A Train to Nowhere
Nearing the last station of my wife’s neurological decline.


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By Don I. Trachtenberg | The train hurtles through the present and future of our lives together at an ever increasing and unstoppable rate of speed. Twelve years ago, when my wife (of now 52 years) and I embarked, it was aboard a slow moving local that made extended stops at any places we desired, allowing for exploration and enjoyment. Discovery was still possible.

There were fun layovers to be made—visits with our children and granddaughter, trips to the theater, concerts, lectures, films. There was time to spend at our bayside summer home, where beautiful views, close friends, and tranquility recharged us and our perspectives. All of these venues allowed for relaxation and contemplation. We were inseparable and still thought our lives were ours to control.

Imperceptibly, however, the schedule was slowly changing. The gradients of acceleration were at first so gentle that they slipped past our awareness, only to be noticed later in the reflection of time’s rearview mirror. As months and years went by, layovers became shorter and shorter, their brevity diminishing the pleasures contained within them. Suddenly, in the past year, great forward lurches of speed have become the new rule. Time is now a fierce enemy, and my wife’s progressive neurologic illness has commandeered the train like a diabolical engineer.

Inexorably, customary stops have fallen from our itinerary. They’ve become only evanescent memories as the out-of-control train rushes past them. The landscape no longer resonates with the richness of our mutual exchanges throughout each leg of the trip. Though intense love still remains, it is in a much altered state. Predictability is gone. Sometimes, numb and dispassionate, I watch at the window as segments of normalcy pass out of view and become blurs never to return. A new loss occurs almost daily. Yesterday, it was the realization that no longer could we stop even for a day at our summer home. Today, her decline has ended her ability to attend her beloved orchestra concerts. Dining out is now impossible.

The merciless train engineer cares neither for our past, nor the plans and expectations we had for the future. He has begun to cease making most stopovers, only capriciously allowing the occasional one—and then just for doctor or hospital visits. So much for planning and control. Speed is now the essence of this venture. By some grotesque twist, it has seemingly left me whole while destroying my wife and our life together. It has robbed her nearly blind and is now plundering her speech. Though she remains physically intact, she is unable to read, write, drive, dress, or bathe herself, brush her teeth, or do anything else without a constant caregiver at her side. Most cruelly, she retains enough awareness to understand all of the unredeemable ticket losses on our voyage, which is surely now becoming a trip through purgatory for her. I am but a pained, hapless, and helpless companion.

Even though all attempted remedies have so far failed to alter our ill-fated course, I still find myself behaving in my lifelong quixotic manner, tilting at whatever windmills I can find in hopes of regaining the slightest sense of control. Maybe if we reverse how we face on the train, we will get a better view and hang on to our fading vision together for a longer time. Perhaps that or some other innocuous change will magically put the whole thing on hold for years to come.

Fewer friends are at the stations to greet us, or even wave as we pass by. Most who attend spend markedly shorter periods of time. The hell-bent forward rush now transforms the intermittent clicks and clacks of the tracks into a loud continuum of indistinct and monotonous sound. The ride is becoming harsher, the jostling more severe, and the bumps more brutal. It is difficult to hold onto one’s place. The air is heavy with the fear of an imminent emergency breakdown with unimaginably frightening consequences. The end can only portend disaster. The train will eventually grind to a complete and screeching halt in a strange place. Her ticket will have expired and our trip together will be over. She will be gone, and I, who have had a lifelong good sense of direction and place, will suddenly be totally lost in an alien venue. Emptiness will surround me, and I fear that I may never again find my way.

Don I. Trachtenberg C’58 D’63 GD’67 is a former department chair and professor at the School of Dental Medicine. Judy Trachtenberg GEd’79 taught writing at La Salle University for 23 years.

©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/11