Fall is a time of remembrance for me. It takes me back to Saturday, October 11, 1981 and being at work teaching creative writing to youngsters at a local community college when I got the news in a phone call that my father died. Putting pieces of thought together in that moment, two particular directives pushed their way to the front of my mind: “Breathe” and “Say thank you.” The context for these separate thoughts revealed to me in an instant what I must do. I stood at the curb waiting for my husband to pick me up and I did the same breathing that I did when bringing my two children into the world. It turned out that Lamaze classes were a valuable resource in this moment of loss that allowed me no time for grief. It was about surviving the shock, so breathing was probably a good idea and I breathed in and out with powerful, focused attention, as well as a desire to stay on my feet. As I continued to wait, someone who knew what happened approached me and I responded to their comforting words by saying, “I am just thankful for having him as long as I did.” I was breathing and absorbed in a feeling of thankfulness that anchored me with a source of grounded support.
There were a few more deep reflective moments before the blur of activity that brought family members together for his funeral and burial commenced. One such moment happened as I sat on the bed next to my mother while she told me that my father went out on a routine task saying: “I’ll be back for you,” because they customarily did grocery shopping on Saturday. My mother followed up by saying: ”He was my best friend.” Through this statement, she invited me in to better understand the bond of their relationship in a way that she had never done before. Later, I sat in the living room looking toward the entrance to the dining room in anticipation of seeing my father walk through the doorway and into the room. As we filed out of the front door on the way to the hospital to have my oldest brother identify the body, I smelled “Old Spice” in the air as though my father was right there, and I cannot explain from where the scent originated, but somehow it was a comfort to me.
My father had suffered a heart attack while he was out. Since retiring, he had a habit of recycling bottles and newspapers and this is what he was doing when he suffered the fatal heart attack. Perhaps this practice of gathering up these things reminded him of his childhood. He said that his father died when he was fourteen. Coming from a large family, he would help by collecting items in what he called a “croaker sack,” to sell to earn money for the family. In his old age this practice seemed to give him a sense of purpose.
The experience of grief set in as I began writing my father’s obituary and sorting out my feelings in journal entries. Then, for years after, the combination of the October date and the Fall season brought a deep sadness, even as I raised my children and took on life’s pressing demands. Things would often come to a grinding halt as the leaves started to fall and the days became shorter. This lasted a great many years. I would visit the cemetery and remember him sitting at the dining room table with the deed for the plot, saying that he picked a fine spot in the “Bell Garden.” He would even get into the selling points saying that it was close by and easy to travel to. My father wrote in his ledger that he set out on this mission of shopping for a plot after my mother had a few health scares. I always felt that it was important to him that we visit the grave. I always wanted to be sure to visit and I did on every anniversary of his death. The ritual usually consisted of me arriving with a bagel and coffee to commune in a comfortable way with the spirit of my father. I even came to enjoy these visits.
As the years passed, there was less seasonal sadness and this year on October 11th, I went to the cemetery and planted bulbs and noticed that peace and joy had completely replaced sadness. As an elder now myself, I appreciate the joy in living and using memories to honor loved ones with sacred peace. Giving our moments to prolonged sadness diminishes the present opportunities for joy and celebration that are part of the legacy from loved ones who have passed on.
Fifteen years after my father died, he did indeed come back for my mother, and she died two weeks before the birth of her first great grandchild. The days that followed were, of course, shrouded in sadness, but I used the moment to embrace her wonderful spirit because I finally realized that, like my father, she would forever be in my heart; closer than a phone call or even a memory. I truly feel that we are united in spirit and this is a lesson that I learned from loss and share with others. At my mother’s funeral I said: “Her light gave light to others,” and these words transformed my understanding of loss, not as a finality, but like the Fall season itself; a renewing promise and realization of the precious nature of the present moment that continues to light our way on the journey of life.