My husband, Leo, and I met and married in 1948. Leo was a pre-law student, football hero, and the most handsome man I had ever seen. I was a psychology student and very interested in human growth and development. I had dreams of becoming a psychologist.
While Leo attended law school I worked at a secretarial job. I became pregnant with our first child the year Leo passed the bar exam. Becoming a psychologist faded into the background.
Within six years we had three children. Leo became a successful lawyer. He spent long hours at the office and often worked on the weekends. Being a mother to three little children kept me very busy. Sometimes while changing diapers or doing a load of dirty clothes, I would remember my dream of becoming a psychologist. I would realize with sadness that my dream was fading, while the reality of motherhood was taking over.
Leo was offered a position by a very prestigious law firm in California and we moved when our children were entering the pre-teen stage. Leo worked more and more and I busied myself with parenting activities. Notwithstanding the loss of my dream, I still enjoyed every aspect of parenting and that became my total focus. Leo and I both knew our relationship was suffering from lack of attention, yet we both kept focused on our individual activities and the children. Occasionally we took a family camping trip in the mountains. These were the best times we had. We bought a white camper which we named “Traveler.” When we were outside in nature away from phone and office, our family felt close and connected. At home my needs for connection and fun were met through being a mother. I was very close to my children.
Then came the day that our youngest child went off to college. That night, Leo and I sat down for dinner and realized we had very little to say to each other. We had become strangers.
It was finally time for me to pursue my long-held dream. I began a masters program in counseling. While I was studying and attending workshops on personal growth, Leo was winning difficult cases. He didn’t want to attend workshops with me and I wasn’t interested in his lawsuits.
One night we discussed getting a divorce. We had grown so far apart that divorce seemed the most logical route to take. Later that night our eldest child called to announce that he proposed to his girlfriend and they wanted to marry soon. His light, joyous mood contrasted sharply with the seriousness of our conversation.
I slept in my son’s room that night. I cried a long time feeling how hurt our children would be to have us divorce. I prayed and asked for help for Leo and I. Eventually I fell asleep. When I woke in the morning I had an irresistible urge to go camping. Our family had always been happy there. Perhaps, I thought, nature would bring some joy back into my life. Surprising, Leo was open to the idea. He had deep circles under his eyes and I could tell he, too, had not slept well. We were both suffering in our own private worlds. On a whim we packed up our old camper. Leo was scheduled to be out of town on business. He called and canceled. My school was in break so I had two weeks off. We decided to take a few days and go to a place we had enjoyed with the children. Outwardly we told each other there was no hope for our relationship. Inwardly we each held a tiny hope.
Packing the camper took longer than we thought and we didn’t start out until late afternoon. Though it was November, the weather had been sunny and warm and we packed clothes for moderate temperatures. While driving we began to talk about the divorce again. As angry words flew back and forth, we didn’t realize we had taken a wrong turn and then another. Years of hurt and disappointment were being expressed as we drove. We didn’t even notice when we turned onto a road marked “Closed in Winter.”
It started to snow. I was crying and Leo was yelling when the camper started to bounce. We realized we were off the road but there was nothing Leo could do about it. We came to a stop under a tree. He put the camper into reverse, but we were stuck in mud under a thin layer of snow.
We got out and inspected the situation. It was snowing harder now. Getting back inside, Leo tried several more times to get out, but without luck. We were badly stuck.
We resigned ourselves to our fate, climbed into the camper and soon were quite cozy. “We‘ll be rescued in the morning,” we both agreed confidently. I made a nice warm dinner and we ate by candlelight. We were hopeful to be back home by the next day. That night we slept together under the warm blankets I had brought.
We woke in the morning to a near white-out blizzard. No one was going to find us today and we weren’t going anywhere. We had enough food for perhaps four days and enough propane for heat for maybe six days. I made oatmeal and we sat close together on the little couch in the camper. We discussed our argument from the night before. Rather than continuing to blame each other, we began to listen to one another’s hurts and disappointments. There was so much we hadn’t understood. I didn’t know that Leo had felt left out by the closeness between the children and I. He didn’t understand how much I wanted to be with him and how lonely I felt. He felt unappreciated for working hard to support the family. I felt he didn’t understand how much work it was to raise three children with so little help from him. We apologized to each other and asked for forgiveness. We communicated more in that one day than we had in the entire thirty years of our marriage. We held each other as we went to sleep that night. We were confident that a snow plow would find us the following day.
We woke to more heavy snow fall. Leo made pancakes with a grand flair. We pretended we were in a fancy restaurant. We passed the time by remembering all the funny things the children had said or done. At one point I got laughing so hard and Leo leaned over and kissed me. We hadn’t kissed in many years. Leo had gotten into the habit of sleeping in his office at home. It had been longer than we could remember since we had been affectionate with each other. We were silent and looked at each other for a long time.
“I’ve missed being with you, Nancy,” he gently said as he reached over and kissed me again. We made love that day in a long leisurely way. Each touch and caress brought memories of times when we were lovingly connected.
As we later lay together in the stillness, Leo held my hand and whispered in my ear, “Nancy I love you. Can we start over again and get remarried rather than divorced?” How I had longed to hear those tender words from Leo. I snuggled close and we fell into a peaceful sleep.
The next day was cold, overcast, and clear enough to see our surroundings. It had snowed four feet. We surveyed our surroundings. For the first time we realized that we were not on the road going to our traditional family camp spot. That road was always kept plowed. We had never been on this road. Leo studied the maps for hours calculating time traveled and distance. With shaking hand and fear in his voice, he pointed on the map to a small road clearly marked “Closed in Winter.”
“Nancy, I believe we are here.” The map told us that roads closed in winter are not plowed or maintained. Leo estimated that we were fifty miles away from a plowed road. With the equipment we had, that was much too far to walk. Our mood shifted drastically as we realized our chances of being rescued were slim. Right then a helicopter rode past. By the time we got out of the camper into the open, it was gone. Leo explained to me,“ That helicopter was probably checking to make sure the road was clear of cars. Our white camper is under this big tree and most likely invisible by air.” Our big chance at rescue just left!
All of our energy now went into survival. I had a large red sleeping bag in the camper that belonged to our son. Using old sock and rags I sewed “HELP” onto it. We carefully put it out on an open piece of the road. Securing that blanket and keeping it free of snow became our main concentration. We rationed our food. We used the heat sparingly.
Ten days went by. Our food and heat were gone. All we had now was the snow outside to eat. We stayed mostly in bed, where we were warm and comfortable. Several times a day we checked on our “help sign.” During this time we had many meaningful talks. We realized how deeply we loved each other. We had let the pressures of career and family life consume us. Our love had always been there, it was just buried under responsibility. Probably a hundred times a day we told each other how much we loved each other. We held hands and touched feet as if our very survival depended upon our connection. We thought of all the times in the past that we had neglected to appreciate each other, and so we took the opportunity to make up for lost time. Each moment of each day we were faced with the possibility of not surviving. Though there was a tragic sense to the situation, there was also a serene peace that passed between us. We had found our love again, and that was worth everything.
Two more weeks passed without food or heat. We kept the camper door clear, we checked on our “help sign,” and we ate snow. We talked about death. For the first time in our relationship we prayed together. We talked to God together throughout the day and felt a loving closeness and comfort surrounding us. I could see into Leo’s soul, into the essence of who he was, and I loved him unconditionally. He returned the same love to me.
Four weeks had passed since we had gotten stuck, and we had been without heat or food for almost three weeks. Leo was no longer able to get out of the camper. It took great effort on my part to check on our “help sign” and clear it of snow. Leo had health problems from the past which were now manifesting. I knew he could not survive much longer.
One evening I brought our last remaining candle and placed it by Leo’s head. “I want to get married all over again,” I quietly but eagerly announced as I reached down to kiss him. He opened his eyes and smiled weakly. As he lay on his pillow, we got married to each other in the highest way. We promised to love and honor each other’s soul in the afterlife.
Leo slept peacefully on his pillow. Every ounce of my being felt in total love with him. As I listened to his breathing, I took out my only piece of paper and wrote to our children. I told them how we had lived our final days in peace and in love, and were connected in a way we had never experienced. I told them how much we loved them and that our love would be with them forever. I put the letter on the table. That night as I crawled into bed I knew that Leo had little time left to live. I decided that I would stop eating the snow and checking on our sign. I wanted to die with Leo.
The following morning I woke with a start. Leo weakly opened his eyes, but could no longer speak. I held him close. I intended to hold him every second before he died. I told him over and over again of my love.
Suddenly I heard a noise outside. Before I knew it, a helicopter had landed and three men were making their way through the snow drifts toward our camper. I could hardly believe this was actually happening. I opened the door and stared into the faces of three young men. They looked like angels. They knew just how to care for us. Within a short time we were both in stretchers flying to the nearest hospital. My only request to our rescuers was that I wanted my stretcher close to Leo’s so that I could hold his hand.
It took time, but Leo did regain his strength. He retired from law practice and we spent every day together. We are now in our seventies and not a day goes by that we don’t remember our ordeal in the snow. We are grateful to have survived, but even more grateful that love guided us back into each other’s arms.
— Nancy Whitmore
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