The huge snowflakes hit the ground at a terminal velocity that demonstrated that they were as heavy as they could possibly be. The completely white sky indicated that this was just the beginning and that this storm would most likely last for days. In other places this might be considered a blizzard but in Montana, we just called it winter. The snow absorbed all sound and color so the result was a quiet veil of white gray that obscured and faded even the closest objects except for Jason’s dark brown eyes and bulbous red cheeks. I held his cold hand in mine trying to transfer as much heat as I could and trying to get him to stop shivering. I knew that if his hand felt cold to my touch, mine must feel warm to his, an early lesson in thermodynamics, I suppose. His hand was rigid cold but I wasn’t sure how much heat I could transfer in these extreme conditions. A whimper brought forth the heavy tears that he was trying so hard to hold inside, “I can’t, Kelli.”
We had spent the morning exploring the frozen river that ran along the edge of our little town of Deer Lodge. It was a small river but still wide, deep and swift enough to require a railroad trestle and I was amazed that it could freeze so completely solid that we could walk across it. Of course being young and stupid, we had to test the limits of its stability, in the same manner we liked to test our own mother’s on a daily basis. Jason was small and light, only five years old, and I kept a tight hold on his hand for safety. Perhaps it didn’t occur to me how unsafe walking across a frozen river was in the first place but then again, I was only nine myself, and clearly my brain was still developing. As we approached the center of the river a small crack in the ice broke through and Jason followed, not big enough for him to be completely submerged but enough to get both feet soaked. Years later I would recall the incident while taking a physics exam in college, the question asking, “At what temperature will the moving water in a mountain river freeze?” I knew the answer without even attempting the math, “fucking cold”.
Quickly, Jason and I made our way to the riverbank and I took a minute to assess the damage. He was soaked nearly up to his knees and his thick brown corduroys were already beginning to stiffen as they froze to his bare skin underneath. We weren’t far from home, probably less than a half mile, but by now the snowfall was extremely heavy and I could barely make out the road beyond the large field. Jason, having toughened up and not cried up to this point, as if he would be in trouble for falling through the ice, began to feel the intense burning of frostbite and tears filled his eyes.
“I can’t, Kelli,” he cried through trembling blue lips.
The childhood lore and playground knowledge from growing up in Montana had prepared us well for certain outdoor calamities such as dealing with frostbite, surviving a rattlesnake bite and escaping a Grizzly bear; the advice that bears cannot run downhill, I would learn years later, was bunk. Luckily my knowledge of frostbite was solid and I knew that Jason’s feet quickly needed attention. We were blocks away from the closest shelter and he could hardly move as it was. I decided I needed to tend to his feet immediately and then get him home as quickly as I could afterward.
I cleared a small patch of snow on the path and had him sit while I removed both stiff leather boots from his feet. Freezing water gushed from a hole in the toe when I took them off. Holding my coat above my head and around Jason the way a mother bird engulfs her babies, I too fell to the ground in front of him, took off his sopping socks, wrung them out and pushed them deep into my coat pocket. Quickly I grabbed his bare feet and raising my front layers, thrust them against the bare skin of my stomach. The hairs on the back of my neck raised as the heat quickly exited my body and flowed to Jason’s. We sat huddled in the snowstorm like a giant anthill in the middle of a field for about ten minutes. Every second I was losing my precious heat but knew that between the two of us, Jason needed it much more and relatively, I had plenty to spare. I rubbed his feet into submission, beating the cold from his stiff little phalanges until their flexibility and color returned.
Once I was fairly confident that Jason could walk, I took off my own socks, put them on Jason’s feet and tied his wet boots to his belt loop with their laces. I gathered him on my back and began trudging through the snow toward home. Trudging slowly. Eventually we made it home and mom, after hearing our story and having enough sense growing up in Montana herself, drew a lukewarm bath in the claw foot tub to warm our stiff extremities. As I slowly put my feet in the water it felt as if she had drawn scalding hot water that would surely peel my skin and I cried as I lowered them into the bath. Slowly, the tepid water cooled to my touch and both Jason and I basked in the new warmth of the water together.
These are the types of incidences where I recall the relationship between Jason and I most vividly. Instances of complete love and devotion- the bond of a mother and child. I am fond of calling Jason my “starter child” and although I feel I failed him in so many ways because I was so ill equipped to raise a child, I am now fully aware that it wasn’t supposed to be my responsibility to raise a sibling four years my junior. Much love J.