“Late Winter Thaw,” a Memoir

by Lynne Heffner Ferrante

    There is no choice, never was any choice. My stomach is churning. My heart is pounding, leaping out of my chest. My head is swimming with wild, nameless terror. “Save it” — the words are screaming in my ears.

    No thought is necessary when a living thing is in danger. This is the consequence of birthing seven children — the automatic embedding in one’s brain and gut of these instincts to protect tiny helpless creatures.

    Instinct overcomes all reason. The impulse to act takes over. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. Later, Joe, ashen of face, limping and bruised, shakily asks me if I realize, if I really, really realize how close we have come to trading both our lives for one animal of unknown ownership and dubious origin, and I realize that 1978 may have been our last year, that these have nearly been our last moments on earth, the swift and bitter end to all our dreams and plans.

    But in that first pivotal instant, with a large dish towel tied around the slim waist of my bell-bottom jeans, the sleeves of my loose-knit rust-hued sweater, chosen to match my carefully colored auburn pouf of hair, rolled up along with my gauzy, paisley silk blouse, I stand at the kitchen sink of our rustic winter rental cottage facing the southern shore of Lake Panamoka, just south of Calverton, and attack the tomato and grease-drenched Sunday dinner dishes in a desultory manner commensurate with the drab mood of this day. I am complacent, stuffed and lazy after our meal. I am enduring the clean-up of the plates, utensils, and pots, which is the only negative element of cooking and dining, the aftermath of a sumptuous repast.

    It is not merely a quiet Sabbath afternoon but one of those tedious late winter affairs that prod me into wishing to be one with the cold dreariness, to submit to mindless nothingness and steal catnaps on the soggy sofa hoping for the Sunday-ness and grayness to pass. I can hear the muted sounds of TV sports, mesmerizingly dull, and think about the possibility of digging up some rousing spy thriller from my basket of emergency supplies saved for just such an afternoon as this. My eye goes to the melancholy melting landscape before me and I am unable to find any saving grace in the colorless and dripping mess. I should paint this, I think, it has its own stark and empty persona, but I quite simply cannot summon up inspiration, such is the bleakness of the mood.

    On this particular day the ice over the lake is covered with a layer of rainwater. The sullied snowbanks surrounding the entire lake are gray and sad and far from enchanting in their dissolving muckiness. The trees are limp and soaked and monochrome, defying me to see some hidden beauty or inspiration. They are not merely gray or even tones of gray, but gray as in an absence completely of any hue at all. The sky seems to hang opaque and cumbersome, suffocatingly low, signaling an eerie sensation of foreboding.

    I watch a straggling bunch of children come to the edge of the lake, their ice skates slung over shoulders, and walk away dejected after checking the strength of the ice and finding it lacking. On the farthest side of the lake I can make out several children scampering over the still frozen stuff, sliding around on the slickly covered hardness, all frenetic motion, flashing colors and movement. For no reason at all, my heart leaps; I am missing my own children a lot, and I am concerned for the safety of these strangers. I am pensive, because the absence of my own kids hovers like a monstrous vacuum, a palpable sense of emptiness that is always with me.

    Out of the corner of my eye I notice a slight movement off to the right. It is a dog swimming around and around in one of the few melted places broken through the lake, maybe 10 feet in diameter.

    “Look at that silly dog,” I call out to Joe. He is focused on the television, absently stroking the soft furry body of Pepper, our one remaining pet, who relaxes ecstatically on the sofa by his side, tail thumping. I am still staring out the window, shaking my head in disbelief; over on the lake that dopey dog is going for a swim in this frigid weather.

    On second look, however, I realize that the dog is struggling to get out but his paws keep slipping on the ice; he must have been running across the lake.

    “My God, Joe,” I shout, my voice slip-sliding upward to a screech, “that dog is drowning!”

    “Close the shades,” he shouts back, attempting levity, preoccupied with the television and accustomed to my hyperbole. He is disinclined to involve himself in activity, full of antipasto and wine and pasta and cheesecake, lethargic in this biting cold.

    But soon he has joined me at the window to further assess the situation. We stare at the unfolding drama, rooted to the spot.

    “He’ll be all right,” Joe mutters, somewhat hopefully, a slight question mark at the end of this statement. “Animals know how to take care of themselves.”

    “No, no, can’t you see, he can’t get out?” And I begin to dress rapidly in my outerwear, eschewing the usual layers, focusing on speed with shaking hands, boots and scarves and tight knitted hat and big waterproof parka with its sticky zipper, fighting with it, fumbling, cursing zippers everywhere, knowing that speed is the most important thing, knowing that I have to do something, but having absolutely no idea yet what that might be.

    I sense that I am being precipitous, about to do something stupid, but congratulate myself for at least having the intelligence to phone the police before venturing outside.

    “Wait,” cries Joe, my Mr. Fix-All. “Let me go down and see what I can do. Wait for me. Don’t leave without me.” There is worry, fear, authority in his voice. He is familiar with my impulsiveness.

      He runs to get his boots and overcoat, but, impatient to go to the rescue, afraid that the poor animal is tiring, that he will go under for one final time, I scamper ahead, leaving the door ajar. Desperate to reach him in time, I run to the beach, looking all around for something buoyant, a boat, a lifesaver, a ladder . . . nothing.

     I remember something that I recently read about ice, and step gingerly out onto the translucent-looking stuff, about 10 inches thick beneath its covering of last night’s rainwater. I fall gently, ever so carefully, to my knees, and proceed to crawl helter-skelter out toward the dog, who is now whimpering and going under with each exhausted attempt to crawl up on the remaining ice, his paws slipping as they try desperately to grasp the slippery surface.

    I ask myself how I expect to accomplish anything at all. What do I have in mind? It is empty. There is nothing there except the knowledge that I must save this puppy. Miraculously, I reach the struggling animal with no mishap, and thanking the Gods, every one that I can remember, I reach out for his collar, conscious of a changing sensation in the texture and weight of the ice beneath me, and at the same moment that I am able to somehow grasp him, I hear that sickening sound that ice makes as it tears apart, feel the sinking rending under my body, and within mere moments the entire chunk where I am crouching has broken off and I have been catapulted along with it into the water below.

    I feel the instant shock as I slide face first into the black void of frigid liquid. So this is how I am destined to die, I think, insensate, yet feeling the cold wetness closing over me. After all that has transpired, everything that I have survived, all that I have lost . . . these are the last thoughts that I recall having, before fear, stark incomprehensible and gut gripping terror take over.

    I bob to the surface, feeling the downward suction of my waterlogged boots, my sodden parka, and I note sleepily that my thoughts are moving in slow motion, and my mouth will not obey my directions, slow as they are. All I can do is clutch at the ungraspable edges that surround me, and shout scratchy gasping nearly soundless pleas for help. I feel very little, not even fear, any longer. The dog is making gasping sounds, and I incompetently reach out towards him, ever so slowly, failing to make any contact, sighing faintly at the quickly fading frustration of it all.

    Joe comes around the last house at that very moment and sees me floundering in the black hole, going under and resurfacing. He is slipping and sliding, ripping off his coat. He races down the icy slope to the waterfront, and slides on the surface, doing an amazing comic pratfall, landing on his face, coming up scraped and bloody. He also lowers himself belly first, stretched out to his full length, to the face of the ice, and begins slithering out to me, pulling himself at snail’s pace along by his elbows like a soldier moving toward the enemy.

    I think, in wordless rambling thoughts, with some last remnant of fleeting ability to function, “Yeah, God, so you finally found Joe for me, and now this is the way it is all going to end, before having any chance for promises to be fulfilled.” Another stupid choice for me, another monumental failure, this one my worst and my last.

    I hold my breath in terror, and as expected, inevitably, the ice breaks beneath his weight also, and then I think slowly, “Oh God, what will we do now?” He slides soundlessly head first beneath the black surface leaving in his wake great chunks of bouncing dancing ice and pink soapy froth, and comes up with his face dripping with blood. There are rocks and cans and broken bottles on the bottom of this lagoon. He makes several futile attempts at hoisting himself over the edge, but the ice only breaks away in his fingers.

    Through all of this, the dog clings to my back as I bob in the mess, going under, popping back up. He is whimpering slightly. I can see that he is losing hope as well as strength, beginning to succumb to inevitability, and I am not far behind him.

    Joe, meanwhile, tries to hoist me up over the edge of the ice, at first to no avail but finally grasping my buttocks all the way at the bottom, and managing with Herculean effort to heave me up onto one still firm area.

     I crouch on the ice, shivering, desperate to not leave Joe here, alone, helpless to find a way to help him; numbed, powerless.

    “Get to shore,” Joe cries with unaccustomed ferocity. “Hurry.” The dog is now clinging to Joe’s back.

    I am powerless to move, unwilling to leave Joe behind, knowing that I must not stay, looking at the shore and back again at Joe. Good Lord, I think, don’t tell me that I am to be saved but I must leave Joe behind. What bizarre manner of cruelty is this?

    “Go!” He shouts at me. Fury, love, helplessness on his face, pleading in his eyes, determination in his words. And tearfully, numb, I struggle to shore, twisting again and again to look over my shoulder as I go, sobbing, the tears on my face instantly frigid, burning cold.

    “Go on, go on,” shouts Joe desperately, as he heaves the now howling dog up onto the ice by his own bottom. “Get out of here, you sonofabitch,” growls Joe, continuing to struggle himself. The dog turns and looks at Joe, puzzled, seeming to have the same problem as I have, leaving his savior behind, but Joe smacks him on the rump, and he lopes off towards the shore.

    Joe is struggling, unable to free himself. “My God,” I think in horror, “he’s not going to make it.” Terror, more icy than the water I have just escaped, is paralyzing me, rooting me to the spot. Joe keeps grabbing at the edge, but huge chunks of ice continue to break off in his hands. But there is a method to his madness. A calmer head has prevailed. He is breaking the ice between himself and the shore until he is able to stand. Within moments he, too, has clambered out of the frigid lake.

    The dog runs off and we struggle soddenly, leaning heavily into each other, clutching safety, security, moving clumsily on our icy benumbed extremities toward the house. “When he gets home,” I joke lamely in a small tremulous voice, “his owner will probably punish him for getting wet, for tracking water into his house. . . .”

    We peel off our drenched clothes and stand for long moments in the steaming shower, holding each other tightly, absorbing heat and something more from each other’s bare skin, feeling that for some odd celestial reason unbeknownst to us, we are still alive, very much alive. When, wrapped in blankets, we are seated before the television, steaming mugs of coffee in cupped hands, we are startled by the strident ringing of the doorbell; the police have finally arrived, too little too late. What did I expect?

    During the entire incident, not even one inhabitant of the lakeside community heeded our screams and shouts for help. I absorb that fact with awe and bewilderment. We never do find out to whom the dog belongs, but the following morning and every morning afterward for as long as we live at that house, he is waiting patiently for me at our mailbox at the foot of our front walk when I run out to retrieve the morning paper.

    A feeling of connection passes over me as he looks up into my eyes, places his muzzle in my outstretched palm for a long moment, licks my fingers, wags his tail, and goes on his way. Mostly, it is the look in his eyes. Joe and I are experiencing the same phenomenon, looking into each other’s faces.

     In future days I glance compulsively again and again from my kitchen window at serene and lovely innocent Lake Panamoka and ask myself what would have happened if a couple of kids on the way home from hockey or school or whatever had noticed and tried to save the creature, and not been able somehow. as we had, to escape and survive; the news is full of these stories every day. My mind remains overburdened with this terror, with hideous possibilities.

     Or worse, my overactive mind continues to imagine other scenarios, temporarily paralyzing me for long moments. What if it had been some overconfident child skating innocently along who had fallen through the melting, softening ice in this late January thaw? Where are my own children, right now? Who is watching them?

     Somewhat chastened and awed that we have indeed survived, we approach the coming days tentatively, not only with caution, but with more respect, cemented together for life.

    Ultimately, what is accomplished is no more, no less than our awesome realization of the absolute preciousness of life; of each of us to the other.

    Lynne Heffner Ferrante is the author of an autobiography, “An Untenable Fragance of Violets: A Trilogy.” This story, written in honor of the author’s late husband of 36 years, is an excerpt from the autobiography.