Scott Langley with his wife, Heather, and their daughter, Ailyn, at a friend's wedding in 2011.

Some days are diamonds, even though she's gone

Updated 2:27 PM ET, Fri February 19, 2021

In a series of essays called "The Distance," Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans in the pandemic. Email thomas.lake@cnn.com if you have a story idea.

(CNN)Get through this winter, we tell ourselves. Get through this day, or this hour. On a cold Monday in February, Scott Langley had to get through one song. He was walking by a frozen lake, singing to his departed wife.

"When you asked how I've been here without you, I'd like to say I've been fine, and I do," he sang into the frosty air of Vermont's Upper Valley. "But we both know the truth is hard to come by, and if I told the truth, that's not quite true."
Thomas Lake
Scott was 65, diabetic, nervously enduring the unknown period of time between this afternoon and the day he could get his coronavirus vaccination. He'd been up since 5:30, and had taken his medicine, gotten his 14-year-old daughter to school, worn two masks into Hannaford, resisted the urge to punch the maskless customer in the produce section. He ate a low-carb lunch and vigorously pedaled the exercise bike, trying to keep his blood glucose down, doing whatever he could to keep Ailyn from becoming an orphan.
Scott and Ailyn in a field of sunflowers in 2010.
No, Scott was not fine. Not yet. He had survived the two years, four months and two weeks since Heather died, after withstanding the six years of her illness, a "journey through hell," as he called it, the cancer always returning, her pain unimaginable, the drugs helping at first, then failing. She'd read Ailyn the first six Harry Potter books, but Scott had to read the seventh.
"Some days are diamonds, some days are stone," Scott sang, reaching the chorus of a country-rock standard written by Deena Kaye Rose and covered in 1981 by John Denver. Scott was on a long run of stone days when he met Heather in 2004. He was freshly divorced, 48 years old, balding and overweight, working seven days a week in a hospital deli in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Heather was 36, a nursing assistant for pediatric cancer patients, and he found her so attractive that he wrote his phone number on the lid of her salad container. He wrote it again, and again. Finally, she said yes.
Their first date was a picnic in the park. Heather did not hold back. She told him she'd recently stayed in bed for most of a month before forcing herself to get up and go back to work. Heather was divorced, too, and had been a single mother. Her 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, was once a Girl Scout and an aspiring veterinarian. "She was well known for her wonderful laugh," read a line in Sarah's obituary.
"Sometimes a cold wind blows a chill in my bones," Scott sang, still walking around Lake Fairlee. It was about 19 degrees, the wind slicing down from the north. At home on an office table, in two side-by-side urns, he kept Sarah's and Heather's ashes.
On January 4, 2004, Sarah attended a sledding party at the home of a family friend. According to the Rutland Herald newspaper, Sarah and a 7-year-old boy shared a snow tube on a run down a steep hill. The tube spun around, turning them backward, and veered off course. They went airborne, struck a tree and landed in a brook. The boy was injured. Sarah was killed.
Later that year, after a few more dates, Heather told Scott she wanted another child.
"Some days are diamonds," he sang. They were married in 2005. Ailyn was born in 2006. Scott became a father at 51. He treated Ailyn as if she were made of glass. Afraid she'd break her arm when she rolled over in bed. Afraid she'd fall headfirst from the swing. He wondered how he could possibly take her sledding. But he did take her, on a hill with no trees. Heather let them go.