January 17, 2009. The coldest night of the decade. The overnight low in Northern Nova Scotia was minus 33. It was one of those frigid cold nights when you lie awake and restless as the timbers of the house around you groan and crack, contracting in a slow self-protective spasm.
When the telephone woke me, it was my father on the other end. “Oh, Leo,” his voice was drawn unusually thin by a panic rapidly turning to sorrow. “I’ve got some bad news, Leo. I’ve got some bad, bad news.”
At minus thirty degrees, spiral fluorescent bulbs shed almost no light. And through the feathery swirls of frost on the back door, a dim and sickly glow brightened just perceptibly as I slipped my boots on and flipped the switch for the fixture that dangled from the little overhang above the back step. There had been snow and then rain before the freeze-over, so the walkway was treacherous with ice. In the west, the sky was still black, but the first tinges of dawn were brightening clouds in the east, dark rhomboid blocks with wide brush strokes of cold deep blue between.
The car did not respond when I first turned the ignition key. It took several minutes of idling before the engine ceased the troubling ticking and moaning it had started with. In the light of the motion sensor flood lamp over the garage door I waited for a small patch of clear to form on the windshield.
Highway 102 was white with salt. The white of a thin crust of frozen snow stretched back into the woods on either side of the road, broken into crazy strips by the trunks of maples and the deep green fans of fir branches.
My father’s driveway was a glare of ice, white where snow had been, peppered with black on grey over gravel. The back door would not open outward past a rock-hard crust, formed where snow had fallen from the lip of the roof. With the aluminum shovel that had been leaning against the siding, I worked at the broad bottom of the ice ridge until the whole section, which stretched the width of the landing, worked loose.
The white of the cupboards and of the fridge were momentarily blinding when I entered the kitchen. My father stood between the table and the stove, stooped over like some unknown piece of punctuation, staring at the bare floor.
His face was that of a lost old man: empty, frightened. After a long silence he said: “The ambulance just left.” And as though I had not been told: “Your mother is dead.”
The door to the porch was still open behind me, and to stop the chill it was letting in, he motioned for me to close it. “Better get that shut,” he said. And, unaware that the day had already broke: “It’s the coldest night in years.”