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Carpe Diem and All That Jazz

Chapter 2: The Fall

It was November 23, 1998, and a major windstorm pounded Whidbey Island. We had not yet reached the predicted 50 mile an hour sustained winds, but with each gust, each shriek, we drew closer. Ghostlike wails crept uninvited through the window of my small island home, invading my privacy, mocking my efforts to stay calm. A chorus of thudding branches and wailing winds merged to create a mad symphony of sounds. I lay down my book—this was no time to “Put Aside the Ego and Better Your Life.” It was time to grab a blanket and pray.

This place that I now called home had promised to free me from the chaos of life on the mainland. Whidbey Island was a world of soaring evergreens, gently rolling hills, and small wooden farm houses—a world with few traffic lights and even fewer fast food restaurants.

My home stood in sharp contrast to the pastel ranch style dwellings surrounding it. With its brightly painted pink door and black shutters, it looked decidedly out of place—a fairy tale mistakenly placed in a book of essays. It had once stood unchallenged in a vast expanse of Douglas fir trees, staunchly resisting encroaching suburbia, but ultimately it had succumbed to progress. A year earlier the lot next to mine had been purchased, and a house built just inches from my property line.

Inside, the house reflected my personality—simple, straightforward, and slightly eccentric. Skylights embedded in high, wood-beamed ceiling gave the illusion of space to the small kitchen, living and dining area that made up the front of the house. The rear housed two small bedrooms and a bathroom. But my favorite room was the one that lay over the bedrooms. The loft was accessible only from the living room by climbing a rustic wooden ladder. With its low ceilings and graceful aura, it was the perfect place to sit, reflect, and write. When the sun chose to shine, its small stained-glass windows cast a warm, cathedral-like glow over oak paneled walls. The loft was my creative haven. Over the years its walls and ceilings had absorbed my hopes and dreams.

Darkness took hold; daytime drizzle gave way to angry, pelting rain. At home on the couch I tugged the blanket around my ears, trying to block out the sound of the moaning wind. Thankfully, my son Eric had decided to spend the night at his girlfriend's and my other three kids were safe on the mainland. Edgar the cat paced nervously back and forth on the sofa, searching for a place to hide. Stopping abruptly, he poked his nose under a pillow, and nudged it, trying in vain to fit his large black body into the small space below. The pillow, oblivious to his need for protection, tumbled onto the wooden floor. Edgar leaped off the sofa, up the ladder and into the loft, leaving me to fend for myself.

Outside the storm plowed through with increasing fury—inside the lights began to dim. They flickered one last frantic gasp, then died, plunging the room into darkness. My fingers fumbled for the flashlight I’d placed next to me. Its incandescent beam led me to the kitchen drawer and my emergency supplies. Now I sat, eyes fixed on the wall, mesmerized by patterns of flickering candlelight.

With no book, no TV to distract me, emotions carried me to the dark side. Each thud on the roof signaled the start of Armageddon. Could my fragile wooden house withstand the winds or would it simply collapse under the strain? Logic said no, that was impossible, but emotions screamed otherwise. It was nine o’clock, too early for bed, but I wanted to leave this lonely room with its high ceilings and clunking branches. Flashlight in hand, I retreated to my bedroom, leaving the door ajar for Edgar. As the heat of my body warmed the flannel sheets, I drifted off to another place, far from the raging winds.

Sometime after midnight the piercing beep, beep, beep of my pager jerked me from restless dreams. It was my week on call and the power had gone out in the office. I should go to the mainland and put things in order but, how could I? The ferries had stopped running. Groggily I reached my hand across the pillow and switched it off.

Once more I sank into fitful sleep. Lost in my dream world, I was oblivious to the passage of time. Then, a jarring echo—the crash of thunder, shattering of glass, metal crunching against metal – diverse sounds mingled to form one massive and prolonged boom. The house resonated from somewhere deep in the ground. I jerked upwards in a state of terror, eyes wide open. Had the crash been real or was it my pager that had woken me from a nightmare? Then I remembered—I’d turned my pager off.

The wind outside no longer howled—the storm had passed. I should have been relieved, but I wasn't. An eerie silence permeated every pore of my body. I was still in the house, but it wasn't the house I knew. How long had I been sleeping? Why had I woken so suddenly? Time… what was the time? I reached over to illuminate the face of my small battery-powered alarm clock. 4:05.

My heart beat wildly—I groped in vain for my flashlight. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw shadows, long spindly shadows protruding at wild angles. My senses were flooded with the pungent aroma of pine needles. I exhaled deeply as my fingers touched the cold metal torch near my pillow. I focused its strong beam on the bed covers in front of me, hoping to see Edgar's familiar mass of black fur. There was nothing, not even a dent in the covers to signal his presence. I’d read somewhere that animals could sense impending disaster and, remembering my cat’s strange behavior during the storm, I was sure it was true. I prayed he’d found a safe place to hide.

I scanned the walls in search of damage. The one near my bed looked fine, though something was missing—my Haitian oil painting.  It now sat on the floor, face down, frame cracked.  I moved the beam across the wall facing my bed and my sweaty hand almost dropped the flashlight. What was that? my eyes blinked involuntarily. I blinked again. A huge tree limb filled the opening that led to the living room, its huge, needle-covered branches almost reaching the bed. The door that had once filled the opening now hung pitifully from one hinge. Angling the flashlight upwards, I checked the ceiling, slowly and carefully. Spider-leg cracks appeared at regular intervals, along with one huge crack in the corner. I needed to leave, but how could I get out? The doorway was blocked.

The noise of crunching leaves broke through eerie silence. Sounds of rhythmic footsteps and snapping branches grew closer, then abruptly stopped. A baritone voice drifted through the closed glass window.

“Hello, hello… is anyone there?”. 

I recognized the voice of my neighbor Jim, and relief coursed through me in comforting waves.

“Yeah, I'm ok. I just need to get out of here, but the doorway's blocked.” I tried to mask the shaking in my voice.

Jim tried to reassure me. “There's a window here, and a ladder. If you can get to the window and open it, I'll help you down.”

 A ladder?Then I remembered. I'd been assessing water damage up near the roof and had forgotten to put it away. Was that only two days ago?

I quickly shed my pajamas, donning the first clothes I could find—tee shirt, jeans, sweatshirt, and a hat to keep off the rain. Then I put together a hasty package—my purse, extra clothes, pillow, the flashlight, the book I'd been reading, my pager, my camera, all neatly wrapped in a blanket. But how could I navigate the bedroom window? Though the ceiling was low, the window was high. I could reach it with no problem, by pulling a chair over and climbing up. But finding my way down and out was something else. I could barely make out the gray steel of the ladder between the gnarly branches piercing its rungs.

I reached for the window. With my left hand, I gripped the bundle of possessions; with my right, I reached for the window's aluminum handle, compressed it to release the lock, then slid it slowly open. I tossed my bundle to Jim, then strained to get my knees up over the window ledge and onto the ladder. One step at a time, I worked my way down, snapping and pushing branches. Finally, I felt solid earth beneath my feet—my neighbor's face popped into view, a photo framed in pine needles.

“Are you sure you're ok?” he asked, his face a mixture of worry and relief. “That was some tree that fell on your house.”

“Yeah, I'm ok. Just a little spaced out. I’m not used to being woken up by anything louder than my alarm clock.” I laughed nervously. “Anyway, I'm just glad you found me.”

“Hey, I'm glad I found you too. I wasn't sure what to expect.” Jim smiled. “Damn tree woke me up way too early this morning.”

“Did it hit your house too? Which tree was it?” I pictured one of those scraggly pines on the edge of my garden. I had never trusted the thin ones—the ones that bent in the wind like stalks of grass in a meadow.

“No, it missed my house. It decided to fall the other way. Follow me, I'll show you which one it was.” Jim aimed his flashlight at the ground.

We rounded the edge of the house, continuing into the large expanse of open yard, where he abruptly stopped. He turned and raised the light, sweeping an arc over the front of my house. The gray wall, bright pink door still intact, leaned precariously close the ground, pushed outward by a mass of branches. The detached garage, which sat only a few yards away, stood unscathed, having miraculously escaped the wrath of the tree.

Using the fallen trunk as a guide, we made our way slowly toward the edge of the property. The flashlight bobbed up and down with each step Jim took. In front of me, the ground suddenly changed from gray to black.

“Watch out!” Jim aimed his flashlight at the inky void below.

Illuminated in the ghostly beam, a huge mass of roots protruded from a cavernous hole that appeared to be some 30 feet in diameter. Beyond the hole, the fallen tree stretched forever—across my porch, through my house, past the neighbor's home. Then nothing, as the flashlight beam faded into the darkness beyond. I stood speechless. Never in a million years would I have imagined this tree falling. It was majestic, immense, and it stood alone at the edge of my property.

As we neared Jim's house I heard the chugging of a generator. Lights glowed invitingly through the curtains. Just a few short steps brought us to his front porch and into the warmth of the house. 

“Have a seat,” Jim said, pointing to the couch. “Would you like some coffee?”

Strange, I thought, how situations could bring people together. Though Jim had lived next door to me for a year now, we were virtual strangers. We traded occasional greetings, but I'd never entered his house. I looked at the clock on the wall—4:55 am—nearly an hour since the tree had fallen.

We talked as we sat, waiting for darkness to ease its grip. The first signs of daylight gradually filtered through the living room curtains. My eyes grew heavy and my head fell ungracefully onto my shoulder.

I was startled awake by the mechanical thumping of twin blades overhead.
 
“Hey, did you hear that?” Jim said excitedly. “Sounds like a chopper. Let's go and check it out.”

As I craned my neck upwards, I could see the faint outlines of a familiar news emblem on the side of the helicopter. We looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. Maybe they were filming.

“C'mon” Jim said, dashing back to the house.

As we flipped through channels we spotted it—my home. From the helicopter view above it looked tiny and vulnerable. The tree had cut a path directly through the middle of the building, obliterating the dining room, kitchen and living room and narrowly missing my bedroom. It lay there, an elongated octopus, its tentacled branches invading almost every square inch of my home.

As the sky lightened I began the search for my cat. Though I had no desire to return to the wreckage of my home, I knew I had to find Edgar.

Jim's voice trailed off behind me. “Where are you going?”

“Edgar!  I need to find him.”

“Edgar, who's Edgar? I hope he's not your son.”

“No, he's my cat. Do you really think I’d leave my son in the ruins of my house for all this time?” I knew Jim was trying to be funny, but I played along.

“Edgar, kitty, kitty, kitty...” I scoured the landscape for signs of a black cat—nothing, not even a meow. Fear had likely led him to the woods behind the house and he'd never return. He’d prowl the wilderness forever, surviving on mice and slugs.

Then, as I neared the porch, I saw him—a coal-black furry mask of confusion and fear, poking out from under the wooden slats. He couldn't understand why his world had suddenly vanished. I scooped him into my arms and held him close to my face, breathing into his warm fur. Suddenly, just for a moment, I felt grounded once more.

 

 

Grass