Mainers are a more devout population today, now that we all know how bad hell looks frozen over. In the mess, however, lies this paradox: Covering the human spirit with four inches of ice makes it even more visible. Bad times in the human experience can elicit the best in us.
The coal fire of my emotional soul is warmed, in part, by the memory of a newborn baby who arrived in my hands one night limp and lifeless. His dark, motionless eyes stared up into mine as I bent over to put a tube in his windpipe. His chest moved only when we squeezed it to pump blood through his tiny heart, which had stopped beating on its own. Moments before he had been delivered by Caesarean section from his mother’s hemorrhaging womb by a desperate surgical team.
That day was his day, however, and not his time. He lived, and is now a boy of 7 somewhere in Maine. He is probably thrilled that his frozen school is closed, and is certainly oblivious to the fact that he gave me the gift of being able to help him when he desperately needed me.
Maine has been a state of such gifts this past week, a frozen archipelago of hammered communities and boundless opportunities to make a difference. None is any less than the one I was given that day seven years ago. The magnitude of the good we do is not in the deed, but in what we gave of what we could have given, and what we did of what we could have done.
Among those who have contributed recently to the quality of life in this glazed state are those thousands who stepped forward to help last week (and this). Each gave, and in return received the warm gift of giving that stays with us for so long afterwards. Road and power crews left their families, risked their lives, and gave their all, proving again and again that where there is hard work and caffeine there is light. A Bangor woman briefly gave up heat during the blackout Friday night, unplugging the heater in her home from her generator and plugging in her outdoor Christmas tree lights. In some central Maine town two men drove from house to house hooking their portable generator to cold furnaces for a while to warm each home just a bit. Others donated firewood, shelter, food, water, kerosene, encouragement, humor and resolve. The list is endless. Much of the state was coping from what amounted to a collection of meteorological bad hair days, but we were in it together, and we survived.
In the end, it was not the improving weather that saved us last week. It was the heat generated by the collective energy of a state full of good, hardworking, caring people who rose to the occasion like the sun on Saturday morning to beat back the cold and the ice. Throughout Maine you could feel the warmth of the collective good will, generated by the coalescing rays of a thousand good deeds and thoughts.
There are days in my life as a doctor when I wonder what the heck I am doing, and why I am doing it. On those days I reach for the warmth of those times when I have been given the gift of making a difference, a gift we all have been given. Then I stop wallowing, and get back to work. As the ice and the memories of the Great Ice Storm of 1998 fade, what will remain behind is the Maine that existed before the storm. When we battle against each other over homosexual rights and what to do with budget surpluses, instead of with each other against cold and darkness, Mainers will wonder what the hell happened to these days when we worked together so well.
During those and other battles, we should reach into the coal fire of our state’s emotional soul for the memory of the Great Ice Storm of 1998. We will find there the warmth of the gift we were given when our neighbors asked for our help and we helped. We can use that warmth to fight the small ice storms of politics and daily life and rediscover that we are the Maine of the Great Ice Storm of 1998, which is paradoxically “Maine, the way life should be.”
Erik Steele, D.O. of Bangor is the administrator for emergency services and pre-hospital care at Eastern Maine Medical Center and is on the staff for emergency department coverage at six hospitals in the NEWS coverage area.