The Great White Hurricane: Following the yellow rope to make it home safely

snow1978

I remember my dad leaning out the door — one boot on linoleum, the other on a snow-covered step — knotting a thick yellow rope around a lantern attached to the back of our house.

My mom, sobbing, clung to his belt as a screeching gust of wind unfurled a curtain of snow over our kitchen, swirling, swirling until it wrapped around him like icy fingers trying to lift him up and into the storm.

“It’s not safe,” mom cried. “You’re going to die if you go out there.”

It was January 26, 1978 and I was 12-years-old.

Local TV weathermen had predicted snow, but nothing like this.

The barometric pressure plummeted to 958 millibars, the lowest ever recorded in the United States outside a tropical region.

And we were trapped in what would become known as The Great White Hurricane.

Our rural Ohio home, built in 1843, sat in the middle of flat, open farm fields at the highest point in Medina County, a stair-step plot of 270,000 acres about 30 miles south of Cleveland.

The one-bathroom house was a humble man’s project. The beams and boards were held together by hand-hammered square nails, the walls insulated with nothing but ground-up corn cobs.

Unaccustomed to 100 mph gusts, the house snapped and popped in the whipping winds, but dad was certain it would hold.

His worry was the animals in the barn.

Our goat, Nanny, needed milked and my hand-me-down pony, Star — who had already been brushed, fed and ridden for 25 years by a dozen of my older cousins before arriving at our stable — needed fed. And both animals needed water because the troughs were almost certainly frozen solid by wind chills of -50 degrees.

The barn — three stories high and painted red — was only 90 yards from our back door, yet through the falling and blowing snow, we couldn’t spy a clue of its existence.

Dad had a plan: Tie one end of the yellow rope — the same rope he used to hang my swing from a black walnut tree the summer before — to the lantern on the back of the house and tie the other around his waist.

If he made it to the barn, he’d remove the rope from his waist and knot it around a beam, creating a sort of rope life line he could hold onto and safely journey back and forth in the blinding snow. If he couldn’t find the barn, he could at least follow the rope back home.

It seemed reasonable.

But dad wasn’t a farmer. He was a banker.

He had indulged my mother’s “Little House on the Prairie” phase during this time of their lives and agreed, more or less, that our family of three — mom, dad and me — should live off the land. He worked outside every morning and every evening. And in between, he wore uncomfortable suits and sat behind a behind a desk he never liked at the local bank.

His white-collar colleagues would hardly recognize him — the yellow rope wrapped around his barn coat, a ski mask over his face, a cigarette between his lips.

Mom and I watched from the window over the kitchen sink as dad disappeared into the whiteout after only a few steps.

It was the first time I considered life without dad.

And now, 36 years later, during the coldest February in local history, I am facing it.

You’d think a 48-year-old woman would be ready for such a passing.

Dad — who survived his trip to the barn that day and later watched, along with me and my mother, the National Guard in a full-size war tank smash through the 8- and 10-foot snow drifts that blocked our road for a week — is 83 now. He is a life-long smoker who spent decades consuming my mother’s not-so-haute cuisine, a witch’s brew of processed food she’d mix together on a whim, inspired by recipes she proudly never followed.

But I find myself ill-prepared for his death.

Dad was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago with esophageal cancer and yesterday we learned it is in his lungs.

I can hear him downstairs coughing now — a tight, unfamiliar hack — even as I type this at 2:26 a.m., a time when both of us should be sleeping.

He’s in week three of radiation now, daily treatments not aimed at slowing his disease, but at stemming the bleeding from his tumor, which robbed him of half his blood supply earlier this month.

The radiation has made it painful for him to swallow. Even soft food — like eating mashed potatoes — hurts.

Oncologists initially planned daily radiation treatments to last four weeks, but changed course when dad complained he was short of breath. A CAT scan revealed spots on his lungs and swollen lymph nodes in his chest. The esophageal cancer is spreading.

Next week, dad switches to chemotherapy in pill form. The drug, Xeloda, will attack the cancer wherever it is in dad’s body, doctors say. But the chemo won’t prolong dad’s life. It will merely help doctors manage his cancer symptoms.

Dad never complains

Today, my husband took dad to radiation and afterward, they went out for beers. Tomorrow, they plan to do the same.

When I was a girl, I thought dad was brave the day he blindly headed into the snowstorm with nothing to guide him back but a yellow rope.

Now I’m witnessing a different kind of bravery and wondering if I have inherited it like I have my father’s hazel eyes and hammer toes.

The key to coping with his death, I think, is finding my own yellow rope — an imaginary tether I can knot around the memory of my father, the love of my husband and myself, allowing me to wander bravely and blindly into the future knowing that I can forever find my way safely home again, if only in my mind.

Please remember: © Amanda Garrett and Mom and Dad Move In — from 2015 until present: Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this written material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amanda Garrett and Mom and Dad Move In with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Feel free to re-blog on WordPress.

22 thoughts on “The Great White Hurricane: Following the yellow rope to make it home safely

  1. Excellent job. May be my favorite to date. On the day of the great blizzard I (like the young idiot I was) went in to work. Went from State Road and Pleasant Valley all the way to W 110th and Madison. Ranks pretty high on the stupid-ometer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Bob! Have you told the boys this — or do you think of it when they make a risky move? Surprised, really, more people didn’t die during the story. Our neighbor, Mrs. Shimsky, went into labor with her 8th child and after two days with no baby, she called for help and someone (don’t know who) took her to Medina hospital on a snowmobile. Ouch!

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      • Wow, the snowmobiling during birthing story definitely tops mine. I can’t remember whether I JJ&T about this or not. Probably not. All three of them have long ago eclipsed me on the adventure scale.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You should tell the boys because they haven’t experienced a winter like that….and I haven’t heard your details yet..which I’m sure are harrowing. Kath told me about her bus ride home in the snow..and how the bus was stuck on the street across from a bar. Hard to imagine being in that situation without a mobile phone…unable to tell family where you are (and that you’re not under a snow drift).

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  2. I’m so sorry Amanda. Your portrait was beautifully done. Nothing I know of will prepare you for losing your dad in my experience. My guess is your husband is that yellow rope. Hold on tight.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jeez woman such beautiful poetry I have missed your writing soooooooooo much. So glad you are back. I think you are already tethered and when you need them most, those ropes will find their way and warmly wrap around you.. Here’s to finding the knots when U need them…
    .

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  4. Hi Amanda,

    I just read your blog for today and it brought tears. I admire your positive attitude and I am so sorry to hear that your dad’s cancer has spread. It is plain to see why you are a journalist and it is so good that you can put your feelings on paper. I don’t know if you believe in prayers, but I do and I’ll be saying them for all three of you. Please stay strong, even though some days may seem like you can’t take more. One day at a time!

    I remember so well, the house your are talking about! When you and Brian were little, I would bring him over to play. You were good buddies back then!

    Love,

    Betty

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Betty. We are gladly accepting prayers, good thoughts and any positive vibes. If I didn’t have this writing outlet, I may explode (or at least melt down). You know, I remember playing with Brian when we were young — grade-school age — and then I don’t remember even knowing each other when we got older. And I have no idea why. Childhood memories, though, are strange and unreliable. Thanks for keeping a long-distance eye on us. These are trying times.

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  5. Dear Amanda,
    I was so touched by what you wrote, and the thoughts you have conveyed at the beginning of this blog. It is late and I can’t read it all now, but will. I am about 10 years older than you, and my folks are in their 90’s. They have their problems but none quite so vicious a beast as cancer. You will be in my thoughts. I have worked at an office on aging for many years. If you or your family are open to it, I wouldn’t hesitate to share the burden with the hospice folks. They won’t be any more intrusive than you want them to be, at least I would hope so. Take care…Robin

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    • Thanks for this note, Robin. When my parents first moved in, no one thought mom was long for this world and we brought in Hospice. Mom improved, but a Hospice nurse practitioner visits about every six weeks (she prescribed mom and anti-seizure medicine, not for seizures, but to help with chronic nerve pain…allowing me to wean mom off painkillers). Now, this same nurse practitioner — who is already a hero in our eyes — is helping dad. And it’s truly comforting to have the continuity and quality of care…this woman treats my parents medically, but she also knows us, pets our dog, gets our value system., share a it of her life with us. It’s the way medicine should be.

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  6. Amanda,
    I found your blog through Connie Schultz’s Facebook page. Your writing is so eloquent and insightful. I stayed up way too late last night reading it, and have bookmarked it so I can read more. Good luck with taking care of your parents. My husband’s parents both had dementia, his dad had cancer, and my mother had many health issues with too many pills, so I can relate. I’m glad you have created this outlet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy, thank you for following me. Another former colleague literally demanded I start blogging when I ran into her at Christmas. I started with just a couple of throw-away paragraphs and hesitated to get too personal. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to violate too much of my parents’ privacy. But as the crisis with me dad has deepened, I have depended greatly on this blog to keep my head straight. Since Connie recommended me to her readers, I’ve been encouraged by how many people seem to connect..and want to connect. Like with your experiences with your inlays and your mom. It’s easy to feel isolated, sometimes, as a caregiver…even though there’s an army of us out there.

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  7. Amanda –
    So glad my brother Mike Scott told me about your blog. I think I mentioned on the post he shared on FB that I hadn’t had a chance to read through them all….but have taken this snowy morning to sit and read and this one got me! Even though the stories are different, it reminded me of caring for my parents in their final years. We were lucky – there were 8 of us siblings to care for my parents. You are doing an amazing job with your parents – I love reading your stories – the funny and the sad! You mention being ill prepared for your father’s death – I think no matter how much you try to prepare, you never fully are. Thoughts and prayers to all of you…

    And the blizzard of 78 – I was 9 and remember riding the school bus in Newbury down Auburn Road and it seemed we were driving through a tunnel of snow!
    Marilyn

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marilyn! Being an only kid always carries blessings and curses. Decision-making tough — because there’s no sibling sounding board — but in many ways it’s much simpler for the same reason. I can’t imagine 8 siblings — even if all have the very best intentions — trying to manage daily planning. I think you’re right about not being able t prepare..and I keep telling myself that..yet I keep trying. I find my head and heart more at odds as I move thru this. That blizzard. Remember growing up … and the Baby Boomers would always talk about where there were when JFK was shot? We all, sadly, have our 9/11 moment now..but before that (and even now) everyone our age from Ohio can connect to that blizzard….Amanda

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