October 25, 2015 is my older son's 20th birthday, and I had just decided to let that pass unmarked upon here — don't want to go to the Child Nostalgia Well too often — when I realized that today is also the 20th anniversary of something else: the Fox River Grove bus tragedy, which occurred the morning he was born. A school bus on its way to Cary-Grove High School stopped with three inches of its tail end hanging over the Metra tracks. The substitute bus driver didn't realize it, and Union Pacific Northwest Line express plowed into the bus. On the one-year anniversary of the disaster — and his 1st birthday — I wrote a column about the confluence of the two events, one joyous, one disastrous.
Friday was the first anniversary of the Fox River Grove school bus tragedy, in which seven students were killed when their bus was struck by a train.
In my house, we marked the day with a party. We blew up balloons, sang songs, ate cake.
Lest this seem grotesque cruelty, let me quickly add that Friday was also our son's first birthday. He was born Oct. 25, 1995, about nine hours after the bus tragedy.
The two events are forever intertwined in my mind. My wife was walking back and forth in the bedroom early that morning, and I was counting the minutes between contractions, when the phone rang. I thought it was her doctor, whom we had just called. But it was the newspaper, telling me to get over to Fox River Grove immediately. Something about a school bus. Something about a train.
My first impulse was to go. But I looked over at my wife, big as a house and in pain.
"I can't go," I said. "My wife's having a baby."
So somebody else went -- many somebodies, actually, as the magnitude of the horror quickly became clear.
Meanwhile, I walked my wife around the block, holding my wristwatch in my hand, urging her to breathe, trying to remember all that voodoo they taught us in Lamaze.
But in that perverse way labor has, instead of getting closer and closer, the contractions faded. Two hours later they were gone.
Nothing is worse in the newspaper business than refusing to accept an important story for no good reason. If this baby now decided to wait a week before being born, nobody at the newspaper would ever believe that I hadn't ducked out of a difficult assignment, shirking behind my pregnant wife.
I dithered like Hamlet for a while, then my wife gave me a shove.
"Honey," she said, "I'm not having this baby right now. Go to work."
And off I went. It was too late to go to Fox River Grove, so I went to the office and took dictation from reporters in the field. While communities in the midst of tragedy view reporters as a plague of locusts, the insult added to the injury, the fact is that, the next day, everybody expects to pick up the newspaper and read all about it.
One hour and 45 minutes after we arrived at the hospital, Ross was born.
The irony of his timing was never far from mind. This day of tragedy for so many was a day of joy for me. At first my only connection to the accident was that I was a reporter and it happened the day my son was born, but a third connection, strongest of all, grew over time.
Over the many nights to come, warming bottles, changing diapers, walking the floor in the dead of night. I became a parent too, and the enormousness of what those parents in Fox River Grove lost slowly began to dawn on me, the unspeakable tragedy whose dimly perceived form was still enough to grab at the heart and twist.
How to begin to understand a loss like that? To have all the years, all the love, and the hard work that parents put into their children just yanked away in an instant? I wanted to understand, but I couldn't.
Day after day, I searched my baby's face, trying to divine the future.
Would his moment come before his time? On a plane? In a car? On a bus? Through some carelessness, some random cruelty? Was the train accident an omen? I love him so much, I wanted to know.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in the Fox River Grove parents' shoes. My first thought was that I just couldn't live with it. That I would have to go to the tracks and put my head down and wait for the next train.
But obviously they kept going. They have other children, other responsibilities and the strength must come from somewhere. Maybe that's God's role.
The media of course marked the grim anniversary. In my house, we had a party. But in doing so, we also remembered those families in Fox River Grove. Nothing extensive. A raised glass. A few words. Not offered as comfort, which would be cold and useless coming from someone untouched.
But recognition of what all of us who enjoy unshattered lives, at the moment, owe to those who now mourn. We owe them to do what they would do if they only could; to hug our kids tighter and to savor the passing of each sweet hour.
To do otherwise is to be blind to life's hard realities: Nothing is guaranteed. No one is immune. The claw awaits each of us, in turn, and we must cherish every moment it dallies on its way to the inevitable rendezvous.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 27, 1996