When the spring teases me one day, outplaying the winter dullness for just an afternoon, I go for a solitary walk. In my seven years in the Midwest, I’ve come to dread this part of the year. It’s not the liturgical season of Lent or the lament that comes along with it that I dread (lament is something I seem to be doing anyway these days). What I dread is the last months of winter when the novelty of snow and cold has worn off and we are left with the prediction of a rodent’s shadow.
My Texas constitution was built for sticky leather seats in summer, not the muted grays of a winter when everything left outside cracks, breaks, and busts. Ash Wednesday is a straightforward service to perform because ashes are everywhere; so much is burning, trying to keep all of us warm.
As I step out onto the bridge over our creek during my walk, the ice below begins to break apart. Some say it sounds like a gunshot when ice cracks. Perhaps it’s because a shallow creek is coming undone, and not a large lake, that I think not of guns but of a tree falling.
It’s funny that the rending of one thing should be reminiscent of the other.
I stop at the bridge’s edge and lean over, straining to see where the ice is breaking away. There’s a large hole, like a wound, in the middle of the creek. Water flows freely through it. I am transfixed by tracks on the ice around the hole. They look like chicken scratchings, as if some fowl creature has been tapping at the ice. The etchings are beautiful the way brutal natural things can be.
“I need you to think about what you will do if your grandmother doesn’t make it.” My mom tells me over the phone from Texas the day before.
My grandmother has been declining for years; dementia, falls, weakening back. She’s in her nineties, so we don’t expect her to live much longer. There is grief for the loss but the idea of her passing unearths this deeper grief about the possibility of losing my father, who is ill with cancer.
When I speak to my mother, the grief warms me, like it has been thawing and waiting for such a moment.
When my father first gave us the diagnosis, it seemed clinical in the telling, much like Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, itself a chill, beautiful, and clinical articulation of grief. When I first read Didion’s book, I didn’t like her lack of feeling, her coldness. But now I think I understand better.
We gathered around the room the night that my dad told us he had cancer. My little sister Elena, the most outwardly tender of us all, sat at his feet, asking gently probing questions. For a moment, I was reminded of the scene from The Sound of Music when the oldest von Trapp daughter, Liesl, sits at the Captain’s feet, looking at him adoringly and singing harmony to “Edelweiss” with him. Elena looked at our father so warmly, her emotion raw and open, but there were no sweet songs sung that night.Afterwards, as I went back to my room, I felt clinical too, cold to the shock.
Winter and coldness have become cliché metaphors for death. There is indeed some measure of coldness in grief. But grief has its own images apart from winter. Maybe the best metaphor for grief isn’t the dead of winter but in the months afterwards, when the thaw starts and everything underneath begins to wake up, alive to the sensations, feeling the bitter flowing underneath the hole in the middle.
The wind is hard against my face as I stare at the ice; the walk has been my only chance for sun all day, and I am a little dizzy. Maybe it’s because I’m unsteady from the wind, the sun, and the exercise, but the hole in the ice seems to swirl. I keep watching the middle, expecting to see the water trickle through, to see it crack out from the edges of the center.
I wonder if the land at the margins of the frozen water, or perhaps the creek itself is weary in the way of Psalm 63 (on the lectionary this Sunday in Lent): “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Does it take effort for the frozen creek to hold itself together? Is it painful when the warmth begins to spread, like fingers and toes tingling back to life?
Eventually, I see where the sound originates: at the sides of the creek, near the bank, shards of ice breaking away. The frozen creek and the water underneath are shifting at the edges. During winter, the water stays warmer underneath, but as spring comes, the warmth must flow upwards, melting the surface so that the entire creek runs like the water that flows through the middle. When the creek thaws, the chicken scratchings will crack, the hole will widen, the edges will break apart until the whole creek is alive, warmed by the painful awakening.
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published pieces on death, fairytales and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.