At Winter’s End

"Over the still world, a bird calls waking solitary among black boughs."

Photos by Sandy Robison

On the first and second days of March, after a kind respite in late February, we awoke to a fierce, white world. At 2 a.m., wind howled in from an odd direction, shaking trees, throwing branches, waking us from sleep. Ominous and haunting, the weather seeped into our homes through cracks and crevices. Some houses lost power. With a whoosh, the house and the world went dark. For others, the snow lightened the night in a strange light. This is the end of winter in western New York. Winter is not finished with us yet.

Just this week, before the storm, from Celoron, the lake was blue as an odd bird, lapping the shoreline, calling out to spring. From the boat landing at Jones and Gifford, where the Chadakoin River begins, the water sparkled and Canada Geese swooped down out of nowhere, calling to each other, offering their spring mating call, bawking and cajoling, chasing one another, scooting from shore to shore. From Bemus Point, the ice stretched in long sheets that seemed to be zebra-striped somehow. The ice held out, reminding us, winter remains. Don’t think it’s gone yet. Not winter. Winter is a persistent beast. It is always just a beat a way this time of year.

In my yard just before the icy snow, sweet groups of bright white Snow Drops — winter Lilies of the Valley — rose from the cold ground. They are visitors from my neighbor Henry, swept in the wind, planted too, 20 years ago or more. They are the first signs of spring, the first hope rising. Nights before the storm, fog rose like ghosts in the backyards here on the South side of Jamestown, eerie shapes hovering in the dawn.

In the human world, the bad news arrives that our football hero Jim Kelly, resumes a deadly battle with throat cancer. We are stunned by the news as we always are by disease and death. His wife writes, we are full of anger and sorrow. A toddler named Juddie, my childhood friend’s grandson, brave beyond his years, gets the good news that his cancer is gone but the very chemicals that killed it have ravaged his body. His mouth is full of sores; his energy is sapped from a fierce long battle. My friend gets the good news her cancer has been irradiated after months and months of struggle. My friend Jack, just back from Africa where he digs wells for villagers on his mission with the Methodist church, leans over to refill the cats’ water bowl and collapses with a heart attack. He makes it to the hospital. A stint is installed. He writes to us all on Facebook: I’m still here.

Feb. 27 was my mother’s birthday, but she’s been gone now almost two years. I drive to the lake to look out at the bay where she ice skated in her youth. The water is blue as a bird’s egg and smooth. All the colors are brighter. Last week I had cataract surgery. It’s like a stained windshield was replaced and now the view is clear.

But for others, we say our goodbyes, forever, as the wind howls in bathetic fallacy. We find some way to make peace with the darkness and the dread, the loneliness, the sorrow. Hope rises like Snow Drops. Crocuses will emerge soon. Then daffodils, pale gold and ivory white, patches of beauty, wild and astonishing.

The human world and the weather, treacherous and unpredictable, sometimes incredibly kind and beautiful. March wallops us. We dig in and wait it out. We are accustomed. But in our hearts, we smell spring. It’s a lost love returning from a long journey. Against the weird cold, snow sideways in the air, snow frozen to trees and doors, the tiny wild birds emerge from their night’s sanctuary wherever that is, somewhere mysterious, somewhere wondrous. The familiar chickadees and sparrows, the cardinal and his mate, the lone blue jay, the pair of crows, show up as if to say, we are still here. Their calls rise above the constant wind. They cry out to one another. Who knows what they say? But it comforts us.

In my boots over my pajamas, bundled in my big coat and hood, I brush off the foot of fresh snow from the feeder. I refill it. I scatter the shelled peanuts for the squirrels. I toss some bread with peanut butter on the ground beneath the feeder for the crows who caw at me in thanks. I sweep the ground with a broom; I make it smooth. A chickadee who knows me well is so eager for seed he flutters onto my hand as I finish. He seems surprised at his own action and flutters up one branch to stare back at me.

New birds are here — a bunch of homely, sturdy starlings; a singular Eastern Towhee who looks like a Robin but eats from the suet bar; some modesty gray juncos, stunned by the cold and ice. I put out a dish of food for any hungry cat who might wander by. The gray one made it through winter. I caught a glimpse of him last week, stealthy and skulking, near a neighbor’s garage where he must have found winter refuge.

It is the edge of seasons. We say our farewells as we must. As Gluck writes:

you won’t hear it in the other world,

not clearly again,

not in birdcall or human cry,

not the clear sound, only

persistent echoing

in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye–

the one continuous line

that binds us to each other.

That’s what we have done, we who remain. We have found our winter refuge. We are bound to one another, the living and the dying, those here and those past. We are bound in “one continuous line.” We count our losses and our gains. We emerge weary but unbroken. Winter sturdies us.

The snowfall echoes our goodbyes. We are waiting for the light and the bread. The snow is foe, yet we breathe in the fresh air of it. Spring is on our minds. We are ready now.