Winter is always a bummer: nothing much happens, everyone coalesces into a stolid lump of eating, trying to be warm and festive whilst entertaining vague notions of hygge – the Scandinavian term for coziness and huddling into thick coats and alcohol until the spring comes around and melts the freeze in the seasons of life. Where the darkness and the cold, the rain and the snow can get depressing when you are inside, outside is another matter. Winter outside is a matter of life and death. Uncomfortable, dark, depressing and boring is one thing, dangerously cold, wet and lacking in heating and light is another.
Outside in the cold and wet of my place of birth, things got difficult, but nothing matched the five winters I spent outside with children to worry about. Just me, and whilst I was continually unwell in winter, the terror and the exhaustion was confined to myself only. I got high. I drank. I occasionally couch surfed or found other temporary solutions – squats and shooting galleries, libraries in the daytime, and a hot vent to sit under, blowing inside unwanted excess heat outside. Hot drinks and food are hard to come by and about the only thing that keeps hands from freezing. The cold reaches to the bone.
That cold, the wet, the problem of getting clean in cold weather outdoors, or unheated public bathrooms, all of it seeps deep into your bones, and settles in the pit of your belly. That pit which should have a fire burning and instead finds the flame put out by a winter that starts as the children go back to school and ends in May, when the dark finally gives up the ghost and puts on a brighter costume.
The first winter outside in the United States, with the Boy and Girl in tow, hit me hard. We had gone from Los Angeles to the Washington coast and back down as far as Oregon. Billy always migrated back to Oregon. As much as he protested he was actually Minnesotan, he never wanted to stay in winter: a real Minnesotan doesn’t run like a bitch when September starts to threaten a real winter experience. No, he had left Minnesota early, and bummed around the west coast whilst sneering that he hated the west and was a good midwest farm boy. He could have been a good Minnesotan farm boy had he wanted that, but he ditched the dairy for boozing and never returned. Fact is he never did what was good for himself, and then whined desperately for help when he had gone too far.
He has court tomorrow on various drink-related charges, and will not be coming out again for a while. “You are fucked up, Billy,” I told him firmly. “I’m beyond fucked up,” he replied giggling. By now I was past irritated and wanted to reach through the telephone to waggle a finger in his face and show him I meant business. I decided I still cared enough to try: “Listen sell the RV today, pay your fines and get inside before it is winter again, or else accept you are going to jail tomorrow, drink today, shoot some speed, smoke yer crack, get that fent going on, and kiss goodbye to the rv and all your stuff.” I find it hard to be nice when I am frustrated with him. I’ve known him too long, and have heard all this far too many times already. “I choose option one!” He announced drunkenly. Triumphantly. He had rarely sounded this certain about anything in his life, Mr Indecision knew what he wanted, and I guess that is the way the dice are gonna fall.
We pulled into Medford later October, run out of Washington by the rain. When I say rain, the rain in Washington state, on the coast, is not rain as I had ever experienced rain before. It falls out of the sky in sheets of water, the individual drops falling so thickly and fast that they turn into a deluge. The Walmart parking lot we were stuck in, no camping we could afford, had started to flood. No lights, no electricity, no heat. In the cold and dark of the night, the rain beat down on the roof so loudly it startled me and the children, and started to run down the inside walls of the elderly van in dirty gluey streams of thin sticky brown gunk, making the upper shelves come unstuck. I was drinking back then. Not my finest hour. I am a pleasant enough drunk. I drink, I bounce. I slide off chairs and onto floors. I sometimes sing PJ Harvey songs as if no one can hear me. I rarely black out. Sometimes that is a blessing. Somehow despite the percs I had been gifted by the incestuous methy woman in the trailer park, despite the rum, despite the rain and the cold and the fear and the constant feeling of letting down children who deserved better, I failed to black out. I remained conscious and knowing.
When I get the guilty feeling that rises up in a knot in my chest and makes it hard to breathe, that leaves me running to the Boy’s side begging his forgiveness at failing to do better, I never know what to do to ease it.
The tin walls, the tiny cabin containing four people, the fact the children were squashed into the overhead cabin which got soaked every time it rained, their sponge mattress releasing water when they put pressure onto it, soaking their nightclothes and making me cry in worry. The back cabin was no better. Everything was wet. I used paper towels to plug up gaps, and dry off their sleeping bags, fussed them to the point of irritation, and eventually not able to cope with the shame and worry of it all, ate another handful of percs and washed it down with a pint of dark jamacian rum. There was no rising above the fear. There was no overcoming the shame or concern. This is the road. This is winter. This is my failure.
In the dark and the rain we decided to head south, back over the Oregon border. I was devastated. There is a certain joy to moving on, to getting on down the road, to knowing there is a long road behind you and a good long road ahead. The sound of the engine kicking in, the freedom of not being stuck in one place and knowing there is something ahead that is not how it is back there, wherever ‘there’ might be, is the most intoxicating feeling of freedom. I am a big believer in if you don’t like something then moving on is a valid option. From the snowy hills of Duluth, to the Idahoan rivers, to the alpine hillsides of Oregon and snowcapped Mount Shasta, there is always somewhere else to go, and from there, somewhere new again. I was happy to be moving, but upset that moving was to Oregon. I would have preferred to nurse the old Beastie to San Diego or somewhere else warm and dry. Arizona perhaps. Anywhere that didn’t rain as if it was auditioning for a spot drumming for The Who. Anywhere that the afternoons were bright and the nights didn’t threaten to give my family hypothermia. Instead we went to Ashland by way of Medford. We went south to drier weather but a much colder climate. Instead Billy led us to spend the most dangerously cold night outside I have ever experienced.
When we pulled into the Freddie’s parking lot it was late and very cold. So cold it took my breath away. I piled jackets on blankets, I pulled socks over the children’s hands, and gave them my coat and scarves and anything else I could find to pile on top of them. Looking out the window at the snow coming down, I started to cry. I hated Billy so purely at that point that I would have been scared if I wasn’t freezing to death. He was already snoring under his leather jacket and the sleeping bag. I was too cold to sleep. Having given everyone else everything there was to keep me warm, coated in the wetness of the mattress and my thin hoodie, I didn’t dare sleep. Instead I sat staring out of the window, into the blackness. Shining a flashlight out there, but failing to shed any light on the situation. That bizarre phenomenon of light making everything bleach out into an unfathomable bright patch, blinding any hope of seeing anything always perplexed me. Perhaps it was the way the windows reflect back in the RV. I sat and stared and worried until I finally fell asleep sitting up.
The next morning, dragging the kids up, rubbing their hands, my breath white and frozen in the air inside the van, I found a few bucks in my pocket and took them both into the shop. My fingers were white and frozen as I ran hot water over them in the bathroom. “I’m cold, mama” the Girl said to me pitifully, as I hugged her closer to me and rolled her sleeves up so they didn’t get wet. The bastard that beat me up, threatened the children, threw the Boy against the wall and left me with no divorce, no way forwards and no money to house them, while he sat in a house safe and warm and comfortable was wholly to blame. Not me. If I hadn’t have left everyone would have been reading about a sad family annihilation. I would have been yesterdays news years ago. At least we were alive, and that is worth everything. At least I tried to save us all. As much as I failed, I fought. Not every battle can be won, I guess.
The Starbucks refused to give me boiled water for free, and there was no building a fire out there in the parking lot. I didn’t have enough money to buy the kids a hot chocolate or something to warm them up from the inside. By the time I returned to the van with granola bars Billy had got the heating working by starting the engine. My teeth were chattering. The kind of cold that feels dangerous is no joke. He reached out to me, and wrapped his arms around me as tears fell down my cheek. “Babe, let’s go to the coast. It is warmer there.” I didn’t yet know he wanted to be near his adult kids that didn’t care for him, and that caused my children to freeze that night. When I did I wouldn’t be so forgiving.
Standing under a shower on the Oregon coast, the heartless rangers taking money for showers and camping from us – people who clearly didn’t have enough money to pay for such things, stripping naked in the unheated and dingy camp showers, only to stand under tepid water and have to rush the happy business of getting clean, singing Dylan’s Black Diamond Bay, as the suds ran down into my eyes, the sound of the children playing outside, I began to feel a little more hopeful. that was until the rain started to come down and drench us again.