We never know what a day will hold, and Tuesday morning at 5:30 when I left for work, I never imagined that I wouldn’t be returning for two days.
Even with the threat of snow, or as it was forecast – a dusting of up to 1.5 inches – I had no worries of making it back home. I didn’t bother packing a lunch because I knew I would be leaving work early.
At 1 pm, the campus where I work closed, along with every other school, business, and government office. The roads were jam packed, and judging the traffic, I figured the 42-mile trip home would probably take me 6 or 7 hours. I had plenty of gas and nothing but time, so I set my course and struck out.
After 10 hours, I had only made it about 6 miles. I drive a stick, and the 10 hours of stop-and-go traffic had my left ankle swollen and beginning to cramp. There was no getting on or off the expressway because of the sheer volume and also because the ramps were tangled with cars and trucks that had slid into each other. I’d watched my gas hand over the hours slowly sink towards E. Finally, the light came on.
With it being so late, I reached for my cell phone to call a few people I knew would be looking for me. I had one bar, and the phone died before I could get a call through.
I pulled off the road and parked behind two other cars and a box truck. My plan was to wait til the traffic cleared, then drive three miles to the next gas station. Surely within an hour or two, maybe three, the powers that be would make something happen. In the meantime, I would turn the car on every hour for a few minutes to keep warm.
Then I had a better idea. Instead of using my few drops of gas to heat the car, I could just turn on my heated seats and stay warm that way. Did not put enough thought into that move. Within 30 minutes, the car battery was dead. Now I had no way at all of staying warm.
To say that I was cold would be an understatement, but to think that I would be stuck in a freezing car overnight was crazy. How could that be possible in the middle of Atlanta when just 35 miles away I had a warm bed, hot running water and a bowl of green peppers, onions and garlic sitting on the counter waiting to be sautéed?
By 2 am, I was so cold, I decided to walk up and ask one of the other drivers in front of me if I could climb in with them. I was shocked to find that the cars were empty… the box truck, too. I went back to my car and before getting in wrote in the snow on the windows: PLEASE SEND HELP!
Who knew the body could shiver so violently! I thought my bones might snap. But the very worst part of all was my feet. They were so cold that it was downright painful; it was as if someone were slicing them with tiny razor blades, and nothing I did warmed them. Eventually I couldn’t feel them. I sat and waited for daylight. I was so cold that at one point I thought death would be better than this.
By 8 am, I could hear sirens and tractor trailers belching to life. The sun was pouring in on the side of my face, and I was so thankful for it. I couldn’t feel my body, couldn’t feel the cold, was no longer shivering; I was just there.
9:30 am – Even with my eyes closed, I could see that something was blocking the sun. It was a police officer. I had great difficulty using my hands to open the door. Very quickly I was helped out of my car and into his warm SUV. The officer tied yellow crime tape around my mirror. When he got in the vehicle, he radioed that he’d just picked up a stranded female who had been in the car overnight and that he was taking me to a shelter. Then we pulled forward, blue lights twinkling, chains on the tires.
As we drove onto the overpass, I looked out over the expressway, and it looked like a nuclear wasteland. Abandoned, snow-covered cars and trucks were strewn everywhere.
When we arrived at the shelter… I don’t know what I was expecting but this wasn’t it.
I was greeted by two people who were reaching out to bring me inside. The woman, Melody, according to her name tag, was slight in stature but bubbling over with light and warmth. The other person was a man, a big man in a big hat, with a big smile and big hands, and he used those big hands to rub some warmth into my frozen ones. He said his name was Rusty; he was the mayor of Sandy Springs. He asked me how long I’d been stranded, so I told him, and I also told him that I couldn’t feel my feet. And I was rushed over to the fire.
Did I mention there was a fire?
Well there was… a beautiful fire, beautiful furnishings, and beautiful people.
Once I was sufficiently warm (about 45 minutes), I was shown the supplies: toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, sanitary products, baby diapers & wipes, shaving razors, shaving cream, mouthwash, first-aid supplies, contact lens care kits…
And the food, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, different kinds of breads and meats for sandwiches. People in the community brought crockpots full of food already prepared: Spaghetti & meatballs, chili, pasta salads. There were all kinds of drinks: coffee, tea, milk (white & chocolate) fruit juices, soft drinks, water… I tried to eat something, but was overcome with nausea. So I gave up on trying to eat and went back and sat by the fire.
This place was so wonderful and so full of genuine compassion, I thought for a moment that maybe I really had frozen to death and moved on to the next level of life. What more could these people provide?
But of course, the goodness kept coming. As I was extremely exhausted, I was given a new velour blanket and pillow and pointed to a dark, warm room off to the side where I could stretch out on a comfy, queen-sized bean bag. “And when you wake up,” they said, “dinner will be ready.” I slept hard for about four hours, and when I awoke, dinner was ready. And finally, I was able to eat a little something.
From reading this, you might think that I was the only one in the shelter, but that’s only because the attention was so personal, and I felt very catered to. But as I sat by the fire, I watched the beautiful people with whom I shared this space.
There was the octogenarian, Indian couple who spoke no English. The wife wore a brilliant blue sari, and her husband split his time between sleeping and purveying the premises. In true British fashion, he’d walk slowly with his hands clasped behind his back looking at pictures on the walls or admiring how a doorway was constructed, and then he’d return to his place and stretch out for another snooze. When he snored too loudly, his wife would rock back and forth until she reached the edge of her seat, and then she’d reach over and swat him across the arm. He’d flip over and continue sleeping. And I thought, How many years they must’ve been doing this! He doesn’t even wake up. He feels the hit and knows it’s time to change gears.
Then there was the young couple lying on the floor with their eyes closed, he on his back and she on her side facing him and running her fingers through his hair.
There was Max, the aging terrier, and yes, someone had brought him some food as well. Max didn’t move his head much. He moved only his eyes. He looked as if he had a pair of invisible spectacles on the end of his snout and was always looking over them. And as people had hung their coats on the backs of chairs, Max would find one that suited him, pull it down with his teeth, arrange it with his paws, and then settle in for a nap.
And there was the lady who had a single-syllable laugh that sounded very much like a freight train. When she laughed, we all laughed. We couldn’t help it.
And low and behold, there was a student there from the college where I work. And so now, I had someone to look after and care for, and that made me feel good. When I heard that nine more people were being brought to the shelter, I had the student secure her blanket, pillow, and bean bag before the others arrived, which was silly because there was plenty to go around, but hey, mothers are hardwired for certain behaviors. You will be proud to know, however, that I did NOT get up in the middle of the night and ask the third person in the room with us to Please stop snoring! This child is trying to sleep?
I met some incredible people in the shelter, and after dinner, we talked, sipped hot tea, and shared stories around the fire. And in the midst of all of this was Melody, true to her name, floating like a psalm amongst the people making sure they were fed and warm and rested and comfortable.
I spent the night there Wednesday night because the police officers said the roads were still too bad. Things were beyond my control, and so I took no thought or worry for them. There is a Zen saying: Let go or be dragged, and I had let go the moment I opened my eyes and saw the police officer standing over me.
And now that I’m home and am beginning to process what happened, I still have trouble believing all of it. My feet are still hurting, the skin super sensitive to the touch, but I can say I am in no way diminished by this event. I’m thankful for every bit of good that has come out of it.
My gratitude to the shelter: Holy Innocents Episcopal Church and to Melody McNeil, Pastoral Care Coordinator; to the DeKalb and Sandy Springs Police Depts., and to everyone who contributed in any way to providing shelter across the Atlanta Metro area.