Homecoming After Traumatic Amtrak Derailment

As Jonathan drove up to our street, brilliant sunlight spilled through the windows. The sky was pure Titian blue, and the neighborhood lawns glowed a vibrant green. A crowd was gathered in the driveway and, as we pulled up, my friends and neighbors erupted into cheers and clapping. At their feet were colorful chalk drawings by the kids and enormous chalk letters spelling out the words, “Welcome Home!” Only one element ruined the postcard-perfect picture. A long, black metal ramp slashed across the front yard, covering the steps to the house and extending to the sidewalk. The harsh ramp felt like a giant billboard, announcing to the world that the two small steps up to my front door were too much for me now and that this house was not the same. Homecoming

Jonathan opened my car door and placed the walker next to me so I could show off by standing up and taking a few steps for everyone. As he eased my legs out of the car, I felt the sun kissing my face and warming my back. I’d been indoors for so long; the touch of the sun and the fresh air was blissful. Gentle one-arm shoulder hugs wrapped around me, as the parents cautioned the kids to be careful. While my wheelchair was vacant, Brad took the opportunity to test it out on our long, sloping driveway. In what would be the first time of many, I called after him to bring it back to me. Later, my crutches would often mysteriously find themselves on the other side of the house, too. Homecoming

Well-medicated, I made my way with the walker to the foot of the ramp and then took a seat in the wheelchair. I think I mostly looked normal, except that I was still wearing a cervical collar that cupped my chin and extended all the way down to my collarbone. Everyone was eager to show me the inside of the house. Brad wanted to be the one to push my chair, so he wheeled me up the steep ramp. Hanging over the doorway was a colorful banner saying, “Welcome Home, Geralyn.” As Brad attempted to push the wheelchair through the entrance, it got stuck on the threshold. He backed up and pushed again. It still wouldn’t go. He turned me around backward and tried lifting and pulling. Jonathan came to help. He gave one big push, and I rolled inside. For as long as I needed the wheelchair, I wouldn’t be able to make it up the ramp or through that doorway by myself. Homecoming

As we entered the kitchen, it was like wandering into a wonderfully familiar florist’s shop. Every surface was covered in beautiful, fragrant flowers. It looked like there were dozens of bouquets in all varieties. Friends had strung up balloons and streamers, and there were stuffed animals, fruit baskets, too many cards to count, and gifts—many from people I’d never met. Homecoming

The far reach of people’s kindness amazed me: flowers and cards from the local dry cleaner, hair salon, and taxi service; a gorgeous handmade quilt with a butterfly motif from Linda W, a longtime family friend; and a hand-knitted prayer shawl from a local Catholic church I’d never attended. Members of a church in Minnesota sewed the third quilt. A couple I didn’t know had heard my story when visiting my parent’s church in Colorado. When they went back home, they had organized a quilting project at their own church. The parishioners tied knots of prayer into the vibrantly colored fabric. Then they sent the quilt to my parents’ church in Breckenridge, Colorado, where more prayer knots were tied before the quilt made its way to me in New Jersey. The knots were more than symbolic. More than one hundred people, most of them strangers, had prayed for me, each of them calling on God in their own way. Those rows of knots held God’s love. Homecoming

Finally, it was time to see our new temporary bedroom, which was just off the kitchen. The room had been a guest room of sorts but was mostly a junk room full of mismatched furniture, a few dim lamps, and carpeting stained with urine from our poorly trained puppies. I knew Jonathan and my friends had been making some changes to accommodate my first-floor existence, but I hadn’t imagined the extent. As we entered the room with a dozen people watching my reaction, I gasped. It was like one of those home remodeling TV shows when they do the big reveal. The room was completely repainted, with new hardwood floors; bright overhead lights; new curtains, furniture, and bedding; and even a flat-screen television. All my friends from the neighborhood had pitched in to help. What touched me most of all was a wall of framed family photos, including many from years ago. Jonathan had helped my friends find pictures of the boys and us, as well as photos of my parents and siblings. I loved seeing our happy family memories filling the wall. Homecoming

It was when I caught sight of the bathroom that the made-for-TV moment ended. Jonathan explained that the renovation hadn’t gone quite as quickly as planned. The bathroom was still a construction zone. I didn’t want to fixate on what was wrong because I was so grateful for all the effort my family and friends had made, but this was going to be a problem.

The trip home had exhausted me. Happy but tired, I thanked our neighbors and friends once more, and after exchanging hugs, they cleared out. Homecoming

After a much-needed nap, I tackled the chore of getting my pills organized. I rolled my wheelchair up to the kitchen table, where my sixteen different prescription bottles and boxes were spread out. Jonathan had bought every kind of pill sorter he could find, but it appeared there wasn’t one on the market with enough slots for all the pills I had to take throughout the week. Some I took every three days, and I took others two, three, or four times per day. There were some pills I took before lunch because I was supposed to have them on an empty stomach; others I took after lunch because I was supposed to have them on a full stomach. (The fact that I had absolutely no appetite for lunch or any other meal complicated things further.)

Because I worked for a pharmaceutical company, I understood the importance of strictly following prescribed medication schedules. I had assumed that remembering which pills to take when was a problem only for elderly patients or those who were simply irresponsible. Again, the arrogance of good health. I finally made a giant calendar chart listing my medications and their schedules, and then I dumped all the pill bottles into a giant salad bowl. It was the best solution I could come up with.

That first night, Jonathan and I settled into our new adjustable bed with its new down comforter and about a dozen fluffy pillows in all shapes and sizes. He elevated my head and legs and collapsed beside me on a flat mattress. On my bedside table, he’d organized the necessary nighttime pill bottles in a neat line, with a glass of water and my phone. I wish I could say that we savored and celebrated the moment, finally at home in bed together. In reality, I took my sleeping pill and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling in a daze. The feeling was familiar and incredible, yet foreign and weird. The feeling of differentness clashed so loudly with feelings of homecoming, love, and gratitude. I wondered if he heard the noise as well.

Author Bio: 

A recognized expert in healthcare policy, Geralyn Ritter is executive vice president at Organon & Co., a global healthcare company dedicated to the health of women, with nearly 10,000 employees and a presence in over 140 countries. She was formerly senior vice-president at Merck & Co., Inc., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. She has spearheaded global government affairs and policy, led initiatives on corporate governance and corporate responsibility, created and launched a widely acclaimed half-billion-dollar philanthropic initiative to end preventable maternal deaths around the globe, and served as President of the Merck Foundation. In 2020, on behalf of Merck, Geralyn accepted the Disability Employer of the Year award. Ritter is also the author of a new book, Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing about her recovery from injuries in the 2015 Amtrak derailment. 

By Geralyn Ritter

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