Today’s post is in honor of my nephew, Kaleb Mazurek, a sophomore at Macalester College. Today is his 20th birthday. I remember when my sister and I pushed him along the streets of Chicago in his stroller and we stopped in a bakery that sold wedding cakes. He was about 18 months old. I remember thinking, “someday, we will be sharing a wedding cake in Kaleb’s honor.” That part of the story is yet to come. But that walk. I remember being on it like it just happened yesterday.
It is autumn now, full-on, screaming-orange-trees-against-burning-blue-sky autumn. Otherwise known in the vernacular as “fall,” the end of another year.
Two years ago at this time, Georg, my dad, had just recently passed away after a long illness. All I could think about that autumn after he died was the irony of this season. The most colorful and eye-catching season of the entire year. What is its purpose, autumn? Death. Fall is death. Everything is beautiful at this time of year because everything is dying.
And yet, when the trees are going ballistic with color, going down in a blaze of glory before our very eyes, we are not sad for the trees. If anything, we are a little mad at them, because they drop all their leaves on our lawns and we have to spend hours every Sunday afternoon in between church and football raking them up. We may be mad at the trees, but we are not sad about their prospects.
Perhaps we are not sad because we know the trees are coming back. We know that they will die now, for a while, but they will come back next spring, and next spring, and the spring after that and after that. The trees are so beautiful because we have seen them do this before and we know they will not fail us. They will never deny us the wonder of their fiery finale.
In my own little life, fifty-five times I have seen the trees go razor-sharp-yellow and burnt-orange-incandescent on me, and I never get tired of it. Their dying colors bring to mind happy times of jumping in leaf piles (a direct outcome of that annoying raking effort mentioned above), hot chocolate, pumpkin carving, candy, and the inevitable trudge toward Thanksgiving and Christmas. Trudge? Don’t I mean joyful leap? Yes, the joyful leap toward the holidays of winter. This is what the dying trees signal for me.
There is a lesson here. Georg died. His physical being will never walk on the earth again. He is gone, but he is really still here because he left his art, his friends, his ideas, his children, and his grandchildren.
Each of us leaves something behind that will keep returning. Anyone we ever helped, ever taught, ever listened to, ever smiled at. Every song we ever sang, every shoe we ever tied, every book we ever shared. Like the dying leaves, we hang on until we can’t hang on anymore. Then, we die. But guess what? We come back. We don’t look the same, but we do come back in a myriad of unexpected ways. That is how life seems to work.
I will end with one of my most favorite poems. I have quoted it numerous times in other blogs, other places. It is by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1989). Word for word, I can’t claim to understand it, but taken as a whole, I love what I think he is saying: That we all grieve our own short lives. Especially in autumn.
Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed;
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
–Gerard Manley Hopkins