I’d been down at my folks’ for a weekend, and was returning to Chicago via Amtrak. The journey south had been uneventful, albeit there was the raucous of a small child who apparently was in training for the senate: practising his filibuster skills; and then a grandma-type who promised she wouldn’t talk, but didn’t live up to her promise the whole three and a half hour trip. I listened to her all the while running the ‘geesh, lady… have some boundaries” tape in my head.
Subsequently, I found myself dreading the return trip, tired from having worked outside in the fresh air all Saturday, and hoping for peace and quiet. As I stood on the platform waiting for my train to arrive, I was surrounded by other passengers: joking and laughing; some smoking; all coming off as loud and obnoxious. There sat on the lone bench, a very large black woman, who was hollering at a guy smoking over in the corner. I thought, wow… I’d sit down but there isn’t room for both of us on that bench, nor is it clear the bench would hold.
I chose to stand, and eventually moved my way down the platform and away from the cigarette smoke.
I was feeling pretty smug when the train arrived, as I discovered myself planted on the platform immediately in front of the stairs we were to embark. This meant I had first dibs on seating! I rushed aboard and found an empty row of seats and planted myself there. I strategically placed my purse on the seat next to me in the hopes that it would deter someone from sharing the ride as my companion. And as the train began finally to pull away from the station, I breathed a sign of relief–I’d maintained the whole row of seats for myself. I closed my eyes and prepared to sleep for the few hours back to Chicago.
“Excuse me,” the voice prompted. “Can I please sit here?” I opened me eyes to find the very large black woman staring down at me, pointing at the seat next to me which was currently occupied by my purse. “Of course!” I responded with feigned enthusiasm. I picked up my purse and slid closer to the window.
She sat with a heavy ‘plop’ next to me–or more appropriately ‘on’ me. There was simply not room for the two of us in that row. I squished to the side as much as possible. We sat for a couple of minutes like this, her thigh overlapping mine. I finally inquired as to what her destination was, wondering if I’d be spending my whole three and a half hour ride in this forced intimacy. “Oh,” she said. “We get off at the next town only 40 minutes from here.” She explained that she and her husband were going to church. Wow, said I. Do you take the train to church every Sunday? I imagined the expense of such an ecclesial commute.
What followed opened my eyes and heart. “Well, can I tell you why?” and she launched into her personal story. In my head I sighed and thought that once again, I’ll be worn out by the time I get back to my apartment.
Here is what she relayed: I know I look older, but I’m really only twenty-three. You see, I have multiple sclerosis (MS). I’m doing fairly well this week, and I was able to climb the steps to the train with only minimal help. I’m just walking slow. But MS cost me my vision in one eye, and I often lose my balance too. I just have to be careful. My legs are pretty numb, and I lost my driver’s license because my doctor wouldn’t clear me medically to drive. My weight doesn’t help my balance either–but all the steroids I’m on have caused the weight gain. It’s a catch-22 as I need them to be able to walk; but taking them makes me gain weight and it is hard to walk. So that’s why my husband and I just take the train.
She leaned forward and tapped her husband on the head in the row ahead of us. He turned and smiled. He was the young man who’d been smoking in the corner. He gave a half-hearted, clumsy wave. I figured he was embarrassed.
She continued: My husband can’t drive either. He has some medical concerns as well. You see, we used to live in Chicago. He was sitting on the front stoop one afternoon talking with his friends, and a man drove by and shot him 14 times. I glanced back up at him and realized that his clumsy wave was simply that he lacked the coordination to do otherwise. His arms were covered in scars from bullet wounds. We attend church this far away because there isn’t one close to us who will welcome a black couple. You know, you do what you gotta do…
As if her story wasn’t enough, she proceeded to formally witness to their faith. In spite of all she’d been through in her very short life, she and her husband know God personally and believe in God’s presence watching over their lives. Her witness was peppered with the declaration of how ‘blessed’ she was. She inquired as to whether I was a person of faith, and rejoiced tearfully when I confirmed this.
I was stunned, and grateful for the woman who spilled out over the boundaries to share her faith.