Embracing the Cold
By: Matthew Alcorn
On the car ride home from the doctor, my mother turned to me and said, “Hey, how about I take you out of school next week and we hit the beach? The sun and warmth are good for the soul.” I smiled, nodded, and in a moment of teenage dishonesty, lied. “Yeah, I’d love that.” You’d think a fifteen-year-old who had just learned the word osteosarcoma in the worst possible way would be thrilled to take a week off from school, but I’d rather have kept to my routine. I only agreed because I knew it would help mom deal with the news.
Mom’s a native of the coast, and her mind is only at ease when she can see the sea. Her true self emerges when the sand exfoliates the soles of her feet and the salty water cleanses her of the traumas and trepidations of existence. The ocean spray fills her every cell with pure, uncut, unfiltered life.
On the other hand, I have nothing but disdain for the beach. The heat draws what seems like gallons of sweat through my pores, leaving me a stinking, sticky mess. The sand finds its way into every crease on my body, scratching me like tiny shards of glass. As much as the beach
revitalizes mom, it drains me. I’m a creature of the cold, not the heat.
I realized my affinity for the cold when I was six. Dad had somehow convinced mom to visit the mountains where he spent his early years. In January. She was miserable, bundled in five layers of clothing, hiking through a mountain trail that followed a frozen stream. It’s the natural human reaction to hate, fear, and avoid the cold. The cold bites with atrophic fangs, and injects a glacial venom. For people with properly wired brains, it’s simple: heat is life, and cold is death.
But dad and I must’ve had those wires crossed while we were forming. We embraced the cold, held it close, let it flow into us and turn our veins to rivulets of ice. Cold sharpened our senses, allowing us to attune to the gentle near-silence of a snowflake softly meeting its fallen brethren. We understood that cold meant death, our bodies wouldn’t let us forget that, but, like skydivers, death’s close proximity made us both feel more alive.
Since that hike I have, on two occasions, felt that same acuteness of the senses that comes by grazing the hem of death’s garments. The first came at the age of ten, when my father swerved our beat-up Honda to miss a truck that had drifted into our lane. The screeching metal body wrapped around the trunk of a yew tree. Mom escaped with a few cuts and some bruising, while I was rushed from the scene in an ambulance, a veil as thin as tissue paper between death and me. Dad...well, dad slid right through the veil into death’s welcoming arms.
The second time came a month before my sixteenth birthday, several months into my cancer treatment. Something that’s not mentioned as often as the hair loss is the fact that chemo makes you extremely sensitive to cold. It makes sense, really. Chemo doesn’t just kill the cancer cells. It’s like injecting small doses of death to kill what’s killing you, so of course it’s cold. After a particularly brutal chemo session, I was shuffling back to my room when the world went dark without warning. In that moment, I felt it again, the explosion of sensations that comes when death passes close by. Luckily, the marvels of modern medicine were able to raise my rapidly dropping blood pressure and buy me more time among the living. Over the following months those medical magicians were able to do even more than we could’ve hoped or expected. They put my cancer into remission.
I didn’t feel death’s presence for quite some time after that. I graduated high school, went to college, fell in love, out of love, in love again, out of love again, earned a degree in environmental science, and found work out in the mountainous wilds, first as a fire lookout, and then as a forest ranger. In short, I lived.
So, a few months ago, when I looked at the PET scan results and saw my body light up brighter than the Vegas strip, I didn’t get upset. I had lived well on the time my medical saviors had bought me, and I was oddly content. Death is inevitable, but living is a choice, and I had chosen correctly.
I’m sitting on a mountain peak. It’s January 1st, and most people are waking to the hangovers they earned last night. I’m out here, alone, allowing that familiar freezing feeling to creep through my body once more. As the cold spreads through my veins, leaving a layer of frost on my heart, I can feel my senses sharpening. Closing my eyes, I envision my dad hiking up the trail towards me, the same liveliness in his face I saw when I was six. Death is close now, closer than ever before, and that’s okay. Animal instinct tells us to fear death, but our humanity allows us to overcome our fears through understanding. I harbor no fear or hatred towards death. Dying is simply embracing the cold, and I’ve always loved the cold.
About the Author
Matthew Alcorn is an educator and writer from North Carolina. When he isn't teaching literature or writing, he continues to engage with the literary community by reading for White Cresset Arts Journal. In his spare time, he attempts to find new ways to make his daughter laugh. His twitter is @MattWritesStuff