Wintering is an intimate, revelatory book exploring the ways we can care for and repair ourselves when life knocks us down. A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, Katherine May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat.
Some winters happen in the sun. This particular one began on a blazing day in early September, a week before my fortieth birthday.
I was celebrating with friends on Folkestone beach, which juts into the English Channel as if reaching out to France. It was the start of a fortnight of lunches and drinks that I hoped would allow me to avoid a party and see me safely into the next decade of my life. The photographs I have of that day now seem absurd. High on a sense of my own becoming, I snapped the seaside town bathed in the warmth of an Indian summer. The vintage-looking launderette that we passed on the walk from the car park. The pastel-coloured concrete beach huts that stack along the coast. Our combined children jumping over the shoreline together, paddling in an impossibly turquoise sea. The tub of Gypsy Tart Ice Cream that I ate while they played.
There are no photos of my husband, H. That’s not necessarily unusual: the photos I take, over and over again, are of my son, Bert, and the sea. But what is unusual is the blank in the photographic record from that afternoon until two days later, when there is a picture of H in a hospital bed, trying to force a smile for the camera.
At the idyllic seaside, H was already complaining that he felt sick. It didn’t signify much; I have found that parenting a young child brings one long succession of germs into the house, which cause sore throats and rashes and blocked noses and stomachaches. H wasn’t even making a fuss. But after a lunch that he couldn’t bear to eat, we walked up to the playground at the top of the cliffs. H disappeared for a while. I took a photograph of Bert playing in the sandpit, a rope of seaweed tied to the back of his trousers like a tail. When H came back, he told me that he’d vomited.
“Oh no!” I remember saying, trying to sound sympathetic, while privately thinking what a nuisance it was. We’d have to cut the day short and head back home, and then he’d probably need to sleep it off. He was clutching at his middle, but that didn’t seem particularly troubling under the circumstances. I wasn’t in any hurry to leave, and it must have shown, because I have a very clear memory of the sudden shock when our friend-one of our oldest ones, whom we knew from our schooldays-touched me on the shoulder and said, “Katherine, I think H is really ill.”
“Really?” I said. “Do you think so?” I looked over to see H grimacing, his face sheened with sweat. I said I’d go and fetch the car.
By the time we got home, I still didn’t think it was anything more than a dose of norovirus. H put himself to bed, and I tried to find something for Bert to do, now that he had been robbed of his afternoon on the beach. But two hours later, H called me upstairs and I found him putting on his clothes. “I think I need to go to hospital,” he said. I was so surprised that I laughed.
H sat in a plastic waiting room chair, a cannula in his hand, looking miserable. It was Saturday night. The place was brimming with rugby players admiring their broken fingers, drunks with lacerated faces, and elderly people hunched in wheelchairs, their carers refusing to take them back to their residential homes. I had dropped Bert off with neighbours and promised to be back in a couple of hours, but soon I was texting them to ask if they wouldn’t mind his staying over. By the time I left H, it was after midnight, and he still hadn’t been moved to a ward.
I went home and didn’t sleep. Returning the next morning, I found that things had gotten worse. H was vague and hot with fever. The pain had built up through the night, he said, but by the time it was at its peak, the nurses were changing shift, so nobody could give him the medication to make it bearable. Then his appendix burst. He felt it happening. He screamed out in agony, only to be scolded by the ward sister for being rude and making a fuss. The man in the next bed had to get up to advocate on his behalf; he called through the curtains to us, saying, “Terrible state they left him in, poor fella.”
There was still no sign of an operation. H was afraid.
After that, I was afraid, too. It seemed to me that something dangerous and terrible had happened while I had deserted my post. And it was still happening; the nurses and doctors appeared to be drifting around as if there were no hurry at all, as if a man should lie back and allow his internal organs to rupture without a whimper. I felt, suddenly and furiously, that I could lose him. He clearly needed someone at his bedside to defend him, so that’s what I did. I planted myself there, ignoring visiting hours, and when the pain got unbearable, I trailed behind the ward sister until she helped him. I’m usually too embarrassed to order my own pizza, but this was different. It was me versus them, my husband’s suffering versus their rigid schedule. I was not going to be beaten.
I left that evening at nine o’clock, and called every hour until he was safely in the operating theatre. I didn’t care that I was being a nuisance. Then I lay awake until he was out again and I’d heard that he was comfortable. Then I couldn’t sleep anyway. At moments like this, sleep feels like falling; you sink into luxurious blackness only to jolt awake again, staring around at the darkness as if you might divine something in the grainy night. The only things I could find were my own fears: the unbearable fact of his suffering and the terror of being left to survive without him.
I kept up my vigil all week between school drop-offs and collections. I was there for the surgeon’s explaining the extent of the infection with something approaching awe; I was there to fret over H’s temperature refusing to fall, his blood oxygen levels failing to return to normal. I helped him to take slow walks around the ward and watched him sleep afterwards, sometimes drifting off mid-sentence. I changed him into clean clothes and brought him tiny quantities of food to eat. I tried to soothe Bert’s fear of his father, hooked up to so many wires and tubes and bleeping machines.
Somewhere in the middle of this catastrophe, a space opened up. There were hours spent driving from home to the hospital, from the hospital to home; sitting by the side of H’s bed while he dozed; waiting in the canteen while the ward rounds took place. My days were simultaneously tense and slack: I was constantly required to be somewhere and awake and vigilant, but I was also redundant, an interloper. I spent a lot of time staring around me, wondering what to do, my mind churning to categorise these new experiences, to find a context for them.
And in all that space, it suddenly seemed inevitable that this would happen. A strange, irresistible hurricane was already blasting through my life, and this was just another part of its wake. Only a week ago, I had given notice at my job as a university lecturer, hoping to find a better life outside the perpetual stress and noise of the contemporary university. And now here I was, taking compassionate leave during the busy weeks at the start of term. There was no doubt that I was stretching everyone’s patience, but there was no one else who could sort out this mess.
What’s more, I had just published my first book in six years and had another imminent deadline. My son had only recently returned to school after the long summer holiday, and I had all the usual maternal worries about his ability to step up to the challenges of Year One. Change was happening, and here was its cousin, mortality, not so much knocking on my door as kicking it down like some particularly brutal extrajudicial force.
On my thirtieth birthday, I had managed to gate-crash a wake. I had arranged to meet a friend at a pub and blundered my way in to find that it had been booked out to host the aftermath of an Irish funeral. The whole room was dressed in black, and a band was playing in the corner, two young women on fiddles, singing folk songs. I should, of course, have turned around and walked out, but I was worried that my friend wouldn’t find me then, and it was raining outside. I thought I might just lurk near the door and try to pass unnoticed. Actually, I don’t know what I was thinking; any sensible person would have left and sent a text. But I stayed and thought this was just my luck-some kind of harbinger of death to mark the end of my youthful twenties.
Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again.
The situation only worsened when my friend arrived, and it became clear that she bore a remarkable resemblance to one of the band members, who had by now retired backstage. This wasn’t just my own view; it seemed that the family of the deceased had mistaken her for the now-vanished fiddler. My friend was hugged and hand-shaken and back-patted, and it was positively insisted upon that she stay for a drink. Having no idea what on earth was happening, and assuming, I learned later, that this was just the warm hospitality of the Irish, she agreed, and even managed to field questions about her musical talent with what looked like modesty, but was actually flat denial. We managed to leave only because we had theatre tickets that could irrefutably prove we ought to be elsewhere.
The whole episode had the air of a Shakespearean farce, staged just for me. But in retrospect, it was light relief. I passed the cusp of my fortieth birthday with H freshly out of hospital and all my celebrations cancelled. At ten in the evening, Bert called me upstairs and promptly vomited all over me. He carried on well into the night. But by then it didn’t matter, because I had given up on sleep anyway. Something had already shifted.
There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into somewhere else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can’t quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find that I felt at home there.
Winter had begun.
Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again.
Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.
Yet it’s also inevitable. We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that. Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in.
I learned to winter young. As one of the many girls of my age whose autism went undiagnosed, I spent a childhood permanently out in the cold. At seventeen, I was hit with a bout of depression so hard that it immobilised me for months. I was convinced that I would not survive it. I was convinced that I didn’t want to. But somewhere there, in the depths, I found the seed of a will to live, and its tenacity surprised me. More than that, it made me strangely optimistic. Winter had blanked me, blasted me wide open. In all that whiteness, I saw the chance to make myself new again. Half-apologetic, I started to build a different kind of a person: one who was rude sometimes and who didn’t always do the right thing, and whose big stupid heart made her endlessly seem to hurt, but also one who deserved to be here, because she now had something to give.
For years, I would tell anyone who would listen: “I had a breakdown when I was seventeen.” Most people were embarrassed to hear it, but some were grateful to find a shared thread in their story and mine. Either way, I felt with great certainty that we should talk about these things and that I, having learned some strategies, should share them. It didn’t save me from another dip and another dip, but each time the peril became less. I began to get a feel for my winterings: their length and breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn’t last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live through them until spring.
I am aware that I fly in the face of polite convention in doing this. The times when we fall out of sync with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognise wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored. This means we’ve made a secret of an entirely ordinary process and have thereby given those who endure it a pariah status, forcing them to drop out of everyday life in order to conceal their failure. Yet we do this at a great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.
Excerpted from Wintering by Katherine May. Copyright © 2020 by Katherine May. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.