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When glimpsing the train was important

This sprint with my young niece has a particular urgency.

We are all sprinting. My brother is holding his 2-year-old daughter in his arms, and I am grasping the sweaty hand of his older daughter, who is 4. "It's coming," yells my brother. "Pick it up, you two! We are going to see that train!" So we speed up, as much as our height and 26-year age gap allow while running together. With sweaty fingers entwined, we keep pumping our legs down the trail, listening for the train over the sound of crunching pine cones and snapping twigs.

My brother, older than me by two years, had always been stronger than I was, both physically and mentally. I used to cheer him on at his high school cross-country meets and later in life when he ran full and half marathons. He was an accomplished goal setter and achiever, and he knew how to pace himself appropriately. I was a running-with-scissors kind of girl, always sure of which direction I wanted to go but never quite clear on which path to take. My brother was my North Star, always there to guide me and give me advice, always reminding me that he was a phone call away should I need anything. "Next time, just call me, OK? There's no need to stew when you can talk to me about what's bothering you. Just call." He was the combed business hair to my pigtails, the peaceful drizzle to my raging storm, the Dear Abby to my Fraught in Framingham letter.


And then, as happens increasingly often in adult life, things changed. One night several months before we found ourselves chasing down a train, my brother called me, inconsolable, to tell me that his older daughter had been diagnosed with leukemia. "Why?" he asked. "Why does it have to be my little girl? Why?" The one time he called me seeking answers, and I had nothing for him except my own tears and catching breath on the other end of the line. His questions were my questions, his heartache was my heartache, and a shoulder to cry on was the only thing that I could offer him.

I look down at my hand and across the little arm that leads to my niece, my partner in this endeavor. She is stumbling over the protruding tree roots as often as I am, but her eyes are focused ahead, just like her dad's. She is pulling ahead of me, this amazingly strong little girl, trying to keep pace with her father, who is an unstoppable force on a mission. "Bean," she pants, using her special name for me, "Bean, are we going to make it?" Her words, though slightly muffled from the face mask she is wearing to avoid germs, ring out over the hum of the oncoming train, over the birds chirping, and over the sound of our feet gaining traction on the pine-needled ground.


I look ahead at my brother, his unkempt hair rhythmically flapping as he runs toward the train overpass at full throttle. As my niece pulls me forward and we begin to close in on my brother, still carrying his younger daughter, I understand why we have to sprint, why seeing that train is so important.

"Of course we will make it," I say. "Of course we will." We get to the overpass just in time to see the train come around the corner. We stop running and stand there, just the four of us, with our mouths open and our breath heavy as the train passes through the woods above us. My niece peers over her mask, and I can tell from the way her eyes crinkle that she is smiling underneath it. She squeezes my hand and my brother grins at me, like he did when we were younger, with all of his teeth showing and his lips pulled tight. We made it.


Jill McCulley is a teacher living in Canton. Send comments to

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