Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bittersweet Ice

We lost my second sister in December, just before Christmas. Her death affected me deeply and made for a difficult transition between the usual joy of the season and grief. My eldest sister flew to spend the holidays with us as usual, and step by step we embraced each day together, treasuring the time as never before, knowing full well that a part of each of us was now missing.

We are, and always have been, a scattered family. Now flung across six states, we do what we can to maintain contact and some degree of connectedness to each other. Because of this, the holiday season, and the weather, my brother-in-law and three nieces wisely decided to put off a family gathering to remember my sister until late January. It had been ten years since our family had all been together and I yearned for this connection now, as never before. Death can do that to a person.

Determined to make it to New Mexico no matter what, we built an extra day or two into our travel plans, just in case. The weekend before we were to leave, a major storm began to gather strength somewhere far out in the Pacific. This is not all that unusual, as most of our storms approach from the southwest, carrying relatively warm, moist air. Western Washington is well-known for its rainy climate and this is why. But if one of these heavy, wet, air masses should collide with a frigid one moving down from Canada, the result can be a wallop of a storm with high winds, snow, ice and all that goes with it. The day before we were to leave, this is exactly what happened.

Living where we do, there are several ways to get to SeaTac Airport, which lies midway between Seattle and Tacoma. You can "drive around" by way of Tacoma (and its well-known Tacoma Narrows Bridge) or take a ferry from Bremerton or Bainbridge Island into the heart of downtown Seattle and secure a ride from there. When the small bus company that "drives around" cancelled all runs due to icy conditions, we decided to risk driving to a ferry in our heavy duty vehicle. At 5:30 AM, with a friend in tow to drive the truck back home, we did just that - slowly and carefully, to be sure, but we made it. Downtown Seattle was glazed and deserted with nary a cab in sight. But we had booked a ride with a company that guaranteed to get us there, and before long a huge black SUV approached the curb and loaded us in. Another slow, careful drive delivered us to the airport.

OF COURSE we had checked everything out via the Internet before leaving home, and everything was in "GO" status! Once at the airport, however, it was obvious that this was not exactly the case. The place was crowded with long lines of people trying to re-book cancelled flights, which seemed to be most of them. Ours was one of the few not cancelled, so we checked our bags, secured boarding passes, and whizzed through the practically empty security station.

I have never come to rely on a cell phone - my husband and I possess one between us and rarely use it. For this momentous occasion, however, with seven of us flying and two of us driving across hundreds of miles, these little miracles of communication became invaluable. Thirty minutes before boarding, they cancelled our flight. We re-booked for a flight two hours later, which was also cancelled. We booked a third flight for the next morning and somehow managed to reserve a room at a nearby motel. Looking back, I'm not sure how this happened, as all the airport motels had been booked solid since the storm wreaked its havoc. Serendipity, I guess, but we were extremely grateful and decided to have lunch before retrieving our bags.

Bellies full, bags claimed, motel courtesy van caught, and snug in our room, a flurry of phone calls and emails got everyone up-to-date on each other's whereabouts. Everyone (except us) expected that day had arrived, was resting, visiting, and would gather for a family dinner out that night. We would tip-toe through snow and ice to a Denny's across the parking lot, but anticipated a family dinner the next night. Tired, but content, we enjoyed a quiet evening.

I had to slip back outside to try to capture the wonderland spread before us in this mundane, big city parking lot. This storm, unwanted and retched as it was, had coated everything in a thick, transparent layer of ice.

I lingered far longer than I planned, totally entranced by the beauty of crystalline branches, buds, leaves - each reflecting the lights, other icicles, and their own color from within.

I thought of my missing sister - how she would have loved this! Soon, we would gather with her family, honor her memory, and maybe then this ache in my heart would lessen...

Transfixed, delighted, and exuberant, I arrived back in the room to be greeted with yet another email - morning flight cancelled. An hour on the Internet revealed what we had feared - all flights booked.

I called my niece and we tried, between us, to figure something out. "You could take the train to Portland and fly out of there..." No, the train is not running due to downed trees and branches on the tracks; anyway, all flights out of Portland are booked... "You could try for Saturday morning...." "No way could we get there in time for the service...we've tried everything we know of, we just can't make it." Finally, we just cried together - time, space, memory and grief running together in long streaks down my face.

The next morning began no better: the 3:30 AM wake up call that we had requested, and then cancelled, was not cancelled and woke us up; my sister called at 4:00 - she had not talked to my niece and thought we'd be on our way to the morning flight. We slept a bit more, then roused ourselves to the sound of planes taking off - evidently the ice had begun to melt...

Now I was feeling cheated and really angry. Back to the airport we went, this time to catch the Airporter back home. They can cancelled all morning runs, but would begin at noon. As we waited, visiting with other would-be passengers, there were huge blasts which reverberated through that end of the terminal. Looking up, we could see ice on the skylights and what appeared to be cracks. Police cordoned off the area, fearing falling glass, although we did not see any. Ice melting off of a higher roof had let loose; we later learned that seventeen windows had been broken. By the time the bus arrived, 45 of us were clamoring to board - luckily, they'd sent two buses.

Tired and out of sorts, we settled in for the two-hour ride. Wiping a small opening in the condensation on the window, I viewed a world that was foggy, white and wet, reminding me of a drippy version of Dr. Zhivago. After about an hour, traffic slowed to a crawl and the driver announced that, due to falling ice, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was closed - for an indeterminate time. Our driver thought quickly and took an exit to a McDonald's, so that we could all grab a bite to eat, use the restroom, and not be stalled in traffic. We waited... still no news on when the bridge would open. The only thing to do was to return to Seattle, take a different ferry across Puget Sound to reach our highway so that all the passengers could be delivered to where they needed to go. Of course, by the time we hit Seattle, it was going-home time on a Friday night!

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper and I felt disheartened and totally drained; it would be after eight in the evening by the time we finally got home. Suddenly, our cell phone rang - it was my sister calling me from the family dinner. We talked a bit, then she held the phone out so that everyone - brother-in-law, nieces, great nieces and nephews could yell "Hello- wish you were here!" Well, I certainly did too, but in that dark, cramped bus heading to nowhere, even with more tears running down my face, I felt loved and included. Across time, distance, and weather - that's what families are for.

Glass sculptures pictured here are from Fluent Steps by Martin Blank


  1. Oh, Barb. I remember this, but of course didn't know all the details at the time. My heart goes out to you. My oldest brother passed a week ago today and I know how impossible that feels. Thank you for sharing and for the beautiful pictures. Your artist's eye is so evident. Love you lots.
    Amy Sweet

  2. Simply exquisite. And sad. I was so anxious last July when my brother and his wife were flying into Atlanta from Toronto for my mother's service and the hurricanes hit. I picked them up at 3 a.m. after many transfers due to canceled flight. I am so sorry for your loss, and sense your thankfulness for a wonderful family.

  3. Oh, Ladybug, what a trying time you had! I was exhausted just reading all that you went through, what a mess. I'm so sorry about your sister.

    I hope the next time y'all decide to get together, it goes much smoother!

  4. Oh my sweet Auntie! I, of course, was experiencing this so differently on my end in ABQ. And my heart ached for you then as it does now. But it ached for me too. I felt cheated that my dear, sweet aunt and uncle were being foiled by mother nature -- that which you put a love of into my heart all those years back when I was a wee thing and we'd go on our "nature walks" and then do "craft projects" with what we picked up along the way. I have such anticipation at the thought of passing this on to little Dash when he's old enough! I hope you'll be able to help me from time to time.

    Soooo glad we'll get to have a mini-family reunion in Portland soon. I know it doesn't include everyone, but it will still be wonderful and dad is in very high spirits about it. His 87th! Wow!

    Your pictures are exquisite and the tale you told brings all the loose ends together for me. Thank you for sharing. It brought a tear to my eye as I thought about how my mom would react could she read what you wrote about family: family was at the core of her life all the years of her adulthood.

    Love you so much! Keep clicking pics, sharing thoughts and insights and being the wonderful "you" that you are!

  5. With tears dripping, I read your tale of... adventuresome woes? I've certainly taken public transport that resulted in those strange rescheduling, waiting in weird places, and trying again in a different way.

    We missed you that weekend and thought of you often.

    This weekend, I was the one not at the family event. I'm sorry to have missed it and you.

    The photos are absolutely gorgeous.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. oh what a trying time you all had...
    and i'm so sorry for your loss...i can understand just what you're going through, having lost my sister and then a year later my brother. there are so many things that remind us...of that empty space. even though they are with us i kn ow...in our hearts for always...there;s still that emptiness.

    your pictures are gorgeous! all that magic!! wow!

    please know you are in my thoughts...

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  8. Thanks, everyone, for your kind words. We've all known grief, so it is one of the common cords that seems to bind us. It's therapeutic, I think, to vent a bit about it, and so that is what I did here. It's a "luxury" of sorts that I don't often allow myself.

    Amy - I'm so very sorry to hear about your brother. Our siblings hold a special place in our hearts, for sure.

    Helena, Tumbleweed, Linda, Performance PI, & Laura - I know you've all "been there" in terms of losing someone near & dear to you also. There is always the other side of the story for those who cannot be there to share. Grieving is best done together, at least for a time.

    Bless you ALL, and thanks for your heartfelt comments. Spring is on the way - and I am "springing back up" now! I wish the same for each of you.