Another branch snapped on the tree outside as a sense of doom overcame her. It was not panic exactly but, rather, the sudden realization that she might not live through the night. The angina had not receded as it should have by now, and Kitty came to the surprising conclusion that she must be having a heart attack. It was so … unexpected. “Well, that’s one hell of a how-do-you-do,” she exclaimed to no one in the room. Have I fallen and can’t get up? Harrumph, she could still amuse herself. Well, no, let’s think about it. What would Stan do? She had been a widow for over thirty years but she could still remember the voice of her late husband, it always calmed her at times like this. She thought for a moment, with the storm outside those poor boys might kill themselves trying to rescue me, and I'm not that bad … yet.
Just the same, she picked up the telephone handset and listened for the dial tone. Its presence was reassuring. If the power went out the phones might, too. She thought she should let someone know about her heart attack even if it was mild. She could explain the weather conditions and perhaps someone smarter than she could decide what she should do.
“Hello, James." Kitty always called her son James rather than Jimmy as everyone else did.
“What’s up Mom?” he asked.
“Well, you’ve heard about the great ice storm we’re having up here in Canada!” she exclaimed more than asked.
“Well, it began here about noon today. The roads are so slick that there is already a truck in the ditch across the street."
There was a pregnant pause.
“And …?” Jimmy asked.
“And, I think I may be having a mild heart attack. I’ve had angina all afternoon and it hasn’t let up”
“Well,” said Jimmy, suppressing a feeling of panic, “I think you should stop talking to me, hang up, and press your button. Would you prefer I call the RCMP?”
“No, no, it would be far too dangerous. I’d hate to have those cute boys kill themselves trying to rescue me. They would try you know.”
“I’m sure they would, Mom, that's their job.”
“Tell ya what, as soon as a sander comes by I’ll call the RCMP. Is that a fair compromise?"
“Who are you trying to bargain with?”
“Look Mom, I can't judge your situation, but I'd press the button and let the medics decide if it was worth it. Hell, they'll probably send a sander with the ambulance."
“No, I don’t want you to call the RCMP now. It’s just too dangerous, and I’m not that bad. It’s just angina. I did want someone to know my situation in case this is it. I don’t want to stink up the house,” she laughed. Kitty was amazed that she could actually laugh in the face of death … but what else could you do?
“Have you called Barb and Vince?” Jimmy asked.
For some reason, Kitty had not even thought of calling them. She had a complicated relationship with Barb and Vince that had begun almost as soon as she moved to Nova Scotia.
The deed to her farm had said, "100 acres, more or less" but being a native New Yorker, "more or less" was not the kind of precision Kitty was used to, so she hired a surveyor to mark the irregular boundaries of her property. It was then that she discovered that Vince had built his house on her property. Not a house exactly, but rather just the cement foundation with a tar-paper-covered plywood roof for shelter and a wood stove for heat. Not the best environment in which to raise two small children, Kitty thought, so she had loaned Vince enough money to finish the house and promised to reconcile the land problem later when Vince was ready to sell, even if it took years, and it had. And over those years Barb and Vince had become her closest friends but Kitty didn’t like to impose.
“No, Barb would make Vince kill himself trying to get me to the hospital. I thought it was better to call you.”
“Thanks, you called me because I can’t do anything about your situation besides calling the RCMP.”
“Well, I suppose there is that,” Kitty replied. “I just wanted your advice.”
“All right, I won’t call the RCMP if you promise to call Barb. If I don’t hear from Barb or you in the next half hour I’m calling the RCMP anyway. Okay?”
“Okay, I’ll call her. If you don’t mind, I’d like to call you periodically just to keep the line open.”
“Of course," said Jimmy feeling anxious but relieved.
Kitty called Barb and explained her situation, omitting the “heart attack” part and admitting only to severe angina. Barb, of course, offered to send Vince right over as soon as he cleared the fallen trees from their lane but Kitty persuaded her not to let Vince out of the house until the roads were clear. Barb agreed to call Jimmy and calm him down and to keep up contact throughout the weekend.
Kitty had been on the phone for almost an hour by now, and the angina had still not subsided. She found herself breathing harder than she had been and wondered if it was the result of the fear she felt or a result of her decaying heart. She was feeling hot and sweaty too, another sign of a heart attack she told herself. No, she remembered, being hot and sweaty was the result of two extra sweaters and a thermostat being set at 68F, a good thirteen degrees warmer than she normally kept the house. She had turned the thermostat up when the lights first flickered. Better change that, she thought, but when she tried to lift herself from the chair she didn’t have the strength. That surprised her.
The phone rang, it was James. "Hi Mom," he said. “I called Maggie and told her about your problem then I called the RCMP in Pictou and asked about road conditions. It's all iced up, and they don't think anything is going to be able to move for a day or so. Do you think you can hold out for the weekend? Do you have enough food?" He knew the answer to that question. Kitty was a canned goods pack-rat. During the Cuban missile crisis, she carefully packed a three month's supply of food and water in the basement of their Connecticut home in anticipation of nuclear near-apocalypse. It took years to eat the stock of canned soup and even then when Kitty abruptly packed up and left for Nova Scotia in the summer of 1968, she had to throw out hundreds of cans whose expiration dates had long since passed.
“I’m glad you called your sister, I didn’t want to hear her lecture about living in the woods again. Anyway, I’ll be fine," said Kitty, trying not to show the pain that tore through her chest. "I have plenty of canned soups …, and a nice loaf of crusty bread," she added almost as an afterthought. She could hear Jimmy laugh at the other end of the phone line.
“I’ve never worried about you starving to death in Poplar Hill.”
There was a pause, then Kitty said apologetically, “I’m not afraid of dying of malnutrition either. I’m more afraid of the power going out; it could get very cold."
Both felt the weight of the unspoken elephant entering the conversation.
During the long pause, Kitty could hear her labored breathing amplified by the telephone receiver. She decided to acknowledge the elephant and keep the conversation from becoming maudlin.
“Well,” she said finally and with as much energy as she could muster, “If I kick the bucket tonight, it’s indeed been a pleasure knowing you.”
Jimmy laughed. He knew there wasn’t anything he could do about his mother’s situation but, mercifully, the thought of her imminent death was something very abstract at the moment. It was a shame that it would happen sooner or later, and he knew there would come a time where he would cry his heart out … but this wasn’t it. His mother was right there on the phone, a living, breathing sentient human being. He could talk to her and say … what?
“I love you, Mom,” he said finally. “Stay warm.”
“I love you too, James. Call me in the morning. If the ice storm doesn’t bring the phone lines down I’ll answer. Okay? Call Barb otherwise.”
There was a long pause, and Kitty felt she had to end the call politely.
“So long,” she said as upbeat as she could muster and, without waiting for Jimmy to say anything back that might prolong the conversation that had grown very awkward, she hung up.
Almost before she had put the phone back in its cradle, it rang. It was Barb.
“I hope you were talking to your doctor or the RCMP for the last hour.”
“James actually, We had a great chat.”
“Does Jimmy know you’re having a heart attack?” Barb asked getting right to the point.
“Well,” said Kitty, starting off slowly, “I don’t really know if I’m having a heart attack or not. It could be a combination of angina and the pip.” She knew better of course, but she didn’t want to worry Barb.
“It’s a heart attack, Kit,” Barb said with authority. “I called Dr. MacKenzie and described the symptoms. He says you’re having a heart attack, a classic heart attack, and you really need to get to hospital."
“Oh, okay. I didn’t want to worry anyone, besides I don’t think the ambulance is running tonight. They couldn’t make it up Scotch Hill.”
“Humph. The good news is that if the heart attack hasn’t killed you yet, it may not but every hour you’re not in hospital the worse it’s going to get. Dr. MacKenzie told me to tell you to take aspirin.”
Kitty interrupted, “I’ve been taking aspirin all afternoon, and it’s helped a bit, so have the nitro pills, but I can’t get out of my seat.”
“I’m calling Earl,” insisted Barb.
“No don’t call Earl; his truck’s already in the ditch across the street. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m calling him anyway.”
“Okay,” said Kitty weakly as she hung up the phone. She hadn’t thought of calling her other neighbors either.
Kitty's relationship with her neighbors was complex. On the one hand, they were rural neighbors and, as such, were expected to look out for each other. On the other hand, Kitty wasn't a local, she wasn't a working farmer, and she had some money, or so everyone thought, and she didn't like imposing.
She always felt that everyone in the neighborhood treated her with the kind of respect due the “Lord of the Manor.” If they invited her to an intimate event or even “lunch,” they always gave her the seat of honor. It seemed to her that everyone had a deal up their sleeve and wanted her to participate, which she often did, one way or another. Kitty never quite understood why they thought of her that way, but she enjoyed the attention. It was a far cry from New York Society. Still, the only locals she considered herself to be on intimate terms with were Barb and Vince. In fact, it was Vince who had negotiated all of the deals for Kitty.
Earl, for example, cut the hay on about 40 acres of Kitty's land for his cows in exchange for milk, cheese, and bales of hay to bank her house within the winter, and plowed out her driveway whenever it needed it. Earl had a dour Scotsman's disposition, and to Kitty, left the impression that he felt he had gotten the worst of every deal. He hadn't, and Vince often had to quietly remind Earl of the good deal he had whenever he balked at performing an agreed upon duty, or parting with a pound of farmers cheese, or a bale of hay.
Kitty wasn’t sure how many bales of hay or pounds of cheese it would cost her if Earl came down to look in on her, and she wasn’t sure if Earl’s attention would aggravate or help her condition. She wasn’t sure Earl could do anything about her situation anyway since his pickup truck was stuck in the ditch across the street from her.
That thought was put on hold as another spasm of pain exploded from her chest and radiated down her left arm and out through her fingertips. It registered as extremely painful but she was becoming numb to it. Shock, she said to herself, I must be going into shock, she thought, like a deer after it's been shot. Oh, happy days, she mumbled.
An hour passed, then another. Kitty realized that the pain had indeed subsided but that she had lost all her strength. The angina was still there but the sharp stabbing pains had given way to a generalized ache all over her upper body. She could put up with that, she told herself as she fell asleep exhausted.
It was the cold that woke her up. The lights were out and it took a few moments for Kitty to wake. Her sleep had not been very deep or particularly satisfying and she still felt exhausted as she became conscious of her situation. The power had gone out and with it the furnace. It was pitch black outside.
Power outages were not unknown in rural Canada and Kitty was as prepared as anyone. She kept a hoard of candles in the kitchen and in the chest of drawers upstairs as well as a flashlight by her bed and another one on the floor next to her chair. That was smart, she thought to herself as she fumbled in the dark looking for it.
The filament in the tiny bulb gave only the barest orange glow. It was enough for Kitty to see her breath. She laughed to herself, the batteries in the flashlight had to be 10 years old but they worked when they had to, she thought. She had replacement batteries in the drawer in the table next to her chair. They were at least five years old. She would reluctantly replace the almost dead batteries in her flashlight once she got a candle lit. Well, I got my money's worth out of them, she thought, as she poked around the drawer for matches.
Kitty's house was filled with inherited antiques. The mercury mirrored wall sconces and the sterling silver candlesticks dated from the 1820s and were meant for use rather than decoration. Kitty had placed them where they could be used during a power failure. There had been enough of those over the years so that each of the candle holders held a half burned candle. The candlestick on the table next to her chair had been used more than most, so the wax had overflowed and dripped down to almost cover the tarnished sterling silver.
It took Kitty a great deal of effort to find a book of matches and light the candle. The pain in her chest reminded her that her heart was dying, and she was completely winded by the exertion.
One thing at a time. The candle was lit, so she could see well enough to replace the batteries in the flashlight. She leaned back in her chair and managed to replace the batteries without too much fuss. This time when she turned the flashlight on, it projected a brilliant white beam across the room. She aimed it at the battery powered clock she kept on top of the television. It was 4:45 AM, Saturday. In an hour and a half, there would be light. Earl would already be up milking his cows and would come by in a couple of hours to get his truck out of the ditch. If Barb got in touch with him, he might poke his head in to see if there was a corpse.
She laughed at that last thought. She could picture Earl, a big stocky man’s man, creeping quietly into her kitchen expecting to find her stiff on the kitchen floor. Maybe she should call Earl to assure him that she was indeed alive. She remembered the ice storm as she picked up the telephone receiver. To Kitty's surprise, she heard a dial tone. As she was about to dial Earl's phone number, she heard the pounding, thud, thud, thud, on her back door.
“Hello Missy,” roared the voice. It was Earl, crashing through the door.
“Hello yourself. Barb got a hold of you I see.”
“Oh yes, Missy, she said you were feeling poorly, and that I should check on you. Are you all right? It’s still icing out, must be an inch or three all over everything; probably lost most of me orchard. The roads are bad enough, and me truck’s in the ditch so I can’t take you no place but I see you have plenty of food. That’s good. I brought you some milk, Missy. I’ll put it right here. You shouldn’t open the refrigerator when the power is out ya know. The lights should be back on in a bit. It’s cold in here. It’s a pity you sold off that beautiful wood stove. How much did you sell her for, Missy? Would you like your quilt?”
Earl took the quilt that was lying on the sofa and covered her with it. Kitty was shivering and for a moment the quilt made her feel even colder. Both of them could see their breath in the feeble glow of the candle. Earl stopped for a moment and stood up straight.
“I think we have a problem, Missy,” he said looking around, “Your pipes could freeze.”
Kitty knew Earl well enough to know he meant that Kitty could freeze to death but he didn’t want to say it. She had noticed that he had said, “We have a problem." She smiled, Earl would normally have said youhave a problem and for whatever small amount of money he needed that day, he would fix it. But this was the “law of the rural neighbor” at play, she told herself, but there comes a point where commerce ends and survival begins. Kitty’s survival might very well depend on what Earl was able to do for her. Earl was more businesslike.
He owed her, Earl was thinking, Missy was important. She knew people; she had money. “Missy, the roads are closed.”
“I know,” she said. “I don’t want you to kill yourself trying to get me to the hospital.”
“Oh, I wasn’t planning on that Missy. My truck’s in the ditch with a foot of ice on her. I was thinking I could put the old sled on the back of the tractor and haul you down to the house. It’s warm. Betsy’s already cooking breakfast, and the teapot’s hot.”
Kitty was about to tell Earl that she’d be all right when the power came back on. A second or two after the lights came on she heard the rumble of the furnace firing up.
“Well there you go, Missy," said Earl straightening up. He was back to business. "The heat should be coming back up, and the sander is probably up to the top of Scotch Hill by now. I guess I can get back to feeding me cows, so goodbye. I'll call on you later." Earl turned and opened the back door, and was out in an instant.
She was glad to see him go but…. Kitty tried to speak but a blast of dry, icy air came rolling into the room like a breaking ocean wave and slapped her in the face. She gasped involuntarily and shuddered under the quilt. "Okay, goodbye," she said weakly as the stabbing pain of angina returned and Earl pulled the door shut tight behind him.
I guess our problem has gone away, she said to herself as she blew out the candle.
Several hours passed as Kitty tried to sleep in the recliner. It was very uncomfortable. If she lay back, her angina left her panting for breath. If she sat up, she could breathe but she couldn't sleep. By Noon on Saturday, Kitty was thirsty and a bit hungry. She'd not had lunch or dinner the day before and the last liquid she'd had was the drop of acidic tea she had squeezed from the teabag in her cup. She was a diabetic, who knows what a heart attack does to blood glucose levels? I must get moving, she thought.
But moving wasn’t easy. As soon as she sat upright and tried to get out of her chair the stabbing pain in her chest sent her flying back like an electric shock. “Oh!” she exclaimed out loud. She was out of breath from the exertion. “This will never do,” she exclaimed between gasps for air.
As she sat back in her chair trying to catch her breath, Kitty was thinking, well, the heart attack hasn’t killed me yet and I haven’t frozen to death … I could die of dehydration I suppose. Something’s going to kill me, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. Is anyone ever ready?
Kitty was mad at herself, win or lose, she wasn’t going to just sit there if she could help it. In her youth, she had walked 20 miles on a lark through the Adirondack Mountains in high heels and survived. She’d gotten herself out of Nazi Germany when it counted, more than once she remembered. The small valise at her feet was there to remind her of that. And she’d raised two children all by herself. She could get to the kitchen and feed herself if she had to crawl on the floor.
It took her well over an hour to get to the kitchen but it wasn’t as hard as she thought it might be. It was just a matter of patience, of not exerting herself too much and then resting between each step. First, she sat up, then kicked the small valise under the table to get it out of her way, and pulled the chair sitting at the far end of the table closer with her cane. She edged herself onto the chair and took a rest. The pain in her chest almost overwhelmed her, but she clenched her jaw and fought it. She repeated this operation until she was finally sitting at the kitchen table.
The phone began to ring. There was nothing she could do but let it ring. I’m going to give James and Barb heart attacks, she thought, but I can eat or I can talk on the phone. Right now I’m going to eat.
The bags of food she had bought in town the day before were still on her kitchen table. It’s a good thing I didn’t buy anything perishable, she thought, but that was the point. She’d been through ice storms before. She bought a half dozen cans of soup that would still be tasty cold, a loaf of French bread that she could nibble with butter, a jug of Gatorade and two bottles of fizzy water.
Kitty had convinced herself that Gatorade tasted sweet when her electrolytes were “out of kilter," salty otherwise. Today it tasted sweet, so she took a long guzzle and smacked her lips. “Ah,” she exclaimed, “as good as tea.”
The power went out again just as Kitty was pulling cans out of her shopping bag. “Nuts!” she exclaimed. Her kitchen was not as well organized as the universe around her chair; it was far more spread out. There was a small silver candelabrum that held three candles standing on her kitchen table, but the old box of wooden strike-anywhere matches was on the shelf above the sink. There was plenty of light to see in the gloom of the mid-winter afternoon, but within an hour or two, it would be too dark to easily navigate back to her chair. Kitty had some choices to make in case the power didn’t come back on.
I guess I’d better eat quickly, she thought. She was grateful for the easy-open cans of soup. In the old days, opening cans required serious manual dexterity and strength that had long since left her hands. Kitty was not big on saying grace but she liked the formality of a meal even when she was alone and she laughed at the thought of formally entertaining … herself. Who else would appreciate it, she smiled. Food should be placed on plates and soup in bowls, and, while a paper towel can serve as a napkin, the proper utensils should be used, when possible, like the sterling silver flatware she kept in an old pickle jar on the table. The paper towels were over the sink and without thinking she stood up to pull a sheet off the roll. A dull throb in her chest reminded her of her situation, but she was on her feet, perhaps a bit unstable but on her feet nevertheless.
She took down the roll of paper towels, and the box of matches and threw them on the table. She thought carefully about what else she might do while she was standing up. Moving was painful but standing as she was, was exhausting. She realized that she was panting again from the exertion and thought she had better sit before she passed out. She just caught herself in time and wheeled about and sat down with a discernible thud. For a moment she wondered if she had broken the chair when she fell onto it, but it held, and she breathed a sigh, which only gave her momentary relief. She was out of breath again.
Adrenalin! Adrenalin kept Kitty’s heart pumping fast, faster, faster still. She could tell her blood pressure was very high from the headache she had and the pain in her chest, shoulder, and arm told her that her heart attack wasn’t over yet. There was a bottle of aspirin and nitroglycerin pills on the kitchen table. The pain in her left arm made her hand shake but she forced herself to calm down and concentrate. Rotate the cap to the left until the arrows line up and pop the top. Two aspirins with a gulp of Gatorade, it still tasted sweet, and two more nitroglycerin tablets under her tongue. Her nitro patches were on the kitchen table too, and Kitty realized that she had not changed her patch in almost two days. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she got an overdose of nitroglycerin, two pills plus a nitro patch but it probably wouldn’t kill her, she thought and laughed to herself at the possible irony.
Kitty sat at her kitchen table trying to calm herself down. She could feel the pain subsiding in her chest and her blood pressure coming back down to more or less normal. That’s better, she thought, as she watched her pulse throb on the back of her hands.
The light of the receding day cast a gray pall over the room. There were no shadows, just the gray of approaching night. Kitty’s breathing had gotten almost back to normal and she made an effort to keep her movements to a minimum, just like the Hindu priest or Buddhist monks in prayer, she thought. This is one hell of a path to nirvana, she laughed to herself. I suppose I might as well make my last supper. You’re full of gallows humor, she thought to herself; only James would sit here laughing, Barb would be horrified.
She found the strike-anywhere matches and lit the candelabrum on the kitchen table. It’s got to be a couple of years, she thought, I should have dusted the wax dripping off the candles. Satisfied, she set her table from the pickle jar that held her grandmother’s college silverware.
Her grandmother was in the fifth class at Vassar College and had been sent to school with a full service suitable for entertaining a dozen as well as a maid fully trained in Society etiquette. Kitty always preferred her grandmother’s silverware for the serviceability and beauty of the set over the set her mother had given her as a wedding present, which was much heavier and robust.
Given the circumstances I wonder what the proper setting should be, she thought; Larousse would insist on a full setting even if not all the utensils were used. That settled, she placed all the utensils in their proper place and smiled.
The silverware was perfect but the plate in front of her, a stoneware “second” made by a local craftsman, was not. She couldn’t reach for a bowl. She laughed, nothing will ever be perfect … and who would know the difference anyway, she thought. She pulled an easy-open can of Vichyssoise from the supermarket bag and placed it in the center of the plate, and used a fork to pry it open. Next, she placed the loaf of now day-old crusty French bread on the table in front of her and ripped off a good sized piece. My last meal, I suppose I should say grace, she thought. She sat there for a moment staring into the gloom with a blank thought. “Humph,” she said at last.
The Vichyssoise tasted better than she expected and while the silver soup spoon proved difficult to use in the narrow opening of the soup can, the stale French bread did a marvelous job soaking up the remaining soup. Kitty, satisfied, sat back in her chair and finished off the rest of her Gatorade which had by now begun to taste salty.
Kitty suddenly realized that she had to pee. “Curses,” she said to herself. She wondered if getting to the bathroom would bring back the heart attack or angina. Sliding her chair across the floor towards the bathroom only got her halfway before the chair became stuck in a rip in the linoleum where the old wood stove had been. Kitty pulled herself up and stood leaning on the electric stove. She felt better and took a hesitant step towards the bathroom, then a second. By leaning on the stove, a cabinet and finally a shelf she managed to get to the bathroom. Getting back seemed a little easier….
Kitty could hear the telephone ringing in the distance. I wonder who that is, she thought; I better answer it. It seemed like a dream. Kitty could hear the insistent ringing of the phone but was unable to move. The ringing was waking her up. She realized that she was back in her chair in the living room. The last place she remembered being was in the bathroom. The phone rang again. She picked up the receiver and weakly said, “Hello.” She could hear the weakness in her voice so she cleared her throat and said as forcefully as she could, “Hello!”
“Hello, Kit,” said the voice on the phone. It was Barb. “Are you hanging in there?” she asked.
“I … I must still be here,” said Kitty weakly. “I made myself some dinner.”
“That’s good. Jimmy called, said you didn’t answer your phone this morning.”
“Kit, It’s Sunday morning. Hang in there,” said a nervous Barb.
“I was in the kitchen. I couldn’t run to the other room to pick up the phone. The best I can do right now is crawl around."
Then Kitty remembered that she had fallen getting out of the bathroom and had crawled back to her chair. It seemed like a dream, she thought. Too much nitroglycerin I guess, she thought.
“What’s the weather like outside now?” asked Kitty. She couldn't see anything beyond the ice-glazed window.
“Well, the freezing rain has stopped but the power is still out here. They say it’s some main line near Truro that’s down – should be up any time now, according to the radio.”
Kitty made a mental note to find her emergency radio. She had fresh batteries for that too, just in case.
“Call James for me and tell him I’m still alive and to call his sister, so I don’t have to. Do they know when the roads will be clear?”
“The ambulance is in New Glasgow, is the answer to your question,” said Barb. “The causeway is still closed but the RCMP said it might be open later this afternoon. You are first on their list.”
“I’ll be here,” said Kitty weakly.
“Take care of yourself then,” said Barb.
“I will. Bye for now,” said Kitty as she dropped the receiver on its cradle.
She was fully awake now, conscious of her surroundings. It was late morning, Sunday, the skies were still gray but lighter than they had been, or so it seemed; it was impossible to tell the time, everything was so gray. Kitty realized that she must have been unconscious for 12 or more hours. The power was out again and she was covered in an unfinished hooked rug. She could see her breath. She was very, very cold, and her breathing was very, very difficult, she was very, very tired. Still, she was as snug as a bug in a rug, she was thinking as the world dissolved into white.