Latency Period: Winter Is

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, December 27th, 2016

"Winter is a window. Winter is a portal. Winter is death."

Daniel Elder Essay Nailed Magazine
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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It’s December 8th as I write this, and the city of Portland has shut down in apprehension of a snowstorm that, as the day rolls on, seems unlikely to rear its head. It’s in moments like this that I have my rare flourishes of deeply missing New York City, my home, which I always loved best in the dreary dead of winter. I miss the crunching cold. The hard fist of a Nor’Easter. The layers upon layers. And I even miss the leafless trees who thrust out of the sidewalks with all the desperation of skeletons rising from the dead.

Not that I don’t love the ferns, the moss, and all the evergreens that keep my new home lush and verdant through the darkest months, reaching out their needles and fuzz and fronds to drain the grey sky of its power, living indomitably and inspiring me to do the same in turn.

Flurries lazily tumble down outside my window, unable to stick their landing the way I want them to. We had one terrific snowfall this past January and I traipsed about in it for hours, searching for snow-covered streets that were as yet untrammeled and then zig-zagging across them with my boots, stomping in celebration, a kid again. I feel so alive in the cold. Unstoppable.

December 8th.

On this day, like each of the last seven years, I can’t stop thinking about a hand I held. About the bones I felt beneath the skin. About the vertebrae I felt when I put my other arm around her waist and held her, the only time I had ever held her, touched her, the day I visited to say goodbye. When I stumbled out of the house later to weep in the arms of a friend, I don’t remember what that friend said to me. I just remember the heave of grief as it swept through my body, how awful it felt to be grieving before she’d even died, and punching through all that grief and pain: the sharp, dry bite of ice cold air each time I sucked in another terrible and necessary breath. Long Island in December.

Margaret. My friend.

Her picture sits on my desk through every season, but I always find myself looking at her more this time of year. The confidence with which she looks into the camera. And it feels a bit like stealing, since that look she’s giving is for the man on the other side of the camera, her husband, Michael. But these cards, these memorial cards with her image are scattered throughout her community, living in the wallets and jacket pockets and on the walls and desks of those who loved her, like I did. And this look she’s got on her face, like she’s totally present; it’s a gift that’s been shared with us all.

I read the Raymond Carver poem that’s printed beneath her black-and-white portrait:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

And just like that, the snow comes sweeping down out of the sky, and maybe my hopes aren’t for naught. I look out the window. All of a sudden, the intersection outside my warm and loving house is now coated with a thin layer of white. Would it be too much to ask for inches and inches to fall, for a world to lay itself on top of this one, so I could layer up, layers upon layers upon layers, and trundle out onto the surface of a new planet? Or travel through time. Hurtling through the landscape, tiring myself out and breathing in those sharp gasps of breath, icy stabs to the back of my throat, frigid pinpricks that could carry me back through time to the house where it all happened.

Sometimes I’m afraid those memories will slip away.

And other times I wonder if I’m holding on too tight.

The night that we visited Margaret, she was in and out of consciousness, napping in her hospice bed while we sat around the table in the dining room and carried on as best we could in the face of an awful entropy. I had to go out to the car at some point and fetch something. Something mundane. A phone charger, probably. I locked the car door behind me and headed back to the house and it was then that I realized I could see into Margaret’s room, where she was sleeping.

I had been walking back to the house’s front door but I shifted as if some enchantment had fallen over me and walked on soft footfalls towards the window instead. Margaret was asleep, her small and frail body turned towards the window. A soft skullcap covered her head, and her body was illuminated by a soft light in the room, the whole of which seemed to glow as I approached it. Her mouth was open, and her head kept nodding slightly: leaning back and then tipping forward, her whole weakened body moving with it in a chain reaction. I thought at first that she was shuddering. But she wasn’t.

She was snoring.

How delicate she looked. Like a sleeping child. I understood my mother in that moment, understood all mothers. I wanted to take care of Margaret. I wanted to cover her with another blanket, wanted to touch her forehead, wanted to make everything okay. The bitter cold of the night was chewing at me but I stood there watching her breathe, her death rattle, the simple action of inhalation and exhalation taking all her strength as she slept and, perhaps, dreamed. What did she dream about, on death’s door?

I watched her rocked back and forth by her breathing. My own breath plumed out in front of me, rich and lush, and I found myself breathing deeper and deeper, watching how the force of my being churned out heat and steam which rose into the sky to meet the pallid waning moon that loomed above the scene. The longer I stood, the colder I felt, and the fiercer the furnace that churned inside of me.

The doorknob behind Margaret slowly turned, and the door creaked quietly open. Our moment disturbed. It was the hospice nurse. I stepped back from the window, from the depth of my breathing, from our secret breathing together, and went back inside. Back into the warmth.

The snow is thickening now, outside my window. I’m thinking about my long johns, my favorite sweaters, my warmest socks, about how the cold will feel as it clings to the exposed bits of my face when I head out to explore the new gleaming white world outside my door. And I am thinking about my breath. Of how it will plume. Of what is inside of me. Of what passes through me from earth to sky and back again.

Last year, my teacher asked us to write about what winter is. I made a list. Winter is a window. Winter is a portal. Winter is death. Winter is cancer, winter is grief, winter is dirt, caves, worms, decomposition. Winter is a skeleton.

Winter is a room I can’t escape, with a hand that haunts me but that I’m frightened of forgetting.

Winter is an end.

When I finally venture out into the icy Portland night, the snow covered with a layer of hoary frost, I feel the furnace in me come alive again. Walking under the sparse streetlights of my quiet neighborhood, the brittle ground crunching beneath my feet, I see white clouds erupting out of my mouth with every breath. As if some paradise lives inside of me and I’m pushing it out, creating little heavens that dissipate into the sky. Heavens I can’t hold on to, only release to the sky. And this is winter. This burning inside of me, this churning aliveness. Not just an end, but a beginning.

In the frigid night, I am Prometheus. Scurrying from hearth to hearth, heart pumping blood bouncing down off toes and back through chest and into arms and tingling fingertips and ruddy, raw cheeks. Beating heart and churning breath made out of flames that feel stolen, against all odds. I carry something inside me, something precious and transient. I remember Margaret’s body, so weakened that it shook with the force of her breath.

And I stand beneath a streetlight, watching the smoke of my being rise into the sky.

The world is ice, but in winter there is fire.

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Header image courtesy of Daniil Maksyukov. To view his photo essay, “Junk and Gems,” go here.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.