The Living Season

My mother, who’s paid her dues in the nursing home – so far, thank G-D, not as a patient – calls January “the dying season.” Mom’s not a cynical woman. She is, in fact, a spectacular woman. She’s also a realist.

DSC_0071Many of her post-adult charges held on to life just long enough to spend one more holiday with loved ones. Through any given Christmas, some got to hold hands with their families; some did not. Either way, the days after New Year’s Eve weren’t filled with the kind of sunny weather balm that made a body think “I could stand another day of this!”

No. My birthday month has ever sheltered itself, shivering, from wind-driven rain, falling trees, aches stabbing deep into the bones, teen suicides, clammy boots, seized-up knees, Raynaud’s disease, moldy ignition wiring, and the final resignations of despairing elders. From the warm sugared rush of holiday affections, we shrink back into ourselves to lie curled alone on the dank sheets, chilled to our hearts, staring sleeplessly into the long darkness. Perhaps there will be spring. That’s the promise of solstice and we agree to believe in it, but first comes the season of bones. Against the naked reality of bones, who can argue?

For five years, Pretty Wife wondered why I got so damned cranky around my birthday. I never just came right out and told her. It’s not easy for me to tell. She figured it out when she read the date on the stone.

Since childhood, I had always thought – though in a kind of musing, gestalt way, not an actual plan – that I would get married and have children (with, y’know, someone) around the age of 27. Figured I’d be grown up enough, have some kind of a career arc started, and maybe some savings to move into a house with my betrothed. That was, of course, well before I had experienced enough solid impacts to internalize the lesson that no plan survives the collision with reality.

Career? Not so much. I was still an undergrad when Kris and I married; still young enough to fill up with enraged sanctimony when her father’s old hunting buddy joked about bringing a shotgun to our wedding. A veteran sergeant at 26, I thought I knew a few things.


On my 27th birthday, I sat down on a curb with my ears roaring over painful breath, and scribbled a poem about what the events of three days previous, when the police officer had come to the door of my ceramics class and asked me, ever so quietly, to come with him in his car. There were people in our little mobile home on that birthday, too many to face, and I crunched hopelessly along snowy Pullman streets, trying to figure out where my Junior Dog had got to. Junior was confused that day. He hadn’t been his normal, wagging self at all.

I never was much of a poet, though I sometimes wish I were. From memory, it went something like this:

 The dog is looking for the baby, everywhere he can

in widening circles, nose down to the ground.

While friends bring food and tears and hugs

and I go walking in the clean, hard frost

The dog is looking for the baby,

the other baby.

And that frigid day, nearly half my present span ago, was the last time I cared to hear about my birthday – or really anything else that might happen in January. January was for Flavia Noël. You could keep your damn Superbowl, and MLK had enough streets named after him that I didn’t need to see his name on every calendar, too. January – and particularly latter January – was the time I reserved for pointedly not giving a shit. For becoming religious, just long enough to deliver my annual curse to G-D: He could Be or not be, but I felt no compunction to revere any B(b)eing Who could steal a baby in her sleep; Who saw fit , in His wisdom, to let me be born into the dying season. I never asked for that. For two decades, I believed in a deity only so I could say that He – and it’s always He, for no She could be as cruel – was one mean bastard.

A couple of years ago, the woman who now carries my heart in her capable hands, feeding it slowly back to me in soups and roasts and pies and soft glances, finally sorted through my winter orneriness and set about to make it right. Highly ranked among her many gifts is the ability to let me forgive myself – and every elaborate god construct I may have created along the way (begotten, not made, from the seminal mind of just another fallen human) – for the sin of letting my dear ones die.

Sweethearts on a cliff

© Michael Pierce 2007

This year’s dying season has so far featured the expirations of two friends’ mothers and another’s father. Our young neighbor got bad news about his cancer treatment; he’ll go another round this spring. When my dog, who loved walks and snuggles and the smell of feet, went into the tear-soaked ground this week, I dropped my socks in near his shrouded muzzle and buried him barefooted, the better to feel the ground where he would rest. Family (including Smalldaughter’s adopted uncle) helped silently, too gracious to comment as I scooped dirt, unsteady on my marble white pegs with their black and purple veining. With the roaring returned to my ears, I felt ready to abandon January for the rest of time.

Tucker Dog wasn’t the center of our little family, but he personified its heart – and at least once, he rescued it from yours truly. So pretty and sweet that perfect strangers constantly stopped me to exclaim over him, I look for Tucker Dog at my left knee constantly, glance over to reassure DSC_0272him when the wood stove pops, and take a big step over his bed so I won’t crack his lounging ribs in the dark. It may be a while before these trained habits are extinguished by the negative reinforcements of hard truth: no good dog goes unpunished; no true heart survives the collision with reality. These are the days of Yahrzeit candles in the window; of reheated gumbo delivered by friends, blueberry muffins appearing magically on our kitchen table, and of vacant stares at the empty spot (such a ridiculously large hole!) on the floor. Perhaps, if G-D is a better man than He is a deity, this dog will find the baby, at last. In dog we trust…

In the natural reaction of a curmudgeon vindicated, I was ready to scuttle this year’s birthday entirely until an insistent thought recurred: I have fine friends, but a frazzled memory. For a week and more, my family has been the recipient of more loving kindness than I can properly catalog, much less adequately reciprocate – or probably even remember. They – you! – deserve thanks in person and admittance to a home and family which have been preserved, protected and improved through our friendships.

There is also the matter of Pretty Wife, who was born several years plus just three days after me. A rain cloud big enough to blot out the persistent reminders of January is big enough to shade out her birthday, too. Inconveniently, it’s the only day on the entire calendar when we get to spoil her entirely and there it sits, smack in the heart of the dying season.

Well, if January can’t be expunged without collateral damage, we will by G-D rehabilitate the damnable month. We offer our devoted memories to our dead, our condolences to the bereaved, and a PARTY to our lively, living friends and family. Flickering through the valley of the shadow of death have always been flickers of warmth and love – what Seattleites call “sunbreaks.” After all, packed around Martin Luther King, Jr. day are National Buttercrunch Day on my birthday, and on Pretty Wife’s birthday, National Pie Day and National Measure Your Feet Day. I do love me some buttercrunch, and too much pie may well result in P.W. measuring her feet.

I’m taking my birthday back, and hers, too. Reclaiming January. Pushing back the death, for now. Declaring war on the dying season, not because we think we’ll win but because we refuse to go down without a fight – and a party. After all, I’m half a century in. Maybe the hard part’s over? Probably not, but I hereby resolve to enjoy the bonus round — and you can hold me to that. If I wait for the hard part to be over, the next party I attend will be my own wake.

In the midst of death, we are in life. Join us, if you will, for the First Annual L’Chaim Party.

In the long run, it’s early yet.




  1. Again, blurry screen. I will cheerfully help you celebrate living and honor those who reside in our hearts and minds.

  2. Which to this (don’t laugh) realist reminds me that it’s likely I’ll die the same month I was born…I rather like the symmetry of that.

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