The Season of Sorrows

January’s miserable, isn’t it. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché; every year the media would have us believe that finding January miserable has effectively become traditional, if not 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 as for the new year diet and ‘dry January’…. And of course, thanks to the shocking surge in Covid-19 cases driven by the arrival in early December of the super-contagious Omicron variant, whatever sparkle and cheer people here might have been planning quickly became a lot more muted. Although there were no restrictions on movement and families were not prohibited from hosting gatherings at home this year, lots of hotels and restaurant reported last-minute cancellations as the government urged maximum caution. Then two days before Christmas, with Covid cases doubling every few days, all discos and nightclubs were closed for a month and all public New Year celebrations including concerts and count-downs were banned. So January’s arrival was once again greeted not with optimism and joy, but with yet more gloom and apprehension.

For me, though, January is not simply a collection of media tropes and pandemic-based woes. For me, January has, in a very personal sense, long been 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 five million lives now lost globally to Covid-19; of the five million people still taken to soon, whatever their age, the five 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 remembering the loved ones that I have lost, my sorrow also extends to those five million grieving families, those five million heartbroken circles of friends, those five million sets of shocked colleagues, all too many of them denied the chance to hold a trembling hand or stroke a tear-streaked cheek, to say farewell, and in the earlier months of the pandemic at least, to draw comfort from togetherness, or even to perform the burial rites so crucial to the process of bereavement; tens of millions of people caught in the ripples of pain and loss expanding across the world and crashing as waves of grief and shock on every shore around the globe.

But from within the sorrow-infused bleakness of another January that never ends, a flicker of light can perhaps be glimpsed at the end of this latest passage through the longest and darkest of tunnels: the signs that Omicron may have reached its peak, that its arrival has actually served to push vaccine rates ever higher, and that in much of the world the idea of learning to live with Covid is starting to take root as the virus perhaps begins to shift from its pandemic to its endemic phase, each little spark of light sowing the seeds of further hope and healing, and nurturing the promise of greater normality.  And then here in Le Marche, it is already possible to see other, more typical symbols of hope and healing in the early hints that spring is drawing closer. Tiny white and blue flowers are beginning to fleck the hedgerows, while here and there the landscape is illuminated with flashes of brilliant yellow mimosa blossom. The fields are covered with a haze of vivid green as the spring crops start to come through, 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 two years, that ‘this too shall pass’. It lifts and sustain me and its reassuring embrace and even in these most difficult of times, still helps ease the pain of the season of sorrows.

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