There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886
Longest night of the year so I’m going to make the most of it. Got nothing to lose. Hit every bar I can find out here in Atlanta, stumble around in the cold till I can finally grab on to some peace and daylight maybe. I just wish to God that Susan hadn’t been so big into traditions and seasons and poems and all that business about the Celts and Druids, or maybe they were the same thing, I don’t know. Who the hell knows. But now that she’s gone, really gone, just three months dead, as gone now as she’ll be in a hundred thousand years, I can’t stop thinking about those winter solstice rituals she’d make me and Tommy do. We fussed, threatened to tell her mama and the preacher she was into that pagan stuff, but we ended up doing the rituals every year – lighting candles, reading the poem about snow-on-snow, sitting by the fireplace, being quiet, holding still. That was the worst part for me, being still. I’m a man of action, got to keep moving. This night I march down the city streets, ready to blast through the darkness like a flame but starting to sway dizzy-headed to the beat of snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Me and Susan got married in December, well it would have been 23 years yesterday. She loved winter, everything to do with it. Didn’t get a whole lot of snow in Rome, Georgia, but when we did, boy, Tommy and his friends had a big time going out and rolling around in it. We wanted a sister or brother for Tommy but it didn’t happen, so we just pretty much adopted the neighborhood kids. Susan had a way with them, knew how to make snow cream and teach kids stuff without them hardly knowing they were learning, she was so much fun. I learned a whole lot too, didn’t realize how much till now. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. See, I can remember just about every line of that poem she loved, even though all I want to do is forget it, forget everything and pretend like none of it happened, pretend she’s still waiting on me at home in Rome and I’m just out on a business trip. But I’m alone in the darkest night I’ve ever known, and Tommy is so tore up he won’t even hardly talk, refuses to believe me when I tell him I wasn’t drinking that night the car crashed and his mom didn’t make it. “I’m so sorry, she didn’t make it,” the man at the hospital said, but I still can’t believe it, because she made everything, did everything, showed us all how life could run smooth like the seasons.
Whiskey’s starting to sink in because I near about run into this lady right outside the big Congregational church in Atlanta, must have been midnight. Bells are ringing sad and slow, not like happy fast Christmas chimes. Then I hear that damn organ in there and get a little rowdy, start hollering, it’s like those heavy notes are knocking me down, down even lower than I am, down to where I can’t get up and I don’t remember falling but I think I did, because a man comes out of the church and puts me in the back pew till I can get steady.
A blond lady in front of me turns around and hands me a program that says “Longest Night Service.” She looks at me friendly-like but her eyes are sad. Her and everybody in here, all twenty or so people in this gigantic church, look like they been beat up pretty bad by something. They just stare straight ahead like ghosts, empty-handed shadows in the flickering candlelight, and nobody moves but the man playing the organ.
Susan settles down beside me. I can feel her shoulder brush up next to mine. She’s wanting me to listen to the three strangers up front. “I yell out to my God,” one of them reads from the program. “I yell with all my might, I go over the days one by one, the High God goes out of business just the moment I need him.”
I perk up. The ghosts in the pews all read, together, “Will God walk off and leave us for good? Has he stalked off and left us?” I try to find the place in my program so I can read out loud too, but my head spins so I just let go and listen. I sit still and quiet, for once. I surrender and close my eyes.
The second person reads, “Teach us the lessons of endings: children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying, grieving over, grudges over, blaming over, excuses over.”
Tears come. I haven’t cried at all since Susan’s funeral. Blond lady in front of me won’t take off her black coat with the fuzzy fur neck, which aggravates me for some reason, but she hands me a Kleenex and I settle down. Some people stand and sing while the organ man plays, others don’t.
The last speaker reads, “O God, grant us a sense of your timing.”
The ghosts repeat, “Grant us a sense of your timing.”
Call and response, call and response. I don’t respond, the words won’t form.
The minister asks us to say our lost loved ones’ names, and I can only whisper it, “Susan, Susan.” I whisper, “Susan,” and I watch people go forward to light the candles but I’m terrified and paralyzed. It’s all winding down, and what will I do next? Where will I go? Who am I without my wife to light the way?
“I leave you with words from an Irish blessing,” a man’s voice calls from the front, as if answering the panicky questions rolling around in my mind.
When times are hard, may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
Amen, amen, the organ blasts out the chords, and amen, the ghosts are slowly resurrected and moving toward the door to leave, but I’m earth like iron, water like stone, so heavy and lost I just sit there.
“It’s only a tilt,” the blond lady leans down and says softly to me. She’s young but old, both somehow, at the same time. “We’re tilted the farthest away from the sun right now. But tonight is the worst of it. Slowly the days will get longer, daylight comes back.”
“Slow and steady,” says the man who comes to help me up out of the pew, and then the blond lady is gone, disappearing like magic into the night. Susan is gone too. Even the cold mean moon keeps her distance while I wait outside. But this taxi driver weaving through Atlanta traffic gets how I’m feeling, because he keeps singing, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” and I nod and sing right back, “I know, I know, I know.”
[Check out Ellen’s back porch wisdom here]