With Hurricane Ike dominating national front-pages early this weekend, it became very easy to glide over another domestic catastrophe, one whose tragedy has more gravity, I think, because the fault was not nature’s—it stemmed from human mistake. In case you’ve been mesmerized by Ike, here’s another bit of news: a Los Angeles commuter train headed out of town during the height of Friday afternoon rush slammed directly into an oncoming freight train. Currently, two dozen people are dead, more than one hundred are injured, and there are bodies that have yet to be found. Included in the toll: the Metrolink engineer who ran two yellow warning lights and a final, fatal red light.

I scrolled through the facts, numbers, and images provided by major news websites, but found the most compelling account from the Los Angeles Times, where three writers combined eyewitness accounts to construct a narrative of the moments before, during, and after the crash. I found my most visceral reactions to “A sharp turn left, then muffled screams” as I navigated between graphic descriptions of twisted wreckage and bleeding bodies. There, poignant, intimate moments briefly silenced the otherwise jagged landscape of the article’s imagery; I imagine that if the article were a movie, it would’ve zoomed in and faded the sound of metal, fire, and chaos into the background. There, we would hear the human pulse.

Firefighters assigned [a bystander] to a man whose head was gashed. The man asked her to call his wife; she did, while holding his IV...

[Nearby, Frank] Haverstock, 64, of Simi Valley, said his wife, Norma, 53, the manager of a custom drapery house in Burbank, was a regular commuter on the train. After the collision, he said, she had called him. She told him that she was bleeding from the head, that she "hurt all over." "That was about it," he said. "The phone went dead."

The victims here—undoubtedly in pain, abruptly ripped from an unimaginable disaster—were practically in the middle of a warzone where I would think survival of the fittest instincts would kick in. On the contrary, the one thing they could think about doing was not to escape, but to call their respective significant others.

And it struck me that maybe that is love. That maybe love is the first person—if not the only person—you call when you think your time may be up. I remember the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when transcripts and records of final phone calls were released, revealing not necessarily screams for help, but promises of love, fitting the most meaningful messages possible into three-sentence conversations of closure. The screenplay for the movie Love Actually opens with this exact thought: “When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love.” Indie alternative band Death Cab for Cutie also finds love at its odd intersection with death, positing in its song What Sarah Said, “Love is watching someone die.”

They continue after an instrumental meditation: “So who’s gonna watch you die?”

Which leads me, of course, to ask—who would I call?

I didn’t really hesitate with a response. I’d probably call my mom, even though my relationship with her hasn’t always been the best, nor would I classify it in even the top fifty percent of my “deepest” relationships. And although she’s not the closest person to me, the significance of this final call takes into account a sense of duty, responsibility, and obligation—she would absolutely need to know my situation. Love, in this case, is when you can unquestionably recognize necessity with the mention of someone’s name: Mom.

I’ve frequently considered my friends my family although I realize that there are differences—family relationships, I’ve discovered, are not as temporal or fluid as friendships can be. Even in thinking about “close” relationships, I realize that “close” is all relative, whereas my immediate relatives are, for the most part, permanent. Whether that immutability is something to be appreciated or to be haunted by is relative; their presence is not.

This is true despite actual, physical distance. I see my friends much more often than I see my family, and even in my new Bay Area home, I’ve designated a friend up here—an ex, even—as my local emergency contact. He has never met any of my family to be able to reach them in case of actual, dire emergency, but I’d entrust him to figure out how to reach them and deliver any life-threatening news. Would he be the last person I’d want to speak to if I were in a train crash? Probably not. Maybe he’d make my top thirty. But ultimately, he’s not the last one. And maybe that’s what makes him an ex.

So is this what I’m on a search for? Is this what dating—something that connotes frivolity, materialism, and inconsequential pleasure… are these its ends: finding the potential last person to register into my memory before it fades away forever? Someone who is more family than family itself? How incongruous are the sexual games and playful politics we play with the gravity of the ends we want to meet—that ultimately, what we do when we date shapes our taste in such a way that leads us to make definitive decisions tied to loss and trauma at our final bows. Maybe this love thing isn’t romantic in nature; after all, if I had to choose now, I’d call my mom. Maybe this love thing isn’t even directed by attraction; after all, I don’t even like spending time with my mom. Indeed, I’m not even attracted to her sex.

If love is watching, hearing, or saying goodbye to someone who is dying, then whatever it is—romantic or not, gendered or not—it’s a force to reckoned with, in itself a bigger news story to our lives than a hurricane, as gripping or as potentially corrosive as a train wreck. So news flash: what are most of us doing by pretending that dating don’t play that?

Creative Commons License