Short Story Saturday: The Long, Cold Winter of 2014

This isn’t really a short story. It is simply a collection of excerpts sequestered from the pages of my journal during the winter of 2014. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to them, but taken together, I think they capture a snapshot of life during long the season of never ending snow and bitter cold. I’ve decided to post this on the first day of summer, for irony’s sake!

The Long, Cold Winter of 2014

January 5, 2014
A— is beside herself this morning, sick with worry. Her newborn baby girl is struggling to breathe, filling her lungs with raspy gulps of air as mom and dad take shifts and sit up with her, monitoring her every breath, praying that the next one will come and will come easier than the one proceeding; they watch Respiratory Syncytial Virus run through her tiny body. Anxiously they listen. They check her finger and toes for signs of discoloration—blue changes. They keep track of bowel movements and make sure she is eating enough, isn’t becoming dehydrated. Yesterday’s trip to the Emergency Room told them this is all they can do at home. If conditions worsen, they must bring her in again for an extended stay for monitoring and breathing treatments. If it comes to that, they must let go of their baby for a week and let her sleep in a hospital.

As they huddle over their daughter, meteorologists in every news station across the state huddle over their screens and radars and fiddle with their measuring tools. The worst storm of the year threatens to strike within an hour or two. The whole city is preparing to hunker down and ride it out. Ten to 12 inches of snow is the prediction, dry, blowing snow and deeply bitter temperatures unlike I can ever recall. Nineteen degrees below zero was predicted as a high. Wind chills are anticipated to fall as drastically as -37 degrees. The Polar Vortex, a bitterly cold air system pouring down from the arctic, is to blame. Frostbite will set in in about half an hour in those conditions, the meteorologist warns. Roads, he predicts, will be unpassable for a couple of days. Emergency vehicles only are allowed out, but I have my doubts that even they will be capable of much movement. An emergency snowmobile may be the only viable option. Staying inside is the best bet for everyone.

It is these conditions which threaten as they hold their sick child and pray. Pray for healing, pray for patience, pray for strength and hope. Across the city, others join in. The message has been posted on Facebook and the request spread again and again. The little one isn’t alone.

January 6, 2014
Snow is piled on the ground this morning, almost a foot high. It isn’t falling anymore, but the temperatures certainly are, and are due for a marked drop later on in the day as the polar wind pours down from the high north.

The back doorknob is so chilled that even inside a bare hand sticks a little on contact. Cold crowds in from the cracks around doors and radiates from frigid window panes if anyone dares to draw near them, and of course, on a morning such as this one, who can stay away? The world is drowning in white, white, white, but even so, the view is admittedly less awe-inspiring than I expected as weather predictions poured in over the past few days.

Yesterday, we already had several inches of snow on the ground, so the light, sticky flakes free falling along their calm, windless paths needed only to dust the branches, the power lines, the fenceposts, the wire mesh behind the garden boxes with an elegant sprinkling before the tiny, insignificant, oft-unnoticed details were highlighted, took center stage and glowed like a stars on a clear dark night. But instead of dark, it was white, eerily white. White snow blanketing the world floor. White sky meeting it at the horizon. The only break between were houses, hedges, and glorious trees, silhouetted against the pearly sky. And it was warm. Warm enough to sit comfortably on the back step in the snow for 10 minutes or so and drink in the deep stillness; cars were rare and even birds a bit hesitant to share their songs.

A tap on the kitchen window next door pulls me out of my trance. A few pleasantries are exchanged before the window is secured. Soon after, it seems, my dear mother sneaks a photo of me seated on the step, bath-robed, slippered and garbed in fuzzy pink jammie pants. She posts it on Facebook, of course!

After that there was time for a few snowballs. The Beast absolutely loves them. She stares blankly at a tossed tree branch on any day of the year, unable or unwilling to find fun in the game, but if there is snow on the ground, she’s ready for a game of snowball catch! She eagerly lunges at lobbed snow globs, consuming any and all captured snow with inexplicable joy and vigor. What about the mountains and valleys at her feet, you wonder? That common snow is apparently insignificant, unable to compare to the delectable delicacies dancing through the crisp, clean air into her awaiting mouth. Her eyes shimmer, her coat glimmers, and she walks with a spark and bounce in her step. As the drifts rise, the bounce becomes less optional and more of a necessity for maneuvering across the yard.

January 8, 2014
The sun, dear sister, is deceitful today. The weatherman insists that is it colder this morning even than yesterday, but the brilliant sun whispers, “Lies!” Bright and cornflower blue with drifting puffs of cotton white, the sky makes the snowy world sparkle and gleam. The roads are glittering, glassy ice. Cars exhale in white breaths and skate along with slow, shaky glides as if they are clumsy adults strapping on ice-skates for the first time in decades. The bitter cold is unescapable. The windchill, they warn, is negative 40 degrees. Temperatures intended to hold icecaps in place above the livable world ride The Polar Vortex south for a visit.

Even The Beast can hardly bear it. She rushed outside yesterday morning to do her business, but barked frantically at the door just a few moments later. She crashed into me as she stumbled through the doorway and wearily leaned the flat of her forehead against my knee, like a head-butting goat. She rested there for a long moment before regaining her composure.

January 9, 2014
Yesterday, or was it two afternoons ago?, I sat at my drawing table, practicing calligraphy when sirens began to fill the air. Nearing our neighborhood, they faded, and I would have assumed they’d turned down a different street if it weren’t for the sound of large truck brakes coming from W– Street.

Sensing more than hearing, I walked to the front door and drew back the tan curtain.

“Sweet!” I gasped to Dave. “There are firetrucks in front of our house! They’re going to Mom and Dad’s!”

Dave leapt up from the computer, letting the wheeled office chair skid frantically across the floor unnoticed. He closed the gap in several forceful, determined steps and met me on the porch where I already stood, peering anxiously at my mom on her front porch. She stood beside a figure in the rocking chair beside the door. It was a man. He was slumped forward and one of Mom’s warm plaid blankets was draped around his shoulders. A cap obscured his hair. Mom had a worried look on her face, the likes of which I was unable to place. A terrifying, sickening thought jolted my mind like an erratic bolt of lightening. I grabbed Dave’s arm as he came through the doorway.

“Is that Dad? Oh, God. I think it’s Dad.”

“Your dad isn’t home yet. It’s too early,” Dave insisted calmly as we walked the icy path to the porch. The weatherman said the wind chill was -40, but even in house slippers and without a coat I couldn’t feel a thing. I wouldn’t be convinced of my father’s safety until I saw the man’s face. I suppose we should have stepped aside, but we joined the firemen and paramedics coming up the path at the same time, shoveling a passageway through a snow drift to ensure easy access back to the trucks with their cargo. I stepped onto the porch and stood next to Mom.

“A neighbor found him passed out on the sidewalk and brought him up to our porch. He’s in pretty bad shape, so I called 9-1-1,” she explained.

I saw, with a rush of relief that Dave had been right; the man wasn’t Dad, although the face was a familiar one. Mom apparently thought the same thing.

“What’s your name?” one fireman began as he leaned over the unresponsive man. “Where do you live? Do you live around here?” he quizzed without success. Turning to us, “Do you know this guy?”

“Is it R—?” Mom asked me. “Would you recognize him?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I answered. In my right mind, I could have pointed our neighbor out on any normal day of the week, but suddenly the spinning in my head made everything go blank.

“Is that him? If it is, he lives just over there.” Mom pointed northward.

“I think it’s him. I don’t know. He looks familiar!”

“Is your name R—?” the first fireman asked. His cap slipped a bit, revealing a crop of orange hair. The color didn’t hurt the assumption that the identity was correct, but the young man didn’t seem to agree. He mumbled something. Another fireman leaned in to hear.

“Your name is B—?”

The man nodded, thickly, as if the slight gesture took great effort. Fighting the stupor that surrounded him, his head drooped again.

“He says his name is B—,” announced the second fireman.

“Where do you live, B—?”

“Nowhere,” he whispered groggily. His speech was slow and soft and his eyes kept slipping closed.

“How does a trip to — Hospital sound, B—? We’ll just take you down there and make sure everything is alright.”

Dave and I stepped back into our house and closed the door as the EMTs loaded B— into the ambulance and whisked him away.

“Well, I know one thing for sure, I’m utterly useless when it comes to emergency situations. Did you see how I couldn’t even tell if that was R— or not? I just panic, freeze up and apparently no longer recognize neighbors!”

The cell phone rang and Dave fished it from a pocket. He was near enough that I got the gist of the entire conversation even though I couldn’t catch every word.

Mom couldn’t place the guy, so she called Dad and he immediately knew who he was. He used to live in the neighborhood several years back with his wife and a couple of kids. He used to borrow Dad’s lawn mower.

“Wait a second. Isn’t he the guy who stole [my dad]’s lawn mower a few years back?” Dave interjected over the phone.

Yes, it was him.

“He’s really lucky your parents are kind people,” Dave mused after he hung up the phone. “A lot of people wouldn’t have gone out of their way to help someone who stole from ‘em like that. That’s the truth.”

January 28, 2014
I don’t ask for much. I need to eat. I need to sleep. I need to hear back from my husband!

Oh, please, please, just answer the damn phone! Plug it in, turn the volume up, pretend that it’s -40 degree windchill today and your wife may possibly want to know that you made it home okay. Or maybe your brothers or parents will have some emergency and need to get in touch with you immediately. Use your brain, Sweet! Think about it for just a second or two! Seriously. I’m sure you’re safe and warm sitting in the house, connected in on the computer, doing just fine, but I have no way of REALLY knowing any of that. True, if you hadn’t shown up, Mom and Dad would have called; they were waiting on you to jump their cars. That’s some consolation. Still, I made you promise you’d call once you made it inside the house and today, of all days, you didn’t! Agh! That free spirit of yours is both blissful and infuriating.

This is my punishment for thinking yesterday about how I like not being connected all the time because absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, maybe I deserve it! It certainly does solidify the point, even if I’m worried sick. I sure will be overjoyed to see you this afternoon at 2:30.

February 6, 2014
It was another off-kilter day. Terribly snowy again. Non-essential traffic was urged to keep off the roads, but if we don’t get a call stating otherwise, we assume the show must go on. That’s how it works in the medical world. So Dave and I set out around 5:30 and made the ten minute drive to work in half an hour. I clocked in before 6:00, but barely. Dave couldn’t get up the hill out front and the back entrance was blocked, courtesy of the parking lot snowplow, with a pile of snow so large it might as well have been an actual mountain! Left with no other option, he attempted the hill again and kept me on the phone as he inched, gunned the engine and worried aloud about the car overheating. He finally made it. K— called and confirmed my suspicions; the cytology department would be closed as no one felt safe risking the road.

B— showed up at 6:20, much to my amazement. She has a 40 minute drive on a good day so I hadn’t even assumed she’d make an attempt, but she needed to get out of the house she said simply. I later learned from a discrete Facebook post, that it was the anniversary of her best friend’s death. I knew from a handful of conversations over the years that he’d meant the world to her and he still does. They’d been inseparable since the time they were small children and they always claimed they were going to get married someday. There’s no way of knowing for sure if they would have—childhood sweethearts have been known to grow apart, of course—but in her mind he represents a future lost forever in the senseless fire of a gun in an angry teenager’s hand. The pain will probably never entirely disappear.

Our supervisor called at 7:12. “I just got a call from Dr. — asking you guys to come in two hours late. I was like, really? They GET TO WORK at 6:00.

“Yeah, B— leaves at 5:00. We’d have to know by then.”

The same doctor called right after I hung up the phone and we talked for a few moments. Same drill.

Oh, what a strange morning. I, for one, am ready to get back to a regular routine. Any time now, spring! We can’t wait for you to make an appearance!

(Originally posted on my old blog, Interim Arts, on June 21, 2014.)

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