I'm writing this from my parents' kitchen table. It's 11:34p.m. and I'm staying over as I live a long drive away.
And other winters, other snowy nights, I'd have risked the drive back home myself. HAVE risked it. Many winters. Many other snowy nights. But I never had a baby in a carseat those winters. So I err on the side of caution tonight.
Sonshine and I were in town this evening when the snow starts falling pretty steadily and black ice forms. I had some errands to run and put him in his stroller, bundled under blankets while he and I skate around the sidewalks by foot and wheels in Uptown. These are the kind of snowy nights I adore (when one is not driving in them). It is the type of night where people who are going a little too fast in their cars when they thought they were going slow enough still skid into the intersection. So, not a good night for driving, but an absolutely stunning night to be walking/skating around amazed at the beauty of the season. (I'll add some photos when I get home tomorrow.)
This year they built a new gathering centre in the square for people to congregate and, new this winter, skate in a public, outdoor skating rink! Next to the rink stands a regal evergreen all alight and the outline of a flashing train glows alongside the train tracks which wind right through the middle of town. Trains still chug through there. I love when that happens! It's not often, but all the traffic has to stop while the train slowly crosses town through the main thoroughfare. Even as I write this, just now I hear the whistle of a train in the distance. It's an absolute crime to me that someone had the bright idea to decrease train travel in this country. To rip up railway ties and dismantle miles of tracks, remove routes and convert train stations into little stores and such. Europe got it right. Even when I've visited Chicago on and off the last twenty years since moving from just outside The Windy City in the early 80s back up to Canada, little towns are connected by rail to the famous Loop. Trains are my favourite method of travel and it's so magical hearing that train in the distance tonight. Something I don't get to hear at all where I live now. It's in my blood though. My love of it. My grandfather drove trains all around Ireland.
As I write this, both my parents are asleep. And my boy is asleep in the playpen in their living room. The couch has been made up for me. I insisted. There's a guestroom downstairs with a proper bed and everything, but I prefer to sleep by the Christmas tree, all lit up.
And tonight, my thoughts turn to Tracey. She had just turned 20, the night she and her boyfriend attended her parents' 25th wedding anniversary. She was the first official friend I made my first year of university. I was sat alone in my dorm room when there came a knock on the door. I opened it to a fresh-faced, smiling girl who said, "want to come to my room for popcorn and smarties?" To this day, I mix smarties in with my popcorn. Try it. It's outstanding. The heat of the popcorn melts the chocolate a little and it's all sweet and salty. Just perfect. Like her.
During our second year, I didn't see that much of Tracey. She was in Math and I was in English. And her dorm room had been assigned further away from mine. But I bumped into her sometime in March of our second year at the student centre and we bought ice cream cones together. She was down when I spoke with her. She was in the co-op program and she'd been placed for a summer job. But the job itself dissolved. The computer still had her recorded as having been placed though, so she hadn't been considered for another job and wasn't sure she'd find one or be placed in time for the next term. She was worried about it. She also confessed that she hated Math. That she was doing it because it was the program her parents wanted her to take. I could somewhat relate. Even though I liked English, I had wanted to study Theatre, but my parents did not want me to pursue that degree. They felt it would be a waste of time and not a dependable degree to acquire. It would be later that I realized the irony of the ice cream flavour she'd chosen: Heavenly Hash. It is the last time I see her alive. It's the Tuesday or Wednesday when we bump into each other and share the ice cream. By Saturday, she will be killed returning from her parents' anniversary party in Newmarket. Her boyfriend is driving. They will hit a patch of black ice, enter the oncoming lane and collide with another car head-on. When he turns to speak to her post impact, she will already be dead. Twenty years of age.
When I was in second year, I still hadn't stopped going to church yet. I was trying to give the Catholic faith a final chance even though I knew pretty much by then in my heart it was no longer for me. That Sunday, I recall waking up and not going to church in the morning. There is a 5:00 p.m. service I can catch later that day. And that's what I did. The strange thing was that I visit my parents. And they weren't home so I do their dishes while waiting for them to return from church that morning. And with my hands in soapy water, I am suddenly overcome with tears and have to sit down and let myself have a good cry. And just as suddenly, the feeling leaves me. I remember feeling odd and shocked at what had overcome me, unlike any prior crying session I'd ever had where I knew the reason. I finish drying the dishes. It's that evening when I attend the service at the campus chapel with a friend, a Chinese student named Mary, that I hear Tracey's name announced. During the service it's announced that she's been killed tragically the night before. I'm sure I've heard the name wrong. Your mind plays whatever tricks it wants to sometimes while you are grappling with the truth of what you hear or see. I approach the priest at the end of the service and ask about the girl who died. And he says, "I know she was from Niagara." And I knew it was Tracey. MY Tracey.
That Sunday, the temperature is unseasonably warm for March. All the black ice from the night before has melted. Disappeared. Just as she has. I had a real problem with God for a while after that. And I left university for a few years. Tracey had been unhappy. She'd spent the last two years of her very young life doing something she didn't have her heart set on and I didn't want to waste another moment of my life doing something I wasn't sure my heart was crazy about either. Years later I would complete what was required for a Joint Honours English AND Theatre B.A. and graduate to pursue acting because of Tracey.
Needless to say, I miss her. It's 22 years since she's been gone. And every time there is black ice, I think on her. And if I could right now, I'd make a big batch of popcorn like I sometimes do. And I'd sprinkle it with smarties. It's the way I celebrate her and her memory. It's the way I let HER know that I miss her and am thinking of her.
I only had that feeling again one other time since years later. The feeling of being overcome and racked with sobbing without knowing why and then it suddenly passing from my body. The second time was also connected to a death I would learn of within 24 hours of experiencing it. It is the kind of thing I dread to feel again. Seems to be some kind of physiological/emotional/spiritual beacon inside me, warning me of the approach of bad news. Of sad news. I hope not to be gripped by it again.
Tracey's loss was the first I'd experienced of someone my own age dying. It taught me valuable lessons I have carried in my life, thankful to have lived the life I have when others have had theirs cut short far too young. Lessons like not to risk bad weather like tonight. Lessons like definitely taking the sort of risks such as leaving university for a time and pursuing one's dreams.
I look at my sleeping son and know full well in the depths of my heart that whatever he wishes to pursue in his life will never be my agenda, but his own. I want him to live each moment happy and with his own purpose, driven by his own dreams. He's dreaming now, his little mouth moving in his sleep. A smile. Maybe he's talking to Tracey and she's talking with him. I've been writing/editing for over an hour now. There goes the train whistle again. My cue to head to bed.
Beside the tree. All lit up.
It's a comfort right now to see it. Aglow like that.
Like her smile the first time I ever saw her.
Keep safe out there, everyone.
Keep warm and keep safe.
Music: Barricades of Heaven, Jackson Browne
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