The last thing I remember was the loud, cracking splitting sound of the huge fir tree near the back of the house after it had been swaying fiercely and finally bending and giving way to the pressure of the 65 mph winds.
I work for Lucy, a sweet 89-year-old lady whose family practically founded this small rural town and who still owns thousands of acres of land. Her house sits at the top of a rural road surrounded by large fir, maple, and spruce trees her mother planted when Lucy was a little girl. Lucy’s parents were into cattle, horses, and logging in the 1930s and built quite the community she still lives in. Her father was a prankster and her mother a tireless gardener which explained Lucy sense of humor and work ethic.
I only mention her background because I want to remember more of Lucy than just that last thing. It’s important for me to remember her and not just what happened.
A storm had come through the night before. It didn’t seem any different than the other storms we had had all winter. The Pacific Northwest weather is unpredictable during this time of year. It could be sunny and raining at the same time which is kind of cool to see the rain falling through the rays of sunshine. One day is cloudy with a chance of rain and a high of 47 and the next is partly sunny with a high of 72 and then back down to partly cloudy and 58. Layers are your friend.
The road to Lucy’s was littered with down tree limbs and random farm stuff like a bucket and a piece of tarp. I slowed down and carefully maneuvered through the debris to Lucy’s house. As I approached her driveway, I saw more downed tree limbs too big to drive past. I put my Tahoe in park, hopped out, and drug the tree limbs to the side of the road. I looked up at the trees lining her driveway and hoped they would stay standing. I didn’t want to be stranded up here if they fell. Got back into my rig and slowly made my way to the house. The storm had been busy up here. I hoped Lucy was okay and pulled up next to the front porch and parked.
The morning started as usual with me coming in, putting her dog Ripper (a small rat terrier) outside on his tether (he was a runner), and getting Lucy’s medication ready for the day. I set down the newspaper and helped Lucy out of bed and over to her chair by the pellet stove. Lucy was notoriously cold her whole life and would tell me stories of how she would sit on the heating register in her mother’s kitchen as a little girl. The stove was often set between 75 and 80 degrees from the fall to the spring which made it quite toasty for me and perfect for her.
I opened all the window blinds on the bottom floor of the house so we could watch the weather change as we did every day. If the weather wasn’t doing much, there was always a family of quail walking in single file, a bunny or two hopping by, or momma deer with their babies grazing outside one of the large pane windows. No need for the television when you can watch life happen in real time, she would say.
I made her tea and cookies for breakfast and listened while she read the articles in the newspaper aloud. We talked about the current events, wondered about the state of the world, and spoke about the way things were when she was a child. Lucy could remember the names of her school teachers and friends and her many trips on the bus up to Hoodoo to snow ski as a teenager but couldn’t remember what she had for lunch or whether her daughter had come to visit the night before.
About an hour and a half later, the wind grew steam and we saw the trees begin to sway as if they were waving to us. Lucy checked the weather page in the newspaper and saw the wind storm warning. We looked out at the trees together as Lucy said what I was thinking, “I hope those trees don’t fall on the house. You know, they’re pretty old. My mother planted those trees when I was a little girl. We’ve had a lot of rain.”
I hoped to myself they didn’t fall either. It seemed unlikely considering how solid and healthy they looked and how old they were. “Me too.” I answered mesmerized by the swaying trees.
After a while, the wind and light rain let up and the sun poked through the clouds.
“Maybe the worst of the storm is over? See, the sun is coming out.” I said to Lucy.
“Oh good. I can’t wait for the sun to be out and the days to be warmer. I want to be outside.”
Lucy loved being outside. We would spend hours outside in the sun hunched over and picking the little white flowers off the tops of the clover “before they go to seed”. Trimming the flower bushes and cutting out the wild blackberry vines. She always had a hose running under a tree or shrub and when thirsty, she would pull it out and take a long drink of cold water from it and put it under a different bush or shrub.
I heard Ripper bark from the front porch and went to the door to let him back in. When I turned the knob, a gust of wind pushed the door against me and took me by surprise. I stepped outside and pulled the door closed. Ripper had gotten his tether tangled around the posts on the porch and couldn’t get to the door. The sky was darkened by fast moving clouds, rain was starting to fall in a down pour, and the winds had picked up again. I unhooked Ripper and as I brought him inside, I heard Lucy say, “Oh, look at the trees!”
Once I set Ripper down, he ran over to Lucy and began barking and jumping up and down. Lucy laughed at Ripper thinking he was excited about the wind storm and gave him one of her cookies. He took it in one gulp and continued to bark at Lucy. When she didn’t pay attention to him, he ran over to me and barked at me. “It’s okay, Rip. We’re inside. It’s okay.” I told him as I petted his head trying to convince myself as well.
The world outside the windows was swirling and twisting under the powerful winds. I watched the tops of the trees sway and could see the still bare tree limbs of the maple and birch trees in the front yard bend and sway in opposite directions. So many of them were covered in moss and I often wondered if it compromised the integrity of the tree limbs. I got my answer as the first couple of small limbs at the top of the birch tree began to snap off and get caught in lower branches as they fell.
I looked at the top of the birch and maple, then cast my eyes across the yard to the house. If they did fall, would they land on the house? How much of the house? If I kept Lucy in the rear sitting room near the pellet stove, will she be out of harm’s way? How long should I wait before calling her daughter? How much battery do I have on my cell phone? All of these questions happening almost simultaneously as I returned to where Lucy sat in front of the rear windows near the stove.
The trees in the back yard were bending and swaying just as hard as the ones in the front yard. They were taller and bushier fir trees which I knew if they came down in our direction, we were going to be ---
Then I heard the first crack. It came from the front yard. My instinct wanted me to run toward the front door and look out but I was afraid. If one of those trees was falling toward the house, I didn’t want to run under it while it was coming down. But at the same time, I needed to see what was happening in case I needed to call for help. Or at least call Lucy’s daughter to let her know what was happening. I looked at Lucy, who was watching the storm, and then back to the front window. Rip had stopped barking and was looking toward the front of the house, too. We were frozen. I looked at Rip and thought to myself, “Come on, go take a look. It’s your job to keep them safe. If we have to leave, we’ll need to make a decision soon.”
I went to the front window and looked out. The maple tree was still swaying except now it had big birch limbs sticking out of it. I looked at the birch tree which now looked like a big bare log with jagged arms sticking out of the ground bending this way and that. I didn’t want to overreact. I didn’t want to under react either. We had been through other storms and did just fine. This one was just a little stronger that’s all.
I looked down at the base of the birch and saw the ground had moved and the some of the roots were showing. I turned and looked at Lucy and Ripper. I was going to have to get her dressed more warmly, at least get a big coat on her, and get her and Rip out to my car before---
Then I heard the second crack. I didn’t look back. I scooped Rip into my arms and started toward Lucy when it felt like the roof was caving in and this strong woosh sound which flattened me to the floor. Rip squeaked and I realized I had fallen on top of him. He wiggled out from under me as I looked up and saw Lucy.
She was still sitting in her chair but now turned toward me with eyes as big as can be and her mouth hanging open. “Lucy! I’m okay! We have to get out of here!” I yelled to her as I crawled out from under some fallen ceiling pieces. The wind was whipping through the hole in the roof and there were some branches sticking through the broken ceiling. Rain was coming in making the floor slick.
I grabbed Lucy’s jacket from the hook next to the back door and carefully yet hurriedly got it put on her. I couldn’t find Rip’s leash at first but finally found the handle part of it underneath a piece of ceiling along with my purse and jacket. I got Rip hooked in his leash, threw on my jacket, and just as I was about to open the back door, I looked out of the window next to the back door. I heard the loudest and longest cracking sound I have ever heard in my life. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that big fir tree bending under the pressure of the 65 mph winds.
We were frozen watching that thing crack and break, falling toward us, waiting for it to hit the house. It was like slow motion. I knew we wouldn’t make it out the door before the tree fell. Lucy got around okay but she wasn’t that fast, especially in the rain. I turned to Lucy, grabbed her, and pulled her and Rip to the floor. Lucy cried out as we went down but I thought if we were lower to the ground, maybe the impact wouldn’t be as bad? Rip wiggled out from under us and ran off. I covered Lucy’s body with mine and closed my eyes. Just then the giant fir tree came down on the house and everything went black.
I was told a week later while in the hospital, Lucy’s daughter had tried calling the house and couldn’t get through. When she tried my cell and I didn’t answer, she called the fire department. They couldn’t get to Lucy’s right away because so many people needed help and there a lot of fallen trees in the way. It wouldn’t be until the next day when road crews were able to move the debris enough for the fire department to reach us.
After surveying the damage and determining the safest way to look for us, Ripper ran up to them, barked, and then scurried up onto the fir tree laying on the back of the house and sat. They tried to coax him down but he barked and barked. It took them a while to remove the debris enough to see us trapped under the tree and crushed roof.
I guess Rip crawled down to where we were and began licking our faces but I don’t remember that part. The responders said after Rip licked my face, I groaned in pain, and they were relieved I was still alive. It wouldn’t be the same for Lucy. Rip licked her face, then her hand, and then her face again but she didn’t move or make a sound. Rip cried a whimper and sat down by her body lying still under the debris.
I took quite a hit to the head when the roof caved in. They think Lucy died from hitting her head on the floor when I pulled her down. She didn’t die right away but lying trapped under debris for 24 hours was more than she could bear and they figured she must have succumbed to her injuries an hour or two before they got to us.
Lucy’s daughter told me she was sorry about what we had gone through. She told how much her mom liked me, but underneath her kind words, I could feel a sense of resentment. I could tell she wanted to ask my why I waited too long to get her mom out of there. Why didn’t I do something sooner? Why did I kill her mother?
Of course, everyone at the hospital keeps telling me it was an accident. Everything happened so fast and I did the best I could. Don’t feel bad, they keep saying. Except I do feel bad. Lucy’s gone because I didn’t act soon enough.
The doctors say I’ll be able to go home in a couple more days. They say I’ll feel better with time. I’m not sure I will.
I guess Rip has come to live with us since Lucy’s daughter can’t have a dog where she lives. My husband says Rip gets along great with our dog, Fred. That’s good to know. I guess we’ll get better together.