Now that I’m white-haired I don’t hate my mother for naming me for the time of year I was born.
She was of that generation who thought it cool to name a kid after a season. I know five Summers, three Autumns, and two Springs, although the latter get wisecracks about being loose. Winter, she insisted, was a strong boy’s name.
She loved to tell me how she had slipped on a patch of black ice – the invisible glare that hides between the pebbles of asphalt, and her doctor told her to be careful and she looked at him and said she could go one better than treading lightly. By the end of the afternoon I was born.
I’m lucky she didn’t call me Dusk. I met a guy by that name and he hated it. He became a father while he was still in high school and the jerks teased him by telling him had had to do this or that. If he refused they said, “Oh, but you wouldn’t let your little sun down.”
Names are cruel things. There was one guy I met at university whose first name was Robert and who called himself Bob. But his last name was Forapels. People would repeat his name though he pretended he didn’t get the joke. When I got out into the business world, I met an investment analyst whose first name was Mayer and his last name was Wiener. You can’t tell me his parents weren’t playing a cruel joke on him.
My mother and I have always been close. She was a single parent. When she wanted to be affectionate she would call me Winnie when I was young, but that stopped before I got to kindergarten. I think she knew the other kids would be mean to me. Then it was Winter, and now that I’m living my own life she calls me Winter which was always what she intended.
Was I to be cold and indifferent? Was I meant to be icy and numb to those around me? I’m not sure if she wanted me to be immune to the suffering of others or to my own pain. Winter is the numb season. Just try going outside without gloves in a driving snowstorm or wiping the accumulated snow off the windshield of a car with only bare hands. Winter is the numbness that becomes pain. That’s an oxymoron, but it is true.
I once fell through the ice in a pond near our farmhouse. The first thing I felt was shock. The next feeling was a thousand needles drilling into my skin. The survivors of the Titanic who’d ended up in the icy waters of the North Atlantic described the feeling. The needles were followed by a numbness that was not similar to anesthetic but closer to a kind of loveless despair, an aura about the body that says, “You are forsaken.” I felt hopeless.
When a neighbour pulled me out and carried me, I’d fallen asleep. Sleep, hibernation, a dark and dreamless depth beyond this world, is also associated with winter. But I woke. I woke to the sensation of my mother rubbing my limbs. She wasn’t crying. She was being patient. That’s the only word for it. Patient. She gave me life once and there was a loving assurance in her that I could feel, that told me she could give me life again.
The tough part now is I can’t return the favor. I never married. I dated. I can say that I’ve lived an interesting life. There have been storms. What winter is without storms? There have been moments when I’ve experienced incredible beauty, a sparkling of the fields in sunlight that makes the undulations buried beneath snow so beautiful I have been moved to tears by the sight of diamonds spreading from the fences to the tree lines. In those moments I’ve realized that my mother wanted me to see that wonder, that astonishment, and perhaps she knew that if she named be Frank or Tom I wouldn’t see them because they weren’t reaching out to me because I was part of them.
But she would never admit that. My mother is a pragmatic soul. She is honest. She says whatever is on her mind. I’ve asked her why she gave me my name and every time I get the same answer: “I liked it. Winter always arrives,” she always explained.
“And then spring follows and everything blooms.”
“But not Winter. Did you not see me as a source of life?”
“Winter, I held you in my arms. A person doesn’t get more close to life than that.” She would never come right out and tell me that winter is the time of year when a person has to take the good with the bad. Moments of incredible awe mixed with episodes of sublime frustration. An ice storm where every bough, every weed and wire is coated in ice and shines with crystal when the sun comes out. And I know about bad weather. The spin-outs. The blizzards on the highway when my knuckles wrap around the steering wheel and they turn white with fear because visibility is down to thirty feet and I expect to hit a skidding truck or a pedestrian who stepped from his car and wandered the road in the wrong direction. Winter is about knowing how to be afraid and how to confront those fears, and even how to steer when the tires refuse to grab the road.
I was pulled over by a policeman during a ride check. He asked why I was all over the road.
“Winter,” I replied.
Then he asked, “What’s your name?”
“Winter,” I replied.
He ordered me to step out of the car. I did, handing him my license. He didn’t look at it.
“I’m Winter,” I said.
“No, I know what time of year it is and why you think you were reckless on the road. What’s your name?”
I told him again. He put me in handcuffs and sat me in the back of his cruiser until he sorted things out.
“I can’t sit here in your cruiser,” I said. “My mother is dying in hospital. I’m on the way there to see her now. The doctors tell me she won’t last the afternoon.” I gave him the hospital number and asked him to call. I told him the name of her doctor,
“It really is a matter of life and death that I be there. Please try to understand.”
He eventually decided my story checked out, that my name was my name, and that it had been given to me by a woman who loved me more than life.
“Get snow tires,” he said and drove away.
I arrived just as she was dying on that January afternoon. As I stepped into the hospital elevator, my glasses fogged so all I could see as I walked down the corridor to her room was white, a blindness in which winter masks the truth of what it does to the world and to love.
I saw the world through two panes of ice. The drug carts, the orderly wagons, the railing on the wall elderly patients clung to as they tried to exercise the bodies that had slipped into their own uncomfortable state of time that proclaims itself the winter of a person’s life.
I felt as if I was walking blindly toward the truth of a love that expires too soon and takes with it a person’s past and the future thaws one’s dreams during the months of sleep. As I entered her room, I heard her breathing and it reminded me of the stream that runs through our woodlot. Throughout January it can be heard but not seen beneath the ice.
She opened her eyes and reached out and I held her hand. She asked me to look out the window.
“Isn’t it lovely? So peaceful and so silent. All you see is you.” Then she sighed and closed her eyes and she loosed her grip as my eyes began to melt.