New Year's Eve will be the twentieth anniversary of my father's death, which coincided with the worst storm of the century. Over three feet of snow were dumped on lower Vancouver Island, an area that seldom receives more than a few inches over a winter. This is our family's story of that week:
The family arrived mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve. Ron was gravely ill, in Intensive Care at the Duncan Hospital, but glad to see his wife, Letty, their daughter, Linda, and granddaughters Melinda, Michelle, and Rachel. They brought his gifts, but after opening one, he lay back on his pillow, exhausted, no longer interested in things.
Letty kissed him and fluffed his pillow. Smiling was difficult. Every muscle ached. Every bone complained. Let it not be too long, he thought.
Linda brought out her guitar and strummed a few arpeggios. The granddaughters sang softly, in three-part harmony, his old favorite: Silent Night. The soothing music abated the throbbing in his body. He had had a great tenor voice years ago, sang solos, and recognized the talent he had handed down two generations, thankful he would leave something of value behind.
They all kissed him, held his hand. How he loved his girls – the grown one, a mother herself. The granddaughters who laughed at his jokes and made the room sparkle when they walked in. But he was tired, so tired, and finally asked them to leave so he could sleep.
As they parted, he heard the woman next door exclaim, “I thought I had died and was hearing angels.” He smiled to himself. Sleep overcame him, dreams of family Christmases past.
After dinner at Letty’s house, Linda wanted to get her daughters home over dangerous Malahat Drive. Light snow was falling, and the weather forecast was for a huge snowstorm. Letty waved them goodbye, calling, “Let me know when you get home!”
The drive took an hour over increasingly treacherous roads. They parked in the carport and went inside for hot chocolate and a board game before bedtime. The next morning, they awoke to a world transformed. The deck was swallowed in snow, the roads were impassable, and nothing was moving. One local radio station became the default emergency broadcaster as unprepared government agencies scrambled to deal with disaster conditions.
Ferries, the airport, and roads ground to a halt. The City of Victoria had one lone snowplow. Citizens with snowmobiles were pressed into service to get doctors and nurses to their hospital shifts.
Outside, neighbors appeared with snow shovels. First, they dug paths from doors to driveways to the buried road. Next came the daunting task of digging out the entire street, since there were no snowplows to help. Linda and her daughters dug snow off the deck, lest the weight collapse it. Her tenant who lived in the basement suite below was away for the holidays, so Linda took photos of her buried car (only the side mirror was left exposed) and dug a pathway to her below-grade door to prevent flooding once the white stuff began melting.
During this time, Ron had had no visitors. The nurses had explained to him about the storm, which was why his wife had not been in to see him.
Ron felt the pull of the other side, heard his long-dead mother’s voice. The hospital seemed like the dream, his mother like the reality, but he wanted to see Letty again. Fifty-two years together. Not perfect, but she was a loving wife and had stood by him all these years, through so much illness. He clung to the side of the hospital bed. Metal. Solid, cold, real. Then the singing began again. Not his granddaughters. Each breath was an effort. He tried to stop sliding out of himself, praying for her to come.
A nurse popped her head in. “Mr. Evans, your wife called to say she’s on her way this afternoon.”
He tried to reply but could only mouth the words. “Thank you, nurse.” Always polite. Only hours to go, then he could leave.
He was in a lush garden, with fountains and strangely colored rabbits.
He grabbed the bed rail again. No rabbits, not yet. Especially not green rabbits. He counted his breaths. He remembered his family. Too bad Bob wouldn’t be in to say goodbye. He was a long-distance trucker, away in the middle of the province somewhere. At least the two of them had somewhat reconciled over the years. Linda would understand. She had a strong faith. She’d helped him understand there was nothing to be afraid of before, when he was afraid. Now he welcomed death, and the struggle was to keep it at bay when he very much wanted to go.
Letty arrived, thank God. She kissed him and pulled up a chair beside his bed so she could hold his hand, as she always did when he was in hospital. She looked sad? No, frightened. He wanted to tell her it was all right, he wanted to go, but no words came out. He squeezed her hand and smiled, a little.
A powerful squeeze seized him in the middle of his chest. He felt like a tube of toothpaste being stepped on.
“Get me a bowl,” he said, gripped by nausea. Then the lush garden appeared again. His mother’s voice told him to come, and this time, he felt himself slip through the pain-wracked body, up near the ceiling. He saw his body, saw Letty call the nurse and tell them not to do anything, to let him go. “Good for you, my love,” he thought. Then he took his mother’s hand and entered the garden.