The winter solstice and the turning of the year catches me off guard


(Irish-born Yvonne Watterson recently lost her husband back in Arizona while she was on a family trip home. She writes about coping with loss and her own fond memories of better days.)

It is the shortest day of the year, when the sun will pause for a moment of solstice before changing direction to move northward. From the Latin, solstitium, the apparent standing still of the sun, the Winter Solstice is a turning point. At Newgrange, a neolithic burial tomb even older than Stonehenge, outside Dublin they hold a lottery to decide who will get to experience the solstice the way it was intended by those ancient people who built it over 5,000 years ago. In its roof, is a little opening, aligned to the rising sun. When that sunbeam shoots through the roof-box, it illuminates the chamber below for seventeen minutes. It is a magic time, designed before clocks and calendars, signifying the turn towards a new year.

I’m not ready for it, for days that stretch out even longer than each of the thirty-six that have passed since the day my husband died. Thirty-six. I cannot bring myself to convert those days to weeks or to say it’s been over a month already. I’m not ready, not equipped to turn away from a life with him to one without him, even though the bank is clamoring for a certified copy of the death certificate so they can erase his name from the checking account and the mortgage, make things that used to be “ours” all mine.

From the outside, our house – my house – glitters like a Christmas card with its tree twinkling in the window and a sign for Santa to please stop here. It’s no different than any other year, except everything in it has changed.  In a pile on the kitchen countertop, sympathy cards mingle with utility bills and an accidental Christmas card from someone far away who didn’t find out until after she’d mailed it that Ken is dead. Recorded on the DVR are the unwatched episodes of “Alaska: The Last Frontier” and “The Daily Show” scheduled indefinitely.  When he died, the television was on and tuned to the Comedy Channel. He would have appreciated the irony. There are the movies he never deleted, like “No Country for Old Men,” probably his favorite after “Goodfellas.” Sophie made me watch it with her last week, fast forwarding to his favorite scenes and explaining the significance of each. I can imagine him telling me that he told me so – it really is a good movie. How come I never watched it with him?

Most mornings now, I get in the car and play a guessing game before turning on the radio. Even Sophie's playing along. We'll look at each other in disbelief when a song he loved comes on.

Again. Never, in our twenty-two years together, did his favorite tunes get such airplay. Even John Hiatt's "Slow Turning" came on the other day (see below). I know Ken would have turned it up loud and stayed in the car until it was over. And he would have been mad if he'd missed his favorite line:
I’m yelling at the kids in the back, ‘cause they’re banging like Charlie Watts.

Naturally, I think there's a conspiracy at work. It reminds me of how it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer that I noticed all the pink ribbons and so many women with bandanas covering vulnerable, shorn heads.

I remember reading something about a woman who felt she had two distinct lives – the one before cancer and the one forever changed by the diagnosis - a turning point, by any other name. When I close my eyes to remember my own diagnosis, I can see myself get up and walk out the door, leaving behind the woman I used to be, offended by the nerve of that Breast Cancer Navigator telling my husband and me that I had cancer. Me? With cancer? Like an unexpected snow, the pronouncement fell from her lips and rendered me wordless.

I remember how she spoke. She was conspiratorial and quiet, talking to my husband in a way that reminded me of the way we quietly speculate about the cause of a death when all the evidence points to hard living. On and on she talked, as if trying to soothe us even as she filled our ears with fear. So many scary words. Not to worry. She stressed that what we were hearing that day in her dimly lit office was not a death sentence.

Nonetheless, I heard a crack. The sound of a life altered that would have me pondering still and more how to handle poet Muriel Rukeyser’s question:

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
I think it might."

I raged silently against cancer, indignant that it had barged into our lives, interrupting our plans to celebrate our daughter’s fourteenth birthday and Christmas. But we celebrated anyway. We decorated the house the way we always do. We had a party for Sophie. We remembered to laugh. We went to the Bob Seger concert on Christmas Eve. We scheduled the appointments, the blood-work and the biopsies, the mammograms and the mastectomy. The healing began. Sort of.

And then, another Christmas, the cancer contained, the promise of a better year. Relieved and ready to celebrate anything, my parents came to Arizona to help us bring in 2013. We set off fireworks saved for a special occasion and for good luck, we designated my dark-haired husband “the first footer” after midnight. Oh, such sweet relief to shut the door against 2012, a year that had skulked in and scared us, each of us terrified by the cancer and what it might do.