These days even moonlight wakes her. But she can’t bear to pull the curtains. All night she’s heard the snow ticking on the windows. Now, 5:30 on the bright clock with big numbers, it’s still falling. But it’s Sunday. No sounds of plows. Nestled in quilts and pillows, Bertie imagines. She wants to sled. To roll down hills with her hands tight against her sides. To jump into drifts. And finally, stepping precisely so she won’t spoil its border, she wants the bliss of making a snow angel.
What an idea! Bones thin as chicken wings; the doctor says, she mustn’t fall. Her skin is like her mother’s was at the end, rice paper. Bertie winces. And coughs, as she does in bed if she doesn’t turn often. And she bruises when she lies too long in one position. She couldn’t just lie in the snow, look at the blessed rage of snowflakes tumbling down, feel the crystals melt on her eyelashes, rest in white drifts that cushion her body like pillows all around. She can pretend, but she’s a prisoner here.
Her kids would be outraged if they knew she even thought of it. And her keepers—Minor will hear her get up, bark, and wake Etta. Whenever Bertie moves, the nurse is at her side And Minor? It makes Bertie sad. The old spaniel’s started sleeping around. Like other old dogs she’s known. He starts off on the floor next to her bed, but when she gets up during the night to pee and Etta pads in to make sure she gets to the bathroom and back to bed again, the dog always follows the nurse to the living room and lies down next to her in the big recliner. The routine.
Bertie just wants to escape for a little while. To play. Those old purple snow pants. They’re still in the bottom dresser drawer. They should go to somebody who can use them. Even her grandchildren hate the purple. But In the seventies they wore all kinds of colors. She piled the boys’ yellow and green ski pants, magenta parkas, at the foot of their beds so they could get themselves dressed with their eyes half-closed when she woke them, early. About this time. Hats, gloves, skis, boots, poles: ready at the front door. They left home while it was still dark. Herb never woke up, and the kids went right back to sleep in the car. About halfway to the mountain she’d stop for donuts so the boys were almost the first kids on the lift. She’d park and then go for her own lesson.
Bertie never learned to ski as a kid in the Midwest. Big mountains still take her breath away. But when the boys were ready to learn, she took them north and forced herself to take lessons so she could be with them, watch them get tall, strong, and comfortable on black diamond trails. “It’s good you’re taking lessons, Mom,” they’d say. Sometimes they joined her on a green trail. But at the end of the day she’d search the slopes for their bright parkas and gasp at the way they flew, swishing and slaloming down at speeds that still scared her.
It’s quiet. Staring at the seam where her bedroom walls and ceiling meet, Bertie starts to plan. Could she get dressed? Yesterday she noticed Herb’s double-thick gray sweatshirt on the top shelf of her closet, and there are triple thick mittens and a hand knit hat her mother once made for her father. More than a hundred years ago? Never mind counting. Probably she can find everything but boots. And a coat. But the sweatshirt is very warm. If she can get everything else together, sneakers could be ok.
The snow whispers against the windows. What bliss: to get out for a moment, step into a perfectly clean patch—where angels wouldn’t fear to tread—and just lie down. Just do it.
Now she remembers one January, maybe fifteen years ago, it seemed to snow every Sunday. Church kept being cancelled, like school snow days. There were long mornings when she snuggled down in bed watching as the tufts of snow on the pine boughs outside the back window started looking like little Chinese hats. She was in her early seventies—and she thought she was old then—when she began to see how quickly light changes everything. From bed, she watched the dull, flat, sifting snow take on pale blues, sometimes nearly invisible violets as the skies cleared. She learned to anticipate how the steel gray beech trunk at the other window turned greenish as elbow patches of snow built up along its bark. And when she got up, she was tireless and sensible, resisting urges to flop down into the piles of new snow she was shoveling. It wasn’t so long ago. If she could do all that, if she was once able to rally her sons for skiing while it was still dark and she was scared of mountains, if she still wanted to make an angel, why not try?
The apartment is on the ground floor. French doors open from the bedroom onto a small patio. She thinks she can be very quiet—if her arthritic fingers are strong enough to turn the lock on the glass doors. It’s mostly a matter of maneuvering around the little room without waking the dog. Once she gets to the bureau—nonskid bed socks are good—she’ll use the little scatter rug in front of the bureau rug as a magic carpet. Like she used to shuffle around the bathroom on a mat, after showers. That way her ankles won’t crack and the floor won’t groan. Minor might not hear anything. She hears her sons shouting. “Why would you try such a thing, Ma? What were you thinking?” They will be angry. But the more she thinks, the cockier she gets. It’s like remembering there’s fudge sauce in the fridge. Once you think about it, you have to have a taste.
There’s a monitor on the bookshelf by the bed. Degrading. Always on. But if she’s careful she thinks she can switch it off without making a sound. To reach it she has to roll over. Lifting off the quilt she slides down and turns. Again. At the edge, she lies still. Her head isn’t spinning. Pushing herself up slowly, she reaches the switch on the white box. Off. She waits. No noise from the other room. Simple. Scooting down again she rolls to the other side of the bed and sits again. The gentle throbbing in her neck subsides. Taking a deep breath, she swings her skinny, mottled legs over the side of the bed and slides forward. Her feet are on the floor.
Leaning on the bed, she stands up. In a few seconds the dizziness fades. Very slowly, steadying herself on the bed, she walks around it. Now: just one big step to the bureau—and she’s there, leaning on the little dresser as she steps onto the scatter rug and lowers herself slowly down. Sitting, she can open the drawers evenly so they won’t squeak. She knows where things are: underwear, turtlenecks in the second drawer, snow pants in the bottom. Bundling stuff onto her lap, with butt planted firmly, she puts her feet on either side of the rug and begins skating them back and forth slowly, on the bare floor toward the closet. With her shoulders swinging for momentum—like when you ski. The rug scoots toward the closet. There’s almost no sound. She’s focusing. Any thump will wake the dog.
At the closet, Bertie opens the door enough to wiggle in. There! It’s still quiet. Catching her breath. A little early daylight has followed her from the windows. Sitting there among shoes and the silk blouse that keeps sliding off its hanger, she remembers, suddenly, another closet floor. Ages ago. She must have been about ten. Mom had taken her and Peter to see a house burning. Near Gran’s house. Standing across the street with a group of people, they watched as the front of the house collapsed and its structure of walls and floors begin to emerge. Old houses burning give off tremendous heat. A woman near them tapped Bertie and Peter on their shoulders. “Remember, kids: close all your doors at night, to keep air from circulating in case there’s ever a fire. Air feeds the flames.” So Bertie made a plan. If she were ever trapped in her bedroom, she would go to the closet and close the door behind her. No air would circulate there. But there’d be enough to breathe. Snug against the back wall, behind the dresses and skirts, she’d be safe. For a few years she hid a trunk of favorite doll clothes, some books, a flashlight, a diary, and a small jewelry box from Gran way in the back of the closet. They’d be safe too. And sometimes she’d stage her own secret night fire drill, turning off all the lights in her room and feeling her way into the closet, closing the door behind her and settling into the back corner. Nearly eighty years. She whistles softly as she exhales.
Now. There are vertical rows of narrow shelves on either side of the door. Lifting the clothes from her lap to the second shelf, she leans on the lowest ones on both sides for leverage. She’s on her knees. But not for long. Old knees don’t like bending. Holding the higher shelves for leverage—good old canoeing muscles!—she pulls herself up. Standing! On with the light. She closes the door behind her, tight. And there’s the sweatshirt. With an empty hanger she reaches up and hooks a sleeve. The soft gray flannel tumbles over the edge into her arms.
Bertie unbuttons her nightgown. It drops easily over her thin frame to the floor. The turtleneck goes over her head. And the sweatshirt. Now, one leg at a time, she puts on the pants, pulling them to her waist. She’s getting warm. Never mind boots. Her sneakers are right there, widely unlaced, on the floor. Lucky! She’ll tie them when she’s out. Steadying herself by leaning on the door, she slips her feet in, one at a time. Almost ready. The hat and mittens are right where they belong, behind the towels at the back of the third shelf. She puts them on so her hands are free and turns to unlatch the door. There’s Herb’s old windbreaker hanging on a wall hook. Just right for over the sweatshirt. She’ll be really warm.
She just has to get across her bedroom and out the French doors without making a sound. Indian walk. Toe, heel. She and Peter used to take turns seeing if they could sneak across the living room without the other one hearing. She misses him. Wait. No de-railing now. And if he were stuck like she is these days, he’d sneak out too.
She begins. One step at a time. Steadying herself on the bed, then the bureau, she moves carefully toward the doors. Everything is quiet. She’s holding her breath. And then she’s there. Oh. She’s left the closet light on. In the glass doors she sees the reflection of the little bedroom where she has to spend so much time these days. “Rest,” they keep saying. But that can’t be all that’s left. “Focus, Bertie,” she tells herself. Snow’s still falling. Taking off her right mitten, she leans on the center of the doors with her left arm, holding them tight so there’s no noise as she turns the lock. The latch click. She opens one door just enough to slide through, sideways. Not to let in too much cold air.
And she’s out. The cold air is heavenly! It rushes into her lungs with such force that she closes her eyes and remembers that dazzle of moon last night out her window, before she fell asleep. When it’s this cold, there’s no dirt in the air. Everything’s brand new.
Patterns lie like blanket creases on the snow. There isn’t much wind—no drifts on the patio. She can stand at the edge without getting her feet wet. But first, over to the wall so she has something to lean against while she bends to tie her laces. Right. Left. Then up again. More deep breaths. That over-heated apartment dries out her airways. Why does everybody think old people always need the heat so high? Her eyes start to tear. She isn’t sure if it’s the sudden cold or because she misses her kids, grandchildren, brothers. How could this have happened? Nobody to play with any more?
She’s going to have to take a big step to reach a clean spot big enough for her body with her arms extended. If she can land on just the right place, one footstep won’t mar the edge. These first calculations were always important. If you could take one step, pivot, and lie down all in one maneuver—and cover your tracks—it would be perfect. The angel, crisply outlined, would look like it fell straight from the sky, to that very spot. But at a certain moment, she always stopped fretting and moved.
On one side of the patio are Rhody bushes. Snow on their branches looks like small white furry elephants and bunnies, worn out nursery animals. She doesn’t want to mar anything. Can she take a big enough step without falling? Land just far enough out so her arms, becoming wings, don’t bump into the bushes or the patio? No cane. Will her balance hold? The snow will have to support her. Because she must take one giant step. Mother may I? There’s only one way to find out. Try. If she falls, she falls. She’ll roll over, lie on her back, and make as perfect an angel as she can, wherever she lands. Years ago she realized, nothing is perfect. Only in memory.
Now. One more deep breath. Then, standing tall, pulling her stomach in for steadiness, she takes as big a step as she can and lands—left foot reflexively following right—in a deep spot of new snow at least one body’s length away from the edge. So. She’s in the snow. Upright. Now, clear of patio and bushes, she realizes she can take another step. Even walk a little. Of course. Footprints don’t matter. She’s on her way. Sneakers are great. But she doesn’t want to fall. Or stand still so long her feet get cold. Turning to face the big pines she takes one more step. The snow is deeper here. And knowing she can cover her last prints with one of her wings, she plants her feet and sits down.
How can sitting in the snow make anyone so happy? How long has it been since she’s felt anything like this? Has she ever dreamed that rapture can be icy cold? She flops down on her back, straightens her legs, opens her mouth to catch the flakes on her tongue. They’re getting bigger. She never liked that. It always means the storm will stop soon. She used to pretend the flakes were hugging each other. She closes her eyes. Opens them. Closes them again. Snow melts on her eyelashes. It’s like the feathery eyelash-to-eyelash butterfly kisses they used to give each other. Who? Her mother? Brothers? Kids?
Now, stretching her arms and legs as far as she can, she starts moving them. Legs out and in. Arms up and down, as far as she can reach, by her sides. In her mind’s eye she sees the angel she is making. And she smiles. More deep breaths. Sweet moisture fills her lungs. No coughing, no dizziness, no bruises, no palsied twitches disturb what she will leave behind. She lies still. “I could stay here forever,” she had said one afternoon when they were walking home through snowy fields with friends and all their kids. Somebody told her a person could get this overwhelming urge to lie down in the snow and actually fall asleep. It was dangerous. She always understood. But now, like then, the flakes are falling straight down like white rain, dissolving on her face. An exaltation of wet stars. Pinging her cheeks. She never wants it to end.
She isn’t cold, even with crystals of ice starting to melt down into her sneakers. Behind her thinning eyelids she realizes the sky is beginning to brighten. When the snow stops, the light may make everything rosy. It all depends where the sun is. Eyes still closed, she remembers watching winter fly by from a train window a few years ago. Dazzling patterns of tree shadows in parallelograms and diagonals striped acres of snowy forests and meadows. The light made the snow look gold. Now, nearly inaudible, she hears the day’s first chickadee giggle. This early? Who knew they began to sing before sunrise?
Bertie has taken charge. Nobody knows where she is. Digging her arms deeper into the snow, she moves them up and down to renew the angel arcs. Snow creeps into her mittens. The windbreaker and sweatshirt start wiggling up. A little wetness at the small of her back now, against her skin. It’s warm. She has done a good thing.
Margot Adler Welch worked for thirty years as teacher and psychologist in university, school, court, and community settings. Over the years she has thought of herself as working in the tradition of scribe, writing nonfiction and poetry that tries to give voice to people whose lives are often unheard. Often her writing has focused on issues critical to children. Her book, Promising Futures: the Unexpected Rewards of Engaged Philanthropy (2006) describes the transformative impact on philanthropists of making long-term engaged commitments to low-income children.