Safe Passages

This hasn’t been my favorite week.


This week a metaphor keeps spooling out in the echoing caverns of my mind. Life is a train, I think, a vast, fast-moving, passenger train.


When we’re born, if we’re lucky, we arrive in a car with a welcoming family—a parent or two and maybe some siblings. It’s a warm, contained space, and there’s access to food and love and books, and it’s a good place—even hurtling along at however-many miles an hour. Even knowing that we each have a ticket that only takes us so many miles.

When we’re kids, happy on the journey, we never give a thought to what our ticket says.


This week was a turn-the-corner, irrevocable week. This week one kind of hope drained quickly into salty sand. The wind picked up and blew that sand around, like it was laughing, like it was aiming for our eyes.

If there’s another kind of hope ready to arrive,–well, this week, I cannot see it.


So. The train. We grow to a certain age, and, if we’re lucky, a kind teacher comes by our car, and reaches out a hand and invites us to come to school. We are excited; we have seen the big kids go. We have been exploring the wonders that books offer. Those mysterious black squiggles have come to have meaning.

We can count to 100.

It is time to join the throng.

Our parent gets us ready, shoes shined, or hair braided; we wear our very best clothes for the first official day of school.

We flap a negligent wave to the parent who sends us off, beaming; we follow that teacher down the line of moving cars, and we don’t look back.

We don’t see the parent’s shiny eyes, or hear her whisper, “Safe passages.”

It is a first parting and a temporary one. But it’s a monumental parting all the same.


This week, I walk. I walk feeling like a loaded wagon is clamped to my back, and I don’t like the load it carries.

And I know that load is minuscule compared to the load my friend is bearing, and the load her family tries, still in shock, to lift.

And as I walk, I notice the most disgusting things. There is trash everywhere: Subway bags and McDonalds’ juice bottles crushed on the sidewalk. There are flattened metal silo beer cans—‘Natty Lite’ and ‘Ice House.’ And cigarette butts line the path I stomp along, and I scowl, and the border between my sadness and my anger blurs like wet watercolors do on impatient painting days.

Every 600 feet or so, there’s an old black banana peel; I conjure up an image of a merry gorilla, walking the streets by night, enjoying a banana and flipping the peel as it walks along. It’s a whimsical image, and that makes me angry, too. I think I’m being unfair to the gorilla.

In two places, the hairy, squashed remains of some furry little rodent adhere to the sidewalk. I think that at least the poor dead squirrels and the banana peels are biodegradable, and I walk past a shredded plastic straw that will be here 1,000 years from now, unless somebody moves it to another place where it won’t erode.

This week I am sad and distracted and I send out email after email with obscure messages and flagrant typos. The typos just add to the sinking feeling.

I am angry at myself, and at people; I am impatient with myself, and with people, this week.

But it’s really cancer that feeds my rage.


And the train chugs along, until suddenly, one day it stops.

It stops so that a grandparent can get off. Confused, never having seen this before, we hang around the open door.

We look to the parent for a clue: how do we react to this?

Our parent’s cheeks are wet.

“Safe passages,” she whispers, and we turn and look at the departing elder, and a little glimmer of realization comes.

This beloved person may not be coming back.


I walk along, cursing the litter, and I slow down when I approach a gleaming white step van, its butt end halfway into the sidewalk. It is filled with heavy, harsh looking tools; it is almost touching a digging machine ahead of it in the driveway. A small crew of men in acid green t-shirts swarms.

The step van is chuddering, and I detour way around it. But as I do, I notice there’s a heavy, gleaming chain hooked around the open back. And someone has tucked a purple rhododendron blossom into the chain.

In the very next yard, the yard next to the house that burned down a couple of years ago, crocuses—their buds a brassy orange—push proudly up.

A little touch of something that is neither anger nor sadness stirs, and I push it, guiltily, down.


The train charges along, and we find work: there are things to be done on a train, and when we are old enough and ready, we must contribute. And as we branch out, we meet new people. We find friends who are not family. We find, sometimes, great loves.

And we leave that first, cozy car, which now feels too small. We move to a newer car a little bit closer to the end of the train. Sometimes, we grow a little family of our own.

And we learn, more and more, about leave-taking.

We think people we love and need will be there forever, but they won’t. All the grandparents go, and then the parents and the aunts and uncles begin to depart…. It seems the train stops with more and more regularity.

Sometimes it even stops for someone our age.

Sometimes it stops for someone even younger.

We learn to say, “Safe passages,” through our tears.

Occasionally, but not very often, someone who gets off will get back on at a later station. But usually the departers are just gone.


I think, this week, about the last conversation I had with my friend on the phone.

I watch Facebook and check text messages for updates.

I talk to old friends who love her, too, and I feel a settling of the weight. It doesn’t get any lighter, but we all are lifting the same load, and that, somehow, makes the heaviness a little easier to accept.

I talk to a man who cannot speak because tears choke his words.

I spend a lot of time in the bathroom this week, touching up mascara.


There comes a point, on the train, where we realize our ticket has only so many miles on it, and we start requesting some information. Just how far, we demand, can I expect to go?

There’s no answer, usually; there’s just cold silence.

There’s just, maybe, a disconnected whisper: You’d best not take anything for granted. Everyone gets off this train.


This week, I pack a bag, honored to be invited, torn by the need to go.


Oh, that train ride. It takes us places we never imagined were out there. It flings us through dangerous passages, up steep hillsides where snow tumbles dangerously, into flooded valleys where we wonder if the train will chug through…and if we’ll still be with it when it does. It takes us into sunny meadows and dappled forests. It shows us worlds.

And it gives us companions…companions who, selfishly, we never want to let go of. It gives us lovers and children and siblings and family. It gifts us, when, again, we are very, very lucky, with wonderful lifelong friends.

“Let’s just all stay like this,” we say, and it seems like that might work.

But then, unexpectedly, we feel the wheels beneath us slowing down.


This week I feel the train slowing one more time. I want to say, “Don’t go.”

I want to say, “We all need you here.”

I want to be that selfish: I really, really want to.

But this week I have to face hard facts, face them head-on with no pretensions.

The time for struggle is over.

And the time to say, “Safe passages, sweet friend,” is not so far away.

16 thoughts on “Safe Passages

  1. Kathy

    Pam Sending prayers of peace and lifting of the weight of the load. I love trains and most any writing about them. I loved yours and I love how real you are about life. It causes us to think. I too hate the trash when I am out walking. The weekly ad paper rolled in that plastic. Some yards have a whole winter season in there yard. I have counted 8 at several homes. I have been thinking how I can start picking them up on my walk. I have thought maybe people are not able to come out or bend over to pick them up. If you have any ideas on my trash adventure please share. Kathy

    1. I have been thinking the same kinds of things, Kathy! I have been toying with the idea of getting or making some sort of washable shoulder-slung bag and one of those grippers, so I don’t have to use my hand… or wear plastic gloves! You’re making me think more seriously about this!

      1. Julie Watson Babbitt

        She adores you; she loves you and your husband and your son. The number of times she told me excitedly, “I’m going to see Pam this week.” JOY, pure joy. You have been a blessing in her life; one she longed for, prayed for, patiently awaited. You, for her, are her wonderful, beautiful, like-minded soul mate. XO

      2. Oh, Julie. I have been thinking how much fun we had writing our column together in high school; and how, having reconnected, we had the same kind of fun, but on a whole different level, writing grants and creating a blog for the literacy initiative. What a gift. What a joy.

        And it’s only when someone means so much that your heart breaks like this. I love that we will all make sure her light still shines…

  2. What matters most, I wonder? To me, it is this: you were invited, and you felt honored to go. Not only that, *you went*, Pam. You went, just as I did seven years ago to the funeral of a former student of mine who died of cancer. I did it because, had I not done so, I would have been false to her memory and to my own life. For months before Belinda Lazaro’s death, I, too, watched for messages on her Facebook page, alternately shocked at how truly sick she was (and how unaware of that illness I had been) and yet equally shocked–although not truly surprised–at how *fully* she had already lived. I hated that she died, and I hate that fact still, but our grief is meant to comfort others, as well as ourselves, so I took it with me back to New Orleans, and did what I could for her parents and her friends.

    Do you know *why* you were invited? It’s because you’re honest, and you’re real. We all need such people in our lives, especially near the end. And even if you did nothing but stand in the doorway without saying a word, someone like me would want someone like you there, because your presence–your being, from which your words flow in the first place–is what matters. Action–the doing of things–is important, but you also have presence, a stillness and balance in the way you think and carry yourself. It comes through in your writing and, if we were ever to truly meet, I would see it in you, for sure. At its best, the presence of which I speak is a kind of love. You have it, and your family and friends are tremendously blessed that you share it so often, even under tremendous stress.

    1. Oh, John. Thank you.

      And your note about how fully Belinda lived tings true for my dear friend, too. May we all bring such exuberance to each day…no matter how many we have left.

  3. Kim

    Pam, I am so sorry for the difficulty your friend is experiencing. My thoughts are with you as well. Your post brought tears to my eyes as I remembered special people who “ didn’t come back” and the stunning finality of that, still felt after all the years. I still haven’t perfected that final moment where I say what I want to say, and hold what I want to hold. I probably never will….

    1. I think as long as we are genuinely there, even if we feel like we’re blundering ( and boy, I do), those final moments are blessings. Thank you, Kim, for your good thoughts!

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