I’m writing these words on Thursday morning, less than a week into our “extended spring break.” Half the contents of my garage are in my driveway. Yesterday afternoon seemed like a good time to pull everything out and finally organize that space.
Why? Maybe because we can. Maybe because the sun was shining. Maybe so we could feel a little bit of normal for an hour.
This new, changing-by-the-day normal is the new normal. What started sinking in yesterday is that we won’t be going back to the old one. My psyche is shifting into a lower gear, one to carry me through a long haul. What I know about roads and going down them is that you can’t ever really go back, once you’ve gone a certain distance.
I have been thinking the past few days about the snowstorm of December ’08. I was living on Mt. Hood then, near the Sandy River. It was a few days before Christmas, the first after my divorce, and my children were going to be spending the holiday with their dad. He and I lived within walking distance of each other, so I knew they were close, but still. It was not an easy time.
The snow was coming down. I was sewing Christmas stockings for the kids, new ones for our new house. George Bailey and Mary and Mr. Potter were keeping me company. In a few days my parents would be visiting, and we would be celebrating our Christmas a day after everyone else, but it was fine. It would all be OK. I’m OK, I thought to myself, more than once.
Late that evening, one of the dogs whined to be let out on the back deck. The French doors opened in, so I had no trouble opening the door–but, oh! There were at least two feet of snow in front of it! We lived at the base of the mountain, at only 1,000 feet, so in my 15 years of living there I’d never seen anything quite like it.
The dog–a miniature Daschund–gave me a bit of a side-eye. I looked for something I could use to scrape away a small space in which she could pee.
It felt unreal, somehow. How had all that snow fallen without my being aware of it?
I didn’t understand in that moment what the snow would mean. I didn’t know that it had fallen all over the region, and that life was going to grind to mostly a halt, Christmas or no Christmas. I didn’t know that I would be alone there for a few days. I didn’t know how I would come to rely on the television and the internet and its connections with others to keep me feeling OK. I didn’t know how angry and powerless I was going to feel when my ex-husband ignored the travel advisories and took our children several hours up I-5 to retrieve their older sister, rather than letting them stay with me. I didn’t know that my parents were going to have to cancel their plans to come see us the day after Christmas.
I only came to understand those things gradually, over the course of a few days, and I didn’t fully understand the implications of my position until the power went out. At that point, I was low on food. No power meant I had no heat. My car was trapped in my garage behind a wall of snow, and I didn’t even have a snow shovel. No power also meant no internet, and so no way of communicating with the people who had kept me tethered to something that felt like normalcy.
When I finally understood those things–all of them–after days of living alone and working so hard to be OK in that solitude, I kind of lost it.
I bundled myself up and trudged down to the river, a constant source of solace in those years of my life coming undone. I was utterly alone, nothing but snow and trees and water all around. I sunk into the snow, wondering how my life had come to this, that I would be alone without heat or food or someone to meet these challenges with me, and I howled the kind of tears I’ve only known a few times in my life.
When I finally got up to leave–because tears always stop, eventually, and we always have to keep moving, don’t we?–one foot slipped out of my boot and the other didn’t move at all. I stood there, ridiculous, balancing on one leg, trying to dislodge my boot, and I fell over, icy snow biting my face. What the fuck was I doing? No one knew where I was. What if I did something even more stupid and got hurt and couldn’t get back up through the short path through the woods? I cried some more.
I don’t remember how I got those boots unstuck, but I did. And I marched my cold, wet ass back to my dark, cold house with nearly empty cupboards and faced the truth that I was supremely ill-equipped to live on the mountain by myself. So I was going to get the hell out.
I didn’t have a snow shovel, but my ex-husband did and he wasn’t home. I loaded up my two tiny dogs in a tobaggen (why? who knows? snow-crazy, maybe) and started to make my way to the house that had once been mine but was now only his. I was going to dig that car out of the garage and ignore the travel advisories myself.
As I crossed Barlow Trail Road–originally part of the Oregon Trail–and entered what had been, only months before, my street, Hideaway Lane, I saw a wondrous site: my old neighbor Shari’s 4-wheel drive rig idling in her driveway, exhaust wafting skyward.
“Are you going down the mountain?” I called to her.
Yes, she was. And yes, I could have a ride.
I hurried home, packed a bag, grabbed the dogs some food and blankets, and I was ready in minutes. I decided she could take me to the school where I taught. It was in town, within walking distance of restaurants. The school had a health sciences program, with an equipped hospital room, which meant there was a bed I could sleep in. There was power. I would be fine.
“Are you sure?” Sherri asked as she dropped the dogs and me off outside the building.
“Yes, I’ll be OK,” I assured her. I was taking care of myself, dammit. I was figuring it out. I thought of all the times my children’s father had told me that I’d never have survived the Oregon Trail, and my resolve hardened. I was not going to be a victim, crying alone in my cold, dark house with no food.
A half-hour later the city of Gresham closed down, which meant that all the restaurants and stores closed. All I had to eat were leftovers from the Red Robin lunch I’d had with Shari. The school, shut down for the winter break, wasn’t much warmer than my house had been.
I cried again.
Eventually, I abandoned both pride and my resolve to go it alone and called a friend, who got on a bus and came and rescued me. (I couldn’t manage the two dogs and all of our things on the bus by myself.) I spent Christmas with him and his daughter, the first of what would end up being many that we shared. It was not the Christmas I expected, at all. It was not the one I wanted. But I was grateful for it. Deeply grateful. The greatest gift was, perhaps, that first night at his apartment, when he filled the tub with hot water and brought me a glass of wine and I felt such profound relief to know that I was no longer all on my own, even if just for a day or two.
Things went back to normal, sort of. The snow melted. My children safely returned. My parents eventually made it to my house, where we all opened presents and watched movies, and it felt a lot like Christmas, even though it was days late. It would be a while before I realized that I’d changed in those howling minutes I’d lived on the snow-covered beach, face-to-face with my ineptitude and a solitude I’d never known.
What’s happening now feels not unlike that snowstorm, and I wonder where in the sequence of events and understanding I am. A week ago, I think, I was not unlike the woman who sat sewing Christmas stockings, unaware of the snow piling high around her shelter. I mean, I knew it was snowing. But now, like then, it’s been a little breath-taking to see how fast and hard it’s fallen, and how it continues to accumulate.
Wishing all of you who read here good health (mental and physical) and the sense I didn’t have in 2008 to know that no one can really go it alone (even as we must physically separate). Let’s help each other make it down this road together.