A new beginning, Christmas, Death and dying, death of spouse, first anniversary of cancer diagnosis, Javier Bardem, John Hiatt, New Year's Eve, Newgrange, Stonehenge, Ted Kooser, widow, Winter Solstice, Winter Solstice 2015
Again, the sun will pause for its 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, something I look forward to each year. At Newgrange, a neolithic burial tomb even older than Stonehenge, outside Dublin, Ireland, they hold a lottery to decide who will experience the solstice the way it was intended by those ancient folk who built it over 5,000 years ago.
In its roof, is a little opening, aligned to the ascending sun. When that morning sunbeam shoots through the roof-box, it illuminates for seventeen minutes the chamber below, highlighting the geometric shapes carved into the stone walls. It is a magic time, long before clocks and calendars and compasses measured time and the distance between us, signifying the turn towards a new year.
This year, out of over 30,000 applicants, only 50 were selected to experience the solstice at Newgrange. Unfortunatley, Irish weather was as you would expect with clouds and rain keeping the light out.
From the outside, my house glitters like a Christmas card with its tree twinkling in the window and a sign for Santa to please stop here. A little house, it is no different than any other year, except the two women inside it are different, each of us adjusted and adjusting to a life and to living without the constancy of a man for whom our happiness was his heart’s only desire. Each of us wondering what’s next for us – what will begin and what will end.
I remember reading something about a woman who described two distinct lives – the one she lived before cancer and the one forever changed by the diagnosis – her turning point. When I close my eyes to recollect 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. In conspiratorial whispers, she informed my husband of all the details I would forget. It 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 being 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 and invited friends over. We remembered to laugh. We went to a Bob Seger concert on Christmas Eve. We scheduled 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. Such 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.
For me – and the woman I used to be – cancer became The Scariest Thing in my life. Like every scary thing that comes to fruition, it had never previously crossed my mind. No. My mind was too consumed with all the things that most likely will never happen. All that worrying. Why? It is such a waste. But the cancer happened, and I wanted everyone to feel as sorry for me as I did for myself and howl about the unfairness of it all. I wanted sympathy – the kind delivered by an Irish mammy over endless cups of tea with reminders that there’s always someone worse off. Always.
I remember my mother cursing the cancer for the thief that it is but she’d temper her remarks with reminders that I was so lucky to be married to the best man in the world. “You could set your watch by him!” she’d say, and then she would jokingly ask him how in the name of God he had put up with me for over twenty years. Not known for my punctuality or having a place for everything and everything in its place, she regularly wondered aloud how I would ever manage without him since he waited on me hand and foot. Without him. In our house. Now that would be a scary thing. Me? A widow?
But in the wee hours of 2013 on a magical New Year’s Eve, I was still Ken’s wife, one half of an “us,” and I was looking ahead and happy. Like mischievous kids, we set off fireworks at the end of our street. My parents’ faces illuminated by sparklers bought one July 4th in San Luis Obispo, my daughter toasting us with cider that shone in one of the good Waterford crystal glasses, it was a magic time – life was sweet. I remember thinking, believing “All. Is. Well.”
When everyone went to bed on January 1st 2013, I stayed up, savoring the silence of our slumbering house and the opportunity to consider Ted Kooser’s assessment of life, that it is “. . . a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away …”
It is just like that. And on the shortest day when the sun stops for a moment, I find myself in between two cars, aware that I still have some distance to travel. Forward. And I am ready for it.
But there are still so many cars ahead, and the next and the next and the next clatter to clatter to clatter. And we close the door against the wind and find a new year, a club car brightly lit, fresh flowers in vases on the tables, green meadows beyond the windows and lots of people who together — stranger, acquaintance and friend — turn toward you and, smiling broadly, lift their glasses.