Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Killing time

On a garden tour in June, I saw a gray birch in the corner of a suburban yard. The write up on the garden reported that the homeowners had been working hard with an arborist to keep the tree going. It sounded generous, but looking at the tree was unsettling. The trunk was easily twenty inches across, the lenticels drawn tight across the bark. The top of the tree was less a canopy than two bifurcating branches veering away from each other, each with a straggled tuft of leaves at their ends. It looked like the still photos of the Challenger explosion–a white slug of smoke forking into two. My sister, also on the garden tour, gave me a dubious look as we gazed up at the tree. “It’s grotesque,” she said. These trees aren’t meant to live long. Springing up after a disturbance in the forest, they live fast and die young while the sun lasts, generally not surviving past twenty years or so. “I think it’s saying, ‘kill me,'” I answered. Frowning, we moved on.

I’ve killed more things than I could count. Before my training as a veterinarian, I worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center. It’s something of a misnomer, by the numbers, since we had to euthanize far more than we released. The injuries and illnesses were often too severe by the time the animals reach our hands, to be saved. I’ve killed with carbon dioxide, with syringes full of barbiturates, with knives, with shovels, and with my hands. They are intimate sorts of killing, at close range. Sometimes they are outside my professional capacity. Once, while out on a run, a phoebe came fluttering out from the bushes. Chasing it, I caught it up and found a purple swelling of blood and muscle overlying a catastrophic break in the humerus right at the elbow. It would not be repairable. I knew I would have to kill this bird, but I kept walking for a hundred yards or so, the bird cupped in one hand. It takes a moment of preparation to ready myself for this sort of killing. I had only my hands, so I would have to break its neck, a technique in which I am confident, but which still makes my hands shake. Mercy argued for immediate dispatch. The bird in my hand was undoubtedly in the seizure of terror that comes with being clutched by an enormous predator. Some people say that wild animals feel fear, even desperate fear, but not fear of death because they don’t understand that death exists. That may be so, but when we fear death, acutely, immediately, not as an armchair musing, but as a flashing, tires screeching, dry-mouthed, dilated pupil fear, it’s not consciousness of mortality or oblivion coursing through us. It’s something much older. Something from back when the amygdala first evolved, those malevolent clenched fists in the center of the brain that existed even in the ancient armored fish, and the enormous carnivorous salamanders before the Permian extinction. Our consciousness and self-awareness, and existential dread, are elaborations, not replacements. They are the gloss on the old text. The fear you feel in your body is the fear, we must presume, that a phoebe feels in its body in my trembling hand as we walk together down the road.

IMG_3621At last, I was able to stop, lay the bird on a stump, set my fingers to the base of its skull and, with my other hand, grasp its body and pull until the release that signals the separation of the first vertebra from the occiput. This particular bird did no kicking or spasming, though these are common after cervical dislocation. This bird just lay there. I waited, just in case, and before I went on, I arranged it at the very center of the stump, hoping the little altar would draw the attention of a scavenger who might put it to some use. Though even if the larger scavengers didn’t come, the small ones, the ants and the burying beetles, would be by in time. Nothing goes to waste. I didn’t check the bird’s belly for a brood patch, the warm, edematous skin on the abdomen that indicates the bird has eggs or young in the nest. It was more than I cared to know, whether under the eaves somewhere, a clutch of phoebes had now begun dying, without even knowing it.

We learn, in vet school, that euthanasia comes from the Greek eu and thanatos: “good death.” I have meted out countless deaths to wild animals suffering grievous wounds. Some seem like good deaths, though the standards I have are rough: quickness, minimal pain, as far as I can tell. By those standards though, I think I have never administered a good death to a turtle, and if the standard is speed, then maybe turtles never die well. Turtles do everything slowly. In medicine, they heal slowly, recover from illness slowly, and when they die, they die slowly too. Turtles are otherworldly this way, and though their species group is ancient, it seems that every turtle individually is ancient too, as if each once had seen the whole unfurling of the world since the beginning of turtles, plodding through the ash and past the litter of dead dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, “hardly affected at all,” say the paleontologists. Plodding is no way to deal with cars though, so we often received turtles smashed into smithereens, loops of intestines and livers and eggs nearly ready to lay spilled all over the road, but with front legs still trying to haul the wreckage around, and the eyes still bright. One snapping turtle’s demolished body had to be brought to us in a tote bag, blood seeping through the canvas, and the parts all unrecognizable but for the head and neck still fearfully snaking around. How do you give a good death to such a creature, who does not need a functioning body to be alive? We can inject our good drugs, that kill birds in a moment, but a turtle will walk around for hours with the medicine in its veins. They may appear dead, lying immobile on the table, but the heart still thuds at long intervals, and a tap on the surface of the cornea elicits a blink. I found a painted turtle on the road once, mortally wounded, but likely with days yet to go before death would come, on turtle time. I had nothing but a shovel, and could sever its head if my aim were true. My aim was not true. The first blow only sheared the front of its face. The second hit home. But even then, it’s unclear when a turtle is dead. Fellow vets will often give the death drug, and then, when the turtle appears dead, introduce a metal probe into the brain and scramble it, whisking at the tissue until no further messages may be conducted. That must be death, we presume.

Is it speed? Is it painlessness that matters? The fox in the yard killed ten of our chickens. Some we never found, but others were headless on the lawn. The fox possessed expert speed. The chickens likely felt little pain, and in the moments of chase, were they more afraid than when a child chases them with a stick and they run? If that fox had not killed them, I would have, though not for a few more years of egg laying. Whether with a knife or the needle, I’d have dispatched them for their age and declining utility. But when the fox trots around the yard at night, and I see its dark tail disappearing into the grass, I will it not to look at me with its yellow eyes. The fox is beautiful, and I don’t begrudge it its fairly taken meals, but standing between the coop and it, I feel the shepherd’s dread.

2500105847_4503a1c72b_oI am not a student of philosophy to even a limited extent, but I am a student of death. I’ve read this bit of Seneca on the subject. “If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor an evil; for only that which is something can be a good or an evil but what is itself nothing and reduces everything to nothingness, delivers us to no category of fortune.” (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, 19) The state of nonbeing from whence we came, and back to which we must pass are not supposed to be different on either end. But they are. There was an eternity of non-being for that phoebe before it existed. There is an equal eternity now that it does not. What I did was shorten by less than a hair’s breadth the span of time the phoebe had to exist. The earth is the same; we are the same. There was darkness, then there was all this, and ultimately, when the sun dies, there will be nothing again. No humans, no turtles, no foxes, no chickens. We will all have been restored to the nothingness by then, and who would want to stick around for the heat death of the universe anyway?

Cling to that, be comforted by the abyss. Deliver unto it swiftly those whose suffering you may end. Does it matter what the last moments are like? The Challenger astronauts, we know now, survived the initial breakup of the shuttle. So much of the investigation afterward focused on when or if they might have lost consciousness. The NASA report reads, “It is possible, but not certain, that the crew lost consciousness due to an in-flight loss of crew module pressure.” Possible. We hope. Please let them have lost consciousness, we think, and not have felt the arc, and then the drop, and the freefall to the ocean where, at last, the impact shattered them, shearing their hearts from their aortas. Massive violence ending the terrible suspense. Is that a good death? The fox snaps the chicken’s neck expertly, with no thought of mercy. Cafeterias of school children and their teachers watch the smoke plume split and one side has people in it, alive, and possibly conscious. A phoebe sits inside the loosely closed fingers of a runner who lacks the courage to kill it right away.  What do we do when we will one thing to die, or will another to live? Move the needle just a bit this way or that between the daylight and the dark. Oblivion chews too far into the brief bright band of a life; a child dies. We wish for a few hours more, or watching someone struggle for breath, for even a minute less. “Possibly conscious” might be the last shred of hope you cling to, or the most terrible torment that you can’t stop thinking about.

Oblivion claims nothing so absolutely as a wild thing. Nameless, leaving no stone or sign, no papers and whatnot. The paradox is that we fear death, or the state of being dead, partly because, we think, we’ll miss the people we leave, and partly because we will be annihilated. How can we hold both thoughts in our heads at once? Wild things die and are obliterated utterly. The unmourned, unnoticed, and unremembered dead. What was the phoebe’s last thought? Most likely the possibility of escape, even still. What is a birch tree’s last thought? Absurd to even consider. A birch tree springs up, gathers sun to make a body, collapses and rots. Twenty years. A turtle may live longer than an old, old person and take days to die, maybe longer. The inscrutable turtle smiles and I imagine our conversation as I carry him across the road to safety, “You know that story. There was that jolting, swaggering, pent up hare. He thought it was a race, but we all get to the same place eventually. It’s like your Goethe says, ‘Do not hurry; do not rest.'”

On public spaces

For four days, my six year old son Simon and I lived in the woods in the North Country of New Hampshire. My older son was at camp down the road, and Simon and I moved into a primitive campsite at Milan Hill State Park for the duration after dropping him off. A few days spent camping is really nothing like being homeless, except that it does alter one’s way of thinking along that bent. We hiked, but that took up only a few hours after Simon protested over the mud and the endless stream crossings, and the wet ferns higher than his head on the Mill Brook Trail. We turned back and instead ate sandwiches beside the ponds of the Berlin Fish hatchery, watching the enormous trout eat in the round pond, catching the scent of something marine among the balsams. When it rained, which it did often, we looked for places to pass the many hours. Each thing we did only took up a little time, and the day still stretched until it was time to go read in the tent and sleep.IMG_6992
I carried my pack everywhere, with our raincoats, our food, our water, and books and paper for drawing. We ate on the steps of little historical buildings, in parks, on the porch of the camp store at Jericho Mountain State Park.
I had not seen myself in a mirror in days, though I knew by feel that my hair was standing up wildly. Simon was delighted to be unwashed, his skin mica-flecked and sandy after so many swims in Jericho Lake. There, we often ate our supper, watching the RV campers having cookouts and the ATV riders circling the parking lot. As it began to rain one evening, we saw two men walking with flaming logs on boards from the beach toward their campsites. A park worker in a golf cart came skidding up beside them, I assumed to chastise them, but instead, he loaded the logs into the back and off they rode, sparks and flames trailing behind them.IMG_7009
We were almost never under a roof. Traveling the public thoroughfares and parks, we met the same pair of Mormon missionaries in two different towns. In Berlin, we lay in the shade near the ruins of the old paper mill, with the Presidential range hulking to the south, the dam to the north, and the blue-green penstock carrying the water that used to be in the Androscoggin River past where the Androscoggin meets the Dead. From the vacant park with its fruit trees and gravel paths, we could see the empty buildings, windows missing or boarded up, a mannequin vigilant in one on the upper floor. A few locals sat outside the Family Dollar and hailed each other as they smoked. We crossed the street to a small patch of grass with two sculptures on it. One, a misshapen male figure standing above a female one. Simon stood beside it and said, “It’s a woman. I think she’s dead,” and he reached out and cupped the pockmarked and pitted marble of her breast.

Among the ruins in Berlin.

Among the ruins in Berlin.

We went back to Milan Hill and I climbed the fire tower for the views while Simon whittled a stick down below. All was silent. The thrum of the ATVs at Jericho was replaced by the muffled drumming of ruffed grouse in the woods. The phoebe stood on a stump beside us, and a red-eyed vireo scolded us from its nest slung from a birch branch above.
It rained all night our last night, though we stayed dry in the tent. By morning, the wind was buffeting the rain sideways. We ate quickly in the only brief lull of the morning, and I looked at all the hours until we could pick up Malcolm from camp at four.

Simon was selected to aid in the bending fork trick by magician Norman Ng.

Simon was selected to aid in the bending fork trick by magician Norman Ng.

We drove the longer way into Berlin, past the ruined ski jump and rusted staircase up the hill. The steps themselves are rotted away and you can see the sky through the missing pieces of the jump’s decking. We drove through Berlin looking for someplace to pass the time, but their library was closed. I considered sitting in a church for a few hours, but drove on seven miles to Gorham instead. There, the library was just opening; Cora was putting out the flag and there was to be a magic show in half an hour. In gratitude, I set my things down and Simon and I settled in. Every time we moved, a high stench rose off us. Simon’s arms and legs were grimed, and he was wearing a torn fleece and rain boots with shorts. We lived at that library for five hours, doing a puzzle, paging through magazines in high-backed armchairs, reading every volume in the “Fly Guy” series.
Gorham is a town on the Appalachian Trail, so the people there are no strangers to dirt-smeared, ragged travelers with all their things in a pack on their backs. People who, even if not in their real lives, are temporarily homeless and sleep on the ground every night. Who rely on public spaces and the occasional beneficence of strangers. A woman and her son moving into the library for the day didn’t seem unusual to anyone.

Preparing the burnt offering on Milan Hill.

Preparing the burnt offering on Milan Hill.

We picked up Malcolm in the late afternoon from camp as the rain finally stopped. The car smelled of rancid socks and spilled tea as we wound down through Pinkham Notch and then the ever more civilized stretches of North Conway and the Lakes region. Places where there are, a man in Gorham had said, “You know, Connecticut types–they don’t have any mud on their hiking boots.” I grinned, pleased to be passing, unwilling to admit to being Massachusetts born myself.
Back at home, on our small private parcel of land, a fox had killed nearly all our chickens in my absence. The survivors were hunkered, silent, in the coop, looking haunted. Our house feels enormous for a while after being outside so long, and simultaneously hemmed in. It feels absurdly luxurious, the kitchen richly appointed with a refrigerator and a coffee maker.
Even under lesser circumstances, public libraries, public lands, are always my third space. Pocket parks, trails, places with no admission price and no one documenting my presence or recording exactly what I do there. These places are necessary, and not just for people sheltering from the rain, or passing inordinate numbers of empty hours. For four days, we navigated public lands, trails, buildings, almost exclusively, coming home just before Independence Day. We could move freely, without trespass, without questioning. Coming back to my home reminded me of my great good fortune in all the things that are mine. Our four days spent in the North Country reminded me of my equal fortune in everything that is no one’s particular possession, but all of our birthrights. Even if we do come from Massachusetts.

Old hat, new hat

On my way up to the White Mountains for a solo overnight, I stopped at a post office to mail some checks. I’m handling donations to my friend Sarah, who has breast cancer, and we were paying for quotidian things: tax bill, insurance, the will and trust she’d gotten drawn up in advance of her surgery next month. Her cancer is treatable, with a good prognosis overall, but cancer is always an odds game–survivability curves, and you don’t really know where one dot may fall on it. The people who say, “You’re gonna beat this!” are most likely correct. The people who say, “What if the doctors aren’t telling you how bad it is?” don’t understand how law and medicine intersect, but there is something to heed in their pessimism. And in any case, the treatment itself is a hard slog. I dropped the envelope into the mailbox and went on my way to the trailhead.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Climbing up Mt. Whiteface via the Blueberry Ledge Cutoff Trail, I scrabbled up the steep pitches, sometimes on all fours. When the trail leveled, I would pause a moment, look back at the elevation I’d gained, and listen to the drumming of my heartbeat in my ears. This is the way trails are in the Whites; some Yankee came along and said, “Well, what we want is to get from here to there. So let’s draw us a straight line.” There are no switchbacks, no meandering. There is the direct and straightforward route. By about noon, I was near the summit of Whiteface, which isn’t much to look at, being closed in by trees on all sides. I thought about Sarah, and her current reprieve after 12 weeks of chemo, but before the surgery. It’s what counts for freedom these days for her–not being tethered to a bag of chemicals once a week, not being governed by steroid psychosis. Meanwhile, I was free to walk these mountain trails, with a body that does anything I ask it too, and a mind that sometimes does.

I passed a monk in saffron robes and sandals in the col between Whiteface and Mt. Passaconaway. It occurred to me that only he on Earth knew exactly where I was at that moment, and only I him. I began feeling the usual afternoon anxiety of a solo venture–knowing I will soon be done hiking and there will be several hours left before sleep, and I will have nothing to do. That’s not my strong suit, sitting still, but I must challenge myself from time to time. I observed insect lives, and received the chattering abuse of red squirrels. The only words I spoke were occasional expletives or self-compliments on my own camp-making skills. I zipped up my tent door and accidentally snagged a wasp of some kind in it. The back end of its abdomen came off with a tendril of chartreuse slime and those were its guts. When the black flies descended in early evening, I crawled into my tent and read. I’d selected On the Road solely on the basis of its light weight and already bedraggled cover. The flies pelted the sides of the tent like a light, steady rain. Around eight, they left, and I emerged to sit outside for a half hour or so, watching the sky in the balsam smelling air.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

By nine, I began attempting to sleep. It took many tries, and every time I was just about there, I jolted awake, once from a dream that I was fending off a lioness with a whip and a bucket, and once that I was sleeping in my bed at home and couldn’t figure out why it was so uncomfortable, like being on the ground. Each time I woke, the words “You forgot the most important thing!” leapt into my mind. What had I forgotten? I had hung my bear bag unusually well, everything was put away, I’d left my itinerary at home… and still three or four more times I woke up like that. Perhaps it was neglecting to tell my husband to use up the leftover soup in the fridge. There would be no telling him now, fully out of contact as I was. Whatever it was, eventually, I did sleep, waking a bit after dawn. I broke camp and packed my things, and found that Warren Zevon had found his way into my brain, singing only the line, “If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less,” over and over.

Making supper by the brook.

Making supper by the brook.

I had decided to take Dicey’s Mill Trail back to my car, even though I’d hiked it just last year and there were other trails I’d have liked to see. The truth was, I’d never entirely given up hope of finding the hat Malcolm left behind by the Wonalancet River almost a year ago. In the interval in between, I’d even considered making the drive to hike back in to look for it, but that seemed silly. Now, here I was anyway and why not? By 7:30 in the morning, I was packed up and headed out of camp and down the trail.

Last year’s campsite was well grown in, I was pleased to see, with beech and hobblebush slowing my travel, but I was at searching speed anyway. I considered how long I should devote to this foolish errand before giving up, and then, looking toward the rocks by the river where the boys had been playing, I spotted a dun-colored shape mashed into a crevice. The red ribbon was faded to gray, and there were holes in the brim and the top and it was dirt caked. Standing there over it, I realized that there had been two opposing thoughts in my head during this entire hike: that I would not find it (of course. How could a thin little hat survive the winds that funnel up these bowls and ridges, the snow we got this winter, the floods that swelled this river when they melted?); and that I would find it (why not? I find weathered human artifacts on the ground all the time that look like they’ve been there eons.) If I’d not found it, I would have at last given it up for lost, after almost a year, and it would have been the reasonable and expected thing. But I would have been pierced through by disappointment, I admit. That meant an almost equal share, or more, of me, expected to find it lying there. Until I did, I held both thoughts in my mind, bracing for one, hoping for the other, entertaining the alternatives.

I pulled it out and shook it and walked back out to the trail and told a man sitting there on a rock with his two well-mannered dogs about the situation, waving the hat at him. He let out a long “wow” and I marched across the birch log that serves as a bridge there.

The seasoned and the new.

The seasoned and the new.

I stopped at a thrift shop on my drive home, and, out of reflex scanned the hats as I’d been doing since we’d lost this one. There, on the rack, was a brilliantly white version of the rumpled, unraveling hat I’d recovered. The ribbon on this one was bright red and blue and the price was $1.99. I bought it, and took both home to Malcolm, picturing the way he’d give his high-pitched giggle.

He’s wearing the new hat today, but seemed reluctant about it. I offered to patch the old one for him, as best I could. He declined. “I love them both,” he told me. “Can we leave the old one the way it is and hang it in my room? And I could make a little tag, like a museum person? A curator?” He’s working on the verbiage now.

My sons are two years apart, so in the gap between them, I see all the things that disappear, at some point, with age. My younger son, Simon, still says bizarre things sometimes, but my elder son has long since lost that knack for the surreal. Malcolm was ever a sophisticated child though, and an independent one. We were well matched when he was a baby. He wanted feedings, changings, and then to be set down and left to himself most of the time. Simon on the other hand, bewildered me with his neediness. I wanted to leave him to sleep while I did other things; he wanted to reside in a marsupial pouch in my body. For almost two years, I carried him everywhere, pressed to my body in a sweaty, sticky sling. We were poorly suited to each other. I felt for the poor boy. Once, when he was not even a year, I read aloud an article about mother-baby mismatch–the worst mix being “the independent mother and the needy baby.” I glared at him as I read and he blissfully squirmed in my lap.

Now that he’s almost six, he’s left behind that desperately clingy phase, but he has never adopted his brother’s serious aspect, or his practical, cool demeanor. I understand Malcolm’s reserve, his restraint. He and I approach the world in similar ways. Simon, on the other hand, swaggers through the world, his shrieky voice piping incessantly, waggling his rear end in some absurd dance. He drifts into his own internal realm frequently: a place we call SimonLand, from which it can be difficult to recall him. When he does come awake, he reports epic dance parties and Lego and candy castles. His school reports speak gently of his lack of social graces. He leaves us reasonable, mature folk shaking our heads.

The other day, I was talking with Malcolm in the kitchen before school when Simon came bounding around the corner. “Mum?” he squeaked, “Will you play Book of Love?” Finding the Peter Gabriel version on my phone, I hooked it up to the speakers as the strings played. “Dance with me, Mum,” he said, reaching one arm toward me. Malcolm arched an eyebrow in his corner as I lifted Simon and swung and dipped him around the room. When we approached too closely, Malcolm fended us off with a banana, a bemused and cool look on his face.

10906164_10153013691371462_6817027729201892898_nThis month, a study came out about babies and their purported understanding of the laws of physics. When they see something that seems to defy the rules–a ball passing through a solid wall, or a toy seemingly suspended in mid-air–they focus carefully on the object as they do not when only the expected happens. The babies don’t just pay more attention, their brains open up to learning in those moments, the surprise focusing their minds.

Simon does that for me. I was a child like Malcolm: reserved, observant, cerebral. I am an introvert who has learned to emulate extroversion. I am often walled up in my own head, and it sometimes seems there’s no leaving it. Simon is the ball that defies physical law. He stormed into my life, clawing, mewling, desperate for human connection from his first minutes on Earth. He is still doing it, breezing through the barriers I’d thought impermeable. When he does it, I am mesmerized. We sail around the kitchen, and he giggles as he sings the lyrics. Malcolm shakes his head at what fools we are, but Simon has his fingers in the mortar of the bricks. He pulls at them a little bit each day, and I am learning.

My friend has breast cancer. The line elicits a wince, and a furrowed brow, and often a sorrowing head tilt. Sometimes it’s easiest to then say, “It’s a treatable kind though, and there’s no evidence it’s spread…” and for those who didn’t know what to say or do beyond the head tilt, this allows them to exhale and nod in relief and we can move on with other things. For anyone who’s been through cancer treatment though, the qualifiers don’t mean much.

Her cancer is locally invasive, and though there is no evidence of spread, she will spend the next year getting chemo and surgery, maybe radiation. One never entirely knows if the horses slipped out of the barn unnoticed before the doors were shut.

The night before her first chemo appointment, I dreamt I had a port placed just like she had, for delivery of the drugs directly into an artery. As the nurse snaked the catheter into my vessel, it made perfect dream sense. I could take maybe half the chemo for her and ease the side effects.

IMG_6550The next day, I walked to the hospital’s front desk and cheerfully asked where to “find my friend, who’s having chemo today,” in the same tone I’d used to visit her when she’d had her babies. Turning down the side hall from the bright lobby with its water feature and gift shop, I followed the bland carpeting down to the cancer center. Experienced patients were lined up in bays around the central station, quietly reading or listening to music while their treatments were administered. In my friend’s secluded room, the steady flux of close friends came and went over the full day’s treatment, and we were nervous, loud, making boob jokes, and death jokes, and assuring each other that we would get through all this like no one else ever had.

Bag after bag of drugs dripped in through the port she has and that I had only dreamed I had. We ordered hospital lunches: concave grilled cheese, a droopy veggie burger, a mostly frozen piece of lemon meringue pie. I thought of before her diagnosis, when the results were pending, and, in my optimism, I had still seen the path ahead where she did not have cancer, and we would talk about this as a scare. But she’d skidded onto this path instead, and the trail I’d seen dropped away from this ridge down into a place where she didn’t have cancer, harder to see with every step forward.

There is only so much of this trail that I can walk with her. Events that put our bodies in extremis isolate us utterly in some respects. I watched my grandmother die and though she was in my arms, she was a million miles away. When I was laboring with my two sons, it was not pain I felt, but terrifying aloneness. I was crouched at the bottom of the deep well of my body, and though I wanted someone to pull me out, or, failing that, to pull someone down with me, I could do neither. Sitting on my friend’s hospital windowsill, feeling my own body sound and strong, I watched poison pour into her heart, doing the job it does, and all its collateral damage too.

Though the prognosis is basically good, after these arduous months of treatment are over, nothing is sure. When my father had his heart attack almost ten years ago, I shifted into a new world where part of me expects, every day, to get a call that he’s dead. His life was no longer guaranteed after that day, as if anyone’s is. I do not trust his body though. I do not trust his heart to beat all the way through each day. When my friend is done her chemo, and surgery and all that, and I have every faith that we will be celebrating her clean bill of health a year from now, I will still step gingerly around the memory of these months. Her body will bear the visible scars, but these months are going to score us all deeply.

Late in the afternoon, I left the hospital, as another of her closest friends took over for the last shift and the drive home. We, the helpers, all come and go freely, untethered to infusion poles and pumps. We do not have to lie there, passively, control given over to the nurses and doctors, and so we cannot be in there with her, not fully. I was acutely conscious of the strength in my limbs, my unmarked flesh, my freedom as I passed through the outer doors back into the wide world. Back into the lobby, then outside entirely, free and healthy, my vision narrowed to a tunnel right in front of me and I felt my legs tremble. And I wished I could cry.

The tyranny of physics

I love the snow. Even with more than five feet on the ground and a Nor’Easter gathering force tonight over the Atlantic, I have no complaints about the weather. I do daydream of summer sometimes, but that has more to do with the utter freedom of three months off teaching than with the temperature. In the rank, humid days of summer, I sometimes go to the cool basement, get out my cross-country skis, and pantomime the motions. Traveling around these snow-laden days, there are the comical scenes: a geyser of snow launches straight up from someplace where a person, obscured entirely by snowbanks, must be with a snowblower; a Volkswagen, its contours matched to a pile of snow anyway, is slowly buried until the only sign of it is a sideview mirror protruding like the flipper of a beached whale; icicles fuse into a broad tongue a full two stories long on an old house; a sled track runs down from the peak of a barn’s roof, over a ten foot snow pile and onto the porch of the house next door.

From my office window.

From my office window.

Still, in conversations with many of my fellow New Englanders, besieged by snow, I find many of us are jangle-nerved, breathlessly anxious, and often sleepless at 2 or 3 am, sometimes listening for some sign of roof collapse, or the trickle of water backing up behind ice dams, but mostly for no cause. I have been getting outside most days, and am proud of the crop of freckles across my nose and cheeks, but even when I am tired out with exertions, I too find myself tensed up and wound tight many days. Trying to sort it out, it seems like much is due to the grayness of the days. When we are almost perpetually either pre-, mid-, or post-storm, the sky clears only rarely, and briefly. While out skiing through an unbroken snow field the other day, I had to focus so strenuously on where I was placing my feet that my scope of vision narrowed to my immediate surroundings. The white field stretching in all horizontal directions, and the white-gray sky meeting it seemed to invert for a moment and I had a sensation of falling upward. Reeling, I stopped and stared at a row of black trees for a moment before pressing on.58D9160D-192B-4599-944C-F4065D04EC2E

The deprivation of light is part of the trouble, I am certain, because on blue sky days, even when the temperature is near zero and the winds gusting, I feel boosted up. Still, there is another layer that seems to be anxious-making. Something beyond cabin fever or weariness. I think it’s the vigilance required to navigate the terrain in these conditions. Though I haven’t had to drive during any of the worst weather (teachers of chemistry and biology being decidedly non-essential personnel), even after the storms abate, the narrowed roads are harrowing, hemmed in by snowbanks seven or eight feet high, curtailed lines of sight leading us to inch most of the way into intersections before deciding to floor it and hope for the best. Traction, taken for granted at other times of the year, is nearly nonexistent now; our cars drift around turns, and we make dry-mouthed, balletic slides toward hapless pedestrians or heedless plows, willing the brakes to engage. Even walking, we shuffle step, bodies pitched forward, making tiny twists with each footstep to check the friction. The short walk between campus buildings takes all my focus and energy. It’s not that physics governs us any less in the warmer seasons, it’s just that it recedes from the foremost of our thoughts.

IMG_6470All this glissading around is precisely what I love about this season too–when I finally get into something of a rhythm in my amateurish skiing, the smooth forward glide, foot to foot, is an exhilaration not to be matched in the summer time. Having found the right wax for the conditions, I can slip down a slope and across the frozen river on a continuous ribbon, knowing that somewhere, four feet below my skis, an eroded stream bank is studded with vicious rocks. Everything is smoothed over. Even falls are pleasant in the woods–slow-motion, with a soft whoomp into the enveloping snow. Back on the pavement, the vigilance will return again, and in the car, even more so. I confess to being quite sick of scraping ice off the windshield of my car. Aside from that, though my brethren here may call damnation down on my head, I love this. The woods have filled up with snow, and continue to fill until it seems they may overbrim. They are the cure.

In season

It’s snowing at last here in New Hampshire. We’ve had a few occasional bouts of flurries up to now, but this is a thick-flaked, low-visibility, snow upon snow storm at last. It’s been cold enough for weeks now to freeze the ground hard as stone so that when we walk in the woods, the ungiving shock of each step reverberates through our ankles. We go out nonetheless, but it’s better when there’s snow.

IMG_6355For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been drawn into an addictive vortex of online fora where people discuss, trade, or sell backpacking gear. I recognize my kindred here; everyone substituting thoughts of sleeping in tents in the mountains for actually doing it. It becomes an expensive time. Everyone is assuaging their cabin fever with new tents, new-to-you packs, or canister stoves, or boots or rain pants. I’ve also been in my basement spreading pine tar on the bottom of some hand-me-down wooden cross country skis, and then heating it in 5 inch sections with a hair dryer I have for no other purpose than this. Malcolm got snowshoes for Christmas that we haven’t even opened yet. We’ve been hiking plenty, and then spending time wistfully patting our skis and lacing and relacing the boots.

I have, like many New Englanders, a tendency to veer from season to season. In May, my ears crusted with crumbly scabs from black fly bites, I fantasize about snow-filled woods. In August, I try to convince myself that the night is cool enough to warrant a thick, cable-knit sweater I haven’t worn in four months, and then, wearing it, I swelter, and sulk, and take it off again. This time of year, wearing that sweater almost constantly, including to bed sometimes, I think of the trails above treeline in the White Mountains, buried under drifts and scoured by winds. It’s not that they aren’t climbable in winter; they are, some days, but I lack the gear for such an assault, so I’m here at home. The long days, and the long gloaming in summer, seem like something I invented. This time of year, the dark wraps its fingers most of the way around the day’s throat, though its strength is ebbing, and the clear pink sunset light on the gray trees comes perceptibly later every day.

IMG_6354This week, I pitched our tent in my bedroom. The boys slept in it the last two nights. It takes up most of the floor so that I can’t pull out my desk chair or get to the sewing machine. Leaning toward the computer and reading through the gear posts, or typing an email sideways with one foot through the tent door, my mind crowded with these thoughts, I felt it fitting that at last, the physical thing was taking up all this space.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers