first person testimony

My first calls for help weren’t loud enough – given the deserted condo grounds three stories below. No tracks in the snow. Not even a bird or squirrel in the oak trees outside the screen. The sun was low, showing streaks on the sliding glass door that had closed with a solid, unmistakable click. I was locked on the screen porch in stocking feet with my cell phone inside and out of reach.

Cleaning the glass was meant to be a 5-minute task. There were smudges I’d missed last time I was housesitting. But the latch was loose, and the force of the door bumping shut flipped the lock to the closed position. After 10 minutes tugging the handle, it was getting too cold to solve the problem myself.

I grabbed a small, wool lap robe from the back of a wicker chair, wrapped it around my shoulders, and considered the options.

“Hellooo?” I called. “Can anyone hear?”

Then I pounded a shared wall with the next-door neighbor, and hoped I could minimize any drama. My situation was embarrassing. What sane person feels the need to wash windows during a Minnesota winter?

It had always been important for me to do a job right. As a child, I felt my failures keenly. Washing every dish perfectly or returning from the store with all the items on a list were, at times, impossible tasks that I could not complete to my mother’s satisfaction – no matter how hard I tried. The streaks in the glass were like that. I hadn’t cleaned it right the first time, and it needed to be perfect.

Now I was stuck, and my compulsion would be known. I spent a few desperate moments trying to jimmy the lock using a thin, metal frame from a decorative, wall thermometer. It was just above freezing.

And it didn’t work. It only scratched the brass lock plate and broke the mercury piping – adding weight to my growing sense of failure.

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So, the calls of “Hello?” turned to louder cries for “Help!” The sun had set but I tried not to panic as I wondered who could possibly hear me in a retirement condo complex shut tight against the cold. How cold would I need to be before slashing the screen to climb through and drop to the snow?

I wasn’t that desperate yet, but my cries had grown to shouts and my hand was swollen from pounding when I heard a voice below.

“Where are you?”

It’s awkward getting rescued.A human! A resident two floors down had heard my distress. He apologized that he thought it was “Just kids yelling” until his wife insisted “Someone’s in trouble.” He wanted to call my folks, but I explained they were on vacation. There was still hope I could fix my mistake without their knowing.

He left to call the manager’s office.

It must have been nearly 5 p.m. but if the staff was still onsite, they would have a passkey. Only now I couldn’t remember if I’d also locked the dead bolt. I could see the front door from my 3-season prison but not the position of the lock. And when a shadow crossed the crack of light along the frame – the door didn’t open. I had thrown the dead bolt as feared, and a few minutes later, the neighbor called up that the staff couldn’t reach me. He would have to phone the police.

My feet were truly numb by then but it didn’t seem like a 911 event, and I suggested the nonemergency number. I was worried the police may consider the address a problem residence, because my folks had an officer visit some time earlier over a conflict complicated by too much wine and a senior moment. Local cops know when someone drinks. What if they thought I was the same person who had called to complain before? And who may, in fact, have been the problem?

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The nonemergency line seemed appropriate – though it meant a longer wait. After several minutes more, I regretted minimizing the danger.

“Do the police know I’m trapped outside?” I called. “And not just locked out of a house somewhere?”

Maybe they imagined me waiting in a car or kindly neighbor’s kitchen.

“They’re aware of the situation,” he replied, and after too long of a period for calm, a new shadow finally crossed the light around the front door.

It shimmied on first impact, then the wood frame splintered, and the door slammed open to reveal the silhouette of young, uniformed officer. He strode through the living room and released the broken lock that had trapped me in the dark and cold.

It’s awkward getting rescued.

I was grateful to be warm and free and expected to see the police. What I hadn’t imagined (and could not hear from the porch) was the group of neighbors and staff that had gathered in the hall.

There’s a moment in rescue stories when a trapped child emerges from an abandoned well, or a rockpile falls away to cast a light of hope inside a cave-in, and the faces of people who care confront the survivor who thought that they were alone. My minor emergency seemed undeserving of their efforts; good people who made time to help me, and waited until the end when they knew I was safe. In that moment, a sense of my value almost replaced the feeling of dread for when my folks returned. I was still embarrassed, but I could deal with the damage, and felt that I was not alone.

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Last Updated on November 9, 2021

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