A little while back a grand old oak tree, living on the grounds of a historic mansion on my street, was struck by a massive stroke of lightning. I know it was massive because soon after the storm, the ancient tree was dead, all the leaves brown and still, and a lightning scar down the trunk, a spiral of bareness where the bark had been blasted off.
Louisville is thunderhead and tornado country. We get some big storms and strong winds. I’ve been watching that tree for weeks, as branches slough off on gusty nights and litter the ground all around. I’ve stood in the alley, gazing across at it, and taken in the size of those limbs. I’ve been waiting, wondering if they’ll take it down before one of those giant arms comes down on someone’s passing car.
During that storm, or maybe one of the others around that time, a good-sized piece of tree dropped into our front yard. I was glad the dogs weren’t out there. We hauled it out back and cut it up for the fire pit, and all the while I kept eying the huge old black walnut by our house that I read under with old Bob purring on my chest, that spreads its heavy limbs over our cars and homes and playing kids. That tree is very old.
We’re getting the edge of a hurricane tonight. Our tenor and Gregorian bass chimes are singing in the gusty wind. Sandy made landfall earlier today, and I’m staying up, waiting for word from my friends and family who are feeling the same winds, a thousand miles away.
They finally took the grand oak down, section by massive section. I’m glad they took it down before this wind. There’s a giant hole in the sky now.
During my senior year in college, in Western Massachusetts, we got a blizzard that rivaled any I’d ever seen up in Maine. I was in the next town over, at a dance rehearsal, when the snow really started in thick. By the time I got out it was very late, and the roads were slick. I got a ride back to campus with some folks, a bunch of us packed into their tiny car, fishtailing all over the slick white road while snow fell so thick it was just about all you could see. As we left the town and headed through the fields and farmhouses, everything went dark. The power was out. Our headlights caught cars along the road, sidled up to snowdrifts, at odd angles to the road, and we stopped to help push where we could. I don’t know how we made it back; I think we were the only car that did that night.
They dropped me off on the road by campus and I plowed my way through heavy knee-high snow and clambered over 6 foot snowbanks, making my way back to the apartment I shared with a handful of other students. The entire campus was black and silent, the kind of muffled, deep silence you get in deep, deep snowy winter. By this time the snowfall had slowed, and there must’ve been a break in the clouds, because I recall a faint glow of moonlight shining off the snow, blue and eerie. I did not see a single person, not even a flicker of candlelight through the windows.
There was no one in the common area at the house. The blackness inside was cut by a harsh flashing white light and piercing klaxon – connected to the smoke detectors, I imagine. I called out, and no one answered. The house was empty.
I began to feel a little hollow fear. I knew that logically, there had to be someone on campus, somewhere; they were probably all holed up at the tavern on the other end of campus, or in the library, maybe? But I couldn’t find anybody. What the hell? I hurried back outside. Beautiful as it was, this world was dark and strange, and I was afraid of the emptiness. Finally I heard voices, and struggled through the trees. I saw a handful of dark figures against the whiteness of the field beyond the trees. Then I heard my girlfriend’s voice. Hallelujah! It was my girl Fern, and my recent ex and her new girlfriend, oddly, and a few of our friends. Relieved beyond relief, I joined in their snowball fight, taking extra care to hit my ex with the bigger ones.
Eventually Fern, who was pretty well wasted, collapsed under a tall pine and started making snow angels. She was from Brazil and I imagine snow like that was still novel to her. She was grinning. She had a killer grin, lazy and toothy, with deep dimple lines. I was sighing over her total hotness when I heard the crack. The trees were bending under a thick coating of ice. A large limb, heavy with black layers of ice, was tearing away under the weight of itself. Fern was directly beneath it.
I plowed through the snow, wrapped my arms under her shoulders and hauled backward as hard as I could. She must have helped, or maybe it was my ex or her new girlfriend, damn them, but somehow I got Fern out of the way. Right where she’d been lying a moment before, the limb hit the snowy ground with a heavy WHOOM, and the ice on it came off with a sound like a crystal chandelier shattering.
After that, I heard the limbs crashing all around us in the trees. The same sound – a crack, a heavy WHOOM, the shattering of ice – sounded in the woods all over campus. Why hadn’t I noticed before?
I don’t remember the rest of the night, which probably means I got drunk after that.
Fern and I parted ways that summer. We shared a brief and perfect early-twenties love: thesis writing during the day, vodka and cigarettes at night, partying from Soho to Rio, Portishead making our ears ring in the darkness, and beautiful, smiling dark eyes in the morning, making me lightheaded.
I hadn’t known I’d been waiting for that.
Nine years and a lifetime later, living in Austin, I got a late-night call from a dear friend up in Maine. She had heard through the news: my uncle, the one I look like, was out felling a tree, up in on the island, when a 250 pound dead snag broke off the top, fell and caught him on the head. Through a series of miraculous circumstances, despite the severity of the trauma to his skull, he survived. We waited for so long, it seemed, for him to wake up. Then we waited through the immediate aftermath, the side effects of injury to the brain. We waited for him to recover. And he has. I saw him this summer, actually, for the first time since the accident, six years ago. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed him.
I’m listening to the chimes and the edge of the hurricane whistling through the dark trees, as my wife and daughter sleep curled up together down the hall. I’m thinking about the grand oak, and that huge empty space in the sky. I’m hoping Fern is no longer living in flooded lower Manhattan. I’m picturing my loved ones in the Northeast safe in their homes, listening to the wind, hearing limbs cracking and falling, sitting in darkness, waiting.
Another episode in Bob’s 29 Lives. Last night he had a seizure. Completely out of the blue; he’s never had one before. I was holding his legs, crying my head off, until his body calmed down and he stumbled away. I knew that this was It. He was too frail to survive a seizure. He staggered around looking disoriented for a few minutes, then, not five minutes after the seizure started, he was in my arms, purring, like nothing had happened. Not dead. He spent the entire night on my chest. I woke up a lot, and I swear, every time I woke up, he was awake, looking at me, purring.
This morning he looked very sick, and just wanted to sleep on our bed, so I shut him in there while I went to work. Coming home, I prepared myself to find him dead. When I pulled into the driveway, Mo had arrived home before me, and there was Bob, sitting on the gravel in the sun, watching me pull in. He came over and greeted me at my car, as he always does, with his signature smile and purr.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said goodbye to my old Texas cat. It’s like a slow winding-his-way toward the end. It’s exhausting, but it’s giving me time to get ready, in a way. My dear neighbors’ sweet family dog slipped out the door and was killed by a car today. Sometimes they are taken so quickly it’s like you can see an echo of them still, a blur of color, where they surely still must be, sitting by your side.