Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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On January 12, 2007, Springfield, Missouri, and surrounding areas were practically paralyzed by an ice storm like no other. That storm made national news and had long-term consequences. . . . The historic ice coated trees, power lines, mailboxes, decks — everything exposed — creating a frozen Ozarks landscape of eerie, otherworldly beauty.
— Springfield News-Leader
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. . . .
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust —
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
— From “Birches,” by Robert Frost
The ice had accumulated on the doorknob like a coat of nail polish, slick and clear and thick. I pulled my coat sleeve over my hand for traction, turned the key, and stepped into the house, then moved to help my husband, who was on crutches after a second surgery on a second knee. Before I could say, Don’t slip, he was through the door, the sweats on his injured leg pulled up above the bandages, ice clinging to the light hairs of his shin.
We had just moved into our first house after five years of marriage and apartments, three months after my miscarriage in the bathroom of our downtown loft. Most of our moving boxes were still waiting to be unpacked. One box in the living room held baby gifts — booties from my mother, a rubber duck from my sister, onesies I had bought myself, a copy of Goodnight Moon. I hadn’t labeled the box, but I knew exactly which one it was.
James made his way into the kitchen and leaned against the counter. He was pale from vomiting up his pain medication, shaky from now depending solely on Tylenol.
“It’s only going to get worse,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize he was talking about the ice. Or his pain.
We had a plan: James would recover from his surgery while I unpacked. It would be a whole week before classes began for the second semester of my master’s program. James owned his own business and could do much of the work online, so no trouble there. Freezing drops tapped against the single-pane windows. “Look how you open the windows from the handles below the ledge,” the realtor had told us. “Real swanky for the 1920s.” Somewhere before the rain hit the treetops and rooftops and sidewalks and doorknobs — or maybe right after it hit them — it turned to ice. Outside, the leaves cupped shallow pools of frozen water, wilting from the weight.
We went to bed in the expansive upstairs bedroom of the rear addition, built in the 1990s. Here there was carpet, a wall of windows, a ceiling that angled down at each end as if cradling us. Lying on sheets that still smelled of the old loft, I could reach up and brush the ceiling with my fingertips. I imagined the ice spreading on the roof above me like the frosting on my mother’s lemon cake. If I hadn’t been so exhausted I would have called my mother; it was two hours earlier in California, and she would want to hear about an ice storm.
Missouri’s words for winter weather are like a poem: thundersnow, blowing snow, flurry, sleet, hail, freezing rain, wintry mix. I brought James more Tylenol, holding my breath against the stink of the bandages and his unbathed body. Our two cats jumped onto the bed and cuddled against my legs. I fell into an uneasy sleep.
The first transformer blew in the middle of the night. I opened my eyes to sparks flying over the ice-coated trees like fireworks. I made it to the window first, James close behind me, hopping awkwardly.
“The wires are frozen over,” he said, but this didn’t make sense to me.
“They’re covered with ice. Too heavy. Look, the weight of it has pulled down the poles.”
He was right: some poles had split; others had simply fallen. Branches, overburdened with ice, were breaking away from tree trunks and landing on power lines and houses, the crashing loud and ceaseless. Our electricity had gone out, and there was nothing to be done but look anxiously at the enormous oak that rose above our roof. We went back to bed, the mechanical contraption that bent and straightened, bent and straightened James’s knee now silent in the darkness. I didn’t bother with candles. As I curled up under the covers, I heard another transformer explode. Then another. Then there were just the snapping, splintering sounds of ice against ice.
As I walked into the front yard the next morning, I remembered a Jewish wedding I had attended years before in California, the groom crushing the glass under his foot, everyone laughing and clapping. The ice crunched under my foot with every step — Mazel tov! Each blade of grass was encased in its own frozen cocoon. The storm was precise and thorough: every bud, berry, stick, rock, and clod of dirt had its own fitted coating. The ice appeared almost loving, the way it molded itself perfectly to the size and shape of every stem and leaf and flake of peeling paint on the porch railing. It could have been loving if not for its inevitable, fatal weight. Across the street an oak had cracked in half down the middle, as if some giant had taken it to the chopping block. Power lines dipped as if under an invisible tightrope walker.
The house was still without electricity, but there was hot water left. In the shower I stood under the warm spray for as long as I could, washing my hair without thinking that I wouldn’t be able to blow-dry it. I gazed down at my stomach, which did not swell with a baby. My secret: I was guilty of the miscarriage. I let this knowledge sink into the deepest part of my belly, where my baby had grown only to the size of a lima bean. I let the knowing twist there.
“So much damage,” James said as he hobbled into the bathroom. He did not pause to look at me, naked behind the shower’s glass doors, as he made his way to the toilet and peed. We had planned to be living in Southern California by now, where I had grown up and which I had always called home, even during these long years away. My parents would be close by, one of us holding my child’s hand while he or she splashed in the waves at Westward Beach. Every time we went there, I spotted a dolphin — a sign of good luck, my dad had told me when I was a girl. But James had changed his mind, and we’d stayed in Missouri, where he was raised, and bought this huge house with a red front door and windows that had been swanky in the 1920s and brick front steps. Steps now covered in ice. I turned my gaze back to my stomach and waited until the water falling on me grew so cold I couldn’t stand it.
After we dressed, our best friends, Matt and Jenna, came over in their four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer, and together we toured the neighborhood, Jenna snapping pictures out the window, then holding the camera backward to take one of our faces; later I would look at the photo and think about how frizzy my brown hair was without the help of the blow-dryer, how I should have put on some blush. Jenna never went anywhere without a carefully planned outfit. She looked Arctic-chic, tiny and blond in her perfect fleece and boots.
Our historic neighborhood, with its stately maples and elms, was a disaster area, entire trees tipped over, roots pulled from the ground and indecently bared. Matt maneuvered the Explorer around fallen trees and over storm debris. We saw house after house littered with branches. Every once in a while we would pass a car pinned under a tree. When the sun came out, everything glittered. I thought of the tree made entirely of stainless steel in front of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, how on a bright day it would glint so intensely it would almost disappear.
“Jesus,” Matt said. His eyes were very blue in the rearview mirror.
“Is it bad that this makes me excited?” asked Jenna.
“I need a drink,” said James. Earlier we’d had to stop the car to let him vomit out the window. His knee was hurting terribly, and he was nauseous from the pain.
Already our neighbors were carrying fallen limbs to their front curbs, hauling them over their shoulders like Christmas trees. The piles grew, and by afternoon some were so high that we could hardly see the houses.
When Matt and Jenna dropped us off at home, the cats greeted us with warm tongues and cold fur. I burst into tears as I held them. I felt responsible for every breath in their tiny lungs, and suddenly I feared the air in the house was far too frigid for their frail bodies. I loved the cats like I loved no one else. We had arranged to spend the night at Matt and Jenna’s house, since their street had power, and I hated James for telling me to leave the cats behind.
“Stop freaking out about the cats,” James said, after I insisted we take them with us.
“We have to take them,” I said, crying.
James looked at me but didn’t say anything, just walked away on his crutches, which meant I had won.
The night before the miscarriage, I sang onstage for the first time with a band I’d been rehearsing with for several months. It was my birthday weekend, and my parents flew in to watch us and make me a cake and take me shopping for maternity clothes. Even though I was only nine weeks along, the night of the gig I wore my new maternity jeans and a maternity top. My belly was completely flat, but in my mind the baby was fully formed. My dad made several proud comments about how I was already covering my stomach protectively with one hand. I sang lead on three songs. My parents sat next to James in the audience. They had all dressed up to come see me. I didn’t know what had happened until the next day, when I went to the bathroom and wiped blood instead of urine.
I didn’t tell anyone that, before the concert began, I had helped the bass player move a table. It was heavy. I’d used my core muscles to lift it and, with the bass player, carry it across the room. This is what had killed my baby. Strangers sat at the table that night. One of them was very handsome. He moved his lips along with mine as I sang “Blackbird.”
When we arrived at Matt and Jenna’s house, Jenna eyed our cats in their crate and sent Matt a not-too-subtle look; they had a dog. So we put the cats on their sun porch, and I annoyed everyone by worrying aloud that the cats would feel too cramped in their crate and the porch would be too cold for them. As the evening went on, I would leave the living room to go and lie on my stomach in front of the crate, touching the cats’ paws with my fingers. Their faces held so much love. They were freezing, but they had each other, and me.
Matt’s cousin Aaron and his wife, Clare, were coming, too. We were all friends. James was overjoyed. I often joked that he would be happiest living in a commune. My husband needed a group. We never went out alone unless everyone else had other plans. We had what James called an A team, a B team, and a C team for this purpose. When the A team was busy, we called the B team, and so on. We even vacationed with friends.
Now James sat on the floor with his knee machine — bend, straighten, bend, straighten — and he and Matt laughed loudly at something. They had been friends since high school and sometimes forgot I wasn’t also from Springfield, Missouri, and didn’t know who or what they were talking about. Jenna curled next to Matt and held his hand and sipped a mug of cocoa. She wore flannel pajamas, and I wished I had thought of that. I left the room to visit the cats on the sun porch again.
When Aaron and Clare arrived, I looked carefully at Clare’s belly. She was seven months pregnant. Before my miscarriage James and Aaron would call Clare and me “the mommas.” I would make the two of us virgin drinks or pour us sparkling cider. She had been diagnosed with lymphoma just a few months into her pregnancy and was undergoing chemotherapy, which the doctors said wouldn’t harm the baby. She was as pale as James, with dark circles under her eyes.
Without James saying a word, I knew he was loving every moment of the six of us being together. He was probably thinking of the stories we would tell about it later, especially if Clare ended up going into labor. He was probably hoping for this. Clare’s cancer and her baby sat in the room with us and made us a group of eight.
Aaron and Clare’s sewer line had burst at their house, and icy waste now covered their basement floor. Clare had vomited from the smell, or perhaps from the baby, or the chemo. They would take the couches; James and I, the air mattress.
I can’t remember what we talked about that night with the lights off. The branches had mostly stopped falling, and the crunch of car tires and the sounds of sirens had ceased. Chain saws still echoed, even in the dark. Clare fell asleep and snored softly. James was already saying we should stay there the next night, too. We all heard Jenna and Matt’s voices upstairs, and we could tell Jenna was not happy. I heard the cats’ pleas from the sun porch.
I went to them and closed the door behind me. Outside, the ice-coated trees bent and refracted the moonlight like crystal chandeliers. It was a photographer’s dream, something from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — not the movie but the book, where the Emerald City is green only because everyone is made to wear green glasses. Was there some similar trick at work here? Perhaps the ice had covered our eyes as it had everything else. I was so homesick for California I couldn’t breathe. I would never get warm.
I felt the table from the night of the gig in my hands, the weight of it. I heard the voice inside my head that I’d ignored when it had told me not to lift the table. The ER doctor had held my hand when I’d confessed this. With his kind eyes and white hair he looked like a priest. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “There was something wrong.” He was admiring of the body, a self-regulating machine able to solve internal errors. I hated my body then. It had gone rogue. I would never trust it again.
The next morning Clare and I woke early. We thought we were the first ones up until Jenna came down the stairs minutes later, hair curled and heels on. The bank was open, and she was going to work. We thanked her again for letting us stay and watched her leave.
“How are you feeling?” I asked Clare, before thinking how often she must get that question.
Cancer, the worst mutiny.
“I’m all right,” she said, as if by rote, and I was grateful for her patience.
She was beautiful in the midst of her blankets, beautiful and pregnant and so vulnerable she made my heart ache. Her stomach was perfectly round. She’d been small before, and with the cancer and chemotherapy invading her body, it seemed impossible a baby could grow inside of her.
“The baby’s moving,” she said. It was unusual for her to mention this. Clare was not gushy about her pregnancy, and who could blame her?
I didn’t move to put my hand on her belly, even though I wanted to. Another branch fell outside. We heard it crash like a tray of wineglasses onto gravel.
“The placenta protects him,” she said. “The chemo can’t get through. It’s like a little wall.”
We went to the windows and looked out at the neighbors, already back in their yards with their chain saws. Matt came down in boots and jeans, headed to do the same. I admired this, and maybe Clare did, too, as our husbands slept on.
A feeling ran through me as I watched Clare get up, her hand on her stomach, and begin to fold the blankets. I grabbed one corner, and we brought our ends together silently. We moved from blanket to blanket, then the sheets. Clare’s strength didn’t make me feel ashamed. Her cancer, the fear of what the future could bring for her and her child, didn’t make my own grief feel selfish or insignificant or unworthy. We folded blankets, and I understood that I still wanted to be a mother. I hadn’t lost this in the bathroom or in the car or in the ER or inside that box somewhere in the dining room. I had kept it safe.
Later we found out that the ice had preserved certain flower buds. After it melted, the flowers were still able to bloom.
The ice in Springfield amounted to one and a half inches. In the city alone, seventy thousand people were without electricity, some for almost three weeks. Chain saws sold out all over town, as did generators. Utility trucks came in from Arkansas and Kansas and Oklahoma to repair power lines, and newscasters said to check on elderly neighbors. There were warnings of carbon-monoxide poisoning: ice blocked the vents to gas heaters and wood stoves, causing odorless gas to build up inside.
We left Matt and Jenna’s house a few days later, when our power came back on, and Aaron and Clare stayed in our empty guest room on a futon until their house had electricity again. While Clare was with us, the cats slept on her stomach. She gave birth to her son just three weeks later, early but healthy.
Nine months or so after the storm the local hospitals overflowed with newborns. “Ice-storm babies,” the newscasters said, smiling; there was more than one way to get warm. My son, Ethan, was born a few weeks after that, in late October. Through the swanky old windows of his second-story nursery I could watch the sky for ice or hail or snow or tornadoes. I could see the trees lining the neighborhood streets, harshly pruned but still alive, leaves turning red and orange, already falling — bruised and broken and healing trees, bracing for another winter.