God, I loathe January. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché; every year the media would have us believe that loathing January – any January – has effectively become compulsory. You know the usual shtick: the sparkle and cheer of Christmas have faded, the only Quality Street left rattling round at the bottom of the tin are the sickly soft centres, and all you can find in the freezer is yet more leftover turkey and you’ve already made curry three times. The credit card bills have landed, the poinsettia has turned to twigs, and your new year’s resolutions have long since been exposed as a work of fiction – again. But of course this year, thanks to the ever-present spectre of Covid-19 that continues to torment and imprison us, there was very little by way of sparkle and cheer in the first place, with family gatherings downgraded to overly-jolly Zoom calls, Christmas parties scaled back and then cancelled, and the much-anticipated enormous Christmas turkey for twelve replaced with a pitiful regular roast chicken for four.
For me, though, January is not just a collection of media tropes and, this year at least, another month spent in lockdown. For me, January is in a very personal sense always the ‘season of sorrows’. It is the month in which barely forty-eight hours into the new year, I buried my father. It is the month in which, just two years later, Mr Blue-Shirt and I repeatedly pounded up and down the slush-slicked motorways between our home in Lincolnshire and my family’s in Devon, initially sick with dread and later numb with grief, to spend the agonising final days of my sister’s life at the side of her hospice bed, watching cancer steal her life from her. It is the month, exactly two years after that and in the hospital right next door, in which I spent the almost identical, agonising final days of my mother’s life at the side of her almost identical hospital bed, watching cancer steal her life too.
January is the month in which I became an only child. January is the month in which I became an orphan.
This year the anniversaries of these life-changing personal losses are marked within the context of the two million lives lost globally to Covid-19; of the two million people still taken to soon, whatever their age, the two million people who spent their final days and hours in pain, in fear and in distress, but who, unlike my father, my sister and my mother, died alone and separated from their loved ones, making their passing infinitely more awful. And so in recalling my and my family’s sorrow at our loved ones’ deaths, my sorrow extends to those two million grieving families, those two million heartbroken circles of friends, those two million sets of shocked colleagues, all of them denied the chance to hold a trembling hand or stroke a tear-streaked cheek, to say farewell, to draw comfort from togetherness, or to perform the burial rites so fundamental to the process of bereavement; tens of millions of people caught in the ripples of grief and suffering expanding across the world and crashing as waves of pain on every shore around the globe.
But from within the sorrow-infused bleakness of this January that never ends, a barely perceptible chink of light is beginning to flicker into life at the end of the longest and darkest of tunnels: a vaccine, and not just one in one country, but more and more around the globe with every passing week, each of them sowing the seeds of hope and healing, and nurturing the promise of normality. And then here in Le Marche, it is already possible to see other, more familiar symbols of hope and healing in the early hints that spring could be just around the corner. Tiny white and blue flowers are beginning to fleck the hedgerows, while flashes of brilliant yellow mimosa blossom are starting to appear among the still leafless trees, spring crops are already carpeting the fields in fresh, vivid green. For days at a time a honeyed sun shines from a baby-blue sky and on occasion the breeze even carries the first, tentative murmur of birdsong. The sight and sound of these unfailing emblems of rebirth, and recovery have seldom been more welcome, glimpsed within the timeless Marchigian landscape whose features have barely altered for generations. These hills and valleys, vineyards, fields and olive groves have borne witness to drought and deluge, fire and famine, earthquake, war and occupation – and have withstood the lot. It is a landscape that has endured and recovered, that has provided food and sustained communities for centuries, that has continued to shift from past to present in an infinite cycle of renewal and regrowth – and so continues to remind me every day, just as it has for the last eleven months, that ‘this too shall pass’. It lifts and sustain me and its reassuring embrace helps keep me from falling, even in this most difficult of years, into that annual pit of wretchedness. And it helps ease the enduring pain of the season of sorrows.