First Frost

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written initially Sept. 23, 2005/updated Sept. 30, 2009

There needs to be a warning system in place for the first frost. Today caught me completely unaware, as I woke in a bedroom with windows flung open as they’ve been for over 4 months. I sensed immediately that autumn on the calendar meant business. It was freezing, both inside and out. I wanted nothing more than to stay under the covers, hiding my head from the reality outside. The wood floors were cold, the furnace sputtered itself to life as I closed windows and gazed out at frost on the grass and leaves, sparkling in bright morning sunshine. How can this be, a month earlier than typical? I am not ready for this. No one prepared me for summer to be over, literally overnight.

It was, to be entirely fair, a very transient frost. It wasn’t crunchy underfoot and merely put a little glaze on everything. As the sun rose higher, in only a matter of minutes, the frost softened and melted, leaving no trace behind. The only hint of cold air was the puffs of steam from the horses’ nostrils as they raced in the pastures to warm their muscles, as they do not yet have their full winter coats, and they too were startled by this early cold.

Things happen daily in our lives that we feel unprepared for. No matter how much schooling we pursue, how much news and information we absorb, or how many tales of advice we’ve heard from our wise grandparents, there will always be a surprise around the corner, and usually not as harmless as an early frost. Perhaps it is a hurricane that shifts direction picking up speed and ferocity, or a virus that mutates in a way that makes its transmission more deadly, or the “big one” earthquake that has been predicted for years finally lets loose. These threats hang over our collective heads and we cower and hide our heads under the covers, as it can be too overwhelming to contemplate.

I have been taking part in Disaster Planning work preparing for the H1N1 influenza outbreak, as well as participating in “tabletop exercises” that help prepare first responders and health care personnel for a variety of horrible scenarios, and I found that I’m not cut from the same cloth as many emergency workers who seem to enjoy thinking up the worst possible cases. I end up in a state of tabletop anxiety as we walk through the handling of chemical spills, dirty bombs, and deadly pathogen release into the community. No matter what we discuss, a positive outcome was to contain inevitable destruction to a localized area, and prevent spread, not only of the deadly agent, but of the immobilizing and contagious fear that can bring society to its knees. It is hard for me to think in those terms, as even one death in my clinical practice is unthinkable and rare. As I’ve read the stories of the health care professionals who worked days on end to help in the Katrina disaster, I realize they too were unprepared and undoubtedly scared. Yet they were there, doing their best helping people despite overwhelming need and limited supplies, because giving up one’s own comfort in the service of others is the good and right thing to do.  So my long work days seeing many H1N1 influenza-afflicted college students seems very minor in comparison.

We are called to get up and get going even on the “coldest” of mornings, when throwing the covers back over our head and staying warm and comfortable is far more appealing. It is such a small sacrifice, as insignificant as a first frost, compared to the monumental gift, earth shaking and heart rending, that has been given to each of us, unselfishly,  out of Love. In response, we must leap willingly out of our warm beds and stand ready to go wherever and whenever we may be needed most.