I’m Watching You

Dear young man who lives down the hall from me,

I don’t know your name, but I want you to know I’m watching you.  I watch you as we leave for work at the same time every day.  You smoke your cigarette while your car warms up and nod to me as I get into mine.  We exchange “good mornings” as we shiver in the morning cold.  We smile as we scrape the ice from our windshields, and wave as we leave the parking lot.

15I watched you this morning when the plow left sixteen inches of snow between the apartment house door and the parking lot.  I watched as you kicked out a path before me, so I could walk through without sinking in deeper than the tops of my boots.  I watched as I discovered that my car was plowed in- the third time this week- and you offered to shovel it out, even though you were busy cleaning off your car and your wife’s.

I watched as you sat in your idling car to make sure I was able to pull out of the space where my car was snowed in on all sides.  You didn’t leave for work until you knew that I was able to get to mine.

When I was growing up on Green Street, my parents taught my siblings and me to care about others.  They insisted that we shovel out our elderly neighbors.  They offered our services to run errands.  They called upon us to carry heavy items, care for babies, mow lawns and move furniture.  And they never allowed us to take a penny in return for our efforts.  In doing so, helping out became part of our nature.

But sometimes it seems that helping out is a lost art.  Many would have us believe that the only way to make it through life is to ramrod one’s way, eyes on the prize, never knowing that like Mr. Magoo we leave a trail of chaos in our wake.

Every man for himself.

Just do it.

Failure is not an option.

Life is all about trying to get somewhere first.

Pedal to the metal.

But you, young man who lives down the hall, are different.  Your parents must have been like mine, pathteaching you to help out.  Now that you are grown, it is part of your nature.  Your eyes have strayed from your goal and focused on those around you.   And although you may never have a penthouse apartment or the corner office, you have something far more valuable.  You have heart.

I’m watching you.  I say a little prayer for your success.  And I say thank you.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

tempNew England, like much of the country, is deep in the clutches of winter.

I woke at four Friday morning to find the furnace had stopped working sometime during the night. The thermostat in the living room- the warmest room in my apartment- read a frosty 45 degrees (Fahrenheit.) The temperature outside was a mere 1. After several attempts, I was able to get the furnace started and when I left for work it was still chugging away. Crisis averted.

Later, I told my daughter Abby about the furnace. She said it reminded her of times we lost power when she was a child.

I remembered one of those times. We had a power failure one snowy February evening. While the children huddled under blankets in the living room, I braved the snow to heat canned soup over a propane burner on the front stoop. We supped by candle light and then Abby and Elizabeth entertained us by reading “Hamlet” aloud, each creating a different voice for each character. We snuggled together laughed until the lights came on. It is one of my favorite memories.

Another year, when the children were much younger, we lost power early in the first day of a huge ice storm. Abby and Gabriel had fevers, so I bundled them into bed and told them to stay there. With Elizabeth in tow, I emptied the refrigerator and buried the food in the snow on our deck, then turned the faucets to a slow trickle to keep the pipes from freezing. But as the hours passed, the house became dark and cold as a tomb. When my friend Sue called to see how we were faring, I told her we were without electricity. She quickly arranged for us to stay with her parents, who hadn’t been affected by the power failure. I joyfully herded the kids into the car, and skidded to their nearby home, where they greeted us with warm smiles and warmer hugs. Our communication was limited- they spoke mostly French. We spoke only English. But hospitality crosses all cultural barriers. We were given the whole lower level of their home- living room with two fold-out couches, TV, kitchenette, bath and bedroom. We remained there for five days, until the power to our townhouse was restored. It took several hours before the townhouse was warm enough to bring the kids home, and the ice coating the power lines and trees didn’t thaw for a week. But the warmth of the Lacroix family burns in my heart still and I will never forget their generosity.

During our most recent snow storm,  I reluctantly bundled up to take the trash to the dumpster across my apartment house parking lot. It was 6 degrees and the wind swirled snow in every direction- certainly not a night for a winter stroll. The storm raged like a banshee as I trudged through the snow, and I hunched my shoulders and bowed my head against the wind.

As I walked, I noticed how dry and granular the snow was. Under the streetlights it sparkled and shone and the earth seemed suddenly covered in diamonds. I stood enchanted by the dumpster forgetting about the wind and the cold.  “How often we miss out on beauty like this because we are blinded by our discomfort,” I thought, and I took a longer and slower route back to the warmth of my apartment.

jan 2014It’s funny how the worst of circumstances can provoke the best responses. After last night’s storm, there is brilliant sunshine that sparkles against alabaster roof tops. In much the same way, many cold nights filled with icy winds and frigid darkness, have brought memories that melt my heart and fill me with the warm embers of yesterday.
Tonight promises temperatures well below zero, and while I hope my furnace holds up under the strain, if it dies again, I’m sure we will find a way to stay warm. And who knows- maybe a whole new set of memories will be born.

The First Snow

This morning I woke to find the season’s first blanket of snow on the ground outside my window.  I had anticipated the storm and even prepared for it.  Indeed, just yesterday I climbed the stairs to the attic in search of my snow brush and a shovel, and smiled at the irony of finding them next to my beach chairs and umbrella. 

As I pushed the wet heavy snow from my car windshield, I realized that my heart still quickens when the first  snow of winter falls from the night sky, glistening in the street lights and covering the black pavement like baby powder.  I still think that the first snow has some magical qualities.  And as I do every year, I remembered the day I snuck snow into Elizabeth’s hospital room.

She was eight years old, painfully thin, with sunken cheeks and huge eyes.  For years, her symptoms had baffled her doctors. We knew something was wrong.  We just did not know its name, and without a name, nobody knew how to treat her.  Finally, her symptoms became so invasive that her doctor admitted her to the medical center for a week of testing.

I knew the testing would be difficult. She would have an IV and an A line inserted. She would have blood tests every hour or so.  We would recount her story to multiple medical students, doctors and nurses.  She would be allowed not food or drink for thirty-six hours, or until her blood sugar made a drastic drop.  She would be exhausted and hungry and nauseated.  And she would not understand.

The first several hours after her admission went quickly.  The staff at the medical center gave great pediatric care, and made my daughter as comfortable as possible. But as the hours passed and she was moved into the PICU-Pediatric Intensive Care Unit- she grew hungry and irritable.  Not wanting to leave her, I waited until early evening when she drifted into an uneasy sleep before sneaking off to the hospital cafeteria for a quick bowl of soup.  On the way back to the PICU I heard someone mention that it was supposed to snow.

When I reached Elizabeth, she was awake.  “Where were you?” she asked.  “Why did you leave me?  I’m hungry.  Can’t you get me something to eat?”  Her big eyes filled with tears that rolled down her pale cheeks and splashed on her bed sheets. I gathered her in my arms, wrapped her in her favorite blanket and walked through the PICU, softly singing to her until she fell asleep. I sat by her bed until dawn broke.  As the sky turned from black to gray to white, I realized the snow had fallen, just as predicted.

When Elizabeth woke, she was listless and quiet.  She lay in her bed and stared at the wall, too nauseated to watch television or play.  She didn’t want me to read to her.  She didn’t want to play with “Diarrhea Doggie”- the stuffed puppy named by an intern to make her giggle in naughty glee.  She didn’t want her back rubbed.  And when I told her I was going to leave the PICU for a short time, she didn’t protest.  She just lay in silent resignation. 

I hurried to the cafeteria for breakfast, but found I was only able to swallow half a cup of coffee.  I felt alone, and bewildered and ineffective at making things right for my precious little girl.  Tears burned at my eyes, and I knew it was only a matter of moments before they would spill down my face betraying my silent worry.  Needing a place to collect myself, I made a beeline for the parking lot and sat shivering and sobbing in my freezing car.  I cried and prayed and then cried some more.  Finally, I dried my eyes, and looked at myself in the rear view mirror.  I looked almost as bad as Elizabeth.  My eyes were sunken and red rimmed from tears and lack of sleep.  My hair was messy and my clothes were wrinkled.  I clearly needed something to lift my spirits and more importantly, lift Elizabeth’s.

Getting out of the car, I absently dragged my hand across the window and realized how sticky the snow was.   “Great for snowmen,” I thought, and wondered if Abby and Gabe were playing in the white stuff on their way to the bus.  Snow brings out the fun in all of us- especially the first snow of winter.

And then I had a thought.  I hurriedly packed together a large snowball and placed it in my jacket pocket.  Then I went straight to the PICU.  Elizabeth was still awake, her eyes staring ahead, looking at everything, looking at nothing. 

“I have a present for you!” I exclaimed, and she turned my way.  I carefully drew the snowball from my pocket, not sure how the nearby nurses would react if they noticed. 

Elizabeth’s eyes widened and a smile came to her lips.  “A snowball?  Here?” 

“All for you.   It’s the first snow of winter- magic snow!” 

She took the snowball and held it in her hand for a few moments.  It began to drip on her covers and she placed it in the plastic water cup by her bed.  She grinned at me and laid back, her now sparkling eyes still on the melting snowball. She watched it until it was nothing more than a small puddle in the bottom of the cup.  And although the  following hours were difficult and long, the spark in my daughter’s eye remained.  She managed to endure the rest of the testing, and subsequently received a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  And a few days later, I took her home, where she grew from a spirited skinny little girl to a spirited willowy young woman. 

This morning, I walked into work and heard people muttering about the mess they had to drive in, the slop on their sidewalks, the coating on their cars.  They complain.  They gripe.  And while they grumble, I smile, because I will always welcome the first magical snow of winter.

Snow Day

Today is a snow day.  The world outside my window is like a snow globe shaken so furiously that the flakes swim chaotically in all directions.  Plows struggle in a futile attempt to keep the roads clear.  Radio and television anchors read long lists of closures and children snuggle under their covers, languishing in the knowledge that school is cancelled.  Snow days.  I used to love them.

When I was a kid, we lived at the top of Dye House Hill, not far from the center of town.  Snow days were announced by five short blasts of the fire horn precisely at 7AM.  It was a joyful sound, signaling freedom from winter classrooms, and announcing to parents that they were in for a day of wet boots and snowsuits.

No matter how much I wanted to go back to sleep on a snow day, I could never do it. I was always too excited to pull on boots and snow pants, and be the first to make footprints in the deep white drifts outside the front door.  I would scoop a mitten full of fresh snow into my mouth, and pulling a rusty Flying Saucer behind me, head for the sloping driveway at Columbia Hall. 

For a young child, soaring down a hill of fresh snow is akin to flying.  There was magic in speeding downhill, nothing but white rushing toward me, splashes of ice freezing my lips and turning my cheeks crimson.  At the bottom of the hill I would roll onto my back where I would lie breathless, letting the flakes float from the sky to my face until I rose to climb the hill and prepare for another run.  Finally, when fatigue and chill overtook me, I ‘d trudge home again, where I would struggle to pull snow-filled boots from my frozen feet and hang my mittens to drip on the steaming cast iron radiators. My mother would put my cold hands under her arms to warm them, wrapping me in her soft arms and kissing my damp hair.  From the safety of my mother’s kitchen, I would watch as the storm gathered strength and covered the streets and houses until the world outside became strangely unfamiliar.  When the sun sank, the alabaster drifts turned to blue and I would shudder, glad for the glow created by my mother’s homemade bread, simmering soup and musical laughter.   And always, the next day, when at last the storm was over, there would be sun so brilliant it was blinding.

Today is a snow day.  The last several weeks were filled with dark, turbulent skies that threatened to toss my siblings and me over and over, like the wind before a blizzard.  The winds blew, and in facing the skies, our eyes streamed hot tears, our footing slipped and our chests ached from trying to breathe through the sobs.  We clung to each other, desperate to stand against the winds, but the winds came, and with the winds, came the snow.  It covered the pavement, covered the dried remains of grass in the front yard, and covered the familiar paths and roadways that led to our normal lives.  Nothing is the same.  Nothing is as it was. And tonight, as the sun slips below the horizon, the azure shadows threaten to steal what warmth is left in my heart.

But I am my mother’s child.  I push away the melancholy and remind myself that it even though it is covered with snow, I know the path home.  I know to follow the glow left behind by my mother, to simmer homemade soup on my own stove and to fill our home with laughter.  I will wrap my loved ones in my arms, and kiss their heads.  I will make our home safe and warm.  And tomorrow, when at last the storm is over, there will be sun so brilliant it is blinding.

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