Before the Last Snow Melts
by Wendy K. Mages
I don’t remember what, if anything, was said during the hour-long drive. I remember the roads were well plowed after the last snowstorm. I also remember passing endless renditions of traditional New England clapboards until finally we arrived at our mentor’s house and turned into the narrow driveway. There amid icy drifts, like an idyllic image for a holiday greeting card, stood her log-cabin home.
Emerging from the warm protective, if somewhat dented, shell of my 20-year-old Honda, my friend and I steeled ourselves against the frosty air and hastened up the newly shoveled path. Shivering in the foggy mist of our frozen breath, we rang the doorbell. As we waited for someone to open the door, I couldn’t help but recall the countless hours our beloved mentor, Lydia, had spent encouraging us, guiding us. Accompanying us as we navigated the path from early coursework through graduation, Lydia generously offered her kind but rigorous feedback until the final drafts of our dissertations were polished and perfected. As a mentor and dear friend, she had continued to support and inspire us, as we each negotiated the nuances of our early academic careers.
Lydia’s husband appeared at the door, his strong athletic frame filling the narrow doorway as he welcomed us into his home. We stepped into the small vestibule, and he silently motioned for us to ascend the stairs.
Nearing the top of the staircase, I took a deep breath, an attempt to quell any appearance of sorrow or sadness, then quietly stepped onto the landing. I saw Lydia’s sister hovering near the couch. Then I noticed Lydia’s almost hidden form nestled among warm comforters and recently-fluffed pillows. Her clear blue eyes, vivid as ever, appeared more prominent in her now gaunt and fragile body. Neither my friend nor I had ever seen anyone so thin; it was as if, at any moment, she might vanish right before our eyes.
Raising her head required great effort, so Lydia gingerly rested her cheek on a stack of pillows. No longer able to eat or drink, she sucked on ice chips to help her converse more comfortably. Yet, she never complained. Lydia had always been the one to care for others and did not want her family or friends burdened by half-done tasks or misplaced papers. Diligently, she had made sure all of their important documents were organized and everything was clearly labeled. She had worked hard to put her affairs in order and, though her physical energy was waning, she was still doing all she could to care for those she loved.
My friend and I had asked to visit, hoping our pilgrimage would express just how much she meant to us, how much we loved her. Lydia was weak and frail, yet she had graciously granted us our wish. Her long battle with cancer had depleted her physical energy, but not her intellectual vibrancy, her wit, or her soft-spoken wisdom. Mentoring us in those last sacred moments together, she encouraged us, helping us solve quandaries and answering questions, as if that day was just an ordinary day in academia. After a short time, what energy she had mustered visibly began to wane. We knew it was time to go, yet it was difficult to leave, to say goodbye.
Descending the stairs, we were grateful for the few last moments we were able to share with her.
As Lydia’s husband silently accompanied us downstairs, he stopped at the window. Looking out at the front yard, he said, “There so much….” He paused. Then he moved his hand horizontally to indicate the word he could not recall.
“Snow?” we asked.
“Yes,” he said, “There’s so much…snow.” Strong and handsome, he presented an idealized image of robust physical health. Yet his memory, even for common words, was vanishing, melting like the snow he could no longer name.
Too soon, cancer was withering her body. Too soon, dementia was wasting his mind.
He opened the door for us and, as we ventured outside, tears welled in our eyes. We hurried into the car and began the drive back to campus. At first, we couldn’t speak. The irony was too cruel to contemplate, too painful to mention.
Finally, one of us murmured, “Snow. He couldn’t remember the word snow.”