Friday, October 7, 2016

Lessons in Autumn

I wrote this essay two years ago now, the first fall after my dad's death.  For a variety of reasons I never published it.  Each year, as the season start to to change I think back on this essay and the little scraps of hope that came with it.  Today I noticed for the first time that the leaves on the parkway of our street were starting to turn yellow and red and I thought now might be the right time to share a lesson I learned a few years ago.  

I’m not a fall person.  I’m a summer girl.  I love everything about it.  The flip flops, the sundresses, the warmth, the sun, the general happiness in the air.  If I could live in summer year round I would do in a heart beat.  I don’t really get people who need seasons.  I’d be perfectly happy in San Diego.  Except that all my people are in the Midwest.

And in the Midwest we have fall.  And people here love fall for some reason.  I don’t get it, but without fail the Tuesday after Labor day brings out The Autumns.  The Autumns love fall, love Pumpkin Spice Lattes and boots, and most of all love reveling in the end of summer because it means fall is coming. 

And I don’t get it.

Once at a dinner party one of The Autumns started on about his excitement for fall and I kind of lost it.  “How can you like fall????  Fall is death.  Everyone goes on and on about how beautiful fall is but all those leaves are changing colors because they are dying!  Fall is just one slow death!” 

Later, he confessed to me that all fall he couldn’t look at the beautiful trees without thinking about death.

I felt kind of bad about that one.  I mean, I pretty much ruined an entire season for him.  It was not my finest moment.

This year, on this side of death, I anticipated feeling extra scroogey towards fall.  I’ve lived in the thick of winter for close to a year now and I didn’t need all those leaves changing color and reminding me of dying.  I have enough reminders.

But something funny happened this year.  I don’t know if it was because we had a particularly beautiful fall, or if it was precisely because I am on this side of death, having experienced it so intimately this year, but I found myself marveling at the beauty of fall these past few months.  I couldn’t help myself.  I’d be out walking with the kids and a tree would literally take my breath away.  Drives around town were fraught with  beautiful colors and trees in full bloom.  

I felt guilty at first.  I tried to shove down this acknowledgement of fall’s beauty.  But it kept coming.  I couldn’t stop marveling.   There was something about those beautiful trees.  It was like death wasn’t going down without a fight.  Yes, the leaves were dying and falling away, but they were going to die beautifully, damnit.  They weren’t going quietly.  They weren’t about to leave without bringing a final bit of beauty into the world.

Which of course made me think of my dad’s death.  When I looked, I saw the beauty in it.  His death was traumatic and shocking and so very painful.  But there was beauty, damnit.  There was beauty in the community of people who showed up and loved us immediately after his death and continued to care for us throughout this year.  There was beauty in the way it knit us closer.  And there was so much beauty in the tributes made to my dad.  For weeks after his death people told his stories, the stories of his beautiful life, the things that they loved about him and the ways that he had lived a good story.  It was death that wasn’t going down without a fight.  The beauty of his life wasn’t going away untold. 

And it’s in our love for him.  Our love for him and the ways we carry him with us and try to keep him alive bears witness to this notion of death not going down without a fight.  We speak his name and tell his stories so that in his death, his life still blooms boldly.  His legacy and his love is so deeply embedded in our hearts that he will not die quietly.  There is beauty and color in remembering him and what was so wonderful about his life.

And so maybe I’m changing my mind about fall.  Maybe I’m finding some beauty in the dying.  Or rather I respect the beauty in the dying.  We all die right?  But our legacies, our life’s work.  That’s not going down without a fight, without a final bloom of beautiful.


  1. So beautifully written bless you Colleen.

  2. This made me so teary. As always you express yourself so beautifully. You certainly gave the season a new meaning for me. I'll absolutely think of Pat when I admire the colorful fall leaves.