Growing up here in the great state of Michigan and residing my entire life in the upper Midwest has taught me a few things about driving in the winter. Some of these things are going to sound kind of obvious, but, sometimes the most obvious things can still be a challenge, especially after going months of driving on dry roads.
First off, when the days start getting shorter and colder, when the leaves start changing into brilliant hues of yellow and red, most people in Michigan start thinking about the upcoming winter. For most people, that inevitably starts us thinking about winter driving and getting the car ready for the cold and icy weather that comes every year once the calendar turns over to November and December. Tires are checked, oil is changed, antifreeze is added. If you have to drive a long way for work or school, you might throw a little survival kit in the trunk with flares, a flashlight, shovel, blanket, and other stuff you might need if you find yourself stuck or stranded on a cold snowy stretch of lonely road.
Winter driving is just a necessary part of life in the northern climes of the United States. It snows, things get ugly, but guess what? You still have to get to work. If you have a job like mine and you don’t show up to work, even when the weather is bad, you don’t get paid. You leave for work a little earlier. You slow down and take it easy. On nasty, snowy days I try to drive like I have a glass of water in the back seat that I don’t want to spill. No quick starts or hard stops. Easy turns. You adapt to the conditions. We northerners laugh when we see stories on the news when a city like Atlanta comes to a complete halt because it snows a couple inches. In Michigan if it snows a couple of inches on a Tuesday, we call that… a Tuesday. No big deal. Life goes on.
There is one particular phenomenon that happens with winter weather driving that even the most seasoned Michigander can’t prepare for. Black ice. Black ice is fricken scary. Most of us have encountered it, and a lot of us have ended up in the ditch because of it. It causes nasty accidents, chain reaction accidents that leaves mangled cars all over the road and injured people headed to the hospital.
Black ice,(which isn’t really black, it’s just so clear that all you see is the black of the asphalt through the ice,) is something that happens when the road is clear, and everything appears to be fine. A sunny winter day can cause the snow to melt next to the road, making the roadway wet. As night starts to fall, and the temperature starts to plunge, the wetness on the roadway freezes. So, what looks like a clear road is a major hazard. And that’s what makes it so dangerous. A clear road in Michigan in the winter is awesome. You can travel at normal speed, without worrying about slipping and sliding. So, in reality, you could be traveling on a freeway going 75 miles an hour and all of the sudden you have no control of your car.
If you hit black ice, there isn’t really much you can do about it except hang on and try to ride it out. If you hit your brakes, it actually makes it worse, and the loss of control more pronounced. If you start to slide, and over correct your steering wheel, the next thing you know you’re staring at the sky through your side window. Not a good position to be in. The best you can do is hang on and trust God.
The cancer journey can sometimes be like driving in the winter in Michigan. After the initial diagnosis, there is an expectation of what is to come. You know there are going to be some rough days ahead. There are going to be some big storms. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments are some of the storms you can expect to deal with. You prepare the best you can, and plunge headlong into the wind and rain and sleet and snow. You adapt to the conditions. You have to do it. You want to live. Just like getting up in the morning to drive to work in the middle of a snowstorm, you know what you have to do. Chemo? It’s gonna suck. Radiation? Awful. Surgery? Life changing. But you do it. I’ve got to live. I’ve got to get to work. I will do what I have to do. Friends and family are praying, people are helping, I don’t want to let anybody down. I will survive.
But, here’s the thing. Sometimes, after the chemo, after the radiation, after the surgery, after everything seems to have calmed down and everything seems okay, something comes up that spins you around and into a ditch. I call these “black ice moments.” The road seems clear, full speed ahead, and all of the sudden you have no control and all you can do is hang on for dear life. It doesn’t seem like it should be life changing, nobody forecasted a big storm, but there you are, laying on your back crying and devastated. I’ve had a couple of these moments recently.
I am a member of a Facebook prostate cancer support group. Most of the stories on the page are helpful with information on treatments, or how to deal with the side effects of drugs, or just people encouraging each other to hang in there through some challenging stuff. It’s a great group. There are survivors and caregivers on the page. Their stories and shared experiences have helped me many times. But one particular story shared by a caregiver spun me around and into a ditch. Her husband was in the last stages of the disease. The cancer had spread to his bones, and his remaining days were filled with devastating pain. She commented that he had recently become partially paralyzed, which was actually a blessing, because the paralysis had helped stem some of his pain.
Whoa. As a stage 4 prostate cancer survivor, I know what’s coming. Eventually the drugs stop working, the cancer spreads to the bones, and that’s it. That’s all folks. Game over. I am not afraid of death. I have the blessed assurance of a glorious eternal life with my Heavenly Father. But pain? That kind of pain? That scares me. And that caregivers story sent me spinning. It made my future seem kind of horrible. So, in the middle of the week, with no storms in sight, I crashed. Holly was upstairs in our bedroom working on some stuff, and the next thing she knows I’m curled up in bed sobbing. Black ice moments are really hard on caregivers because the road seems clear, everything is fine, and then it’s not. All you can do is hang on.
My next black ice moment happened at work, and I was able to handle it a little better. My bosses have been great through all my treatments, very understanding and very compassionate. But they also have a job to do. I have told them that eventually I will not be able to do my job. My muscles and bones will break down to the point where physical work will be impossible for me. My bosses are looking at people to fill my position when I am no longer able to do it. A few weeks ago, a person showed up in my work cell to look at the job and get some training. It spun me. And here’s why. I was training the person to take my place when I can no longer work. It was almost like I was preparing to one day say to him,”Okay, you got this, I’m gonna go home and die now.” I know, I know, a little over dramatic, but it felt that way. As the day progressed I could feel myself sinking. I needed to get out of there. I found my friend Mike and told him that I was training my eventual replacement and his reaction was perfect. “Dude, that’s fucked up.” Yep. It was. I got outta there.
(A short veer off here. My friend Mark Bradford wrote a great blog titled “Sitting in the Mud.” It’s about the fact that sometimes you don’t need someone to pull you out of the mud. Sometimes you just need someone to sit down right next to you in the mud. Mike sat in the mud with me that day. No rationalization. No explanations. Just understanding.)
That day was a beautiful, rare, 80 degree early October Michigan day. I came home, grabbed Zoey and headed to Lake Michigan for an afternoon of swimming and splashing in the big lake. I reveled in the sunshine. I reveled in the beauty. I enjoyed life.
I had a black ice moment that day. I didn’t try to brake. I didn’t try to overcorrect. My life swerved a little. But I hung on. I came out the other side on a dry road.
On this journey there will be more storms, more icy roads, more black ice moments. And I will prepare for them the best I can. But sometimes, I’m just gonna have to trust God and hang on.
Thanks for reading.