They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in London, or to Miami and found yourself lost in Vancouver. I continued to look at their careful alignment of trains and trucks and cars – anything with wheels – along the railroad tracks and realized the confusion was mine alone. I couldn’t decide which was more puzzling, the tracks which twisted snakelike around the boys’ bedroom or the variety of vehicles journeying on them.
The brothers were five and three then and it took their grandpa many more visits and research to solve this puzzle which, for them, was as clear and deep as the sky. As years passed the boys grew and the way they looked at the world, though still obscure (to me), started to offer a semblance of meaning. They loved the trains, trucks, cars and all their turning wheels and the mechanics of the machinery and the cool feel of the metal and the connectedness of one to the other; wheels spinning and vehicles moving and road track winding, all going around at once; the wheel and its hub and its spokes and its axle and they were part of the wheel, they were nestled in the hub and voyaging through the spokes and circling the world as the synapses in their brains took them everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Within this world of movement they shared a broad range of emotions, much as they shared a broad range of placement within the autism spectrum. Jack and Thomas (Tom was named both for his great grandfather and the smiling train he and his brother so loved) like most brothers, were close friends and hated enemies. One day Jack was fighting with a boy in the playground who had pushed his docile older brother in the sandbox. Another day Thomas snuck up and snatched a locomotive which Jack, for what seemed an eternity, was rolling up and down imaginary tracks in the air. They were at each other’s throats that day and many others as each claimed this favored prize as his and his alone – eventually compelling their parents to get another so they could each have one with them when traveling or going to bed.
Seven years later I sat with their parents frantically waiting for a call from the police, thinking back to that first sight of them with the trains. I would never have guessed what a big part of their life this would become, a soothing ritual which enabled them to make order out of a chaotic world, if only for part of each day. Whether it was watching Thomas the Train on TV or their school’s assimilative visits to the NYC Transit Museum, the fascination they shared about all things moving, especially on wheels and most notably on tracks, was trumped only by the joy they received at those times. It came as no surprise that the brothers were together when they wandered off alone during a class trip on the Railroad. How it happened was a concern for another day. We knew they went off somewhere between Times Square and Penn Station and (assuming they did not befall something I could not allow myself or our family to even consider) might now be on a train anywhere from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Hoping against hope and knowing them we believed – we prayed – this was the case. That they were alone during Hurricane Sandy for hours and the trains were no longer running was the concern. Though each brother had a fiercely independent spirit, they had never been alone in the world before, no less during a state of emergency.
The boys felt safe, but their concern grew as they sat looking out the window at the elevated station on 241st street in the Bronx, the last stop where all but these two had exited some three hours ago. They glanced to the other side, alarmed at not seeing a train passing the other way for so long, the reassurance of life going by one way as they traveled the other no longer a constant for them. Though happy, they could not hide their worry from each other, tears beginning to well as they continued to look out and wait.
On the other side of the tracks they looked at the image of a person seated on the wheel in the handicapped access sign. They loved this symbol, a reminder of the laugh-filled rides they took on their friend’s wheelchair. On these rides they would have the ultimate wheel experience, not only reveling in the joy of spinning wheels but of controlling those wheels, being intrinsically a part of the magical journeys they created, becoming the wheels themselves. But as the rain continued the comfort of seeing another train across the tracks did not come to them. It became harder for them to see. Tears squeezing through eyelashes further obscured their view. Still they tried, but the downpour continued.
There is grace in nature, a counterpoint to its cruelty. The monotony of whistling wind and gushing water – like a train clanking on its tracks – put them slowly to sleep, not to awake until they were later found. The arriving rescue workers commented that they almost missed seeing the boys, but something about the windows of one of the train’s cars caught their eye. Rain dripping from rusted gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks, revealing a singular fogged window. Though glass steamed by warmth draped the view, the streaks of flowing beads glistening in their crisscrossed flashing lights called out to them. Looking more closely, the beads of sweat showed a finger-painted picture of a big-eyed happy face, beckoning to them from the front of a steam engine locomotive, swirls of smoke looping and dripping from its smoke-stack. As the workers reached the window they looked inside and saw the brothers, sleeping side by side on the seat, each nestled with his own smiling Thomas locomotive.