The Long Winter

6 Oct


As a child, I loved the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We had a specific time set aside each day at school for reading a book of our choice, and when I read the “Little House” books, I was often so absorbed in the story that I wouldn’t hear the teacher tell us to go back to our desks.

My favorite book in the series was “The Long Winter”.  The story describes a seven-month-long winter during which a small frontier town in the Dakotas is struck by a blizzard every week, snow piling upon snow, with temperatures so frigid that the cows sometimes smothered to death overnight because the water vapor from their breath froze over their muzzles.

Growing up in North Texas, it was hard to imagine that much snow at once.  We were lucky if we got a dusting once a winter, and I only recall having had enough to make a snowman once.  Even in Vermont, where it snowed from October to May and the temperature sometimes reached 40 below, I never experienced a blizzard.

Winter in Geneva falls somewhere between winter in Texas and winter in Vermont.  The temperatures hover a few degrees above freezing, and it snows an average of three or four days a year.  The proximity to Lake Geneva keeps it from being as snowy as the rest of Switzerland (which surprises just about everyone who has never been there before).

So in ordinary times, winter in Geneva isn’t too bad.  But the first winter that I was sick, I had a hard time coping.  It was a snowier winter than usual – we had light snowstorms about once a week.  Mom loved it – the crunch of the snow beneath her feet reminded her of her childhood in Montana.  I, on the other hand, did not like it so much – I don’t enjoy being cold, the streets were slippery and I was afraid of falling down, and grey clouds hung low in the sky almost every day.

Not even having an apartment with amazing views helped.  We were in a 3rd floor apartment that was provided to us free of charge by my boss’ neighbor, a cousin to the Jordanian royal family whose parents had originally inhabited the building.  We had floor-to-ceiling windows on two full walls of the living room, where I assembled 1000-piece puzzles on the dining table to give myself something to do and keep me sane.  The windows overlooked snow-capped mountains on one side and the Salève (Geneva’s most prominent, and most hated hill) on the other, and let in a decent amount of warmth and light during the short winter days.  But they didn’t make up for the steepness of the hill upon which the apartment was situated, which sapped my energy and made it difficult to go outside for anything other than doctors’ appointments.  When I bundled up to go outside, my boots dragged my feet down like leaden weights, and the cold January wind stung my cheeks at the bus stop.

As soon as we moved into the apartment, many friends from the States came to visit and make use of the first spare bed I’d had since I’d gotten sick.  I think we must have had company for two months straight – which was a blessing, since many of our visitors were friends that I hadn’t seen in years, but it was also difficult, because I was worried about not being able to entertain them properly.  I made sure that they all got to eat fondue at Café du Soleil, a restaurant just across the street that brags about serving the best fondue in Switzerland.  Renée, my “longest friend”, brought her niece’s Flat Stanley to the restaurant with her, and we took a picture of him eating fondue with us.  Out of all the Flat Stanley pictures taken by her niece’s class, from places as far and wide as Seattle and Afghanistan, that photo was voted the class favorite.

But beyond getting my friends stuffed with crusty bread and melted cheese served on plates decorated with octopi, I wasn’t able to show them around much.

“So, how are you holding up mentally?” my stepmom asked while she was visiting. The truth was that I was frustrated.  The doctors and I had decided that I was still too fatigued to go back to work, even though my company was only one tram stop up the street and I only worked four hours a day. The apartment, as great as it was, was too far from the synagogue for me to be able to get there easily for services and choir rehearsal.  It was pretty far from school, too, so I wasn’t able to go back to my Hebrew class when the semester started back up.

Add to that the fact that the doctors informed us how difficult it would be to make my brain tumors and lung tumors go into remission at the same time because the blood-brain barrier usually prevents chemo from working in the brain, and I had one long, hard road ahead of me.  I was pretty much okay with that up until the winter, but that’s when I started to cry.  I hadn’t cried at all before then.

That was my long winter.


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