I am walking my dog through a February storm when my mom’s heart stops beating 300 miles away in her paralyzed body. She’s been dying through decades of multiple sclerosis, lesions on her brain like patches of ice blizzard-blown onto the tree trunks and branches and brittle twigs of the head nerves and spinal cord. There is the snow that falls in one night and then there is the winter that builds, ice compressing ice until you can’t remember what it was like to walk without slipping.
I follow a strange path through drifts. Tracks cut with concern and burrows of worry: Not because of my mom, who for all I know is still alive in this moment, but because of a new renter in the house behind mine. He has two pit bulls. Most days they are out on half of a second floor back porch, barricaded by a broken-down door on its side, chewing railings until they can angle their huge heads through and stare down to me with tiny yellow eyes. Sometimes it seems like their skulls are stuck. They try to back out of the railing but can’t figure how they angled their heads in to begin with. They have never been allowed in the back yard. I have to wonder. I worry about them in the cold. I worry about them in that house with the smashed front window covered in cardboard.
The snowfall is a tranquilizer I can catch on my tongue and dose out for hours, but as I reach one hour on my walk, something makes me turn for home. I feel uneasy. I wonder if it is a premonition about the pit bulls. I get home and check the back porch right away; they’ve been moved inside for the storm. At least there’s that. But then I notice my phone flashing on the table, where I usually leave it. There are text messages and voice mails from my brother, a flurry in the last hour, the crisis in the next state. The cardiac arrest. The ambulance. On his way to the hospital. No signs of life. We speak, a rarity, not because of animosity but because we usually just text. Death calls for voices. He and my aunt have just told the doctors to turn off life support – a Do Not Resuscitate order invoked, no heroic measures against this degeneration of more than twenty years. The moment we knew was coming comes and is over like that and all worlds hush to white.
All my life has had a clean sparkle of privilege, the kind that lets me admire the snow because I don’t have to move through it on someone else’s terms. Now is no different, at first. I don’t have to explain a sudden absence from work because the storm has shut the campus, and it will remain closed most of the week.
I don’t have to see a body because I am here, not there.
I can walk away from the phone and see if the pit bulls are stuck on that upstairs porch again.
I don’t have to call anyone. I don’t even call my dad—I text him and he texts back. I just have to watch my phone light up with message after message until I turn it off and find the bedroom, where there is a door with a window where I can look out to see if the pit bulls have been put back outside and might be staring at me across the upstairs space of two yards.
Eventually, I don’t even have to keep the phone. I drop it in a white bag, postage paid.
Eventually, I call Animal Control but all they can do is issue a warning. They tell me they’ve seen worse.
Some part of me kinks and will not undo itself. This is new. Some part of me becomes a place for everything to get stuck in a snowdrift. The clean sparkle of privilege hardens to a sheet of black ice on that kink. It’s like I’m one of the pit bulls on the porch, working hard all day to angle my head through the railing only to find that the message through those railings is the same grey afternoon, the ground far away, the air just as cold, the help and heroic measures no closer.
Jen Hirt’s chapbook, Too Many Questions About Strawberries, is forthcoming from Tolsun Books. Her other books include Under Glass: The Girl With a Thousand Christmas Trees; Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers; and Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg.