The Story Garden 5.0
Snow fell hard on a Thursday, five fast inches, a welcome shot of moisture in a dry winter. Arctic cold followed close behind.
My wife's cousin Rosemary called Saturday morning to let us know that Jennifer, her daughter, had been in a car accident nearly two weeks earlier. She asked us to pray. Maria sent e-mails relaying the request to other members of the family.
When I woke up Sunday, the temperature outside was 20 degrees. Maria had turned down the thermostat, and during the night the cold seeped in and pooled on the carpet. I made coffee, fooled around on the computer, watched some TV. I pulled on my windproof pants and some wool socks. Maria was still sleeping. So was our daughter Sara. Tired of everything, feeling cabin-bound, I decided to bundle up and go for a drive.
Jennifer had visited us a half-dozen years ago with Maria’s aunt and uncle from California. She was girlish, barely into her twenties. She adored Sara, who was still a baby then. It was the first time any of us had met her. She seemed fine, but we learned later that she’d had trouble getting her life in order. In time, she got married, had a couple of boys. They were with her during the crash.
I drove east toward Nine Mile Creek. The main paved road was dry, with light vapor rising from the pavement. I carried a rod in back with a new reel on it, for later on, in case the lakes had iced out. I didn’t intend to fish, simply to see how it performed. I had tied a small bass plug. Before I left, I read an e-mail from Dan, Rosemary’s husband. Jennifer and the boys, Keith and Elijah, had been riding in Dan’s BMW with some guy named Matt, who was driving.
Dan cuffed the word “friend” with quotation marks. “He lost control of the car on Genoa Lane, a straight two lane country road with a typical Nevada soft shoulder. The car spun out of control at some unknown speed (probably near 55 MPH) and collided with a west-bound pick-up truck. The passenger side of the BMW hit the truck dead-center head-on.”
There’s a tonic for me in getting out of the house. As I drove along, my eyes reached out, across the unplowed fields, toward the soft sandhills. Tawny rows of corn stubble poked up through the snow. The sky was still and carried a thin blanket of haze, giving it the dull cast of tarnished aluminum.
“The children were shaken-up but not badly injured. Jennifer received very serious head injuries, broke her sternum and several facial bones, and was helicoptered from the scene to the Washoe Trauma Center, ICU, in Reno, and has been in a coma since then ...”
A fuzz of hoarfrost clung to the barren trees. It struck me that while it was beautiful in its own way, it lacked the cheer of the holidays — in no way Christmasy, but bleak and Siberian. No one had traveled the short gravel drive down to Nine Mile Creek since the snowfall. I put the Cherokee into four-wheel and drove down to the gate. When I got out, the stillness was startling. The muffled crunch of snow under my boots got the dogs barking on the next farm over, a quarter-mile to the north.
“She has significant brain injuries and will probably require several years of convalescence, if she survives. Presently we have seen some physical activity such as arm and leg movements, her eye lids open slightly and her eyes seem to move as if by voluntary control. There does not seem to be a deliberate response to external stimulus but a random movement at times ...”
The creek throbbed with trout. The pools held nervous clusters that darted in aimless loops at my approach. I took the rod along. I didn’t really plan to catch anything. I wanted to watch the trout react to the bass plug, and held out a kernel of hope, perhaps, that a big brown might be lingering in an undercut. In the summer the creek is overgrown, clogged with tumbleweeds and a hairy, undulating moss. It’s usually unfishable, stained a creamed-coffee brown with irrigation runoff. Its winter clarity opens a window into the pools and runs. I studied them as I crunched along, seeing drama written in the tracks of rabbits and a pursuing wildcat. A cock pheasant exploded from the dried stalks of the creekside cattails. Without moving my feet, I reached out with the rod and touched the spot where a few of his feathers, left behind in the commotion, still settled into the snow.
”Washoe Medical set up a voice mail line at the Hospital to announce her condition and status to whoever calls. I will send the number in a following message. Meanwhile, if you could pray for her recovery it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. Dan.”
I walked back to the Cherokee on a straighter path, my feet still dry inside Gore-Tex boots. I paused to consider my reflection in the back window after I put away the rod, my cheeks ruddy, my brow thick, my eyes weary and ancient. I drove back to the main road, past the elk farm where bewildered bulls lay snowbound, behind a fence as high as a hand can reach, the swelling nubs of their antlers still emerging under the velvet.
Maria told me something she’d learned from Rosemary, something Dan hadn’t mentioned in his e-mail: Jennifer had risked her life to bear each of her boys. She has a disorder similar to hemophilia that could have caused her to bleed to death during childbirth. If she died, those boys wouldn’t have a mother.
On the way to the lakes I drove under a hawk, pale-breasted and big, the size of a county fair rooster. The lake had re-frozen since I’d seen it last — fishable in places, maybe, but forbidding, a dead slate gray. I drove in on the access road but didn’t stop. I thought about Maria, about Sara. I thought about coffee and turned the Jeep toward home.
Jennifer lived, by the way. She had head injuries and went through a period of walking down the hospital hallway naked and doing other strange things like that, but last we heard she was recovering well -- and planning to get married again.