Winter Song

by Sarah Kilch Gaffney

Our old dog Elsie, a border collie nearing 14, doesn’t hear or see well these days, and she has long since lost her free roaming privileges. As I step into the dark night with her weathered leash connecting us, I see the waddling shape of a porcupine making its way across the lawn. I speak a little more loudly than necessary, hoping both that Elsie will hear me, and also that the porcupine will take note and move along. Elsie sniffs the ground and never notices its heft amongst the shadows, nor the racket it makes moving through the fallen leaves, past the compost pile, and on into the deeper dark of the woods.

We got Elsie from a farm a few miles down the road. Our good friend was starting his own farm and had acquired a border collie puppy. He came to visit with her and mentioned that there was one puppy left, one that had been spoken for, but by chance was now available, the last of the litter. My husband and I had been thinking about getting another dog, especially as a companion for our highly anxious but loving rescue, Gabbie, who we’d adopted the year before. We went to the farm to see the puppy, and within minutes we were smitten. We quickly decided on the name Elsie, though neither of us would remember who came up with it or why it felt so right.

This night, the air is sharp with cold, the first real cold snap in what has been a strangely mild fall. Elsie weaves around the blueberry bushes, takes a turn to sniff around the kids’ playhouse, and nearly tangles the leash in the broken sunflower stalks that I still haven’t gotten around to cutting back. She stops by the rhubarb, always, for a few moments, and then continues to the stairs leading to the deck and the back door. This night, she stops halfway up the steps, not whining, but also not quite able to go on. I lift her up and over the last few steps and set her on the deck where she easily makes her way to the door to be let in.

How much has changed since that fall day when we brought her home as a little black and white ball of fluff. A little over a year later, my husband and I would sit together in a small room while an oncologist explained to us that the massive tumor recently removed from my husband’s brain was terminal. They couldn’t remove it all, it would eventually grow back, and it would eventually kill him. He was 27 years old.

When I think about the years that followed, my memories so often turn to the winters. That first one, when we huddled by the wood stove and decided that, despite his diagnosis, we wanted to be parents. The next, when we welcomed a beautiful baby girl between January blizzards. All the winters we spent as a couple and as a family exploring the bog beyond our land that transformed into a frozen playland when the temperatures dropped. Watching the dogs run and run and run across the bog’s expanse, meandering down the path through our woods each December to select a spindly fir tree, and lying on our bellies on the ice with our daughter, her eyes wide with wonder. 

And that last, terrible winter when the same oncologist told us there was nothing left to be done, when the power went out over Christmas and stayed out for days while the thermometer plummeted, when we realized he would never leave the house again, and when the hospice services delivered the hospital bed earlier than expected and we realized too late that we had already spent our last night together in the same bed. He would survive that winter, then die in my arms on the second day of spring.

Despite the melancholy of dark and memory that lingers, I’ve always thought of winters as restorative times. An off season where the cold and dark allow us time to slow down, time to sit by the wood stove and drink hot coffee, knit a few rows, and catch ourselves staring out into the blue glow of a winter afternoon lost in thought. The chaos of life doesn’t always align with this. There are bills to pay, children to attend to and chores to be done, and there is, so often, too much to do.

I wonder, sometimes, if this will be Elsie’s last winter, in the same way I wondered about my husband towards the end, impossibly trying to calculate how many more winters he would live to see. She’s an old girl, and we’ve been through a lot together. My first husband’s death, Gabbie’s death soon after, a new love, a new home, more children arriving soft and small into the world.

As I write this, my second husband has been deployed with the Navy for nearly a year. I have three daughters now, and I’ve been solo parenting them through a pandemic for too long. This last year has been a frantic collision of stress from every direction as I have tried to keep all, or at least some, of the balls in the air by myself: work, house, children, life. My reserves are gone, long since depleted, I am exhausted, and even the smallest thing feels like an overwhelming pressure.

This winter, I tell myself, I will slow down. I will take time to be still. I need to. It’s a promise I make to myself for when my husband returns, for when I once again will have someone to share the burdens and beauty of life with. I will do my best to take all that winter has to offer and to rest, to give myself a chance to be restored. 

I will write in my journal, take more walks, plan the ever-expanding garden, and sometimes wake up before the kids to sit with a cup of hot coffee and watch the winter light come into the world. I will take Elsie out along the edge of the woods and let her smell where the deer she can’t see or hear stood moments before. I will look back at the garden beds buried in snow and dream about the flowers and vegetables to come. And, when I can, in the quiet of the winter light I will try to honor my lungs taking in the cold air and, in turn, transforming it into life and breath.

Photo credit: Натали Хмельницкая, Unsplash