Later, we’ll study this day in history class. Books will have been written, documentaries made, references in political speeches and scientific research. It’ll be like April 4 or September 11; our first steps on the moon, the Challenger Explosion, Hurricane Katrina; everyone remembers exactly what they were doing the moment it happened.
I was in my apartment, a second floor walk-up on Logan Boulevard. It was August, one of those unbearably hot Chicago Augusts, and my son, Nick, was sunburned from his ears to the waistband of his shorts. I remember putting aloe on his back and being surprised by how big he was: how grown. Soon he’d leaving for college and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I had him when I was nineteen, brought him up alone, there was never time to do anything besides survive, and now?
What would I do now?
“Hey, Mom,” Nick said. “What’s that?” I looked from his back to the window and that’s when I saw it: delicate white cotton balls, like someone cut open a pillow and shook out its stuffing.
“Is it from the air conditioner?” Nick asked. At first I was surprised he didn’t recognize it, but if you do the math, he was only five years old the last time it snowed, and I suddenly realized how much time had passed.
“It’s snow,” I told him.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “It hasn’t snowed in like ten years.”
“Twelve,” I said. He turned to look at me, seeing the truth in my face. “No way!” he yelled, and was out the door, forgetting the sunburn in his rush to see: snow.
I moved closer to the window and watched it fall, feeling suddenly nostalgic. I thought of hot chocolate, making snowmen with my dad, the light displays at Lincoln Park Zoo, and, most of all, Joe—all those things I’d loved about winter before the snow stopped falling and things got so goddamn hard.
The first time he left I was nineteen and had just told him I was pregnant. He didn’t say anything, just stood up and went to the bathroom. “What should we do?” I asked, watching as he climbed fully dressed into the shower, the water weighing down his clothes ’til I knew he was too heavy for me to hold up alone. I was already overloaded with the plastic stick turned pink and a heartbeat in my stomach. “Couldn’t be the heartbeat,” the doctor told me later. “It’s too soon to feel the heartbeat. It’s not scientifically possible”—but I’ve never once believed in the infallibility of science.
Eight months later, right before Christmas, I called Joe’s voicemail from the hospital. “It’s a boy,” I said. Then I went to sleep.
The next day, the nurse said I had a visitor. “He’s been here all morning,” she said. “Still here,” she said after lunch, and the same before dinner. I’d been counting snowflakes out the window and right before visiting hours closed I grabbed her wrist. “Tell him… I said okay.”
The first day home, Joe bundled Nicky in a blanket and took him outside to see the snow.
The second day, we went back to the hospital ’cause Nick was sneezing.
The third day, Joe was gone. He’d left a note that said, He’ll be better off.
The next note came a year later, just after Nick’s first birthday. We did Christmas at my mom’s, and hanging on her tree was an envelope with a check, a phone number and a question: Can I see him? I looked at the words for a long time. Then I went to the phone.
Nick and I had just moved into the two-flat on Logan; not much to look at, but I could afford it with waitress shifts and there was a little scrap of front yard with clean, unspoiled snow. Joe held Nicky up to touch icicles while I watched from the porch. Maybe it would work out, I thought. We’d be a family: me, Joe, and our little boy. Maybe later there’d be a girl, too. Maybe some dogs. Move somewhere warm like Florida or San Diego. We’d have a swimming pool in the backyard and every year we’d take a picture, all of us sitting on the diving board, smiling—that was my fantasy. So when Joe asked if he could put Nicky to bed, I said okay. And when he asked if he could stay a while, I said fine. We sat on opposites sides of the living room, saying nothing, and after a thousand hours I moved next to him and put my head on his shoulder.
He lasted a few weeks that time, and then was gone. The snow stopped and started again, and in between Nicky talked. His first word was ma. After that, in quick succession: suture, swab and capillary. I’d started nursing school and would study aloud with Nicky before bed; then I’d drop him at my mom’s and go to work. The night he turned two I was walking from the car to the house, Nicky fast asleep and slung over my shoulder, and when I looked up—there was Joe.
“Can I see him?” he asked.
No. Get out. I miss you. I’m tired. Those were all answers I could’ve given in that moment and any of them would’ve been true. I stayed silent, turning ’til Joe could see Nick’s little face over my shoulder, and imagined that family on the diving board. I could have that family. Right?
He left a few days later; no foreshadowing the departure, no forewarning the return. On Nick’s third birthday, he ran to his father sitting on the porch. On his fourth, he hid behind my legs. On his fifth, he sat at the kitchen table stacking cheerios and said, “You know what, Mom? I get the shaft.”
I’d been decorating cupcakes for him to take to school; now I gripped the counter to brace myself.
“Kids who got birthdays in summer get more presents,” he went on, and I exhaled; relieved. I wasn’t ready for the Joe conversation. I’d never be ready for the Joe conversation.
“Let’s get going,” I said, turning back to the cupcakes. “Get your sweater, boots, hat—”
“But it’s not snowing!” Nick whined. The day outside was warm and clear, strange for the end of December.
“It will!” I said.
“It won’t!” he said.
“Oh yeah, smartypants?” I said. “How do you know?”
And he said, “It’s not going to snow ’til Daddy comes.”
There are words that can kill you if you’re not careful. “What did you say?” I asked, and he said it again, assuredly, as though this were scientific fact. Caterpillars metamorphosize and there’s a butterfly. Egg fertilizes and there’s a baby. Fathers return and there’s snow. “Not ’til Daddy comes,” he said. Then he picked up his backpack and ran out the door, leaving me to wonder what I’d say when the snow came and the daddy didn’t.
Initially, meteorologists called it a fluke. No one much minded: no snow meant no shoveling, no bitter winds, no staggering gas bills, but when spring arrived without a snowfall, scientists kicked into gear. There were speculations, action plans; they spoke of increased environmental risks: tsunami, hurricanes, national crisis. Nick and I decorated our synthetic Christmas tree and went on with our lives: work and school and growing up. Snow became more of a memory, like an extinct species. You see photographs in encyclopedias, but you’ve learned to live without it.
From the window, I watched Nick make snow angels in the front yard, his bright red body a line, then an X. A moment ago the snow had been falling gently, but now the sky was electric white and the wind whipped with increasing violence. At least two inches layered the windowsill and it didn’t take long for that to double. Double again. I grabbed clothes for Nick and an afghan for me, then went out to the porch.
“Mom, it’s snow!” Nick cried, almost buried, his bare chest red against the white.
“I know, baby. Put these on,” I said. The snow came up to his calves and he forged a path towards me. As he dressed, he talked excitedly about this moment, his first remembered snowfall. There’s a kind of joy in watching someone experience a thing for the first time. I thought of my own firsts: first kiss, first paycheck, first time I saw my son.
“I’m going to the park,” Nick said, and I pulled out of my head and looked at him. My boy, the red hat pulled down over his ears, blue eyes shocking under its rim. His chest pushed at the knitting of his sweater. His jaw was strong and square. He was grown, and this was another first: first time ever in my own life. What would I do first?
“Have fun, Nick,” I said, and he took off, struggling to open the front gate almost buried under a snowdrift, then giving up and vaulting over it. I watched him disappear into the white, his red hat bobbing as he ran towards the park. Out in the street, people held their palms to the sky, needing to touch it to believe it, verifiable proof of this wholly impossible thing, and that’s when I saw another red hat coming from the other direction. It stopped at my gate, trying to push it open through the snow, and suddenly I didn’t feel the cold. I didn’t feel anything. There wasn’t any room for feeling. There was only Joe, standing before me in the big empty hole my son had just vacated.
“Hi,” he said.
That was it.
Twelve years had passed and in my mind I’d played this scene a thousand different ways, but in that moment, none of them seemed right. I just sat there and looked: he hadn’t changed at all, and everything about me felt new.
“Can I see Nick?” he asked.
“Not my call,” I said. “Nick’s his own man.”
Joe’s whole body reacted to the word man. It botched his fantasy of stepping back into our lives as if he’d only been gone a moment.
“He’s in the park,” I said.
Joe didn’t move.
“He’s changed a lot, but you’ll recognize him,” I said. “He looks like you.”
Joe stood there, buried past his waist.
“Are you going to go find him?” I asked after a while.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m going,” but he didn’t. He was still, staring at me.
I remembered my old fantasy: me and Joe and our kids at the pool, the perfect family smiling for the camera. Except if you look a little closer, maybe you’d see that the daughter’s not happy; the man doesn’t want to be there; and the woman’s smile is pinched, frozen, forced.
Amazing what you see when you look a little deeper.
And Joe? He wasn’t the person I wanted to be looking at.
“Go home,” I told him, and then I waited for something to happen. Something huge—I’d earned it, goddammit—and now was the time. Now was the time for the sky to split, a line of yellow sun to slide through the white. I’d watch Joe leave for the last time, his red hat going, going, gone until the sky wider. The wind would die, and what happened next was a movie on fast-forward: first the snow piled level with my porch, then the frame quick-changed to slush, then to water, then the water was climbing, higher, an ocean at my ankles and I stood up fast. You couldn’t see cars anymore: all were underwater like sunken ships with people standing on the front hoods, people treading water, people floating on their backs and still the water climbed, heated by the sun like a bathtub faucet turning left, and as it reached my knees I got an idea for what I wanted do first.
I went inside the house, up the stairs, and pulled down the trapdoor in the hallway ceiling, climbing its little ladder to the attic and out through the window to the roof. Down in my front yard, water climbed past the second floor, gentle waves lapping at the windows. I stood there, as high as I’d ever been, watching the flood across the city.
Years from now, when somebody asks where you were on this day, maybe you’ll tell them about that flood. Maybe you’ll talk about the blizzard in August, or how snowflakes taste like Italian ice—but for me? It was the time I took a deep breath, plugged my nose, and then—wrapping my arms around my knees as I took off in the air—I jumped.