Wednesday, December 25, 2013 - Christmas Day
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2013
The snow began falling sometime after midnight.
I know this because I could hear it whispering in my dreams. It was an icy, sibilant voice, confiding its dark secrets to fields and the forests alike. It crept upon us like a thief, covering everything in its frozen cloak -- even the skeletal brace of elms and birches that clustered along the creek behind our North Carolina home.
That morning, the sun crept warily over the horizon, safely obscured behind the gauzy veil of a leaden sky.
"It snowed," I said, peering out of the window.
Daphne turned over in bed, her eyebrows scrunched up tight.
"What about our flight?"
"Well, I'm sure it's not snowing in Savannah. I think we'll be fine."
It was 1989 -- the second year of my medical residency at UNC Chapel Hill. There were just three of us back then -- me, Daphne, and Christopher, a rambunctious three-year-old. My mother's untimely death a year earlier had wounded us gravely, gouging out a gaping crater in my soul that stubbornly refused to heal. And so it came to pass that our young family found itself marooned during the holiday season in a place where we knew almost no one.
But it was Christmas -- and we needed to go home.
Getting time off for the holidays was a difficult proposition. Those were the old days, before limits were placed on how long young physicians in training could work, and we were only allowed two weeks of vacation each year. Still, by some minor miracle (and no small amount of wheeling and dealing), I had managed to get a few days of respite during the week of Christmas. There was a direct flight on American Airlines from Raleigh-Durham to Savannah, and the direct flight was incredibly cheap -- only $50 apiece, round-trip.
It was too good a deal to pass up.
We packed up the car that morning and drove down I-40, marveling at the brilliant white confection that had been sprinkled across the barren fields. The snowfall had transformed a range of nondescript pine barrens and ramshackle farmhouses into something vaguely Dickensian. I almost expected to see Ebenezer Scrooge himself in his nightcap and gown, scurrying around on a pair of pale, scrawny legs as he searched for a goose to buy for his nephew.
Alas, the wonder ceased when we arrived at the airport.
"It's cancelled?" Daphne asked.
"Cancelled. They say the runway in Savannah is covered in nine inches of snow."
Tears welled up in Daphne's eyes.
"What are we going to do? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve."
I gazed down the vast snow-covered expanse of I-40 -- a road that stretched southward, towards Savannah. Towards home and family.
Of course, I thought.
"We'll drive," I said.
"In a snow storm? Are you sure?"
"We're already packed. The gifts are in the car. We'll just drive slowly and carefully. I think we can make it by nightfall."
But I had no idea what we were up against. I had misjudged this thing.
I did not realize it at the time, but we would be driving right into the teeth of a frozen hurricane -- the largest snowstorm in over a century.
By late afternoon, the snow was falling from the sky in clumps. A brisk wind piled up three-foot drifts beside the highway. The road itself was becoming more and more difficult to see. Traffic had slowed to a crawl; cars faded in and out of view like ghosts.
My temples throbbed with a relentless cannibal beat.
"This is dangerous. We've got to find a place to spend the night," I said at last.
It was right then that the truck hit us.
It happened so fast that I barely had time to think. He wasn't there at first -- and then he was, twin headlights materializing out of the gloom like the eyes of some awful creature from a child's nightmare.
Christopher screamed and the car lurched and spun around and then we were in a ditch, the radio blaring some inane Christmas song that I switched off in a hurry.
"Is everybody okay?" I said, looking around.
Miraculously, we had emerged from our battered vehicle unscathed.
I shut off the engine and got out.
The truck that had hit us was lying crossways in the road. Its
front left wheel was canted sideways at an impossible angle.
Axle's broken, I thought.
The truck's driver was a swarthy middle-aged man with a grizzled salt-and-pepper beard. His prodigious belly strained against a red flannel shirt, protruding over a pair of stick-like legs clad in oil-stained blue jeans.
"I'm sorry, Boss," he said. "I couldn't get the thing to stop. Dang brakes went out on me."
We exchanged driver's licenses and insurance cards.
"Locklear," I said to him as I looked over his information. "Are you a Lumbee?"
He nodded, affirming his status as a member of Eastern North Carolina's largest Native American tribe.
"I've got some patients who are Lumbee," I said.
The two of us talked at some length about my Lumbee patients. We ultimately determined that I had taken care of a few of his relatives in Chapel Hill.
"I feel bad about this, Doc. It was my fault. I promise, I'll make it right by you," he said at last.
I suppose I expected him to protest -- to deny complicity, to try to blame the weather or my driving skills or just about anything else. But Mr. Locklear seemed to be an honorable man.
We waited for the police for hours. But the snow was piling up deeper and deeper, its numbing chill seeping into our bones as the night rushed towards us. After a while, we both realized that we had to get on our way. Another man came by and picked up Mr. Locklear, and the two of them vanished into the frozen night.
I fully expected never to hear from him again.
Daphne, Christopher, and I stayed in a Day's Inn in Dillon, SC that evening. The hotel room was Spartan, but it was warm and had running water, so that was enough. The restaurant had closed. Our only meal that night was Cheerios and string cheese.
I awoke the next morning at dawn and found our Acura completely buried in a snowdrift. I dug it out with a waxy piece of cardboard that I scavenged from a nearby dumpster.
It was only then that I got my first good look at the car. The passenger side door, where Daphne had been sitting, was crumpled as if it had been pounded by a giant fist. The front bumper hung precariously askew.
Good God, I thought, tears stinging my eyes.
For I knew things could have been far, far worse.
The crystalline sun, jubilant that the storm had passed, had vaulted high into an azure sky.
With the sun came the snowplows. We followed one all the way to Savannah -- and made it there by nightfall, all right, only a day later than expected. I had never been so happy to see that giant globe on DeRenne as we pulled into town.
We stayed at my father's place on Lee Boulevard. It was decorated the way that it always had been -- wreaths on the windows, garlands on the stairs. Those were my mother's things. Seeing them caused my heart to catch in my throat.
You see, when my mother died, it very nearly killed my father. It poisoned all of the rest of us, as well, mutating us into lesser versions of ourselves. The sun became a mere burned-out cinder floating aimlessly in the lifeless vacuum of eternity. Indeed, the entire universe seemed to have been sucked bone-dry.
We had spent the previous Christmas, in 1988, as residents of that lifeless universe, stumbling about like zombies in the shell of some burned-out former existence. We had tried vainly to revive our former traditions and failed. My mother, who had authored most of those traditions, was dead -- and they had died with her.
But as I pulled up to the curb at Lee Boulevard that Christmas Eve, I sensed that something fundamental had changed.
The first sign that things were going to be better came in the form of a simple phone call from State Farm.
"The guy who hit you called us and claimed full responsibility," the agent said. "He said it was just the right thing to do."
I was astonished.
"Merry Christmas!" the agent said cheerily before hanging up.
When the sun came up on Christmas Day, we saw that it had snowed again. In fact, there was snow everywhere -- the first White Christmas in recorded Savannah history.
"It's a miracle!" my sister Jennifer exclaimed.
And it was.
We had survived a potentially fatal crash. Our family was in Savannah, together, for the Christmas holidays. And we had been given a wonderful gift -- a better understanding of the things that were truly important in life.
On Christmas morning, we gathered in the livingroom as we always did. We lit a fire in the fireplace, took down our stockings, drank coffee and hot chocolate, and opened our presents. Afterward, we all ate breakfast together and regaled each other with stories about Christmases past. My brother Andy even dressed up as Santa - kicking up his heels for good measure as he jogged down the ice-covered sidewalk on the way out the door.
And Mama was right there with us -- very much alive in our hearts and in our memories. The old traditions Peggy Murphy had nurtured so carefully over the years had been rejuvenated and reborn.
That morning, the dark cloud of my mother's death finally began to lift.
There is a familiar saying that goes, "When God closes a door, He opens a window."
On Christmas Day 1989, God smiled down on the Murphy family -- and opened up the entire sky.
- Mark Murphy