1/7/91 – Part Two

The helicopter has taken her from the scene to the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. Riding down there with my father and sister, all I can do is stare out the window. It is freezing cold, the kind of cold that hurts your lungs if you breathe too deeply. The mixture of sleet and snow coating the cars and the trees and every building is wet and ugly, definitely not the pretty snow everyone loves to see fall. The ride is unbearably quiet, the only sounds in the car the swish of windshield wipers and my sister sniffling in the back seat. None of us knows how bad it is, or what to expect.

All kinds of thoughts run through my head as the car pulls much too slowly into the dingy parking deck adjoining the hospital. What is wrong with me? Why do I always feel the need to be so argumentative with her? It still all seems like some sort of anxiety dream, brought on by fatigue or stress.

I had just talked with her that afternoon, and I distinctly told her she had better drive carefully if she was planning to go out. Mom had spent the past half hour telling me how excited she was because her friends were planning a girls’ night out that particular Monday. With my “mother’s cap” firmly in place, I suggested she make it another night because of the foul weather, but Mom is as stubborn as I am. She could not be deterred from her early week adventure out with the girls to have margaritas and chips with salsa, her favorite. I remember thinking, “On a Monday? Why does she feel the need to go out on a Monday? With bad weather predicted?” Now I wish I had been even more angry with her than I was but in the end I gave up the argument and told her I hoped she had a good time. I was at work, it was busy, and I needed to finish up some things before heading for home. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, close to quitting time and I didn’t want to have to stay late and drive through sleet.

When we arrive at the hospital waiting room, friends of Mom’s had already gotten there and we could finally begin to piece the plot together. From Lynette we learn that Mom had gone around a curve just a little too quickly, careened off the road because of the icy conditions, and hit a tree. Her car came to rest only 12 inches off the road. I’ve since noticed that most trees on roads are set far away from the actual road, but this one touched the edge of the asphalt. She hit it head-on, going who knows how fast. And she was less than 5 minutes from home. I hear this and immediately imagine her digging in her purse for her house keys as she’s driving (she always kept two sets, always had) distracted, not really paying attention to this stretch of road because she knows it so well, just thinking about getting to bed. It’s 2a.m. now, and this all happened at approximately 11:30p.m. or so. We still have no prognosis, but learn an ambulance had appeared 10 minutes after the accident, so at least she had gotten to the hospital quickly. This gives us some hope.

[On a side note, my father called me six months after this accident happened to say that he had contacted the county and the tree was cut down. They stated that in fact a number of car accidents had happened with this particular tree, Mom’s being the worst. I listen quietly as he tells me, the haze of summer smothering me. I brood over the fact of this action being a case of “too little, too late.”]

As the tenuous pieces of the night’s events come together, my thoughts are swimming. Every so often a new one pops up, runs across my mind, then sinks into the depths of thought only to be replaced by another. Had she been drinking and driving? If she had, what kind of friends did she hang around with who would let her drive in this kind of weather after a bunch of margaritas? In any kind of weather for that matter? Mom has never been the best driver anyway. Again, I have visions of her speeding down the rural route where she lived, digging for her house keys and looking in the rear view mirror at the same time. What is a tree doing that close to the road anyway? I am filled with despair, anger, frustration, and anxiety all at once.


All these gray, gloomy, cold days make me think of all the things I *haven’t* done in winter because of it. I have S.A.D., I know it. When winter comes I hole up like a bear, and you really don’t see me until Spring. That first day of spring I always call in sick to work, go get a big KFC bucket, and when I used to live in Richmond, go to Maymont Park with a book and my sunglasses to melt the winter crust off.

That would be mid to late April usually, but here in Pittsburgh, we really can’t expect a day like that until late June – if we’re lucky. So here lately, I’ve been forcing myself out of the house, but it’s hard. The pull of the comforter is so strong. I’m like a plant – without sun I don’t flourish.

When I was a Junior in high school I checked out that winter so bad I didn’t even turn in a term paper, which was probably the most blasphemous thing you could do at Hermitage High in 1984. I just pulled a Bartleby and stated, “I prefer not to,” when Mrs. Rasnake ordered me to write a fifteen-page paper on the Circus Maximus. I’m sorry Mrs. Rasnake I prefer not to. I’ve written 15 gazillion notecards on something I could give two farts about and as for creating something legible out of all this mess in the thick of winter and the sun hasn’t shone in three months, uh, sorry, no.

“But Juh-nell, you’ll fail English!” she gasps clutching her pearls (okay, I added that for effect).

“Uh, Mrs. Rasnake, I don’t have an ‘L’ in my first, middle, or last name,” I retorted. She points her finger out the door ordering me to the office.

Okay, I made that last part up. Mrs. Rasnake did call me that the entire school year but back then I never had the nerve to call her on it. I always wanted to and in my mind made up various clever, snarky remarks I would make in response and other more devious scenes where she would end up looking like an ass and I would finally get the attention and “coolness” I wanted. But I was always too much of a chicken. I would just sit there and Bartleby my way through the rest of the year of English – I ended up with a “D” for the semester which ruined my GPA – a big deal back then.

Those of you who spent high school competing with one another for the highest GPA’s will know what I’m talking about here. At my school your GPA meant the difference between UVA and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College down the road. And we were all just poor enough to really want that scholarship. Isn’t it amazing that something that meant so much back then is like ashes at the end of a cigarette now? Remember when crap like that was important? Weird, huh?

Why do I remember this? It always amazed me that a teacher could go 180 days and not learn a student’s name or even something that was remotely close to it. So when I became a teacher, it was the first thing I did. Learn their names and more than that, learn who these creatures were in the desks before me. More than just bored eyes and tapping fingers and shaking, bored feet in Etnie shoes. They’re not just grades in a book, they’re people.

But I digress. I suppose I’ll never flourish in winter. I’ve got a sunbox now, and at least it gets me out the door – I don’t call in sick like I used to. I slog to work with the rest of the lemmings. But I still think bears have it pretty good.

Snow Days.

So today it’s snowing, it’s actually been snowing for two weeks. Battle-gray skies for two weeks. And it’s really starting to affect me. I don’t want to leave the house because that will involve putting on a huge, to-the-floor down coat, but first wrapping my nose and chin in a tight scarf and pulling on gloves. I feel only slightly like that poor kid in a Christmas Story. Then I’ll tramp down to my car and scrape and scrape. Then hold the wheel in a death grip and hope I get where I’m going without killing myself.

You see snow here isn’t all that special – in Richmond when I was a kid, snow meant something because we didn’t get it all that much and when we did we usually got dumped on. A lot. So we’d at least get a delay of some sort. Or more than likely a snow day. There’s nothing like that feeling of waking up on a Monday morning and hearing – nothing. Because when it snows a lot and you’re a kid, you notice how quiet it is, unusually quiet. It’s so quiet it’s deafening. So you peep through the blinds and the whole world is white. These days you can jump on the Internet and find out if your school is closed but back then we’d sit by the radio and shush people when the commercial was over and they began to list the school closings. They’d say, “Albermarle………Charles City, Chesterfield, Hanover…….then a little pause that seemed to take forever. Then jump for joy when they said, “Henrico County Schools – closed.” Yippee! Back to bed to sleep some more.

We’d spend the day sledding, well, more like pulling each other around on sleds because where we lived was flat. Then throwing snowballs, and drinking lots of hot chocolate. Didn’t matter that it was dried up old Swiss Miss and the marshmallows were like little pieces of gravel, it was a snow day. It was like a surprise holiday out of the blue. You were forgiven your sins and didn’t have to do schoolwork, or chores, you could eat junk food. It was like God wagged his magic finger and said, “Everybody gets a day off today – nobody’s going nowhere, stay home and rest.”

My freshman year of high school it snowed so much we were out of school eight days in a row. I didn’t care that we had to make up the time in the summer – cold, crappy winter was when I felt like staying holed up in bed all day. It was just before exams and I’d spend every night studying up for geometry only to find out that we had no school. Yay, one more day of reprieve. Eventually, they canceled exams altogether and I was ecstatic. It was the only time in the history of our school where they had done that or would ever do that again. It was awesome. I was failing geometry and now I didn’t have to take an exam. Thank you Jesus.

I miss snow days. Adults need them too sometimes. Here it snows just enough to make it a pain in the ass, but not enough to keep anybody from doing anything. People just make do and scrape their cars and drive like normal and have a shitload of accidents as a result. They should just do like we did, and take a snow day. When you have to go out in it, it takes all the enjoyment out of snow. Maybe this is why a lot of people who used to love snow as a kid, now hate it. Because now they have to actually go out and deal with the snow. I’m one of those people. I hate snow now – and I know it’s because I have to dig, and scrape, and go to work anyway. I never get a chance to just stop everything for a moment to watch it fall.