T. S. Elliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, but I’d argue that. It comes in the winter.
Winter is more than a metaphor for the twilight of a life, the final whirl of child’s windup toy as the coiled spring inside releases the last of its energy and it freezes in suspended animation, a monument to a life lived.
No, winter is a dying season. Impersonal statistics will bear that out. From December to March, more of us march to the grave than any other time and, if you had to pick one, January would be the cruelest month. It creates more tears than the rest — enough tears to grow tulips in the spring. Maybe that’s what T. S. Elliot was talking about — the memory of winter.
In small, rural newspaper offices in which I’ve spent too much time out of the sun, we don’t need statistics to know these things. It’s all too real. We must face the survivors.
I remember the first one, the trembling hand of a mother handing me an obituary of a teenage son thrown from his prized white pickup and crushed in a rollover. Interesting I should remember the color. In a kinder dimension, he’d be a father now and his children would be graduating from college. So much died with him that night. I still remember his face.
Little of the history we write in small-town newspapers will be broadly shared, but in these moments, we are reminded of its importance and again each summer, when pilgrims return to sift through old issues, searching for remnants of lives long at rest. History can be a grand analysis of broad cause and effect, changing geographies. But always, in the end, in the minutia of it all, it’s personal.
We try to be perfect when the type is set, but few publications are without error. The rule seems to be typos are never visible to the proofreader until there are thousands of copies memorialized forever in print. Gutenberg’s Curse.
But these memorials? We try especially hard to get it right. Long after our own ink has dried up and faded, searchers will come for the past, and they must trust that our work was true.
This week it was a thank-you, handwritten three times before it said as much as could be said, the dust of a husband’s fresh grave not yet settled.
A few weeks ago, it was another mother, an unexplainable cruel confluence of events and an unexpected funeral. This lost son had been born into challenges, one of those children God decides must forever remain a child, one of those rare creatures we love so much it hurts because they smile through adversity, not recognizing much of the time that it’s even there. Is that the lesson they bring to us — that if we don’t acknowledge hardship, it ceases to exist?
His picture was all teeth.
No one knows why he went for a walk on that bitter winter day, only that he didn’t come back.
“I thought of my brother Mike,” I told her.
“I did, too,” she said.
Lame “I’m sorry’s” leaked from my mouth. When she described how they had found him … alone … frozen … gone … that was it for me.
Sometimes we sweep the survivors up in a hug and our chests rattle and wheeze from the hurt, reminding us how impossible it is for these condolences, like the words in the obituaries, to ever say enough. But we have to try.
I’m not sure if pain is something that can be shared, a yoke harnessed to anything at all. Or if it is like a dark cloud billowing until it chooses to stop of its own malevolent whim. I only know it is in our willingness to share the pain that we are most human.
I was reminded of something I scribbled out a year ago after another such a moment:
He walked in slowly, stoically, with checkbook in hand to place a thank-you in the paper. I looked over the neat handwriting. He’d thanked all the people who had expressed sympathies, the pastor, the church ladies who had served the meal. The funeral home.
“$14.30,” I said.
“Is that all?” Because death comes at such a high cost.
He handed me the checkbook, and I filled in everything but the signature.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“How long were you married?”
I stopped and looked up at him. He had pale, gray eyes.
“That’s a long time. I’ll bet it’s pretty quiet around the house.”
His lip trembled. His eyes glistened.
I passed him the checkbook. He signed, struggled a bit to tear the check out cleanly. Her name was still on the check, too. Just a memory now. He neatly wrote the amount in the register.
Silence. He looked so thin.
“I’m really sorry,” I said.
A nod. He croaked out something. A lament. If tears have a sound then that is what they sound like. And then he walked out.
© Tony Bender, 2018