When I was 20, the man I was dating died. We were traveling together thousands of miles from home in a remote part of Southeast Asia, and one morning, he didn’t wake up. His breathing was labored and intermittent. I attempted CPR and then got him to a doctor, his body hastily wrapped in a sheet and placed in the back of a truck. It was too late. His 22-year-old heart, for complicated reasons, had stopped beating.
That tragedy changed me in more ways than I can recount or understand even now, almost nine years later. But one of the starkest consequences was an enduring, painful fear that people I loved would die, disappear, evaporate. My fiance Corey knows this fear well. Throughout our six-year relationship, he has patiently reassured me countless times that he is alive and safe. He has come home from a trip to the library, where he didn’t have cellphone reception, to find me convinced he had died in a car accident. He once spent more time comforting me than the reverse during a trip to a D.C. emergency room for an allergic reaction that swelled his hands and face. Just last weekend, when he flew to Austin for a bachelor party, I texted him, “I get anxious when you fly without me.” He replied, “I know” — and after he arrived: “Landed.”
This is not a struggle I speak of often. Not because I am ashamed — in fact, I feel strongly that trauma is publicly discussed far too little — but because it is difficult to put into words. That feeling in my gut of helplessness and panic, which rises to my chest and then seizes my throat, can be assuaged only when I see or hear him.
It is a battle I have seen cast in an entirely new light since the Amtrak crash on Tuesday. I have now seen it in a mirror.
I was in the third car of Train 188. I regularly commute on the Northeast Regional corridor between Brooklyn, my home, and Washington, where my office is located. (I am an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.) The first two hours of the trip were smooth. I transcribed an interview and edited an article; I checked my to-do list for June 6, the day Corey and I are getting married. Somewhere in Maryland, a young man in a white Navy uniform boarded; when he asked to take the aisle seat to my right, he called me “ma’am.”
Just after Philadelphia, we picked up speed. Too much speed, it seemed. As we headed into a curve, it felt more like a careen. The train jolted. My seatmate, who had been dozing, reached out to brace himself. We jolted again. Then the entire car began to shake violently, as if struck by an earthquake.
People screamed as seats rattled and luggage fell. Suddenly, we were tipping to the side, maybe rolling — so much machine, and so many bodies, all tossed. Everything was black; I couldn’t tell where I was, where anything was. I felt my body at once suspended in the air yet pressed by an unseen and enormous force into a seat, or maybe it was a wall. The train hit earth, and I tasted metal and dirt. I remember thinking, “When we come to a stop, will I be dead?”
When the car did stop moving, I was breathing. My limbs were functioning. My seatmate was gone; I never saw him again. I climbed over where he should have been and crouched on a luggage rack, yelling along with so many others that we had to find a way out. I was wearing a dress and my left shoe. I felt blood oozing from scrapes on my legs. After a few short minutes, a man hauled me up through a window someone had slid open. We stood on the top of the train — really its left side — surveying the surreal. People were stumbling away from the twisted, smoldering wreckage. My back, injured in the crash, ached worse with each passing second, and my heavy, bruised chest made it difficult to breathe. But I followed them. We all followed each other, holding hands or wrapping arms around shoulders. No one pushed, demanded extra attention. “We are so lucky,” said a young woman who would eventually support me as we walked away from the scene. “Do you know how lucky we are?”
I borrowed a cellphone to call Corey. “Our train derailed,” I said matter-of-factly as helicopter lights began to brush the ground around me. He was in the car driving south from New York in minutes. At the same time, I was put into the back of a police car and sped away from the scene with sirens blaring.
It would be four hours before I finally saw Corey, at Temple University Hospital. By that time, I had been X-rayed (my ribs were bruised, maybe slightly cracked in places) and had an EKG done. A nurse had given me socks, since I had only the one shoe. She was one in a string of strangers who had offered embraces, water, sweatshirts, kind words, whatever seemed needed. I tried to keep track of all of their names, telling myself I would write them all notes of thanks one day; but there were so many, it became impossible. When I was discharged, I held the arm of a security officer as I entered the holding area Temple had designated for family. My teeth were chattering uncontrollably, something they have continued to do for spurts of time since the accident. My fiance saw me but barely recognized me across the room — partially because he needs glasses, but also because my face was coated in dirt. When he hugged me, he said it was all okay. His usual, soothing reassurance.
But in his eyes and in his voice, I recognized something different. I saw myself. It was a reflection of the fear I live with, that I fight against. Later, after he helped me wash off the dirt and blood, my fiance told me that even after I called from the scene, he was worried that I would die. There would be internal bleeding. He would get to the hospital, but I would be gone. It was jarring to hear the speculative, alarming words I would usually be the one to say — the “what ifs,” we call them — coming from him.
Over the past few days, we have said so many times how fortunate we are. We have watched the news, seen the faces and names of the dead and felt a chill of horrible sadness. We have also smiled and kissed, held hands while sleeping, seeking to feel constantly comforted. But we have shared something else, too — the terror that only I once fathomed.
I saw it Thursday morning, after I went to my parents’ Philadelphia hotel room to take a bath, leaving Corey behind in our room to rest. When he eventually joined us, he entered, saw me sitting in a bathrobe and began to cry. “I can’t be away from you for too long right now,” he said, leaning down to hug me.
The fear of loss, that someone can be snapped out of existence at any second, comes from the same deep, emotional well as love. Maybe it is love’s dark twin. It’s incredibly powerful — strong enough to poison your thinking to assume the worst will happen, in even the most mundane situations. I know it will now be our struggle together to not let that happen, to cope, to always find joy. But as with everything, perhaps we will be stronger together in this fight than I ever was alone.