In this season of reflection and gratitude, I am reminded of what my son and I witnessed seven weeks into the pandemic in May 2020. I offer it again now. May it help us to remember how deeply connected and beloved we all are.
“Listen,” I whisper to my eight-year-old son. “Do you hear that over there?” I point out past the cluster of barren trees and the tiny birds swooping high and low across dried grasslands. He stops his forward motion long enough to let the call of a distant bird capture his imagination. The two of us have been cooped up inside our flat for seven weeks now due to the pandemic. Some days we stay in our pajamas. Other days, he plays soccer on the back deck. The parks in Chicago are all closed. Today, this suburban forest preserve is our oasis. I can’t remember the last time we heard birds sing.
“Tree swallows,” the woman with the binoculars tells us. Their iridescent blue-green glistens in the setting sun as their white underbellies take us by surprise. She is new to this hobby, she explains. I smile instinctively, forgetting that she can’t see facial expressions under my homemade mask. We linger in the conversation, keeping our safe distance, as the tree swallows grow increasingly friendly, swooping toward us in large daring loops and then darting back across the prairie, flying free.
Sadly, on our drive out of the city, my son and I witness something that feel the opposite of free. Stuck in unexpected Saturday traffic, I take the nearest exit off the freeway and climb toward street level. My son is excitedly pointing out yet another firetruck and ambulance on the overpass—we’ve seen four already. From our new height, we look to our left and see a man on the train tracks that run in the middle of the freeway. He is clad only in his underwear. Instinctively I look for an oncoming el train.
“Mom? What is that man doing?”
Police officers are flanked along the fences that run parallel to tracks. Cars are stopped. A handful of SWAT team members stand atop the fence. We watch as the man flails his arms in agitation and begins pacing wildly across the tracks that could easily electrocute him. He is having a mental break, I think to myself. He is holding something in his hand, but from our elevation I cannot tell what it is. I’m not sure I want to know. My mind is searching desperately for how to narrate this in a way that will make sense to an eight-year-old boy.
“He is walking on the train tracks,” I explain, going with the obvious first. “That is not safe. The police are trying to keep him safe.” My son is quiet. I see his shoulders tense in the rearview mirror. “I don’t know why the man is walking on the train tracks. I’ve never seen anyone do that before,” I try to assure him that what he is seeing is a unique situation. I watch him stretch his body to look out the back window. “I do know that they turned off the tracks.” (Or so I hope.) “Everyone wants that man to get home safely,” I continue. “He is someone’s brother, dad, cousin, friend. He is someone’s son.”
We turn the corner and try to make our way across the freeway. More and more cars stop on the side of the road. Passengers hop out and grab their smartphones. At first I am dismayed. But then I remember all the police shootings of men the same hue as the man, the same dark hue as my young son. “Do you know why they’re taking video?” I ask. My son shakes his head no. “They want everyone to be okay too. They are watching to make sure that everyone—the man and the police officers—get home safely. Their families are waiting for them.”
We drive on in silence for a while. I ask if he has any more questions. Not right now, he tells me. We turn on his favorite music and take the backroads to the forest preserve. My son sprints out in front of me once we hit the trail. All I see is the blur of his blue and orange tennis shoes. He is happy, I can tell. Running is his release. He circles back, quick to tell me about the rabbit he saw dart across the path. Then he is off again, hollering back at me, “C’mon Mom. The last one there is a rotten egg.”
We discover the tree swallows on our way back to the car. We didn’t plan to stay as long as we did, but their swoops and calls enthrall us. Wrapped in awe, I breathe in the bigness of God. I pray for the man on the tracks. I pray for his family and the families of everyone involved. I pray for everyone’s peace, ours included. We climb into the car, lighter and freer. Until the freeway comes to a complete stop, and the news report states the man is wielding a knife and is in danger of hurting himself and others.
It is long past dinner by the time we get home. My son has asked me every conceivable question. I tell him that the man’s brain is not working the way it needs to, that he has an illness in his brain. I tell him that the ambulance will take him to the hospital where the doctors will wrap him in warm blankets and give him medicine to make the illness go away. I tell him that his family will stay with him there, even though I know that is not possible in the midst of a pandemic. I tell him the ending I want to believe.
My son slips on his Black Panther pajamas to get ready for bed. I pull him close and remind him that love is like an invisible thread connecting us all together. I tell him that the man and the police can feel his love. The ambulance driver, too. He squeezes me tight. Minutes later, he pops out of the bathroom, his toothbrush in hand. “Mom, I’m still really worried about the man. Can Santa Claus help?”
Once he is finally asleep, I scour the internet for news. The man was taken into custody at 8:13pm and died not long after. I pray for him and for his family. I pray for the police officers and SWAT team who will carry that trauma with them. There is already so much trauma in our days. It seems endless and unstoppable. Every night I read the news for updates on the pandemic. Some nights, acts of kindness leave me speechless. Other nights, it is the death toll that crushes me. Like the man on the train tracks, we are living in parallel worlds. Those fighting to stay alive and those trying desperately to stay unscathed.
In a very real sense, parallel worlds have always existed. There are tent camps under freeways. Lines that stretch for blocks outside of local food pantries. Elementary schools that have no playground equipment or doors on bathroom stalls. But today, my son and I saw those two worlds converge. We saw tragedy and hope come together, hour after hour, as an untold number of people worked to save the life of one man. A beloved son, grandson, cousin, friend.
Of all the things my son will remember from today, my prayer is that he sees how inseparable we all are. Like the tree swallows, we belong to one another. And, we all are beloved by God.