The Dying of the Leaves

I sat on my back deck yesterday enjoying the incredible autumn weather that frames the beauty of Colorado and looking at the small patch of San Isabel Forest that abuts my property. As the cat rubbed against my leg marking me as his, I watched the leaves and pine needles fall like raindrops. Another layer of natural detritus. Another year coming to an end. Fall used to be my favorite season. I say “used to be” since I am no longer a public school teacher. As a teacher, fall was a time for meeting another group of students and parents and starting the roller coaster ride called a school year. I never stopped being excited by the possibilities.

Now, fall has become the more traditional metaphor of a life. Fall is now my life. Exhibit A is that too many friends and family are in the winter of theirs. It is one of the great jokes the universe plays on humans. We hate change and yet change is the only constant outside of a few natural laws such as gravity. Thirty years ago I faced one of the hardest tasks a writer can face: trying to write a letter to my dying mother. This is not easy for anybody. But I am an only child, and my mother doted on me. And in spite of her great faith in Catholic theology, she was scared.

There are lots of religious platitudes that one can trot out for a dying person. But even if you believe them, they ring hollow. You have no experience with death. So how do you know you will dance at the feet of Jesus? It is faith, not certainty, which religion offers. And many of the dying want certainty before they let go. My mother knew I had had a near death experience. She trusted me to give assurances to her about her own impending demise.

I found myself in the same dilemma that all prophets, mystics, and near death survivors face. How do you use human language and experience to describe that which is beyond human language and normal experience? The answer is, of course, metaphors. Unfortunately, as Alan Watts pointed out, most people suck on the finger pointing out the path rather than follow it. A metaphor is a lie, a weak stand-in for the truth. Looking out my window at the lake, meadow, and trees, I was overcome by the beauty of my surroundings and decided to explain to my mother why fall is my favorite season instead of why she shouldn’t fear death.

In one part of the letter, I described my sadness at seeing the leaves drop. But I saw hope for the future in the buds that push the leaves off of the tree. The buds that will burst forth in spring with vibrant greens to drive away the drab landscape of winter. I also marveled at how an aspen grove is a single organism in spite of the appearance of being many separate trees, which means that every leaf on every tree is actually connected. Whether that paragraph did the trick or something else, my letter had the positive effect on my mother that I wanted. A few months later, she was able to let go of a life ravaged by cancer and the attending indignities of its treatment. Of all the success I had with my writing, I am most proud of that letter. Unfortunately, it was handwritten and I don’t have a copy.

I could use one. It is fall officially, so that letter is on my mind, but even more so with all of the people in my life who are facing the end of theirs. It happens to all of us who live long enough. Parents and other family elders face death in the same short period of time. Each wants something that we, the living, can’t give them: either assurances of an afterlife or more time in this one. And even worse, their struggles with the end of life are a reminder of our own mortality. Americans, in particular, seem to avoid this topic. As my wife and I help sort out the end-of-life details for our family members, we are aware that soon we will be the oldest surviving people in our respective families. We will be our tribe’s only remaining elders.

Cold night air has damaged the flowers, and I have been digging them up for the compost pile. I already miss their beauty but am grateful for having a respite from watering, pruning, and taking care of them. My life is kind of the same way. I have more time for myself and my wife than I used to. Career and family took enormous amounts of our time and energy. And when all of the upcoming funerals are over, we will have even more time to sit on the porch and enjoy the natural rhythms of life. The ones that we were often too busy or tired to participate in. At least until the snow comes to bury the dead leaves in a blanket of white. Until then, the time is all ours.