Wind-driven rain blasted my windshield. The wiper blades could barely keep up. I peered through what looked like an underwater scene as I drove past the dark windows of stores in Lake George, New York. Unlit street lights swayed wildly over the resort town’s intersections. The power was out, but I didn’t need to worry about traffic jams. No one else was on the road. I was driving home to Vermont through tropical storm Irene, twelve hours after my mother had died.
My mother was a vigorous woman, not big, not small, and full of energy. I grew up hearing stories of her as a child, zipping around on her bicycle from dawn to dusk and dancing all evening at sock hops. She didn’t allow aging to slow her down one bit. She resumed tap dance lessons at age sixty-three, after a fifty-year hiatus. She took bus trips to see musicals in New York City and Toronto, laughed on the merry-go-round in Central Park, and toured the CIA (the cooking one, not the spy factory). In the late 90s, she and I walked the cobblestone streets of Bath, England, hunting for an authentic Sally Lunn bun. She looked forward to her annual visits to her sister’s in South Carolina, where they would explore the sites and relive their memories.
She would linger over museum displays, examine every shelf and cupboard of historic homes, and drink in every word a guide shared. When I teased her about her inability to keep moving along, her reply spoke of her need to absorb everything, “You never know if you’ll pass this way again.”
Her phone call to me in June 2009 changed our life’s direction. “It’s not good,” she said. “Stage four.” Suddenly, the plan of spending her retirement years taking golf lessons, volunteering at the local shelter, and driving up to Burlington to spend time with my new husband and me disappeared. There was a new roadmap: surgery, rounds of chemo bookending hopeful remissions, then an altered prognosis as her CA-125 level rose, indicating the cancer had returned and no options remained.
Though her doctors provided a standard progression of what to expect, they could not foretell the twists and turns her journey would take. She tried different routes, hoping they would lead her to safety. Some roads led to months of increased energy; others resulted in violent bouts of nausea and extreme fatigue.
I made innumerable trips to her home in Buffalo over the years—three times the previous two months alone. I assumed I didn’t need my GPS’s assistance. But today, my familiar route through the Adirondacks and Champlain Valley was gone. These oft-traveled roads lay deep underwater or blocked by trees too weak to withstand the sixty-mile-an-hour winds. I was lost.
I turned down side streets, attempting to maintain my northward movement. I backtracked until I found an open road that led to the Crown Point Bridge, which links New York with Vermont. The whitecaps on Lake Champlain tossed below me as I forged on over the arching roadway to my home state. Taking in the downed trees, upended tractors, and overflowing streams, I thought of my house, particularly the large silver-leaved poplar looming over it from the backyard. Would I find disaster at home? Would I make it there at all? How am I going to deal with this?
I followed detours through neighborhoods where residents hunkered down without benefit of TV or Internet to pass the time. Candles flickered in windows; smoke rose from chimneys as people started fires to keep the cold and damp at bay. The damage was immense: rivers that used to run parallel to the road had turned and cut through the macadam, rending their way in a new, untested direction. Car roofs crumpled under heavy oaks, and power lines laid silent but deadly in the streets. I focused all my attention on the road in front of me, trying to not replay the past day’s events in my mind. My world, both external and internal, was in chaos.
During the twenty-five months between diagnosis and hospice, I reflected on all she had taught me: how to read, how to drive a manual-transmission car, how to love peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches. When I was younger, I assumed that I would pass on this knowledge, our traditions, to my own family. But I am childless, so instead, I taught my husband about my mother’s lessons, about my memories of her panicking during a bomb threat outside Westminster Abbey when we visited London in the mid-90s, about her nearly falling into a pool after downing a margarita at a resort in Cancun, about her dancing to Pink’s “Get the Party Started” with my grandpa, who was just entering his cloud of dementia. And my husband shared with me how my mother cried when he thanked her for raising his best friend during their first meeting.
I arrived home thirteen hours after leaving on what should have been a seven-hour drive. My house was safe, with just a few tree limbs scattered in the backyard. But my bearings were irrevocably changed. I ran through a mental list of all I needed to do: call my aunt and cousins, make plans for taking time off of work, re-calibrate my compass for whom I was supposed to call now with life’s victories and disappointments.
Now, six years later, Vermont has rebuilt itself from much of the damage that Irene wrought. However, some things were destroyed beyond repair: restaurants that will never serve customers again, boxes of waterlogged photos documenting a lifetime of memories now thrown in the garbage. New roads were built, and maps updated accordingly. I retooled my own map as well, using my mother’s lessons to define my future path without her. Most important, I make sure to truly experience my journey because I don’t know when, or if, I’ll pass through again.
Photos by Author
Pamela Hunt is a freelance writer and editor, curious traveler, and amateur foodie living Burlington, Vermont. When she's not hunched over her computer or scribbling in her tattered notebook, you can find her kayaking on Lake Champlain, sampling the local IPAs, or meandering up and down the hills of Burlington with her husband and dogs.