A number of years ago I wrote to Gary wishing him a happy Winter Solstice. He wrote back saying it was bittersweet, representing as it does the “death of winter.” I only came to understand his sentiment the winter we were together at Brushkana: the joy of late sunrises, cozy fires, animal tracks in the snow, astounding views under the crust of the river, sunset skiing atop the river past browsing moose. We had time to read, reflect, talk, dance, cook, write, carve, and plan. Shortly after Solstice we started to gain an hour of light every 10 days, an astounding change that left me in a continual struggle to adjust. Spring in Alaska still allowed for beautiful skiing and other “winter” pleasures, but we felt a sort of obligation to those longer days, to use them more intensively.
Today another winter begins, and dies. Six months ago today, my family and friends joined me here for a memorial service for Gary. Since then, I managed through some projects to improve the cabin and property that Gary had suggested to me, sold our Norwegian Fjords, Drader and Konall, to loving new homes, brought the outside cat in, and adopted a sunny little Sundog.
We are not without joy, the six of us. Ella is a bit jealous of Sunny, but clearly enjoys playing with the little heathen. Sunny is game for anything, and in her rush to keep up with Ella she tumbles like a circus clown, though less and less as she grows. Bess and Duchess have a new winter pasture in view of the cabin; they beg for attention and apples, and I see them running and kicking up their heels when they think we’re not looking. Mira, the cat, has moved up to the loft, but takes pleasure in using a variety of annoyingly urgent vocalizations to train me to climb the stairs to provide room service or a little cuddling. Sunny almost never chases her anymore, but “almost” seems to be the operative word so far as Mira is concerned – she remains cautious. Ella sweetly mixes perfect maturity and her lovely manners with sibling-rivalry neediness. I take pleasure in most every day, in the rhythm of my chores, the challenge of training little Sundog, the satisfaction of seeing projects develop and come to fruition.
I miss Gary terribly, of course. All the usual things I expected to miss – his hug (and if you ever got one, you know what I mean), his eyes and smile, his crazy wonderful ideas, his wisdom and practical skills, the way he danced, the scratch of his beard on my face, his habit of telling me my meals were “scrumptious,” and how he called me “Stinky” and made it seem the best possible term of endearment. I wish I could get his advice on how to keep Sunny from chasing deer or going ice skating; I wish he could share the joy of hearing a new bird, seeing a new sunrise. And I wonder what all Gary might have accomplished, in work and art and for our neighbors and community, had he lived another five or twenty-five years.
But I never focused on how stark it would be to lose that one person who bore witness to my daily life. Not having really been alone before, for the first time I am facing the question, “Who am I when no one is looking?” And I feel the weight of the question, “What might I accomplish in the next five, or twenty-five years?”
I find that when no one is looking I only have enough housekeeping motivation to keep a clean bathroom and kitchen unless company is coming. I find it hard to cook for myself, but am getting better. I don’t seem to be in danger of wanting to drink too much, but while writing this I just polished off a plate of the first cookies I’ve baked in recent memory. My hair is uncut and unwieldy, and some days I don’t even try past the first brushing. Laundry gets done, but my car is so dirty that I can’t make it into town without mud all over my pants. I need appointments with the dentist, eye doctor, and a dermatologist to look at a mole on my back that Gary’s not here to describe to me. I put off simple things, am months late on a wedding gift (sorry Eric and Nigeen), and will miss getting things out in time for Christmas. I have some good friends and see them regularly, but find it way too easy to shelter in place here with my animal family. I tell myself I want to learn how to do things like maintain the tractor, but I can’t bear to watch youtube on something so boring, and if I can get someone to do the job for me I manage to find something urgent to do rather than watch and learn.
On a more positive note, I have managed to catch up on a lot of backlogged work and projects, with help, of course, and have embarked on some important new ones. Finding little Sundog was a bit of serendipity, and an important one for Ella and me, to help take care of us both as 10-year-old Ella ages, and so Ella could help me raise the little one. With a lot of help from a friend, I planted a crop of garlic – 8500 cloves – a project unforeseen at the time of Gary’s death. I joined his acupuncturist in an effort to grow and nurture growers of Chinese medicinal herbs, and became a Master Gardener, meeting some great people along the way.
The death of winter foretells the spring. A new year is soon to begin. I’ve had some time to adjust to my new circumstances, and will have to take the opportunity of seasonal rebirth to help me hone who I am when no one is looking. And to find an answer to the question of what I might accomplish in whatever time is left to me. I have been on the receiving end of so much compassion and empathy, grace and kindness – in short, so much love. One thing is sure: this is a time for me to start to look beyond my own needs and cares to offer generously to others in that same spirit of lovingkindness.
With heartfelt gratitude and love to you all, I wish you a happy season and a wonderful New Year.
(This was published yesterday on indeep-alaska.com, where many of my subscribers still reside!)