I knew what I was looking for. They were in that place by the river, where the water had receded but the ice was still in tact.
A thicket of mature trees encircled about a foot up their trunks with wide ice rings. These rings were a result of a strange and harsh winter; we were in the polar vortex, people said, and will no doubt stay for years to come.
The rings were suspended improbably on each tree and were as wide as 18 inches on some.
They hung suspended, like glass tutus on frozen dancers, above the slick white surface of the river.
Each day, when my husband and I passed by with our dogs, we commented at this unprecedented—to us anyway— winter formation. We gazed at the rings from the top of the ridge; the slope down to the river was steep and with the dogs rushing about, dreaming of chasing Goldeneyes and Mallards, and we had no wish to get closer. One of them might fall through the ice.
But this day, it was just our German Shepherd and me. My husband’s back was aching, so I’d left him propped up on some pillows and made my way out alone.
When I got to the tree rings, I felt for the camera in my pocket. I gazed at my dog, who looked back at me with his steady eyes, and decided this would probably be the only chance I’d get. Together, we slid down the ridge to have a closer look. A few steps from the bottom, I fell. Landing hard on my tailbone, my teeth smashed together. I shook my head. I was fine. I stood up and took a few pictures.
Later that day I realized I was having trouble walking, and even more distressingly, I had what I thought was a piercing toothache. I made an appointment with the dentist and got out an ice pack, bemoaning—not for the first time—the curse of middle age.
The dentist proclaimed my jaw to be sprained, and told me to rest until I felt better. A week later, the pain had escalated to an unbearable level and was shooting all throughout the left side of my face.
My doctor diagnosed me with trigeminol neuralgia, a condition in which a blood vessel suddenly begins to press on the primary cranial nerve on one side of the head causing acute, chronic pain. A quick web search told me this condition is incurable and nicknamed the “suicide disease” because it hurts so badly you want to “kill yourself.”
I curled up in bed and tried not to cry.
About a week later, jacked up on neurontin, an anti seizure medication which is supposed to mitigate the agony, I decided to go for another walk. I ignored my double vision and nausea as I drove our Jeep uncertainly to the woods. I would work through it, I told myself. I always do.
Once there, I staggered through the snow like an over-served college student at a 4 o’clock bar.
Get a grip on yourself, I mumbled, trying to draw my shoulders up and keep my eyes focused. But within moments, I had slumped back down, barely managing to get one foot in front of the other.
I walked for 45 minutes like that (I only know how long it was because I know the woods so well), alone and desperate in the white and wild scape, wishing I could just lay down and sleep. I had gone too far to turn around and make the distance any shorter, so my only choice was to keep moving forward.
At some point I doubled over and vomited, dimly aware that my shepherd was watching me patiently. Then I sank to my knees in the snow, the pain in my head searing, my equilibrium completely compromised. Everything seemed to swim around me. Why had I come out here like this?
I scrambled to my feet once again, hanging on to the tree beside me and muttered, please help me.
Who was I speaking to? I don’t know. But suddenly, standing there, leaning against this sturdy trunk, I looked out across the woods. There they were, legions of trees, answering my call. Each and every one of them was there to help, and I could feel them, standing in their stoic ranks, turned toward me, urging me forward.
I took some steps and stopped again at the next tree. The tears began to roll down my face. I was not alone. I wrapped my arms around the tree’s trunk, not caring that I looked insane, and whispered, help me, again into it’s rough bark. I pressed my chest and belly up against it and felt all the spinning and the fear melt away.
I went like that, from tree to tree, reluctantly releasing my hold on one as I blindly searched for the next. Finally, I got to my car and slid into it, trembling.
I drove home and collapsed in bed next to my husband, wanting somehow to explain what had just happened. Instead, I drifted off to that long awaited slumber, and dreamt of trees and snow and cold blue skies.
I have a long journey ahead of me with this so-called “suicide disease,” but I will summon spirits far and wide to help. Love and support will come in surprising forms and in surprising places, and all I have to do is be wise enough to wrap my arms around whoever, whatever is there, and let the alchemy begin.
This world is not a cold uncaring place, but a living thing filled with compassion built into its roots, rising up with absolute conviction toward the sun, and reaching out to each and every one of us with its many fingered branches.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: Courtesy of the author