There is a change in the air. Early morning, when I open the French window to my apartment balcony, it billows into the hall, crisp, cold, and fresh as mint. I stand on the windowsill blowing white clouds of breath. Winter has decorated my ordinary life. Some days everything sparkles, glamorizing the lids of bins and the tarmac patchwork of the pavements. Frost etches mysterious patterns on the roof of our car, and the puddles that collect next to it are crisp with ice.
My wife and kids have taken out their winter coats. There are suddenly those big black winter shoes in our shoe bin, and I feel like I am not ready to see them just yet. My neighbor’s dog walks outside tepidly, slightly slower in gait than usual. The cats on someone’s windowsill look longingly outside, their fur bristling slightly against the cold of the pane. They are suddenly present in the house, having avoided the humans all summer when the warm nights invited adventure. Just like us, they now crave comfy cushions and the occasional fire.
I’m changing, too. I drive down to the Rye beach close by a little more often than I would like to. This is the season when I start to believe that the beach is all mine, miles of unadorned solitude that I can drive along without encountering another soul. Nobody else seems to enjoy the cold as much as I do. Winter is the best season for walking, as long as you can withstand a little earache. A good frost picks out every blade of grass, the jagged edge of every leaf. The cold renders everything exquisite, etched cleanly — like the outlines of a good painting.
The reeds have dried to a rustling beige, and the bare trees reveal a bright green woodpecker flitting between branches. The tide is higher than usual, and the marsh is transformed into a low, silvery sea. There are pheasants, too, and a peregrine being mobbed by crows. Amid the transformation of winter — the unwelcome change — is an abundance of life.
Transformation is the business of winter. In certain mythology, there exists a deity known as the Alcyone. She takes human form to rule the winter months. She brings along with her the winds and cold weather. Every step she takes changes the land. She has rocks in her basket that when dropped created mountains while the hammer she wielded when hit created valleys. Her reign, they say, lasts only until the end of April when Zephyrus takes over and turns Alcyone to dust. They are the two faces of the same entity: The wisdom of winter, the vitality, and youth of summer.
As I walk along the plank close to the beach, I see a frozen seagull, the dead crab, and the carcass of the fallen squirrels. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like water in a flowing river. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones.
As a teenager, I used to hang around a homeless saint in the village around Sangamner. It was said that at nineteen he fell into a coma after contracting bacterial meningitis. When he woke up in his hut, he was paralyzed unable to drink even a glass of water. But something had happened in the intervening hours, which made it possible to endure the months of recovery that followed. He had returned to everyday life knowing that he had seen something else: he was no longer afraid of death, which now seemed to him a benign process. Whenever I used to speak to him, he would laugh and ignore me. Sitting with him, I used to get the sense that he had more contact with the cycles of life than the rest of the people. He knew how it felt to cast off old skin. He knew when it was time to grow a new one.
The dropping of leaves by trees is called abscission. It occurs on the cusp between autumn and winter, as part of an arc of growth, maturity, and renewal. But at the end of the summer, as the days grow shorter and the temperature falls, trees stop making food. As the chlorophyll begins to break down it reveals underneath it other colors that were always present in the leaf, but which were masked by the abundance of green pigment: oranges and yellows, the slightly dark purples.
Even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year are already coming into existence. Most trees produce their buds in high summer, and the autumn leaf fall reveals them, neat and expectant, protected from the cold by thick scales. The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. Its ripe cones and nuts are providing essential food in this scarce time for mice and squirrels, and its bark is hosting hibernating insects and providing a source of nourishment for hungry deer. It is far from dead. It is the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.
A hospital creates a particular kind of winter. I roam the halls of Dartmouth Hitchcock looking around with a certain sense of faith — A faith that they, whoever they are, knew all the answers. That they can save my daughter. I walk around the polished corridors, the lingering smell of disinfectant. The orderly universe of the hospital helps us to form our abscission zone, that hardening off of an old life, ready to shed its duties and expectations.
Eventually, I find myself in a room with a weary-looking nurse who tells me that I need to wait outside while they perform a colonoscopy on my daughter. She holds within herself a maze of inflammations, a wonderland of malabsorption. Some days later we are back at home, the world of hospitals far behind us, but whose silhouette always lingering in the background. Quicker than I ever hoped, she lands at the other side of her illness: slightly battle-scarred, slightly hungrier, and a little wiser.
I feel as though I, too, have shed some leaves: those last shreds of belief in my youthful carelessness, when I could do anything, had nobody to care about and come back from a large swath of grief unscathed. Parenting has proved itself to be different. It at times feels like a winter that is asking me to be more careful with my energies and to rest awhile until spring.
Look at me — It whispers silently.
In the womb of death, there is a seed of life.