To Be Afraid

In January 1998, when I was 12 years old, Montreal was hit with a major ice storm. We were just about to go back to school after Christmas break when the storm swept through town, depositing up to 4 inches of ice on every surface and leaving massive destruction in its wake. It caused billions of dollars in damage across Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, and the Northeastern United States, and many people and animals unfortunately died. It was, as you might say, a whole thing.

But, like I said, I was 12. I wasn’t an anxious kid yet; that came later. I didn’t know to be afraid of things yet. I didn’t know that the world grinding to a halt meant that something bad was happening. To me, an ice storm of this magnitude spelled out every kid’s two favourite words: school closures.

We went to a private school, so while public schools seemingly closed often due to snow or other extreme weather, our school NEVER closed. The first day back after Christmas break, January 5th, was also the first day after the storm. We sat by the radio in the living room and listened to the school closures: first the English school systems, then the French ones, then some other private schools in the area, then — FINALLY — our school. We rushed to put on our snow pants and winter boots. “Be careful!” my mom said, closing the door behind us as my sisters and I ran to the park across the street, dodging downed power lines.

We played outside all morning. Branches snapped off trees with ease; we tore down half-broken branches and piled them in the middle of the yard. Outside: double-digit negative temperatures. Inside: no power. My mom was probably already panicking, trying to think of how to feed a family of seven without electricity, but we weren’t scared. It was exciting.

When we went back into the house, we packed up our things. They were opening up emergency shelters for families with young children, so we headed to the town rec centre with our sleeping bags and prepared to hunker down. We thought this was the greatest thing that had ever happened. I packed a stack of Nancy Drew books and the brand-new walkman I had received for Christmas. We slept on folding cots and showered in the locker rooms. We celebrated my mom’s birthday with balloons and a cake.

This happened 22 years ago, but I still think about the moment when we walked into the emergency shelter and ran into a CBC reporter who wanted to interview some of the local kids for colour in her article about the storm’s effect on families. She clicked on her tape recorder. “What do you think about all this?” she asked me. I thought about it and leaned in to answer: “I don’t really think this is a big deal, but it’s fun. I don’t think we’ll be here long.”

We stayed at the shelter for 3 days. Then the shelter lost power. We ended up at a hotel across town for another few nights. Then the hotel lost power. When we finally got home a week later, my mom threw out the entire contents of our fridge.

It seems funny to think about that episode of my life now, one of my few memories that isn’t tinged with the anxiety and depression that took hold when I was 14 and has followed me ever since. To me, this was a fun adventure. I didn’t know to be afraid. Life had moved forward in a straight line for me for 12 years, and I had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t continue to march forward, undisturbed, for many years to come.

I’ve been thinking about Ice Storm ’98 a lot this week given everything that’s happening in the world. Over the past few days, we’ve stocked up on supplies so we can be house-bound and self-sufficient as the COVID-19 situation in Canada continues to evolve. I don’t have the same attitude I had when I was 12, when nothing felt urgent or scary. Now, with the parking lots jammed with cars, people fighting over the last roll of toilet paper, and everyone up to their elbows in hand sanitizer, this doesn’t feel like a fun game; it feels like we’re preparing for the end of the world.

I recognize that my anxiety is probably making me catastrophize unnecessarily. As a remote worker, it’s not uncommon for me to go 2-3 days without leaving my house, sometimes longer, and I don’t mind it. But now that I have been advised to stay indoors, it feels like a horrible punishment. I’m trying to remember that I’m protecting others by staying home, but it feels scary and oppressive, and I feel anxious and sad.

The ice storm eventually ended. The ice melted, the power came back on, and we went back to school. And just like the storm, this too will pass: the virus will peak and retreat, everyone will return to work, and one day we’ll look back at our own hysteria and laugh, maybe. Until then, I’ll be feeling lonely from the comfort of my living room, and probably agonizing over whether I should have bought more rice.