You Left in Autumn

“Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Queen Elizabeth II
A View of the Muskegon River
Penny and Dave’s, Big Rapids, 2020

Autumn is definitely my favorite season, but this year along with the foliage, the multiple flocks of geese winging their way south, and that crisp, juicy bite of the season’s first apples …quite unexpectedly…October arrived with a replay of the grief I thought I had put into a manageable box months ago. Soon, I will mark the second anniversary of my husband’s death. Of course, I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t expecting to have such a visceral response to a mere date on the calendar.

You left in autumn. The leaves were turning. I walked down roads of orange and gold. I saw your sweet smile. I heard your laughter. You’re still here beside me. Everyday. ‘Cause I know you by heart. ‘Cause I know you by heart.

Terrance Harrison / Margaret Nelson “I Know You by Heart”. sung and recorded by Eva Cassidy
A Singular Beauty at Plum Loco
Shepherd, Michigan, 2020

Several times in the past few weeks I have been awakened in the night by the sound of my own weeping and the chill of tears soaking into my pillow. I feel myself moving uncontrollably toward the empty pit of despair. The colored leaves that litter my path offer no traction to brake my footsteps as I slide toward the edge of the abyss. I grab saplings to slow my descent and I resist with all my might until I am balancing on the edge of the void…halted…and safe…but knowing that I am precariously perched. I breathe in and breathe out.

Leaves on the Path
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

The return of autumn colors, the sounds, the smells, and yes, the taste of sweet cider and pumpkin doughnuts…involuntarily…put me back where I was at the time of Dave’s death. Without conscious thought, I was…I am…reliving that chapter and all the emotions that accompanied it over and over again.

It seems that my nearly five-year-old grandson who was with me on the morning of Dave’s death is also having a difficult time. As little boys are want to do, yesterday, he built himself a fort complete with a picture of Dave. Later he told his friend that he was feeling very sad because he missed Papa Dave and he wished he hadn’t died. Could it be that Autumn was bringing this wee one’s memories into the light too?

Perhaps, much like the rising action of a good novel or the mounting intensity of a particularly good piece of music, this is a necessary wave of grief that builds until it is suddenly released on the anniversary where it can be acknowledged, named, and then put away until the wave crests again.

I’m not sure how that works in the heart of a little boy, however.

Imagining At An Early Morning Window
2020

Grief is so complicated. Just when you think you’ve tamed it…bam…it whacks you upside the head. At times the pain feels so raw and fresh and at other times it is just a dull ache that moves in, follows you around, and makes itself at home. There are also days when grief remains so quiet you almost dare to believe it’s gone and you spend the entire day smiling.

Grieving is a lonely business until I remember that in addition to the personal griefs we each bear, during this long and painful pandemic we are all experiencing a communal loss. Everyone on the planet has lost someone or something. Each of us…children, too…can easily create our own long list of what was taken and what we long to have returned.

The Missing-Dave part of the mourning process has taught me that when looking back over our time together the petty annoyances that drove me crazy, the minor disagreements we occasionally shared, and the less than stellar times that filled the empty spaces in our lives all begin to fade into the mist. What I remember…what I miss…are all the simple day-to-day experiences that make up life…the fun, the laughter, the mundane, and the knowledge that someone was witness to my existence.

With COVID-19 we are still in the rising action of the plot. At times the intensity is nearly unbearable, but when finally we reach the climax, falling action, and resolution will we look back and watch some of the negatives fade into the mist and remember the positives that have come out of this challenging time? Will we remember how precious the smallest things were and honor them for the richness that they bring to our lives? Will we remember the good? I wonder.

So far, I am resisting the gaping maw of depression that threatens me. I am sad…and that’s OK. Pain and joy are simply opposite sides of the same coin. When I relive the pain of loss I cannot escape the adjacent memories of love, tenderness, laughter, and joy.

Mary Oliver instructs us that “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”.

Leaves in the Chippewa River
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…” 

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Next year, Autumn will come again. The trees will swish their leafy skirts, apple trees will share their bounty, little boys will build forts, and once again I’ll be ready to ‘let it go’.

Learning to Dance with a Wooden Leg

“The death of a beloved is an amputation…At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.” 

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

The anniversary of my first solo trip around the sun is fast approaching. Facebook reminds me of the everyday things that were happening last year as we moved, unknowingly, toward the head of the line where together our tickets would be punched, but where we’d board separate flights. How could I have known that that morning I would come home to discover that Dave had left his body…bad knees, painful legs, and bad heart…behind in his favorite chair, coffee still warm in his cup, to journey to an unknown realm without me?

I was still posting photos from our latest adventure. Dave loved life. He lived without an agenda taking each day as it came and finding joy, wonder, and delight all around him. Traveling expanded our world, giving us even more opportunities for pleasure, adventure and amazement. While we were able we went as far as we could, as often as we could, for as long as we could. When his mobility declined to the point that he could no longer join in on walks in the city or short hikes in the National Parks, Dave would happily find a bench and wait patiently for my return. Knowing that he would be waiting gave me confidence and courage to take my limited hiking skills and head out alone on unknown trails.

Suddenly there was no one waiting for my return, no one waiting to see my photos, no one waiting to hear of my escapades, no one waiting with a warm car…no one waiting. I had to decide whether to store my trekking poles or learn to move forward on my own.

Scenes from our last trip…Colorado and Utah, September 2018

One of the greatest challenges of grief and loss is learning not only to live without the one you’ve lost, but learning to live without the person you were when you were with them and learning to live as the person you have now become. I, only half jokingly, wonder if that is why senior citizens are asked whether they’ve fallen recently. With each loss we have to regain our equilibrium without the stability of what once was. With a part of ourselves missing we have to teach ourselves a new way to find our balance.

Stability often eludes me, but I am learning to live my life with that wooden leg that C.S. Lewis talks about. There are times that are really difficult, the nights are especially sucky, and tears still come unbidden, but now and then I hear Dave’s voice encouraging me to find joy, seek adventure, and laugh as often as I can.

Bloody Marys on the Deck
Basalt, Colorado, September 2018

If I have died; and you refuse to live because I am gone, I died two times. But if you take the joy I always had in life, and live it for me in your own, and past on to others then I’ll know that the world will stay a better place for I was here awhile.

Nadine McLaughlin ‘Death Wish’

Years ago…almost two decades now, Dave, my friend, Suzanne, and I went out to dinner. It was Suzanne’s suggestion to try a new Ethiopian restaurant that had just opened in her neighborhood. Dave and I agreed to give this new cuisine a shot. We all knew we were in trouble when we were met at the door by a waitress who asked, “Would you like a booth or a basket?” Basket? Basket? What the heck did that mean? We opted for the booth. It was pretty much downhill from there. We ordered the Ethiopian Feast for Three. When the meal was brought to our table the chicken portion was represented by a single drumstick. The rest of the meal was also rather scant, but easier to share. On the other hand, none of us liked it at all. Thus, to paraphrase Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall…the food was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it. Life too can be painful and hard, but most of us still want more. Even with the pain, darkness, and the aloneness of grief, life is still worth the living.

One Afternoon In Maine, October 2019

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Ecclesiastes…and of course The Byrds…remind us that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

About that dancing…Anne Lamott says that the loss of a loved one “is like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly…that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but,” she says,” you learn to dance with the limp.”

A few years ago, as part of our church’s Coming of Age program…think Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation…the youth and their adult guides were exploring the idea of death. One of the facilitators asked the group, “How many of you are grieving the loss of someone or something?” Nearly everyone raised a hand…adults and teens alike. I’m approaching an anniversary, a date on the calendar, but I am surrounded by people…friends, family, and strangers…who are also just putting one foot in front of the other and moving slowly down the same path. We link arms at times to steady those for whom those wooden legs are new and as yet untried, but we all move toward the time when even momentarily we can leave our weeping and mourning to laugh and dance.

I know this anniversary will be difficult. I’m sure there will be weeping, the ugly cry, runny nose and the whole shebang, but I also know that I’m learning to dance. The dance may not be pretty considering the whole balance thing, the limp and wooden leg, but…there is still dancing and laughter. Dave is waiting patiently for me somewhere…but for now I’ll journey on by myself…dancing and laughing whenever I can and recognizing there is still a time to mourn and weep when I can’t.

Following My Own Path
October 2019