It is March 4, a Sunday, and the Northeastern United States is buttoning up for a gigantic snowstorm. Despite these dire weather predictions, in which I have little faith, I have journeyed to Pittsburgh with my wife and two young sons to visit Philip DeLucia, my oldest friend in the world, who is very ill.
From Philip’s seventh-story hospital window, I watch the snow come belting down. One moment it isn’t there; the next moment it is, miraculous and brutal. Stacked beneath it are the neighborhoods I roamed as a boy and a young man: East Liberty, Shadyside, Garfield, Bloomfield, Highland Park; where I went to school, played ball, held my first job, learned to drive on a blue 1963 Bel Air, kissed my first girl, learned about God’s displeasure and his mercy, committed sin after sin after sin and was forgiven.
When it is time to leave, I embrace Phil and kiss his cheek. I tell him that I love him, that he must rest and get better. I tell him these things with conviction, but they are only words. Then I step away from the bed and watch my wife, Joan, in a bright red blouse, lower herself over him like a brilliant blanket. They whisper, his hand at the back of her head, stroking her silver-streaked hair. Philip and I both believe that Joan can bestow health. Surely, I think, he will get some strength from her touch, from the goodness and purity that halo her.
After we walk out of the room, Joan cries. I look through the window in Philip’s door. His head is turned to the dark sky outside. His eyes are closed. He looks like a child.
When we leave the hospital, the snow has turned to a cold, piercing rain. Before going to our car, Joan and I trot down to the Groceria Italiana, just two blocks away, to buy homemade ravioli. Italian women make it right there at a counter powdered with flour. They squeeze the seasoned ricotta out of a pastry tube onto a wide sheet of dough, then cut circles around each dollop and seal the ends with their fingers. The varieties are infinite, every kind of ravioli imaginable. When the kid working the register accepts my North Carolina check, his kindness lifts me. I am that brittle.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception is half a block from the grocery. We go there, intending to light a candle for Philip, but its doors are locked. The rain falls harder. I’m wearing my father’s hooded coat, but Joan is bareheaded, and I want not one blade of this freezing rain to touch her. She takes my arm and assures me that she doesn’t care, that it doesn’t matter. At that moment, I resolve to buy her a red beret.
More than anything, I am furious that Philip is lying in a hospital bed. But how do you kill the rain? I am not one to call a day a bastard, but this one is. A cold and unforgiving bastard. A day it could take years to warm up from.
As we drive across the Liberty Bridge over the Monongahela River, I gaze through the windshield at the monochromatic city: the fog-shrouded skyscrapers; the steel sky pressing down on steel water; the banks ravaged by winter; the rusted mill ruins crawling with asbestos ghosts; the black-rock wharves. Today it is not my beautiful, beloved hometown but what outsiders imagine it to be, what it hasn’t been for forty years: a city of eternal dusk, piled in slag, belching fumes and ore dust; a lightless place whose gloom the sun never penetrates.
A few flakes float down with the rain. Instead of going through the Liberty Tunnels, the most direct route to my sister’s house in the suburbs, we turn and drive up McCardle Roadway to Mount Washington, a precipice that looms over downtown. In the nearly twenty-five years that Joan and I have known each other, we’ve never come here to stand as lovers and take in the fabled view of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers coming together to birth the mighty Ohio. At the observation deck, a few hundred feet above the skyline, we clutch each other as if the rail might give way, and peer out into the iron mizzle. Again my life, each rite and sacrament, lies spread out before me in gloomy panorama: the heartsick city on the slow, swollen rivers; the epic gouge that was once Three Rivers Stadium, imploded and carted away as rubble. As the temperature drops and the ice knifes down on this steel-town Sabbath, I can’t help but feel compassion for this impossible town and its faith — to bear such weather and still flower again each spring. At our back hulks Saint Mary’s of the Mount, its doors locked, too. The only candles we will light this day for Philip are in our hearts.
At my sister’s house, a University of North Carolina flag drapes the porch in honor of my niece Katy’s soon-to-be alma mater. Inside, the Duke–North Carolina basketball game plays on TV. On the stove is a huge pot of boiling water for the ravioli, which we hand over to my mother.
It is good to be inside, out of the weather, safe among family. I answer questions about Phil and glance out the window at the storm until we are called to supper: wedding soup, salad, fresh Italian bread, roasted red peppers from my father’s garden, ravioli, meatballs and sausage, grated parmesan. No wine, though I could drink a bottle by myself: everyone has offered it up for Lent.
Had anyone asked, I would have said I had no appetite, but to refuse food in an Italian family is high treason or a sign of profound melancholy reparable only by eating. So I eat and eat, as does everyone else, and am grateful for every restorative bite.
Someone announces that it is snowing outside — “really coming down.” My mother glances over at the window and lets out an involuntary gasp. Almost eighty-two years she’s been fighting Pittsburgh winters, and still the occasion of snow unnerves her.
“Jesu Christe,” she says, shooting a look at my father, who eats happily at the head of the table. He is not worried about the snow pounding down in earnest, the streets and yards and cars already covered by at least three inches. My brother-in-law returns from his vigil in front of the Weather Channel looking grim.
“New York could get two feet,” he says.
There is still dessert and coffee, with which nothing can interfere. It would be bad form to cut a meal short simply because of weather, but we eat with speed. My aged parents still must be chauffeured home. Their house is a mere mile and a half away, but over hilly, sometimes precipitous, unsalted roads. This duty will fall to me — which is as it should be.
In addition to alcohol, I am forgoing sweets, so I excuse myself as the others finish and take the stairs down to the garage. I lift the garage door and walk outside to the street. The snow rushes down so fast that my sweater is coated in seconds. Two more inches has fallen since last I looked out. Not a vehicle on the road. The burning streetlamps are hardly visible. I start the car, switch on the defrost and defogger, clear the wiper blades, then blindly pull into my sister’s driveway. I find a snow shovel and scrape a path for my parents from the garage to the car: a few crucial feet.
My parents are already making their way down the steps from the kitchen. My mother has severe arthritis, and for her simply to walk, under the best conditions, is challenging. My eighty-five-year-old father comes down in front of her, holding one of her hands and her purse. My sister follows behind, and I stand at the bottom of the stairs, ready if they fall — to do what, I’m not sure. My mother holds the handrail and says perturbedly, “I’m fine,” making a face, as if to say, If you’d all leave me alone, I could make it safely down these stairs.
Once we have her on the floor, we shuffle toward the warming car.
“Jesu Christe,” my mother says again when the snow first hits her. “Watch, Joe,” she admonishes my father as he climbs into the back seat. “All you need is to fall.”
“I’m watching, Rose,” he replies.
“Don’t get so cocky,” she cracks.
I smile. My dad just shakes his head.
As if handling a baby, I walk my mother over the shoveled path to the car and ease her into the passenger side.
“Put on your seat belt, Mother.”
She sighs and grudgingly secures her seat belt. The rest of the family stands in the driveway, watching nervously, the way one might an experimental rocket launch.
We must navigate three left turns, then a right to get to my parents’ apartment. The first turn takes us up a vicious hill, and we quickly lose traction. The car’s back end fishtails.
“Oh, my God,” my mother mutters.
“We’re OK,” I say, though I’m beginning to wonder myself. I begin a didactic monologue about how to drive safely in the snow, to which my father responds, “That’s right,” at key junctures, like a one-man amen corner. I recite pointers about using caution, watching out for the other guy — a host of clichés designed to calm everybody, chiefly me, as the car begins to slide backward down the glassy hill.
I shift from second into first. The tires catch for a moment, then wheeze, throw up a spray of slush, and we lose a little more ground. I throw it back into second, give it a little clutch so we don’t stall — which would finish us — and feel the earth move in the proper direction beneath me. We begin to inch back up the hill: slowly, but steadily.
“Thank God,” says my mother.
“Pump your brakes, son,” my dad chimes in.
“We’re OK,” I repeat, taking my hand from the wheel for a split second to pat the rosary in my pocket, suddenly aware that I’ve been praying.
There is a sacramental power in braving the snow, this pittance of danger, to drive my parents home. I realize profoundly in the care I take to deliver them that I love them. More so now that they are old and depend on me. More so now that I have a wife and children of my own, waiting for me at my sister’s. This is the same inscrutable, sacramental love I feel for Philip, whom I would happily carry over the snow in bare feet if it would cure him. But for now, all I can do for him is get my parents home safely.
The snow itself is a sacrament, an unexpected beauty, a danger to be navigated, spilling stealthily from heaven when one least expects it. Like grace. Apparently life really is precious, and maybe that’s why God sends danger: to help us go beyond our own fears and existential desperation and experience the blessed luxury of caring desperately for others. Even on a dank and dispiriting day such as this, we have gathered around my sister’s table to take in the nourishment of good food and the habit of family, because we have faith in the healing, sacramental power of these offices. We cannot cure disease, but we can come together and eat.
When my parents and I reach the entrance to their apartment building’s enormous garage, my dad whips out the remote, of which he is so proud, and presses the button. The huge aluminum door trundles up. I help my parents out of the car and walk them to the elevator that will lift them one story to their warm, well-lit apartment. They will not allow me to go a single step further with them. They are fine. Now I must make my own safe return. The city is filling with snow, and to tarry is to risk. They won’t hear otherwise. I agree, touched as always by their worry. There is a round of I-love-yous and exhortations to take care and have sweet dreams. Then they rush me off, but not before exacting a promise to phone the second I get back to my sister’s.
Then I’m alone in the car, traveling slowly over the soft white earth, the snow flashing down like death, like life, and I am filled with gratitude: For my feet that regulate the brake and throttle. For my hands that steer the car. For my mind that closes around memory. For the failure of my tongue to make language of it all. For the hovering wings — the ones Philip, in his grand passion, has been growing — that beat above me, molting, minute by minute, this bastard day into Christ.