The Way of All Things

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It’s been an intense fall. An intense year, really, but particularly an intense fall in my world.

We had no rain to speak for a couple months this summer, and so I didn’t expect much in the way of fall color, but it got crazy cold all at once. The one and only benefit of having no fall—just summer and then winter—was that the temperature shock overcame the lack of water. There’s a magic to fall color that never fails to move me, and as I was outside trying, as I do every year, to capture it, I was also thinking of my grandmother, who was dying and not dying and dying again through all of this.

I thought of the hasty trip to St. Louis with my sister, to see Grandma in the hospital, and the four hours of unexpected conversation we got out of that.

I thought of my 30+ cousins rushing into town to see her—she had 10 kids, in case you’re wondering—and chuckling because when another of my sisters called the hotel in Grandma’s small suburban community, they were completely befuddled because their entire hotel was booked full, and they could not, for the life of them, explain why. My sister laughed and said, “It’s all my family.”

I thought of the last time I saw my grandmother, propped up in a recliner with a bipap strapped around her head, and how Julianna was too scared to come give her a hug and say goodbye, so Grandma said, “I certainly understand,” and had my aunt remove the mask so Julianna could see her face one last time.

I thought of our week in Washington DC, visiting museums and eating out of food trucks and hanging out with my oldest friend—another cousin—and how everything seemed so raw and real and vibrant, and half my heart was an airplane ride behind me, with my parents and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts, and most of all my grandmother—and realizing I couldn’t imagine a world without her in it.

I thought of how flying home to find central Missouri in a blaze of peak color glory.

And I thought, “Death can really be a beautiful thing.”

I intended to blog on this topic a month ago, but then there were fires in California and mass shootings (in the plural) and I thought perhaps waxing poetic about the beauty of death might be not only insensitive, but downright myopic.

Peak is long past now. The trees are all asleep for the winter, and my grandmother sleeps a different kind of sleep, one that wakes only into eternity. I sang the psalm at her funeral, and last week our Thanksgiving table was adorned with a pitcher that used to sit atop her hutch.

Two days before Thanksgiving, my parents finished harvest. Harvest has always been my favorite time of year on the farm, poignant and beautiful and bittersweet. But more so this year than ever, because this was the last. My parents are retiring.

The day after Thanksgiving, my family attended a play in a small community two or three towns beyond my hometown. It was weird enough to bypass the exit for my parents’ farm on the way there. But coming back, in the dark—and it’s so dark out there in rural Missouri—it was hard not to tear up, watching one familiar gravel road and another pass by, organizing the black grids between them into fields with particular memories. Thinking of the time the car broke down on that road and we had to walk home, or the time during the 93 flood, when I got the tractor stuck up to its axles in the field just beyond that field, or the way we once walked across the back fields to the house that lies just down that road and swam in their pond, or the way I stopped in this field just a year ago to ride the combine with Dad on the way home from a rehearsal.

All those memories, and realizing there aren’t any more to be made in those fields. They’ll be farmed by someone else now. I won’t have a reason to drive those dusty roads and navigate the uneven surface of a newly-harvested field. I won’t have a reason to smell that cool, semisweet smell that only comes at harvest time with the pouring of grain and the chewing up of plants in the threshing machine.

It’s disorienting, and very emotional. I got to thinking that I could name probably half a dozen pivotal elements of my identity: things that for my entire life have defined how I see myself in relation to the world. In less than a month, two of them have gone the way all things go.

It’s all beautiful, and I am eternally grateful for the richness of my memory. But it’s sad, too.

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