Let me sum up this entire year with one animal-related anecdote.
Back in October, a friend called; her cat had brought in a baby squirrel. She guessed it had fallen from a tree. The squirrel appeared to be unmarked and healthy enough to exhibit a profound indignation at this turn of events. Did I have any ideas about what to do with a miffed, baby squirrel? In fact, I did. I called Kate, the woman who runs the rescue-group where I volunteer. At least once a year, a baby squirrel falls out of a tree and Kate bottle-feeds it until it’s well enough to run up and down trees and tease neighborhood dogs into performing a barked interpretation of “The Ring Cycle.” My friend delivered the squirrel to our shelter. Squirrel-milk was mixed and drunk. All was well.
Sadly, it didn
’t stay that way. Maybe there were internal injuries invisible to everyone. Maybe it had fallen from the tree because it wasn
’t well to begin with. Kate called two days later to tell me the squirrel had died. I said the usual sorts of things: everyone did their best; at least his last days were surrounded by affection and attention; when it’s your time, it's your time. Looking back, I can think of only one death-cliché
I skipped but I’m sure that had I seen him that day I would have noted he only appeared to be napping. I defy you to think of something fresh to add on the subject of squirrel-death. Anyway, because of a chronic lack of reliable cell coverage, I had been having this discussion with Kate outside, pacing around the backyard, not realizing I had been talking under the kitchen window where Daughter was having breakfast. When I returned back into the house, Daughter — having heard only the platitudes — asked me in the world-weariest tone I can imagine coming from a pre
-teen, “Oh God, who died now
It was that kind of year.
In less than nine months, our family weathered four deaths. Mary
left us in February, Consort’s father in July, a family friend in September, Consort’s mother on Thanksgiving night. Add in the bird
and you can understand why Daughter may have been a little tired of talking about life’s terrible brevity. I won’t say all these deaths hit us all equally, but each one kicked its own little spot on our collective soul. The family friend obviously wasn
’t as close as a parent or a grandparent, but he was the same age as Consort, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July and dead by September. Mary had been sick with breast cancer metastasized to her liver for nine years. We all knew what that meant. Still, she had escaped death so gracefully and for so long that I had started to pretend she was the Roadrunner.
It’s all just been too @#!*% much. I started referring to one pair of black, Banana Republic trousers as my “Funeral pants.”
Sometimes, though, the pants and I would attend less heartbreaking events. The first weekend of December, Daughter sang at the Advent service at our church. One child read a passage from Luke, King James version:"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
Or, as I think of it, “The Linus soliloquy.” Then another child lit the first candle on the wreath. The first Advent candle, we were told, stands for hope. The younger children, having finished their bit, were shepherded out of church and the adults were encouraged to reflect quietly. My mind drifted.
Advent is about waiting and hoping. In Advent, the Christian church is celebrating the first time people waited and hoped in darkness for a direction, for a light to lead them; but is also about waiting and hoping for another light to come. During our Advent celebration, graced by the light of a church full of flickering candles, I thought about the number of winter holidays which are based on light. And why that was.
We’re fragile, we humans. No exoskeleton. Rounded teeth. I’d hate to have to protect myself with my nails. Compared to most predators, our eyesight is laughable, especially at night. We are drawn by instinct towards light, which we associate with safety and nourishment. During the winter season, when much of any given 24-hour cycle is dark and cold, we find reasons to create a little sun, to whisper to ourselves, “This frightening time is passing. The light will come again.”
Back home after the evening service, Consort reheated some stew while I fussed with starter logs until the fireplace crackled politely. I searched online and found a list of winter holidays, noting how many shared elements of light in them. Hanukkah is the Festival of Light. Buddhists have Bodhi
day, the day when it is said that Buddha experienced enlightenment.Being a resident of Los Angeles, I've met a Wiccan or two and the Winter Solstice features, among other things, lit candles, roaring fireplaces and sneakily strong drinks [which also describes most of the Episcopalian events I hit this time of year]. The fireplace, the stove, even the lit screen; all metaphorical little candles, all of them reminding us life is not eternal darkness.
The dog agitated to be walked. I grabbed his leash and my phone
. The night was blustery; my favorite of the admittedly few varieties
of weather we experience out here. The wind was cool but not cold, pushing against me and the dog, causing the branches above us to dance around and rain leaves on us. If weather could be described as having a personality, this was frisky weather. While we were walking, there was a sudden, sizzling sound and the street lights and house lights went out in every direction. In a split-second, my neighborhood went from charmingly dark to that other kind of dark. I worried that
a power line was down somewhere between us and home, just waiting for me to step on it.
I stood in the dark for a second and then looked down at my hand. My iPod
. I flipped it over and turned it on. In that complete blackness, the glow from the screen lit about two feet in front of me, enough so I could see where I was about to step. I remembered the quote from writer E.L. Doctorow about how writing a novel is like driving at night: you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
2010 has taught me that life is a lot like that as well. I glanced at the twinkling stars winking behind the swaying trees. I wished everyone no longer here with us a good voyage, then I stepped off into the dark night.