My favorite sound used to be the flutter of tiles changing on the arrivals board inside 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. The split–flap display is old–fashioned, true, and it can't help but bring bad news of the trains’ inevitable delays. But it sounds like butterfly wings, like a cat lapping milk with a tender pink tongue, like the safety of huddling under an awning during a downpour. Going home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, standing in the chilly chamber of the station, duffel in hand, I cherished that sound.
As I’ve learned, though, tragedy can arrest such sensory comforts, co–opting them for its own cruel whims. After my mom had an aneurysm last March, I went home seven weekends in a row, on the Amtrak Northeast Regional from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. My sisters, who live in New York, would often migrate south on the same train as me. But often, I was alone.
My mom’s aneurysm burst on St. Patrick’s Day. I’d been writing a paper, struggling to focus, a little tipsy from an afternoon of darties. I’d tossed my phone onto my bed so it wouldn’t distract me. Words plodded onto the screen of my laptop, slowly inching into paragraphs. An hour later, when I got up to check my phone, there was the text from my dad to my sisters and me.
It ended with “Maybe you guys should come.”
Most people who have aneurysms don’t make it to the hospital alive—or, if they do, their brain is likely to suffer irreparable damage. My mom is not one of those people. She’s fine. Better than fine—she’s back at work, even running a marathon in October. It’s almost like nothing happened at all.
And it’s easy to forget what last semester was like. How I left my apartment without telling my friends what had happened, how I brushed my mom’s teeth with a hospital toothbrush while she writhed in pain on the gurney. We took turns sleeping on a sticky pleather chair, monitoring beeps whose meanings eluded us. We tried to distract ourselves, watching intently when Stormy Daniels came on 60 Minutes, talking about school and work, streaming the finale of This Is Us, even though my mom wouldn't remember it after her surgery.
Our breathing would go shallow when doctors came into the room, always so solemn–faced. Emotion would erupt without warning, a sudden shaking sob while trying to get certain words out—basic words like “fine” and “home,” and then more meaningful ones like “aneurysm” and “mom” and “terrified.”
Somehow time passed, and the doctors found the aneurysm, and they operated on it, and my mom got better and better. I turned in the papers that my professors had granted extensions on. I tried to go back to whatever I’d been doing before, texting friends and asking about their lives, eating real meals, going on runs.
But even once my mom was home and didn’t need constant care, I found myself still going home each weekend. I wanted to be with my mom. To soak up her presence with more intention and gratitude. To be a better daughter, to not roll my eyes or shrink away when she tried to kiss my forehead.
At Penn, I felt alone with my grief, in part because it almost didn't seem legitimate. My mom was okay, after all. We'd dodged that bullet. How could I grieve when we'd gotten the happy ending? Being at school—reassuring my friends that everything had worked out and I was suddenly moving on with life—felt like pretending. At home, my family understood what we'd all been through.
But there was another reason I kept returning home. Fear didn’t subside quite like I thought it would, and it was soon accompanied by guilt. I became stuck in a routine that was meant to be temporary, forcing myself to continue my weekly commute home: walk to 30th Street Station after Thursday class, catch the 5 p.m. train, arrive at Union Station in D.C., and take the Metro home to my parents.
I’ve always been convinced that if I do everything right, I can make sure the people I love will be safe, as though I can control fate somehow, as though the world operates by logic and fairness. I’ll check each burner on the stove at night to make sure they’re all off. I’ll race upstairs if I hear a thump, terrified someone’s slipped in the shower. After my mom’s aneurysm, when one dreaded hypothetical became reality, I convinced myself I’d been doing something wrong.
The last seven weekends of the spring semester, I missed Fling, and my friends’ birthdays, and sorority duties—things that would be fun and maybe a little bit stupid, and that I didn’t think I deserved to enjoy. Shame crept into my mind, telling me that if I went back to my normal life, I would be acting flippant, spoiled, and ungrateful for my mom’s health.
My parents would ask, "Aren't you missing things on campus?" I was, of course. More importantly, though, was that I was punishing myself, and for what? I couldn't quite articulate why, at least not logically. I'd never been homesick before, but my mom's aneurysm somehow rewired that switch in my own brain.
I spent this past summer working in Philly, gradually returning to a life I'd thrown aside the semester before. I tried not to flinch when the phone rang, expecting an emergency. I didn't let myself flee home on the weekends. Worst—case scenarios weren't always on my mind.
The summer was a sort of practice run being away from home after my mom's aneurysm. I'm studying abroad in London this semester—I'm not a train ride away if the worst happens. I have to keep telling myself that letting myself leave my parents behind for a few months and having a few dumb adolescent experiences doesn’t mean I don’t care, or that I take all of it for granted.
Recognizing my own powerlessness when confronted with tragedy—whether I’m a train ride away or across the Atlantic ocean—is at least freeing in that knowing I can’t mourn a “what if?” or live inside the haze of potential grief.
I hope there are split–flap arrivals displays at train stations around Europe. I want to hear that sound, so I can like it again. Maybe someday, instead of making me relive an expired grief, the tickle of overturning tiles will remind me of my family's resilience, or that time I studied abroad and heard that sound in a new and different way.
Caroline is a Junior in the College, studying English.