I had a lot of tasks to catch up on this week before I could find time to write this. It’s a narrative of my unexpected adventure last week. Spoiler: we’re all okay now.
It’s late Monday afternoon and I’m working my noon to 9 p.m. shift at the library. I’m on a project hour, away from view of the public services desks, so I’m able to glance at my cell phone when it buzzes. My 23-year-old, who lives ~240 miles away, has been battling a virus, but felt he was over it enough to go to work. He’s messaging me for advice.
He has chest pains. Bad chest pains. Trouble breathing. Do I think he should leave work and go to the ER?
YES! Child of mine, go to the ER. Now.
Still, he’s only 23. I think it has to be indigestion or a panic attack. That’s the news I expect to hear, or what I want to hear, at any rate.
Monday evening, the schedulers have been kind to me. I’m again working in the back offices, where I can check my phone. The ER doctor has done an EKG and decided to draw blood for some labs. A while later, another message. The results look concerning. They’re admitting him overnight…cath lab and echocardiogram tomorrow.
I’m driving up in the morning, I tell him. I make arrangements to overnight with my nephew and his family, who live only a few miles from my kid. My nephew’s wife, who is a nurse and also an angel, drops everything and drives up to the hospital, calming everyone.
I leave work early so I can pack and try to get some sleep. I’m too old to drive half the night any more. In fact, I’m lately turning into a complete driving weenie. I don’t like driving after dark, especially on unfamiliar roads. But I do have experience on which to draw. A veteran of Midwest winter trips, I automatically pack a snow shovel, a blanket, several extra layers of clothing, a container of ice melt, my Yaktrax, a few snacks and plenty of drinking water. A check of my weather app tells me I probably have clear sailing ahead, but I don’t want to take any chances. I manage a night of fitful sleep, completely unaware the forecast will radically change overnight.
The next morning I message Kid 1. Eating breakfast. Then I’ll hit the road.
He answers with a screenshot of the weather forecast for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he’s in the hospital. It shows freezing rain beginning in the afternoon. Crap. He urges me to be careful, saying the last thing he needs right now is his mom dead in a ditch, turning my own usual words of caution back on me.
I think I can get there before the ice does if I leave now, I answer. (Narrator’s voice: She is so wrong.)
I drive north, trying to calculate how fast I can go, while staying safe and without risking a ticket. It’s not even the cost of the ticket that worries me as much as the fact that getting pulled over would mean a delay. The only working sound system in my basic, 15-year-old minivan is an old-fashioned radio. As I navigate through northern Missouri and button through stations, I hear one notice after another for early school dismissals due to the impending ice storm. I bump the speed up another couple of miles an hour and turn off the radio because it’s stressing me out.
The first precipitation hits about 15 miles south of Ottumwa. It’s the worst kind of freezing rain, forming ice on my windshield within a minute. I second guess my decision to go, but it’s too late to turn back. I’m driving through an ice storm either way. If this is how I die, at least my child will know I was trying to be there for him. I slow the van to 40, as do the other few vehicles on this stretch of highway. To keep the windshield from icing over, I have to keep the wipers on high and the defrost blasting on top heat. Before long, I’m sweltering. I count down the miles until I turn east and have a chance at outrunning the weather system, as it’s moving in from the west.
I breathe a little easier when I make the turn and see blue skies ahead. It’s still drizzling on me, but I’ll be past it soon. It takes longer than I anticipate to hit dry roads, and the blue skies keep retreating. But I am eventually able to pick up speed again. Somehow the gray edge of the clouds manages to remain just above me and the blue skies only a vision on the horizon. It feels like a metaphor.
I keep the radio off. Whatever’s going to happen weather-wise is going to happen. I don’t need constant reminders. I’m not a good singer, but I’m alone, so I pass time and try to calm myself by singing. Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face…Damn, what’s the rest of the song? That’s all I know of it. I haven’t thought much about it before, but I discover I only know the complete lyrics to maybe four songs, and one of those is “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
As I near Iowa City, the sky darkens considerably, though it’s not far past noon. Freezing drizzle pelts down and traffic crawls. Overhead signs flash a message: ICE STORM WARNING. I remember all of my driving lessons about maintaining distance, and thus never rear-end anyone, even though I skid a little bit a couple of times when I have to hit my brakes. The last 35 miles of the trip take a solid hour to complete. I haven’t eaten any of my snacks, and only had about three sips of water because I didn’t want to have to stop for many bathroom breaks. I don’t know what I’m going to do if the weather strands us after I reach the hospital, but my only focus is getting there. And I do. I park in the hospital garage, not sure if I’m supposed to be occupying the space I take. But I don’t even care by that point.
I arrive to find that Kid 1 is to be released! A nurse fills me in. They found no blockages, and the echocardiogram, along with some other stuff I now forget led the doctors to a diagnosis of pericarditis. The virus my my son had battled fought back and caused inflammation around his heart, which can feel like a heart attack. But it’s something he’ll recover from. He’ll be okay. If the weather doesn’t kill us when we leave.
The nurses have him get out of bed to make sure he can ambulate. They advise us both on what he can’t do for the next couple of days with the arm where they inserted the catheter to look at his arteries. They get him a first dose of two prescriptions, fill out some paperwork, etc., and eventually release us into what is now a raging ice storm.
The hospital is near his work, but more than 15 miles from his home. My nephew’s house is even farther away. How do you feel about a hotel? I ask. I scroll on my phone and find one two miles away. I call and verify they have available rooms. After inching us there in my van, I call again from their parking lot and cancel the reservation. It looks sketchy as hell, like the kind of hotel where you go to meet all of your illegal drug and prostitution needs. But we see a couple of others nearby and get a room at one of those.
I treat us to dinner at the Perkins right next to it. My child looks exhausted and peaky. He says they woke him up repeatedly all night at the hospital. We go back to our room, and he’s snoring by 7 p.m. I spend a couple of hours alternately reading, texting family members and looking over at the other bed to watch him breathe, before crashing myself. He sleeps for 12 solid hours, and I think that’s what he needed more than anything.
The next morning the roads have been salted and mostly cleared. Hooray! I take him home to change clothes, then out on errands, getting gas, picking up prescriptions and household needs, plus eating lunch. But there’s one big logistical problem. His car is still at the hospital and he can’t drive it yet because of the arm. More ice is predicted for the late evening, lasting until noon the next day.
We make a plan with his roommate. As soon as the roommate gets home from work, I will drive them both the 15+ miles back to the hospital. The roommate will then drive them both home in my kid’s car and I will proceed on to my nephew’s house. Tracking the weather on my phone, I come to believe we can accomplish all this before the next wave of freezing rain. (Narrator’s voice: she is so wrong.)
Roommate arrives around 5:30, about five minutes after the freezing drizzle begins. But if we don’t get the car now, we can’t any of us figure out a Plan B. So we go for it, ever so slowly. Inching along in traffic that, at some points, is roll and stop roll and stop. But we get there. We admonish each other, Let me know when you get where you’re going!
And now I’m alone again, facing a trifecta of my worst driving anxieties, navigating 1) unfamiliar roads, 2) in the dark, 3) in freezing rain. Thank goodness for modern technology. I put all my trust in my phone to verbally tell me where and when to turn. And I roll ever so slowly back down the highway.
Things aren’t too bad until I have to exit and drive on residential streets. I’m thankful we’ve replaced our tires pretty recently. My nephew appears to live in the only neighborhood in the city with hills. At least it’s a downhill on his block to get to his driveway. I put the van in low gear and pray I can make the turn without just sliding on past to the end of the block. My maneuvers are not pretty, but I manage it. It’s taken me 90 minutes from the time I left my son’s house, to the point where I put my van in “park.” 90 minutes driving in the dark on unfamiliar roads on the ice.
I’m a nervous wreck and also ready for any kind of award anyone wants to bestow. The home-made chicken soup his wife is dishing up inside will serve that purpose nicely. It’s a great award. Their two young kids are pretty cute and entertaining, too.
When I get in bed that night, I spend some time looking at weather forecasts to see when it will be safe for me to head back home. I text my husband, It looks like I live in Iowa now. We had a good run. I’ll miss you.
In reality, I only have to stay one more extremely cold day. The freezing rain ends late the next morning, with the sun making an appearance in the afternoon. I put on my multiple layers of clothing and set about chiseling out my van. It’s so encased in ice, it looks almost like a cartoon exaggeration of a vehicle encased in ice. The temperature plummets. The afternoon of hard labor keeps me warm, though.
The evening is actually kind of fun, with the major worries and dangers past. Spending time with younger kids evokes nostalgic memories of my own family. Even though the wind howls outside and I know the temperature will be around zero when I leave the next day, I feel a flicker of warmth inside.
Friday morning, I’m finally headed back home, full of praise for Previous Day Me who went out and de-iced the vehicle, rather than leaving it until morning. The air is arctic, but the sun is out. If I can get my van up the first hill, I think I should have the biggest challenge of the trip over with right away. (Narrator’s voice: she’s finally right, for once.) My trusty old workhorse does the job and I’m soon on my way.
The major highways are all clear and safe. I can drive highway speeds, but with no panicked urgency. I can see side roads still looking slick. My biggest hazard is pulling into a gas station parking lot, and then back out.
The ice storm hit a wide swath of the midwest. A fair few cars sit in ditches along the way. But for the whole trip home, I’m dazzled by the sun glinting off of ice-covered tree limbs and grass blades. The entire landscape looks like a finely detailed glass model of the usual landscape. There’s a beauty in it.
My child is recovering. I didn’t die on the ice. And the world is sparkling. It’s a beautiful day.