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’.

Spot, The-Other-One, and the Feathered Coxswain

Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, taken from “Wild Geese
The Wild Geese Are Heading Home Again….. Photo credit Pixabay

There they were, just above the rooftop of the house next door, a flock of Canada Geese.  Flights of geese heading south in their familiar V formation aren’t totally unexpected this time of year, nevertheless, I was surprised and delighted to hear them calling out to one another from high overhead. Like the coxswain on a rowing crew, the geese in the back honk out encouragement, instructions, and motivation to the birds in the lead urging them to maintain their position and speed. As I stood watching and listening, the honking and squawking broadcast a clear reminder that summer is waning and autumn is on the way.

I have always loved this time of year. As the days grow shorter and the shadows lengthen, the feeling of possibility that hangs in the air is nearly palpable, but this year as I watched the trails of geese fade into the distance, instead of the feeling of anticipation that I usually experience, I was filled with a deep sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and a yearning for the comfort and familiarity of times past.

“That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books, and football in the air…Another fall, another turned page; there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as it last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Reposte

Growing up in the 50s and 60s in rural mid-Michigan, kids like me, spent our summers in the relative freedom that was the norm in most small towns. During the day we would run, play, and explore together…pretty much at will. We’d flatten grass in the fields to create forts, inventing elaborate narratives for our green and fragrant villages; we’d join games of work-up played without teams, score-keeping, or the interference of adults; we’d put pennies on the railroad tracks so the passing behemoths could reduce them to smears of copper; we’d dare each other to climb to the top of the potato storage or the huge neighborhood pine tree, and we’d ride our bikes from one side of town to the other.  We were always sure to be home for supper and after quickly helping with dishes and clean-up we’d head back outside again for another hour or two of ghost stories, murder-at-midnight, or hide and seek.  The fun continued until the street lights came on to signal the end of our liberty and we’d sprint off in all directions toward bath time, bedtime, and the safety of home.

The end of summer signaled the time for school shopping with a new pair of school shoes at the top of the list. Having gone barefoot for months it was time for feet with soles as tough as leather to be squeezed into the confinement of shoes once again. A new pair of school shoes was a real treat although my father’s teacher’s salary never afforded us the Red Ball Jets that we craved. I mean, who wouldn’t want shoes that guaranteed you’d jump higher and run faster? I’m sure I’d have grown up to be much more athletic if I’d gotten those rubber souled miracles instead of the less expensive knocks-off we got instead? 

A Box of Possibility and Imagination

In addition to shoes, we each received new pencils and a box of crayons. The 48 pack was a joy, but in Fourth Grade, I experienced the pure ecstasy of the 64 set with built-in sharpener and metallic gold, silver, and copper. It was not simply a box of cylindrical sticks of colored wax. That cardboard container held imagination and possibility. Like shoes that could give you wings and crayons that could produce an artistic masterpiece, Autumn has always been a time of hope, wonder, excitement, and potentiality.  

This year, in addition to the annual feeling of anticipation and promise the wind also carries the clarion call of geese warning, prodding, and summoning me to take action. Soon there will be frost on the pumpkins and ice and snow in the clouds.

“Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field

In these dwindling days of warmth and sun, it is difficult to ignore the feathered coxswain who continues to honk a forecast of ice, and snow. The geese are raising the alarm. It’s time to prepare for the coming days when, in this year of virus and pandemic, we will hunker down once again moving to the comfort, safety, and isolation of our homes. “Get ready”, they honk. “Prepare”, they squawk. “There are things to do,” they remind.

There is a small deck at the back of my condo. I often sit out there to read or to attend Zoom meetings. Throughout the spring and summer, I’ve been joined off and on by two black squirrels…Spot and The-Other-One. They have gotten used to me and will bravely scamper about within feet and inches of me. I often have sunflower seeds, which I’m sure improves our relationship, but having spent so much time on my own during this year of isolation, I am delighted by their presence. My wee friends provide the entertainment and I gladly serve the refreshments.

Lately, I’ve noticed that they don’t linger near me as long as they did in the Spring and early Summer. I watch Spot as he stuffs seeds into his cheeks and then jumps from the deck to the yard. His tiny little feet scratch a hole in the flowerbed or beneath one of the trees where he then deposits the seeds. I don’t know how he or The-Other-One will find the hidden seeds beneath the snow this winter, but the seeds will be there waiting for them nevertheless. They have heard the geese too it seems.

My Friend Spot. Names for the tiny patch of white hairs on his back.

Watching my little furry friends reminds me of the classic picture book, Frederick, by Lio Lionni.  It’s one of my favorites. While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the poet, and dreamer, whose endless store of poetry and verse warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Like Frederick, I need to gather stories, colors, and golden memories to warm and sustain me through the winter ahead as well. I must harvest moments that restore my soul and feed my spirit. COVID has made preserving these as essential to life as the sweet corn, strawberries, or blueberries that I put by in my tiny freezer. Our Buddhist friends always implore us to live in the moment, be present, and take not a single day for granted, but now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we live each day with intention.

So…I will bask in the warmth of the sun on my face. I will delight in the brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves as they dance on the breeze. I will savor the crisp freshness of the season’s first cider allowing it to linger on my lips. I will make mental photographs of the eyes of family and friends as they smile above the masks they wear to keep me safe. I will drink deeply from the intoxicating well of human touch. I will memorize the sound of lively discussions and raucous laughter and use it to drown out the bitter winds of winter. I will find the essence of something wonderful to collect from each new day.

Winter is indeed on its way and our time of comfortable outdoor gatherings will soon be packed away with our summer sandals and sleeveless shirts, but I’m heeding the warning of the geese, the squirrels, and the field mice. I’m adding more shelves, packing tins and jars, and filling my larder to overflowing.

How are you restocking your pantry?

Making Memories at the Corn Maze.
Masks removed only for the photo and when social distancing within the rows of corn stalks.