Snow Days Amidst Love and Death
We had a snow storm last week, which I wouldn’t go so far as to say is rare in Virginia, but happens infrequently enough to plunge our whole county into a dithering mess. No one knows how to drive in the snow, there aren’t enough plows to go around and it feels like pretty much everyone just throws their hands in the air, lights a fire and gives up.
Case in point, school was canceled for the entire week, and my kids only made it back yesterday on a two-hour delay, even though a fifty-five degree day over the weekend had rendered whatever roads were still icy and snowy just slushy and wet, but drive-able.
All of this would have been fine – fun even – if I hadn’t started writing a YA romance that has just been consuming me in my waking hours.
When I say romance, I’m not talking teen Harlequin. I mean epic romance in the tradition of Dr. Zhivago and Jane Eyre. I’m scraping the depths of my soul for this, turning my heart inside out and back again, summoning every poetic romanticism that has ever made me shiver, cry, lose my breath.
Regular Cold readers have probably noticed this trend in my posts. I’ve been thinking a lot about love – how it enters our lives, what to do with it when it does, how to hold it dear. The chipped, empty bowl we can find ourselves holding at the end of our days if we squander it.
My new fixation, however, is not the departure from Cold War shenanigans and brutal dictators that it looks like. In fact, like most of my stories, it has its roots in the every day goings on in my family.
You see, I’ve been watching my mom care for my dad as he’s dying. Sometimes hands-on, and other times from another time-zone away, but nevertheless, at the very least we talk every day and I get a detailed rundown of what’s going on.
My dad is ninety-four, twenty-two years her senior, and has been a force of nature all of his life. He’s cranky, brilliant, has a spine stiff enough to brave world wars and a heart big enough to put us first. And he has fought tooth and nail his reversal of fortune from doctor to patient.
“Don’t help me!” he said, as my mom and I were trying to lift him into bed after he’d collapsed a couple of weeks ago in his and my mom’s Chicago townhouse.
“Dad,” I said. “This is love. It’s why I’m here.”
He was naked and embarrassed and in pain.
“Thank you,” he said, barely above a whisper.
His decline has been swift since then, and he has become interned in the very hospital where he was once Chief of Staff. They love him there, and treat him like a legend. But that doesn’t mean he likes it.
My mom has been cooking his meals and bringing them to his hospital room, so that he can feel like he’s at home – sort of. He’s always liked her cooking. And although he is capable of being her harshest critic, he has been gazing upon her with the love and adoration of a teen-age crush.
This is certainly my most intimate experience with watching someone close to me die. It is as harrowing as it is breath-taking – like a dazzling sunset observed in the cold, your fingers freezing and your ears numb, no coat.
And it is precisely my experiences with death and near death in the past few years that have gotten me thinking about love enough to inspire me to write about it in a big way. My daughter’s catastrophic illness, my grandmother’s death, and now my dad’s.
All of it feels like it’s happened in such a short time.
My sister-in-law has recently been through the end of life dance with her in-laws as well, and my husband and I have been privy to a play by play that has helped us prepare for what is going on with my dad.
That has been a blessing, as has the love story that unfolded before us.
Alice was one hundred two years-old and Al was ninety-seven. Both sharp as a tack, Alice was still doing the New York Times crossword puzzle every day the week she died. “See you Tuesday,” Alice’s nurse said at the end of what would be her final visit. Alice looked up from her puzzle and said, “I don’t think so.”
She died in her sleep the next night.
Their care-givers didn’t want to wake Al until they absolutely had to. Al and Alice had been together for over seventy-five years and they figured he would need as much rest as possible before having to face that she was gone.
When they did wake him, he held her hand and called her his sweetheart. Like my dad, he spoke to his wife as if they were courting, telling her in sweet detail how much he loved her. Their care-givers sobbed with Al and held him close as Alice’s body was taken away.
In the following weeks, Al started to forget things. Mostly, he would forget that Alice had died. He would become frantic looking for her and my sister-in-law and her husband would have to sit him down and explain that she was gone. The hardest part was that he would relive her death each time they told him, as if he was hearing the news for the first time.
This is love.
And this is why, as I endeavored to write the agonizing and beautiful truth about love in my story, and as my kids interrupted me every five minutes. Driving me crazy. Not letting me get any good work done. Not letting me sift through my own grief and conflicting emotions about my dad’s death and my mom’s ordeal in caring for him. About the changes in all of our lives as she prepares to move down to Virginia – into our house – after he passes. I wanted to scream! Between their stomach flus and my dad being sick way over in Chicago and my traveling there, and now the snow days, I was so behind on everything and I was not in the best of emotional shape. To top it all off, just as I’d shooed the little buggers away and finally settled down into my story, my husband comes in and says, “I’m just starving. Can you make me that thing with the cheese and the oil and vinegar vegetables – I’ve got such a taste for that.” Like he doesn’t have a pair of hands.
“That thing. You mean a sandwich?” I said.
Just before I was about to hurl some other smart-ass comment, I started to laugh at myself. Here I was writing about love. Getting horribly exasperated about being thwarted from giving such an important topic the thought that I needed in order to make it come alive on the page – and I was on the brink of telling everyone I love to leave me the hell alone for once in their miserable lives. I put my face into my hands.
“What?” my husband said.
I shook my head.
Then I got up and made his sandwich.
Because this is love.