12/18/2012 11:17 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Angels' Wings

This year, Christmas is different from any other I have ever known. So much that once was is gone. Almost nothing of the life I once knew remains the same as it used to be, as it was for so many years.

My little girl is grown and living across the sea. My dog has died and my body is ill and aching. I can no longer work and have lost my house to the bank. I don't live in the world anymore. I have no money. And debt piles up like the snow in a yard that is not my own where I sometimes stand, watching someone else's sheep and picking for decoration, wildflowers that were flash-frozen silver in a storm.

It is actually hard to see sometimes; my vision has changed. And even harder to sink into sleep and often impossible to read because depression can strike one almost dyslexic.

But, half-blind, terrified, my ears ringing, sometimes rendered mute, sometimes the words stumbling off my twisted tongue, I still know Christmas.

I realize I can still recognize its gladness if at first it was only noted in the eloquence of opposites-- the relief of the fire after coming in from the cold, the sudden songs of the migrating swans, a kind of carol infusing the air with music after a spate of lonely silence. I have learned that if I close my eyes, the notes are sharper. I feel them vibrating against my breastbone along with the beat of wings. And if I cover my ears, the progress of the birds against the purple mountains and charcoal skies, becomes a glorious study in sweet slow-motion.

I look for Christmas in the welcome work for my idle hands in clearing the drifts from the concrete walk, imagining that I am cleaning my mother's grave, her gravestone at home back East from where I have been exiled by my illness. In this elemental gesture, for just a moment I am with her again, 8 years old, snuggling with her under the covers in my bedroom, listening for reindeer hooves on the roof. Her hands that comb through my hair smell of the crush of pine cones from a wreath she is making.

In the mornings, the Yuletide wakes me -- a candy cane in my coffee can still make me smile as I head out with my steaming cup to feed the pigeons in the squall. They greet me meekly, huddling in their coop, quiet as the Christmas doves of peace. The fragrant wood that shelters them makes me think of the barn where I once worked as a zookeeper, feeding deer and bison on long winter days of wonder. And of that stable in Bethlehem.

I can't buy a tree, but not far away there is a high meadow where I walk among a forest of wild junipers, their emerald-green upturned branches clotted in blue berries as bright as sapphires. And I am not alone. Out of the corner of my eye I can see her, my daughter as a little girl. She shadows me here, a beautiful ghost of Christmas past. She sings, she dances, Mandy does, squealing as some ice falls down her collar and laughing as she blows kisses to a darting squirrel, then slipping her hand in mine. The scent of the sun on the boughs, the sequins of light on the snow, the electric charge of her silly grin make my eyes water and my heart squeeze like an accordion.

And just today, after days of wandering, searching for signs, I go out into the gloaming and I rush to the back field with the sky darkening to indigo, knee-deep in snow and stardust, just to stand with the horses there. Now I feel the courage to approach them. And I meet Christmas here in the midst of these beasts, their manes crusted in icy diamonds, their collective breath hot on my hands, soothing the bruise of my soul. Somewhere the farmer's dog howls like a wolf. I am grateful just to hear a canine voice.

And suddenly I see that while I was out looking for Christmas, Christmas found me, has come to me across countless miles and oh so many years, crossing with blessings, the barrier of my losses and my illness, to wrap me in joy. This season in my life is like the winter solstice, bracingly painful, my world tilting only temporarily away from the sun. But with the spring surely to return. And now I know how the shepherds felt on that holy night.

And in the wind, I hear angels' wings.