Saturday, 3 November 2012

The gradient's against her, but she's on time

Over the years, I've been told by many, MANY people that I would be better off I had a driver's license.  They've talked about mobility, about freedom, about not being trapped by public transit and where it goes and on what schedule.  Taking driver's ed at forty made me wish I'd taken it earlier, because the biggest hurdle between me and my license at forty was having my kids in the car while I was driving.  They were all supportive and encouraging, but I never lost the terror of "OMG what if I screw up and get in an accident and KILL ALL OF MY KIDS!"  Learning to drive as a teenager, I imagine, would have been easier with that sense of immortality you have when you're that age.  Hindsight, twenty-twenty.  I rarely regret not being able to drive.  But every once in awhile, I do experience a moment where I look up at the sky and close my eyes and wonder why the hell I ever thought public transportation was a good idea.

I try really hard to maintain a presence in my kids' lives, and because for the most part, I've got a good relationship with them and the people who are part of their everyday - aside from their dad - it's been fairly easy to do.  I have email contact with my kids' teachers, am Facebook friends with some of the girls' most important bffs, know more about Xbox games, especially Minecraft, that I ever intended to, in order to have in-depth nightly conversations with my son.  A physical presence in their lives is harder, because I work during the day during the week, and they live far enough away that it's difficult and uncommon for me to travel to where they live.  On transit, between the subway and the GO train and the bus, it takes me between two and a half and three hours to get door to door, depending on the time of day I'm leaving.  It's good knitting time, and my iPod or Playbook will keep me entertained if I'm too restless, or too tired, to knit.  But it's still four to six hours in transit, and that can take a lot out of you.  I save those trips for special occasions, or off-weekends where I can't wait to see them.

Back in the spring, my baby girl was graduating from junior public school and looking towards grade seven at the high school.  This was an immensely big deal to her, to her friends.  They've all been together since kindergarten, and most of them are continuing with French immersion.  They've been a tight group, and they were all sad about leaving their teachers, friends and siblings in younger grades.  My girl is more emotional than either of her siblings, and she had bubbled over with both happiness and excitement about this change she was looking forward to, and also with sadness and a sense of loss at the comfort of friends and familiarity that she was leaving behind.  I was excited for her, but I understood her sadness.  There was no way I could attend her graduation ceremony, as it was at eleven in the morning on a day when we had more than ten closings, but she told me she didn't want me to feel bad, her dad would be going, and she REALLY wanted me to attend the grade six clap-out anyway.

I had attended Mel's clap-out when she finished at the junior school.  The building is L-shaped, and immediately prior to the grade six classes being dismissed, all of the younger students, teachers, friends, parents, line the hallways.  The principal makes sure that there are strategically placed boxes of kleenex.  The grade sixes are dismissed, and everyone claps rhythmically.  The students slap hands with the people who line the halls.  They stop to hug teachers, volunteers, parents of friends, who have seen them grow and change over the previous seven years.  There are always tears, and smiles, and promises to keep in touch.  Mel, who likes to pretend she is evil incarnate, didn't make it to the bend in the hallway before she was crying too hard to see straight.  I fully expected Maddie, who is, as aforesaid, more emotional, substantially more sentimental, to have an intense reaction to clap-out, and I had no intention of missing that shared experience.  Especially since Maddie's dad, in the end, had not gone to her graduation, because he thought a ceremony for grade six was stupid, even though she was changing schools.  My boyfriend surprised her by showing up unexpectedly, and both my girls called me that night to tell me what a good guy I had.  He told me Maddie had introduced him to all her friends as her step-dad...which came out of nowhere, because the subject has never come up. 

I had to be on the eleven-twenty train in order to be there on time, so I really only showed my face briefly at work and then had to leave.  Each time the subway stopped between stations, I held my breath until it started moving again.  I changed trains at St. George to take the southbound train to Union, and the layover was almost ten minutes.  It wasn't until I had my ticket in hand that I really exhaled, and killed a few minutes by strolling around the station looking at pashminas and glancing at the screen that would tell me when I could hit the appropriate platform and board my train.

When there's a problem at Union Station, it doesn't stay quiet for long.  I hadn't seen the big red CANCELLED over my train yet, but I definitely heard the uproar it caused for other people waiting for that same train.  A GO representative came out and tried to soothe all of the people who clustered around her.  She told us that someone had been hit on the track between Union and Danforth, and that the next train would be leaving from Danforth all we had to do was get back on the subway and head north for ten or so stops, then east almost to the end of the line, and we could catch the train that would normally leave Union in an hour.

I ran for the subway, just like everyone else did.  Part of me was freaking out.  I'm not going to make it in time.  One of the people who had fallen into the same group I had seemed to be a sort of GO ambassador, and he was smiling and assuring everyone that there would be a train for us when we arrived at Danforth Station.  Many of my fellow passengers were skeptical and angry, and we blended into the regular crowd of TTC passengers in pockets, where we anxiously clustered together and tried to stay near the guy wearing the GO pin on his lapel.

I won't bore you with the mundane details.  We got to Danforth Station in about forty minutes, where the guy on the platform told us there would be a train inside of ten minutes.  A variety of announcements came over the loudspeaker, some reassuring us that there would be a train shortly, some asserting that the next train that passed us would be an express from Union and would bypass this station.  We stood there till after one o'clock.  Knowing that my train journey was generally an hour, followed by a bus trip that was nearly an hour, I'd already given up hope of being at Maddie's clap-out.  And I was angry with myself, for working those first two hours of the day instead of heading directly for the GO station and standing around outside the school if I had to, for not incorporating the possibility that on the day I NEEDED to be heading eastbound from Toronto, some guy in his twenties would decide to crank up his iPod while he was walking on the tracks and not notice the vibration. 

I'd ended up standing with three other women.  One was heading home from visiting her boyfriend, hoping to catch a couple of hours of sleep before heading out to her retail job.  One had left work intending to work from home for the day when the office air conditioner cacked.  One was a student at U of T who'd finished her last class of term and was heading home for a few days of relaxation before starting her summer job.  We were all cranky and quiet, standing in direct sunlight on hot blacktop, all of us pissed off about the delay to our plans for the day.

When the train finally pulled into the station, we sat together.  There were a few moments of silence, enjoying the a/c, being out of the sun, moving on an express train in the right direction.  Once we were acclimatized, then there could be conversation.  Mostly I listened.  I was cautious when I spoke, answered the question about what plan I'd had that was being disrupted by the day's events, because I knew if I talked for too long, I would start to cry. 

When it came to be my time to share, all I said was that I'd wanted to be at my daughter's last day of school ceremony,  and that I was sad I was going to miss it, because at that point, even if I was express on the bus as well, the earliest I could get to the school was to arrive well after everything was over.  I remembered saying to her, I will move heaven and earth to be there that day, baby girl.  One of my seat-mates asked me what school my daughter went to, and when I told her, the U of T student said, oh, I had friends that went there and they did that clap-out thing, is that what your daughter is doing today?  I nodded, swallowed hard.  Conversation moved on.

We approached the end of the train ride, and as we stood up to make our way to the doors, the student slipped her arm under my elbow.  I'm taking you to the school, she told me. 

I have typed and erased several unflattering comparisons between my reaction and fish out of water, but I'll spare you the actual description.  I protested that I wanted her to find an ATM so I could at least reimburse her for gas, because I had no cash.  She told me that her grandmother lived in a senior's residence just down the street from my daughter's school, and that this seemed like a really good time to surprise her with a visit.

When we got into the car, she told me quietly that her dad was in Europe when she graduated, and she knew what it was like not to have a parent in the audience during that milestone moment.

I cried unashamedly, filled with gratitude and relief.  She passed me a box of kleenex and made me laugh through tears when she told me to take a few extra to have during clap-out.  I  told her I had no idea how to thank her.  She dropped me at the door of the school, ten minutes early, and asked me to just pay it forward sometime.  I never knew her name and she never knew mine.

 I don't see myself driving in a meaningful way at this late date in my life, because I really am more of a public transportation type of a person.  And, when I returned to Toronto after celebrating my baby girl that day, I bought ten extra tokens and distributed them randomly among strangers in Union Station before I boarded my own train home.  I know I made at least one person's day, but I'm not sure it was even close to the extent to which someone else made mine.

(Maddie's in the back row, far left, with the crazy black and pink hair.)

- title courtesy of Night Mail, by W.H. Auden


  1. That was one of the loveliest stories I've read in a long time. So much to love in that story, I just don't even know where to start.

    (But it gives me an idea about some kindness I have experienced that I might post about some time.)

  2. Thank you both. Yesterday was a good day to blog about a random act of kindness. I look forward to reading your story when you get around to writing it, CinnamonOpus!