Up Close With Dr. E

Remembering a winter’s tale


Winter in the Midwest can be a curse — frosty sub-zero nights, snapped power lines blinking off city lights, wicked streets slicked with ice — or a blessing — schools which close, chubby snowmen sporting long carrot noses, woolly socks to warm tiny toes. But, who makes the decision if winter is to be a blessing or a curse? Well, you do, of course.

How do you make this decision? It’s easy: all you need is a little nudge to awaken your own childhood memories. Once you do this, then this cold season, with its two crown jewels, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, becomes a wondrous blessing. How about a short winter’s tale to refresh your memories of long past, holiday seasons? Here you go …

This is the tale of a winter storm which cut a swath through the belly of Illinois and Indiana when I was but a mere boy of 10. Frigid arctic air, driven south by a fickle jet stream, collides with moisture-laden gulf air, to produce a massive front of storm clouds — a fast traveling tomahawk of destruction — 90 miles wide. The cutting edge of this front will strike my town late tonight.

I’m in my bed fighting off sleep, hoping that when I wake, this storm, like a low flying World War II bomber, will close my school by dropping its payload of tons and tons of snow upon snow. I reluctantly close my eyes, drift away and dream a child’s dream ... I am standing on top of a high hill, watching in awe as the ax-edged storm floats directly overhead. A voice from above bellows out: “The Storm King approaches.” The sky reveals a huge, submarine-like shape with the tail of a whale and the face of a catfish. Perched upon this black monster, sitting in a saddle, is the Storm King. Bug-eyed with terror, I stand frozen as this monstrosity opens its massive mouth and, like a giant coal shovel biting the ground, it begins to eat everything in its path. I feel the earth tremble and shake as ...

I hear my mother’s voice. “Are you OK,” she asks. “I heard you cry out.” Covering up my fear, I ask, “Did the storm come?” “Yes,” she said, “and your school is closed.” As I bolt out of my house, warmly dressed with hat, gloves, jacket and boots, the first view outside knocks the wind out of me: every tree, bush, house and fence is coated with ice. The effort required to lift my legs in the deep snow forces my lungs to huff and puff out great clouds of vapor. As my feet break the surface of the ice, I hear the crisp, crunchy sound each footstep makes. Suddenly, the memory of my mother’s holiday custard dessert, Creme Brule, pops into my mouth. The taste of the hard, caramelized sugar glaze she puts on top, has been awoken by the crunchy ice glaze I now step upon.

I take the foot path which descends to the flood plains of the creek. As I near the creek, my senses tell me something is wrong. As I scan the landscape, I’m hit with a jolt: the 100-foot sycamore tree, the landmark I’ve used to locate my best fishing spot, is gone. I slowly walk up to the creek bank and see what had happened. The weight of the ice had caused it to uproot and fall. Saddened, I begin the walk home, when I spied another casualty of the storm — the grove of weeping willow trees, also ice-coated, were bent down, heads bowed to the ground. But, unlike the sycamore, their trunks were intact.

30 years later: My practice, as a psychologist, was keeping me busy, and I began to dread an upcoming seminar I had to give. The holiday season was here, and pressures were eating up my time. Then, something unexpected happened. I became ill with the flu. But unlike all my other past illnesses, my recovery was slow. I wanted to cancel the seminar, but I decided to tough it out. When the day of the talk arrived, I knew I had made a mistake. I could hardly stand up. As I sat, head bowed with dizziness, a man came up to me and asked if I was OK. I explained about my illness, and he replied, “You give the talk sitting down, and I’ll do the slides for you.” I gave the speech sitting down, and with the help of this man, it went well.

Exhausted, I returned home, laid down, fell asleep and dreamed a child’s dream. I’m standing on top of a mountain, listening to the sun speak to the trees: “Stand tall and weep no more, young willows, for the warmth of my loving embrace will melt away all of your burdens.” As I watched the trees unbend, my eyes fell on the sycamore, which remained broken and still.

When I woke, I knew what the winter storm had taught me. All my life, I, like the sycamore tree, had defined strength using this formula: Stand strong, do not bend, never ask for help. But, when the flu took away my strength, I was forced to learn from the weeping willow: When hardships hit, bend. But never bend alone. True strength lies in the ability to reach out to family, friends and yes, even to those you just met, and ask for help. The content of this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional.


Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.



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