The snow starts at noon and with it comes a mean, cold wind. By five, the time of the weekly exchange—when I get my 4-year old son from my ex—the storm’s knocked out the power and the dirt road has disappeared under a cloak of white.
I live eight miles from town, beyond the reach of the county’s snowplow, up in the pine forest of the Sierra Nevada range. I’m not too worried, though, because Jim is a confident driver with a burly 4-wheel drive truck.
After lighting candles and stoking the fire, I peer out the window at the darkening sky, waiting for shooting stars of headlights through the snow and trees. In my gut roils the usual crazy-making cocktail of anxiety (seeing my ex) and bliss (getting my child), with a garnish of guilty sorrow (that our family has come apart and I’m at least half to blame).
Bella, my apricot pit-lab mix, stands by my side, a steady comfort without whom I’d lose my mind with loneliness.
Finally the truck appears in the distance and begins churning up the road through the drifts. After a composing breath, I head out to greet Dylan who slips and slides across the porch in his puffy yellow parka. As we hug, his father is a grim butler a few feet away, holding our son’s backpack. Beyond, his black lab, Sam, barks from the truck bed.
The divorce is a year old, and still for me these exchanges require healing meditations, sometimes merlot, and a recovery time that can spill over to the next day. We’ve learned to do it outside to avoid the disturbing intimacy that a home creates. We also stick to business—a back and forth of bullet-points and scant eye-contact. “He spilled applesauce on his blue blanket. It needs to be washed.” “I got him a new pajamas.” “Here’s next month’s calendar.”
If we could toss our child to each other like a football across the yard, we would. Even the therapist I saw briefly advised against coming within 20 feet of him, to avoid the toxic energy. It’s unhealthy for you, she said—not to mention your son.
This time the storm hands us a distraction, which we discuss above the howl of the wind:
“Got enough wood? The power will be out until morning I bet.”
I grimace, knowing it’ll be a sleepless night of fire-stoking.
“Plenty,” I reply. “How’s the road?”
“Bad. Getting worse.”
Translated: “I’d better get going.” To which I nod, suppressing the urge to shout, “Yes! Now!” The sooner he leaves, the sooner I can return, like a bear to her den, to my life as a mother. I calm myself with a cozy vision of roasting pop tarts over the fire, with Bella warm at our feet, but a disturbing thought intrudes: what if the truck slides into a ditch and Jim has to come back? I picture the three of us huddled around the fireplace, we adults like enemy prisoners of war, forced to wait together for a rescue that never seems to come.
I’m shivering now—not with cold— but with the need for him to go. It’s always like this. Behind me, I can hear Bella’s nails against the sliding glass door as she paws to escape. Normally she’s a mellow dog, but she doesn’t like to be alone. Dylan reaches for her, as he always does when it’s cold between us, his parents. The dogs are his playmates, filling in our blanks with happy patience and sleeping beside him at night, one at each house.
What happens next will be both our faults.
Sam, still puppyish at 3, jumps from the truck bed and bolts toward us like a black-furred missile just as Bella wedges her nose though the door I’d not shut securely. In seconds, the world fills with barking and splashing snow as the two big dogs, delirious with doggy joy at the smell of the snowstorm and each other, wrestle and tumble on the porch in a kaleidoscope of black and orange fur.
“Bella!” I yell. “Sam!” Jim bellows. “Doggies!” Dylan whoops and claps at the fun pandemonium.
Then, as we all blink in helpless, stupid surprise, the dogs leap off into the storm, their barking muffled in moments. They’re headed, I register with tense dismay, to the edge of the property that borders hundreds of miles of national forest. The nearest neighbor lives half a mile the other way.
While Jim shouts after the dogs, I usher a frightened Dylan in the cabin and then kneel in front of him.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find Bella and Sam. You stay here and we’ll go call for them.” I point to the glass door. “I’ll be just a bit past the porch where you can see me, Ok?” He nods, eyes brimming. I grab a coat and rush back out. Jim glances at me with familiar, icy rage.
Early in the marriage, the departed dogs would have been funny, at least at first. Then, we were allies against life’s obstacles. But after years of infertility treatments and then sleep-deprived motherhood, the contrasts between us pushed us apart so that we drifted inexorably from each other, like fractured ice floes. My slapdash Bohemian nature; his old-school, methodical focus—how did we not see our essential natures would eventually break us? Even run-of-the-mill problems became magnified and fraught with blame. A flat tire or a fever had to be someone’s fault: no grace existed between us.
Jim announces, “We should split up—I’ll head after them this way.” I agree, suddenly glad he’s here because he’s as capable in a crisis as a triage doctor. But really, what is there to do but search and call, and hope the dogs come back?
Jim dissolves into the swirling storm as I trudge a little way past the porch, where the snow is heavy and wet. I glance behind and wave at Dylan, who waves back hopefully. From beyond the house I hear “Saaaamm” before the sound trails off into the wind. And then I call “Belaaaaa,” fearing all the perils that could befall our dogs (and Jim) from hungry mountain lions to rusted barbed wire buried in the snow.
I’m truly worried. Bella is usually cautious, sniffing her way down a path, but Sam buzzes with wild, boundless energy. We’d gotten him for Dylan’s first birthday, when they were nearly the same size, and Dylan doesn’t remember life without him. Bella has been with us only six months, but for Dylan, she is his other best friend. And then she became my steadiest companion.
After the divorce, I hadn’t been ready for a dog (we already had 2 cats), but it happened this way. On a scorching August day I got a call from Cindy, a young woman whom I’d been helping through my volunteer work at an animal rescue. Tear-choked and trembling, she struggled to get out the words.
“I can’t keep her,” she finally said, and I knew it was Bella.
A sad, disastrous couple, Cindy and Carl were young and broke, tangled in drugs and jail stints—I’d seen both with bruised faces. “We fight a lot,” she told me once. What she’d known for sure: they didn’t need a litter of puppies, so early on I’d picked Bella up and driven her 45 miles to the cheap vet in Chester to get spayed, and waited in a coffee shop until it was okay to take her home. Her caramel eyes watched me, and I knew if she could talk she’d tell me things that would crack my heart apart.
On the phone that August day, Cindy said they’d been kicked out of their trailer and she was taking Bella to the shelter. Crowded and grim, the shelter was nicknamed “death row” for good reason. Bella’s odds of finding a home were just about zero, with her pit bull genes that gave her a wide muscled chest and hackles that rose like wind-swept wheat if a stranger came near.
When I got her, she was so coated with desert dirt that the splashes of white on her chest and paws had vanished. She smelled of oiled grease from the trailer and sagebrush, and her gaze never left my face.
“She’s been sleeping under the trailer,” Cindy said with a face red from days of crying. “Carl wouldn’t let her inside, ever.”
I said she could always call me, or come see Bella, and though she thanked me I never heard from Cindy again. On the way to the cabin, Bella crawled in my lap and wouldn’t budge, though her legs splayed over to the other seat and her nails dug into my legs around the turns. It would take all autumn before she’d run, instead of cower, when we threw a ball for her. I consoled her all the drive home, telling her in different ways how everything was going to be all right, and I meant it.
Now and then I stop to listen for Jim, but there’s only the wind’s roar through the trees, and a brutal sense of oblivion. After a while, ears frozen into lumps and nearly blinded by spitting snow, I turn from the wind and look back at the cabin, which, now that it is completely dark, offers the only light in the storm.
Across the porch, Dylan stands at the glass door looking out, a startling vision with the haloed glow of firelight behind him. Small palms pressed against the glass as if bracing himself. I’m not far, but I’m beyond the light, and in one wrenching instant I see what he sees: his whole world gone in the cold darkness.
I wonder if, maybe even that same moment, his father looked back, too, and saw our child, and felt the same, for it’s just moments later that he steps onto the porch. I can’t remember the last time the sight of my ex brought any pleasure, but I have to suppress the urge to collapse in his arms. Instead I stamp the snow from my boots while the wind whips our pluming breath away. We look at Dylan through the glass door and wave, smiling the way parents do even when it’s bad.
“He loves those dogs,” Jim says, in his economical way. He wipes his eyes, watering from the wind and maybe tears at what losing the dogs would mean. Jim isn’t a man who cries, but he knows, as I do, that there has been too much anger and sadness. Too much loss. I realize then that the dogs have shared the weight of grief and regret for us, and without them we have much less to give.
“We’ll find them,” I say, and in the look between us is the knowledge that we must come together despite our differences, despite our regrets and resentments. On this night and all to come—all that matters will be our son.
Then, a bark.
And another deeper bark, closer this time—Sam.
And before we can even shout for joy, the dogs shoot onto the porch like white meteors, panting and shaking snow from their fur. Inside Dylan yells their names and jumps up and down while I swoon with relief and hug my lovely wet dog.
I look up then, grateful to see the smile on Jim’s face as he returns my gaze. It has been so long since I’ve seen it.
“Will you make it down the hill?” I ask, surprising myself at the concern I feel, the gladness that he has Sam for company on his way home.
“I’ll make it.”
That was 10 years ago. We’ve had many rough times since then, but it began to thaw between us after that night. We make sure the other gets a Mother’s and Father’s day gift. A couple of years later, the first appearance of a smiling emoji on a text amazed me so much I forwarded it to a friend. Now, though our exchanges are still practical affairs, we sometimes laugh and spend more time chatting than we need to.
It hasn’t been long since Bella and Sam, one and then the other, loped across the rainbow bridge. Our son, now 14, doesn’t remember losing them that night of the snowstorm. His memories of them are like mine—full of goodness, of feeling safe and loved and warm, as if we had lived in the company of angels.