Where There’s Light There’s Hope
The story of the town I love so well
It’s many years ago now (I’m a senior student), but I still remember mum asking me, sometime in mid-November 1979, “Will you be home for Christmas?” Despite every fiber of my body wanting me to say “Yes,” I replied. “Sorry mum, this year I can’t make it.” By now I'd recognized Christmas back home as a "tender trap," as my mum would say. Going back home to Belfast, Northern Ireland for the holidays was my way of dodging the difficult question: “What on earth am I still doing here in Montreal?” I had a good job, but I was on my own. French was an uphill battle, the winters were colder and the summers hotter than I ever imagined possible: I just felt that life in the world's second coldest country wasn't a good fit for me.
Procrastination extended my original three-year plan to five and increasingly, I worried about being stuck here forever—a word and prospect that terrified me. This year I decided to bite the loneliness bullet, spend Christmas on my owney-oo, see out the winter, and in June, by which time I’d have a respectable two years with my employer, I'd leave Montreal, go home to Belfast and I wouldn't look back.
On Christmas Day, the stores, cafés and cinemas were closed. I had no friends to visit to keep myself occupied, so I decided to go to church at 11 a.m., made a simple lunch and then I walked to the summit of Mont Royal and back. At about 4 p.m., I made hot tea and wandered over to my west facing window, drawn there I think, by the beauty of the sunset, the pale blue twilight and the sky streaked by crimsons, reds and pinks.
I stood at the window cradling the mug in my hands, until the last crimson sliver disappeared behind Mont Royal. I walked to the kitchen, but instead of reaching for the potato peeler, I picked up a pen, glanced at my watch and then, on the kitchen calendar, I wrote the time of sunset in the little square assigned to Dec. 25.
I didn’t know why I did this but didn’t think much of it as I set down the pen, picked up the potato peeler and made a start on my pork chop Christmas dinner for one.
On Dec. 26, at the same time, I was at the window once more, with my mug of tea, watching the sun set. Then, as I had the day before, I noted the time and wrote it on my kitchen calendar, which is what I would do every afternoon all through my holiday vacation and into January.
This new habit of mine was slightly sad—a variant of the prisoner scratching lines on his cell’s wall. However, as sad as it was, it brought with it a message of hope.
After a few weeks, I noticed how each sunset came a few minutes later than its predecessor. The times scribbled on my calendar were a positive reminder that the sun was coming back. Brighter, warmer days were ahead.
Indeed, winter did end, the snow melted, the wild geese and other migratory birds returned, the trees in the park across the street blossomed and then, ful of the joys of spring, I asked a neighbour out to lunch.
I was certain they would say no, but they said yes. Our lunch went well because my Francophone neighbor spoke no English and all I could do was listen. Soon enough we hit it off, my French took off and I stayed in Montreal—which became the town I love so well, the place I call home.
All those years ago, in the heart of darkness that is midwinter in Canada, when I saw the return of the light I thought "where there's light there's hope." Today I still think that way; there’s always hope although it’s usually where and when you least expect to find it.
This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 8, published December 6, 2022.