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.
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