polar express

“On Christmas Eve many years ago I laid quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets, I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound I was afraid I’d never hear: the sound of Santa’s sleigh bells.”

– The Polar Express

We saw The Polar Express for the first time on Thanksgiving night 2007, while we were in the hospital with Ben. It filled me with so much hope, in the way only cinema and orchestration can. I felt like if I just “believed”, like that hero boy, Ben would be cancer free – that he would live. And I would hear the sound of those bells of faith alongside the music of his laughter and freedom. A year later, we were watching it again with him, but with very different eyes – the analogy cutting deeply close to home. There was no more hope. A miracle was not going to come. Ben was not going to live – he would be taken. Each day we wondered in terror if “this” would be the day that something, or someone, would come to pick him up – taking him to where we could not go.

Two years later, there are so many emotions, but none of them are fear. For we know now that that train would come on December 30, 2008 at 2:15am. That is when Ben’s spirit left our house. In one last breath he boarded. Just like that little boy – in his pajamas, in the middle of the night, snow falling all around. And we were left here, but unlike the hero boy’s parents, very much aware of his absence and bombarded with unanswerable questions. Questions that have spent days, weeks, months and now almost years plural, circling my brain. What was it like for him when he left? Did he go right to heaven? Or was there a journey on the other side as well? Did he know where he was going? Was he frightened? Or did he just step on board? And what I am guessing all moms of dead children want to know is – who went with him? Was my Godfather Ron there? Was there a conductor? Were there strangers riding too? Our sweet friend Jenna was picked up a few weeks after Ben. As we watched it with Ryan for the first time I wondered if they road together, drinking hot chocolate along the way.

Most days I am able to believe that Ben indeed was transported somewhere magical, somewhere beyond our imagination, somewhere bright, hopeful and joyous. But I don’t know what that looks like. During the film the Conductor says, “Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” That is true. And so excruciatingly painful when what you can’t see is where your child is. When what you can’t see is your child. There is no platitude that can bridge this kind of separation and make it feel better. Theological truths do not comfort absence as many would hope.

“Late that night I did hear sounds, though not of ringing bells. From outside came the sounds of hissing steam and squeaky metal. I looked through my window and saw a train standing perfectly still in front of my house.”

I wonder constantly when my own time would be. Will Ben know? Will he be waiting for me when I arrive? Or perhaps he will be allowed to ride with me. Oh how I hope so. With all my heart, mind and soul – more than ever – I hope in the power of Christmas. That the light of the world has indeed overcome death. That one day I too will get to ride that train – the one that will take me to my son.