The discussion question at the end of the hauntingly poignant memoir, Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas asks, what is the coldest night you have survived? What “dogs” helped you through it? (Referring to the number of dogs an Aborigine slept with to keep warm)
My literal coldest was easy. A Chippewa reservation in northern Minnesota. I was a VISTA volunteer living in a two room shack on the edge of town. The stray that had taken up housekeeping with me, whimpered me awake. I tried to move my feet under the covers and realized they were slow and stiff with cold. The oil line to the stove in the corner had frozen or clogged or did whatever they sometimes do when the temperature is fifty or so below zero.
How long I had slept without heat I don’t know, but I remember the difficulty I had stuffing my feet into the felt-lined rubber boots we clogged around in. I pulled the fur-trimmed hood of the air force parka close around my face making a long snout to warm the air before breathing into my lungs, and stepped out into the night.
The snow underfoot squeaked as I lifted one heavy foot after the other to walk the mile to town where there was a twenty-four café that also served as the bus stop, police dispatch, and general news center. They must have served other things there too, because I know it wasn’t coffee they set before my frozen face when I stumbled in the door. The dog settled at my feet and we waited for morning and oil stove fix-it men.
But my real three dog night involved neither temperature nor dogs. I was alone in a hospital, about to give birth to a child. A child conceived in a time of flower children and faith in false freedoms. A time when my good girl restraints were unfettered like a helium balloon escaped from a toddler’s arm.
Because I had no money, home, job, or tangible prospects for the future, my thought was to give this child to someone who did. But against all advice, I first wanted to see this person whose life I had so carelessly conceived. The doctor, more interested in showing his students an example of a “fine episiotomy” brushed off my concern with a cavalier, “Oh, there will be more beautiful babies.”
But what about this beautiful baby I wondered. “As it happened,” the ward for girls like me was being renovated, so I was given a private room. That night, in the slide projector of my mind, scenes from my life reeled by. I saw my recklessness, my self-centeredness, my selfishness contrasted against the beauty, value, and preciousness of a life. By morning, an idea had taken root, a conviction about what I was to decide.
It’s been many, many years since that night. A few Christmases back, I received a gift from the daughter of that child, now grown and special to my heart. The gift was a pencil, inscribed “To the world’s best grandma.”
I thank the Lord often, that although I didn’t know Him that night back then, I know He was present, His eye on me as well as my little one, His heart toward us for a future and hope.