Thaw

by Jeff Oaks

Somewhere in my childhood I remember reading that it’s the person just emerging from depression (or was it addiction or trauma in general?) who is more likely to take his or her own life. Before that, he didn’t have the strength. But if the trauma has gone on long enough and been crippling enough, the return of some strength can bring with it the fear of and/or anger about sinking again into a state that is a void, uninhabitable, a horror. And one will do anything to return there.

Why is that the first thing to come to me today? I wanted to write about the danger thaw inadvertently poses. My immediate example is not psychological but architectural: Monday night at 2 am I woke to the sound of dripping water, then something more than mere dripping. I knew immediately where it was coming from: I’ve had a problem with a part of my roof where ice dams can form. I thought I’d paid to have it fixed a few years ago, but water is trickier than capitalism and assurance. Still, I spent the next couple of early morning hours arranging a plastic tub to catch the water falling, positioning towels strategically to catch the water that was going directly down the wall, periodically checking whether it was appearing downstairs in some form.

First a drip as the heat of the house melted the bottom of the snow pack on the roof, and then that water, full of gravitational imperatives to flow where it could, feeling around for a soft spot and escape, finds a hole and begins its paratrooping maneuvers down through crawlspaces, following the beams of the house. Then once the lines are secure, something like a laugh begins in the water, the gush we all might feel escaping an anxious situation. That was the thing that scared me the most. Suddenly the amount of water increased and I had no sense how long it would go on, how long I’d have to wait for help. It was the early am and who could help? No one I could call was awake. And that voice in my head saying: Wasn’t the damage done already? Weren’t things going to be fucked up from now on?

I had a brief scrambling to figure out how I could solve it myself, but without a ladder high enough to get me up there to free the ice myself or a clear, safe way to reach the roof otherwise, there was nothing to do but endure it, do what I could. I briefly flirted with selling the house, getting in the car and just leaving the house to fall in on itself, if that’s what it wanted.

I’m not bad with other people’s crises: I run cold in the face of emergency. I’m not necessarily the one who can immediately apply the tourniquet or mouth-to-mouth; those are intimacies. I’m the calling of 911, the calming talker to suicides, the assembler of towels and blankets, the guider of EMTs. In the face of my own crises, my first instinct is to drop dead as a solution, if I can’t talk my way out of it. In Berlin’s choice between the Hedgehog and the Fox, I am definitely the Hedgehog, although I think I’m probably more Opossum or the Hog-nosed Snake, without even the protection of a spiny coat. Pity me, Oh Death, and pass by! I may have learned this early as a defense against bears, now that I think about it, which were the principal predators in my childhood nightmares. That and running downhill as fast as you can.

Fortunately this leaking thing has happened before, so I knew it wouldn’t really kill the house. Fortunately I have now access to money to fix whatever breaks thanks to an inheritance from my mother. Fortunately I know what to do with this kind of fear: I can narrate it, use it to tell a story, to think about the problem of living, move the fear and terror off my shoulders and out of my gut onto the page–or now the screen. Fortunately I have a blog to keep filling up, so there’s a certain excitement to everything that happens. I love being a writer for the reason that, although writing doesn’t fix everything, writing makes it possible to use everything, accept everything as material, makes everything potentially a starting point for deeper thinking, for making sense of the inarticulate in my life.

Eventually the water slowed and I could see that although it wasn’t good, it wasn’t going to be a tragedy. I sent out a couple of tentative emails to people who have the tools and skills I don’t. By the time I was dressed and had to appear at work, the water had mostly stopped. By the time I left work I had the beginnings of a plan for rescue and long-term reconstruction. Last night was drip-less, thanks to the warming temperatures. I have a roofer to talk to today.

Now if I can only remember all this while I begin dating again. That part of my life has been, if not frozen, playing dead for about eight years now. Did I ever date? Do I even remember how? Parts of my life have become so intensely folded and private, my schedule has become so comfortable and productive. I fear those losses as if they won’t survive any change, as if I won’t. Isn’t that the fear of the hand long clenched into the protective power of the fist as it starts to open? That, in the initial pain and awkwardness one has to relearn in order to, say, pick a flower, one will, like Frankenstein’s monster, drown the baby as well as the daisies, and then have to retreat again into the icy regions?

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