend), to see Eric’s first (and only to date) Broadway musical, “Les Miserable”.

The return journey took our grandson and grandma from New York City back to Cleveland for a two day respite with our son’s Uncle Peter and family again, followed by the train back to Chicago, the big train change there, and the return journey to Los Angeles, where Eric’s mom and I excitedly and gratefully picked up the two intact travelers.

The trip was judged by all a success. Eric had brought his video camera along and took some very memorable footage of his grandma throughout the trip, particularly the walk down Watkins Glen with Uncle John and Aunt Ruth. It was the most extensive and most candid recording oh her before dementia completely overwhelmed her personality. Eric came back more self-assured and ready to embark on new adventures without us or his grandma that would further push the envelope of his own liberty and agency to chart his own course.

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