The train was about to leave as we dragged our suitcases into the tiny station of San Vincenzo. It was the end of our vacation on the beaches of Italy. How I wish I could wake up every morning and walk by the sea. I think I would stay more alive then, not drowse through my days of study and children.
I do not speak Italian, but usually was able to maneuver through our vacation by communicating with symbols, mime, and bits of French. I am a typical tourist. There had been a few glitches. A gelato stand where I was never served because I did not know how to elbow my way to the front of the crowd and call to the burdened server that it was my turn to be served. The doctor I took my younger son to for an infected mosquito bite, who could not understand my concerns, and kept insisting my national insurance card was expired.
Now as the conductor impatiently gestured for us to board the train to Pisa I tried to question him on where to validate my ticket. We had learned from fellow travellers that the fine for travelling with an unvalidated ticket was 40 Euros. He gestured, illustrating how he would write on the ticket to validate it. I was sure we were misunderstanding each other. The conductor on the train from Florence had been so stern about using the validation machine. I gestured again, and the conductor became increasingly impatient. "Oh my God," my 14 year old exclaimed, in the exasperated tone only a 14 year old can manage. Chastened by the anger of both the conductor and my older son, I slinked onto the train, lifting my bag and the bags of my two sons. Immediately the train took off, and the conductor sternly demanded my ticket. He scribbled on it and stalked off, obviously convinced I was an imbecilic American. Which I am. I slumped into my seat. The train was crowded and the three of us were dotted all over the car, not together.
Preoccupied with my embarrassment and my sense of betrayal from my son, it took me a while to notice the almost rigid posture of the teenage boy next to me, and the middle aged woman across from me, who was chattering shrilly in Italian on the phone. I did not understand a word she was saying, and the refusal of the boy next to me to participate in what was going on prevented me temporarily from recognizing that he was the woman's son. But of course he would be embarrassed by her emotions and her loud yammering. As my own son had been embarrassed by my imperfections.
I did not understand the woman's words, but I understood when she suddenly cried out, and tears began running down her cheeks. "Nico Nico Nico" she wept, 3 staccato bursts of grief. I did not need to hear the word "Morito" to know someone had died.
"What the hell?" my older son muttered behind me. "Did her husband leave her or something?" (No, I leaned back and whispered to him, hoping he would catch the hint and be quiet. Someone died.) I could piece together that it must have been an accident, because she kept listing other names, people who must have been with Nico when he died. But apparently only Nico had perished. I thought how lonely it would be to receive a phone call like that on a train. I reached over and put my hand on the woman's arm, but was interrupted by the briskly efficient Italian woman behind me, bearing tissues, water and some sort of pill, which the woman across from me took after long argument. Because the woman behind me spoke the bereaved woman's official language she appointed herself the woman's delegate to grief on the train.
After a bit the eficient woman returned to her seat and the woman across from me began to weep copiously. Her son continud to stare insistantly at his I-phone, not moving. I reached over and grabbed her hand. My six year old objected to my holding hands with a stranger, and began handing me items from his backpack across the aisle, in an attempt to force me to let go when I refused his command to stop touching this stranger. The woman, a mother, almost giggled, a moment of levity in recognition of his reluctance to share me. She waved her tickets at me and began asking for help with some problem with Pisa Centrale.
"English," I said, because I could not understand enough to help her. She nodded, understanding. I gestured at her official delegate, who returned and began talking in a soothing and resigned manner, obviously suggesting that death was part of life and that these things happen. She bent to the tickets and offered some sort of suggestion. Eventually the weeping woman indicated to her son that she was going to sit with her comforter. The son protested, reluctant to increase his embarrassment at his mother's open grief by allowing her to share it with even more members of the train car. She ignored him and went to sit with the woman, who hugged her.
Is this what you do with sons when you cry or weep? Ignore them? I remembered my older son's embarrassment at my sobbing when my brother died a few years ago. He sat unmoving in front of me, neither leaving nor comforting me. Poor child.
When we reached Pisa we all rose to leave the train. I hugged the woman and she began sobbing anew. My younger son showed obvious petulance at my decision to touch the woman again. We took an elevator down to switch to our connection to Florence. I did not see where the woman and her son went, or if anyone met them.
If I had been in another car I never would have seen this woman, or touched her grief. All around us, on all the trains of our journeys, are lives of love and grief and sorrow. Sometimes we are witnesses to them. Sometimes we are absent. Sometimes we are unable to pay attention. Even without language we can be present, a participant in another's ongoing life, if we look up and see it in time.