- Golden Fire
Cold sinks its teeth into you and bites down hard.
The human body does not like to be cold. It does not have thick fur like a wolf or layers of fat like a walrus. When the temperature dips below about 65°F, it sends distress signals to the brain. Go inside! Turn up the heat! Put on a coat! A little more chill causes our teeth to chatter and our muscles to shiver in an effort to speed up the metabolism. Goosebumps rise on our skin. The hypothalamus, the brain's thermostat, goes full-tilt to keep the core warm. Let the fingers and toes freeze; save the heart and lungs. As body temperature falls, blood flow slows down. Confusion and lethargy set in. It becomes difficult to speak or to perform even simple tasks. Ultimately, heart rate and breathing slow, we lose consciousness, and we die.
In an average year, nine people in the state of Oregon will die of hypothermia—when the body's core temperature falls below 95°. This year is not an average year. By mid-January, five deaths had already been attributed to excessive cold.
I'm obsessing about cold because the pellet stove that heats my house died two weeks ago, on the Thursday before Christmas. It was 30° outside, going down into the 20s at night. I'm 64 years old. Widowed, I live alone on the coast four miles south of Newport with my dog, on a dead-end road surrounded by pine, spruce, and alder trees. I work from home, so I'm here most of the time. Mine is one of four occupied houses on this street. Many days, I'm the only human around. [End Page 153]
I worry about dying alone and unseen.
I'm not likely to die of hypothermia. I'm healthy. I can go somewhere else. I have a car with a perfectly good heater. I have a woodstove in the den. It only heats the den, but it's something. I have two portable electric heaters. I have baseboard heaters in a couple of the bedrooms. Hell, you might say, why do you need the pellet stove at all?
Because it's the only thing that heats the whole house, not just pockets of house. Because when the pellet stove is roaring its lovely yellow heat into the air, the thermometer sails up to 70 degrees. Without it, with every electric heating device on all day, the best I can achieve by late afternoon is 64° in the living room and kitchen. The bedrooms are colder. I have read that elderly people are in danger below 64 degrees.
I have changed bedrooms. Five years after my husband died, I had finally gotten myself to sleep in the master bedroom at the far end of the house. The bed was bigger, the pastel décor nicer, the bathroom close by. I could finally look at the bed and not see my husband in it or us making love on top of the flowered comforter. Determined to make it my room, I put my socks and underwear in the dresser, hung my clothes in the closet, and blogged about my "new" bedroom.
I'm back in the guest room to which I fled when my husband's dementia had him waking up at all hours chasing phantoms. The ghosts are gone, but the master bedroom is too cold. The little thermometer card sent out by the electric company only goes down to 64°. Now it registers no heat at all.
The guest room is smaller, the bed narrow and lumpy, but the electric blanket is warm; the baseboard heater is accessible if I fold the sheets and blankets away from it, and there's room for Annie, a yellow Lab/pit bull mix, to sleep on the floor beside me. There's also a TV to mitigate the silence. I'm thinking I will not move back to the master bedroom. It's too cold, even in the summer.
A pellet stove is a modern alternative to the woodstove. Freestanding or a fireplace insert like mine...