January has never been my favorite month. No offense, Janus, Roman god of beginnings and endings and anyone who celebrates a birthday this month.
For me January is 31 days of false starts, bad weather and cloudy moods.
For three weeks, I write the wrong year when I date something. I lament that my taxes are due in 100 days, but it’ll be five months before I can get in the pool. To me, January at its worst is chilling and frightful. At its best, it’s a month with little light or warmth.
Everywhere I’ve lived, January’s arrival brings gray skies. But today it was beautiful. ‘Fake Spring’, my granddaughter Valerie Rains (sic) calls it. We woke to the sound of geese flying over our backyard and the sun was out all day. I should have gone outside like my husband, who used the break from the rain and cold to clean gutters and make the yard look alive.
Instead, I stayed inside and reread some old letters I had written to my mom. Inside one was a tiny, childlike painting of a red flower. In the letter, I told her everything I thought about while painting it (including that it was a poinsettia, in case she couldn’t tell).
My mother loved poinsettias. I tried to capture every velvety red petal and its sunny yellow center. But I couldn’t. My attempt at creating a poinsettia fell flat. My colors bled and my leaf borders disappeared.
I wrote that I was going for a beachy version of her favorite flower. But I wasn’t. Seeing Florida in the jelly-looking, starfish-shaped abstract was an afterthought. The truth was, I sucked at painting. All I really wanted to show was how much I was thinking of her.
I shared every detail of my week. I told her how many cardinals and nuthatches I had in my backyard and that I’d probably have more if I filled the feeders. I told her how childish I felt dreading Christmas without her, but how happy she was spending hers with people she missed so much all year.
“We’ll have plenty more Christmases,” I wrote and added a heart and ‘xo’.
And then I remembered another reason January is so dark.
The letter was dated 1996. We had four Christmases after that. My last Christmas with her was 15 supervised minutes while she was in ICU.
I don’t remember what I said to her. There was so little time. And because she was on a ventilator, she could only listen. I probably rattled on about the food we were preparing and the people we had seen.
I’m sure my parting words included a cheery, “Get better really soon, okay?”.
In my heart, I knew she would not.
My youngest brother was the happiest child I have ever known.
He was quiet, but quick-witted; mischievous, but kind hearted. He never met a stranger and everyone liked him. As adults we didn’t see each other often, so when we got together we talked for hours. We promised to work harder at staying in touch.
But even the best resolutions fail against the harshness of real life.
The last time I saw my little brother was the Christmas our mother spent in Florida. It was foggy when he left and he had ridden his bike to my parents’ house. I couldn’t talk him into staying the night, so my husband loaded the bike in his truck and took him home.
My last words to my brother were “Take care of yourself”.
His to me were “You worry too much.”
He seemed weary when he left, but it was late. Coastal Texas winters get harder every year, he once told me. Not cold, but wet and dismal. The absence of sunlight caused a dreariness that could make your bones ache and your soul long for another world.
Every year, January’s depressing shadow grew longer and my brother’s ability to climb out of it more difficult.
And one day that January, while my mother was in Florida, he escaped it by ending his life. Though we searched for answers, there were none. We wished for a note or some words that might explain what happened. But I know now it wouldn’t have mattered. No words would have taken away the pain.
I’m sure my brother wouldn’t mind that I think he’d do things differently, if he had another chance. In his dark moment, he couldn’t have seen how far-reaching the effects of his suicide would be. In his pain, he could not know how devastating his death would be to the mother he was so close to.
In the three years following that letter, my mother lost a son, a sister and (shortly after her sister’s death) her mother.
Even in our most empathic moments, we can’t really understand something we haven’t experienced ourselves.
The heart marks anniversaries our brains eventually forget. Through scents, sounds and even weather, we feel things (good and bad) we haven’t thought about in years. Today I relive January 20 years ago and think how hollow my words might have seemed to my mother and brother during their sadness. In my head, I rewrite what my final words would be to each of them if I had another chance.
But there are no words. There is only love.