In the winter of 1991, I awoke one morning to a brighter than usual bedroom. This meant one of two things: One, that my mother had accidentally slept in and forgotten to take me to school; or two, this was that great, that delicious, that sweet surrender of a day New England children pine after as soon as the days begin to shorten. I skipped out of bed and looked hopefully out the window and—my fantasy had become reality.
“Snow day!” I yelled as I scampered down the stairs.
My friend Emily and I had made plans for this. On the first snow day, we were going to play together. Big time plans. Emily called, asked me to come over. A formality. I sheepishly asked my mother to drive me over to her house.
“No, honey, the roads are all closed,” she sighed as she warmed up some food for my younger siblings.
The pause that followed that sting was the sound of my nine-year-old heart breaking.
“Can I walk over?” A bold move. Emily’s house was a mile away. No way she’d let me go. But I had to try.
After a moment of deliberation, my mother said, “Sure honey,” and glided away to tend to my brother and sister; both had started crying a moment ago. “Just make sure you bundle up.”
Shock. Was this actually happening? I thought. Giddy and afraid to say anything before her mistake sunk in, I wrapped myself in a puffy, fluorescent color-blocked ski jacket and snow pants, with ski tags from Blue Hills Ski Camp still on the zipper. Click, went the suspenders of my snow pants. Smile, went my face. I was a fluffy marshmallow of hot pink, lime green and electric blue. After tucking my long underwear into my wool socks and pressing my boots onto my feet, I asked my father to tie them. My hands were not really at liberty to lace.
“You sure you know how to get there?” He asked, an eyebrow of paternal concern raised in objection to my mother’s agreement to the post-blizzard walk.
“Yeah, Pop, I walk there all the time in the summer.”
“OK, well it’s cold out there. Put on your mittens and, uh, a hat and stuff.” He plopped a baby blue Turtlefur onto my neck. Static rose and my hair stood on end. “Call us when you get there.”
“OK, bye!” I skedaddled out of there as I heard my dad say, “Hon, are you sure it’s OK for her to walk there?” I knew better than to wait around for them to contemplate this.
In the garage, I grabbed the disk sled, the fastest one, and confidently pushed the button to freedom. Creaking and cranking, the garage raised and there it was: the snowy road, my journey, laid out before me. The crystal white snow piled up in drifts against my neighbors’ houses so that the windows only barely peeped out of the glistening blanket. Snow had scattered up the shutters because of the wind, and the sun made everything sparkle. No one had shoveled yet. The world was mine. Hat and mittens on and swish, out the garage door I slid, right before the door cranked shut.
Waddling, trudging, and gliding, at times, I made it about three-quarters of a mile to Emily’s house on the quiet, recently snow-blown sidewalks of Milton, Mass. Freedom. Joy. The open road. Not a person in sight. Just me and the snow gods. My boots crunched, my face beamed. The perfection of the walk could only be heightened by one thing: a shortcut through Dudley Lane, the dirt road that ran through the forest. I would walk halfway up Dudley, and then go to the rest of the way to Emily’s though the forest that bordered her house’s yard. What an amazing idea!
After a few left turns, there Dudley Lane lay before me: eerily empty, less plowed than the main roads, and half covered in snow drifts higher than the top of my hat. The large colonial homes set back on the road hibernated under their thick white blankets, cozy and dreaming.
Sled in tow, I marched my lithe marshmallow body over snowdrifts. Some of the banks on the side of the road were higher because they hid layer upon layer of previous snowstorm. I wanted to climb over one of those. Then, I’d be able to cut through to Emily’s. Free and clear. Like a snow warrior.
Like a ladybug on a leaf, I scampered up a five-foot-high snow bank. At the tip-top, I stood triumphantly, dirty blonde hair blowing under my pink fleece hat in the sunny winter wind. Emily’s blue house with white shutters beckoned me from the distance. I smiled. Hot chocolate would definitely be waiting.
I took that first step down the snow bank, grinning like a golden retriever running after bacon when crash! I was chest deep. Chest deep in the cold, cold snow. I kicked my legs. They did not move. I pushed myself out of the mound, and my hands fell clear through the hardened surface as my body fell a few more inches into the cold layers of hard snow plow curls and downy soft snowdust. I lost one of my mittens in the process, and my bare hand became raw and wet as it grasped at the hollow, feathery nothingness of the snow heap’s innards. Now only my neck and head lay above the snow, and one of my arms was trapped.
I looked around for that trusted adult who must have seen me fall. No one was there. The houses still slept under their comfy white blankets, smoke from their chimneys taunting me, ignoring me. When I realized no one was near, the thick, searing fear rose up in my throat. My neck muscles spasmed and tightened. “Help!!” I yelled, waving my one free arm frantically. My hand grew icier. Snow sprinkled into the neck of my jacket and sent a shiver down my spine. “Help! Someone! I’m stuck!”
I listened for footsteps, a crunch in the snow, a voice from one of the houses nearby.
No one answered. No sound came to my ear.
As panic spread itself through my body, my mind grasped that my parents wouldn’t look for me until dinner. By then, I would die of hypothermia. We learned about hypothermia in school; it was a bad way to leave the earth. The first signs were shortness of breath and numb extremities. I was already breathing in shallow, choppy spurts, and my hand was like ice. Could I feel my feet? I can’t tell if I can feel my feet! I thought. My heart was like a caged hummingbird, fluttering around in circles with no nectar in sight. I could die here, I thought. No one is leaving their house today. It’s a blizzard. I could be left here, out in the cold, forever.
“Heeeeeelp!!!” I screeched one last time.
The silence that followed the echoes of this shrill, bird-like cry was that eerie silence that can only be heard after a snowfall or before a death. The trees held their breath and watched me. The clouds slowed down. The snow bank tightened its grip on my ribcage. I heard a crow caw in the distance, and thought that he might be the only one who would be with me as hypothermia made its way through the fluorescent layers of snow gear to kill me.
Sledding Adventure Gone Terribly Wrong! or Girl, 9, Dies in Snowdrift, Mitten Missing and Hand Frozen, the headline would read. At the school, they would have a moment of silence to remember me, and then life would roll on. They would still play at recess, and they would lower the flag to half-mast; I just wouldn’t be there. My friends would forget about me, my parents would cry and cry, disappointed that I didn’t know better than to walk over by myself. Tears began to puddle in my eye sockets, and their warm, salty dampness soon doused my cheeks. My nose began to run and my lip quivered as a thin layer of runny nose washed over it. Fear and cold rocked my body into mini-earthquake-like trembles and convulsions.
“In an emergency, we can use our faith to protect us,” Sister Marie Florence had said to the class in CCD as she clutched her rosary beads. Thinking about these words and Sister Marie Florence’s kind, wrinkled face, I did the only thing there was left for a girl to do: I prayed to the Virgin Mary. She’d get me out of this.
I think I got to “Blessed art thou amongst women” when the realization hit me like a cold snowball to the face: I was the only one who could get me out of this drift. As I looked up at the clear blue sky, one of the pine trees shook off a layer snow as though letting out a sigh, and I watched a chunk of its dazzling white icing-crust fall to the ground with a thud. I took a breath. My tears froze. The sun went behind a cloud and it became five degrees colder. The crow cawed again, but this time, it seemed to be laughing at me.
It was at this moment that I realized that to live is to survive.
What happened next I can’t explain. I feel that some sort of creature rose up from the depths of the snow bank and became one with my tiny body. She was a whirling dervish of a creature, tiny and invisible with the strength and confidence of an ox and the speed and trickery of the fastest squirrel. This snow spirit grabbed hold of my ankles and smashed my boots clear through the walls that had been shackling my legs. My legs flapped and kicked like a drowning swimmer’s as snow fell in on all sides of me, covering me in white dust as I rose from the fluffy depths. Snow flew into my eyes and down my throat, but my limbs did not betray me. The snow creature zipped into my arms, which like the tentacles of a furious insect convulsed and then careened my mittens into the hardened snow above me. I grabbed for a solid chunk of snow and jerked my body upward. When I realized I wasn’t sinking, confidence rose up and I began to think with cockiness, a handy survival tool for pickles like this. I can get out of this stupid snow! I did the arm hang for longer than every boy in my grade in gym class! This snow will die! I will murder this snow! My nine-year-old muscles flexed as, with a final stomach-muscle movement, I writhed my body up out of the snow heap and with a gigantic sigh, tumbled to the ground below.
As I rose up off of the snowy earth, the surge that the snow creature provided me was not yet gone. My breath was still wispy and erratic, and my chest rose visibly with each shallow breath and booming heartbeat. I was covered in snow dust, and everything around me looked different than it had before. Dudley Lane was no longer a playground. It was a minefield. A beautiful, sparkling minefield that I gazed at with respect.
I looked around. Had anyone seen me? No. Thank you, Snow Gods, I thought. Thank you for saving my life and for not embarrassing me.
Later, when Emily and her mother asked me what happened to my other mitten, I couldn’t bring myself to tell them. “Oh, I, um, must have dropped it,” I muttered as I sipped my hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows, eyes darting away from them sheepishly.
In fact, the only soul I ever told about what happened on that day was the mother of Christ herself. And she’s not telling anyone.
IMAGE CREDIT: Pixabay, user lenny