Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the Bleak Midwinter

This is the coldest winter we've had in a long time. It’s old fashioned. It’s angry.

I step outside and ice assaults me, insinuating itself into my nostrils and ears and behind my teeth. I have to take turns breathing through my nose and my mouth, to prevent either from freezing too fast.

Freeze, frozen, frost, ice, snow. Whoever said it was right: Hell is not fire, it’s ice. Ice never changes, and it hurts. Cuts like glass, hits like a hammer.  

The lake is frozen over. My son asked me where all the ducks went when the lake froze. I told him they went to the Caribbean on a duck cruise. I don't know where they are. In my mind’s eye, they’re just beneath the surface of the ice, wings and little orange feet all tucked up tight, eyes open, waiting, waiting. They’re all belly-up, and facing the same direction.

And, like an afterthought to the cold, my grandmother died last week, after a long and painful battle with dementia and a mob of other health problems.

I want to be honest. For me, she died a long time ago.


The song that runs in circles in my head these days is Holst’s version of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which seems appropriate, but I wish it wouldn't, simply because the melody is delicate and beautiful, and it’s not for you.

You were a stranger to me, though whenever I look in the mirror I see two things: your face, and the face of my father, your son. I should know these parts, these familiar parts – the story behind them should be our story ­- but instead, I am a copy. Yours is a story I will never hear, and mine is a story you were never interested in hearing.

This should not be about me, and I recognize this. At the same time, though, when has death been for anyone but the living?

Your life was hard. Harder than I’ll ever know: young marriage, childbirth, poverty, drunkenness, and a certain stubborn hatefulness that you always seemed to carry on your chest like a talisman. I’d like to think you were a kind woman, in the story I’ll never know – I’d like to think you were bright and impulsive and brave, instead of vindictive and angry. You must have laughed – you must have smiled and been content in the story I will never know. I want to remember the woman who might have been, instead of the woman who was.

I wrote this five years ago after visiting you:
She said they had moved her to a different house while she slept. She thought she might have been sick – she didn’t hurt, she said, but she slept all day. And when she woke, she was in a different house. And she wanted to go home.
She couldn’t understand why her daughters kept insisting she was already home. She asked my father to give her a straight answer – he didn’t. She asked him, filling the room with awkwardness, and he made light, said as long as you’re comfortable and can find the bathroom. She gave him a Look. She hasn’t lost that.
She’s lived in that house for over forty years now. What house is she living in now?          

The repetitive young pastor said you were a determined, strong lady for living so far beyond the doctors’ predictions. They gave you four, five months; you lasted four years past that. Four incomprehensible, frightened, bed-bound, terminally ill years. You knew no one, anymore – not your own children, your own sisters and brothers, not your beloved Siamese cats, not even yourself. The Black Dog sat at your heels and beside your bed for four long years, as much as you tried to ignore him.

That’s not determination, Patricia. It’s fear. You were afraid to let go.

I know, because I would be afraid, too, deathly afraid. You claimed that you weren't, used words of faith like little shields to deflect the questions, but Patricia, I am your granddaughter. I am one-quarter you. I know parts of your story without ever hearing it. We don’t like fear, but we hold it close, almost as close as we hold our rage, and we deny that it exists.

I’m happy – so happy – that you let go at last.


She would have liked the way she looked in the casket – serene, well-dressed in a pretty pink nightgown, not gaudy or overdone. She would not have liked being put into ground that was frozen beyond solid, but she had no say in the matter.

The lake is frozen over. The whole world is frozen over, and nothing moves, nothing changes. The air outside hits our lungs like a hammer, cuts our flesh smoothly, like glass. This Hell will pass, and when spring comes, you will have always been dead.

When I hear windchimes, I will think of you. When I say hateful words to my son, I will hear your voice within mine. When I see the grainy picture of the fifteen-year-old you, smiling on your wedding day, I will believe that you were brave and brash, the way I always wanted to be, and leave it at that.

Goodbye, Patricia. Goodbye, Grandma. Go home, now. May peace find you, and may you hold it close when it does.