Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold.
The sunburned hands
I used to hold.
The days grow long
And soon I’ll hear
Old winter’s song.
When autumn leaves
Start to fall.
The leaves are beginning to fall. As I run, the dry, red and yellow husks crackle and crunch, and stick to the bottom of my running shoes. I love fall. It’s always been my favorite season.
But today, September fifth, is the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. For the first time, the leaves will fall without her. And now autumn will always be a little bit harder for me to bear. And I think of my dad. And I cannot even imagine the loss he feels.
When my parents were dating, the Johnny Mercer song, Autumn Leaves, was “their song.” I can picture them dancing, at a formal, with a big band playing, my mother and father pressed together in a slow dance. Mom is laughing.
They can’t stop looking at one another. Her tiny, five-foot-two inch frame is swathed in a gauzy, mint-green, tulle dress, showing just a bit of her legs, tanned and strong from field hockey. Her thick, sun-lightened bob is pulled back with a barrette. Her beautiful, red-lipsticked mouth is smiling that wide, perfect-toothed smile. Maybe she is wearing a corsage.
Dad is dressed in a pale oxford shirt and penny loafers – preppy, charming, but a little shy. Crew cut, baby-faced, with a lacrosse player’s body. He moves around the room with a lithe ease that hides the excitement, the nervousness he feels around Mom. They have an immediate chemistry.
And, after who knows how long, they come to believe that they can build their lives around that spark.
I know I’m a romantic, but it really did work out that way.
They met in the fall of 1954, on a blind date, at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Dad was smitten from the start. I’m not sure about Mom, since she had a boyfriend back home. Family lore has it that Dad courted her with unrivaled tenacity, showing up every weekend, even when Mom had another date. He would sneak onto campus after hours, and try to get her to come out.
Today he’d be considered a stalker. I’m not here to judge, I’ll just say that the man is persistent.
As a kid, I knew that my parents had something that not many of my friends’ parents had. Their kissing in front of me was embarrassing, but it also made me feel warm inside. Their relationship gave me that rare security of knowing that love can last. I saw that grownups could commit to one another, and it could really work.
They had a love that lasted almost sixty years. The kind of love that, when you were around them, it was obvious that they were just a natural fit. If words like respect and loyalty are old-fashioned these days, then they had an old-fashioned kind of love.
It would have been absurd to ask them the secret to their marriage, they simply didn’t think about it in those terms. There was no complicated psychological analyses. They were married in the Presbyterian Church, and they made a commitment to one another, and that promise was for a lifetime.
I know my parents made adjustments and sacrifices throughout the years. I just never heard about them. Because they didn’t look at things in that way. Sacrifice was seen as part of living in a partnership.
Things were analyzed and dissected like today – relationships were more natural, less affected and politically correct.
In my parent’s generation, Sacrifice and devotion were words to aspire to. I’m not sure they are anymore.
We live in a psychologically oriented society, with lots of emphasis on how to get more out of our relationships. We all want to know the secret to a long, happy marriage.
But we’re hyper focused on self-fulfillment and self-actualization. And we put our individual needs and happiness first. We don’t really see the kind of sacrifice my parents made in a useful way. We crave personal fulfillment to an extent that feels pretty selfish.
Because it’s all about me – what can my partner do for me? Not about, what can I give to my partner, what does he need?
I know that my parents struggled, but I didn’t see much of it. I saw a lot of mutual respect. Dad encouraged Mom when she went back to nursing school. And he was so proud and supportive of her in her role as an oncology nurse.
At the same time, Mom spent their entire marriage meeting the challenges of being a minister’s wife being the main support for my dad in his role as an activist. She encouraged him through all of his organizing – the late meetings, the getting into trouble.
Throughout all of the controversies, they were a team.
Dad was incredibly strong as he saw Mom through thirty years of breast cancer. Doctor appointments, endless scans, chemotherapy, radiation. Waiting for results, the worrying, the side effects. Hours and hours on the phone with insurance companies.
Yet I never once saw him complain or lose his patience. And hardest of all, living with the fear of Mom’s death. But he never sunk into depression or despair. He was always by her side, at every appointment, every procedure.
I know that it wasn’t always easy. But what I saw was joy, and passion and the deepest kind of respect. In all of the little, everyday things.
In the cards that they gave one another – Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of their first date, the simple little love notes. The oatmeal that Dad made for Mom every morning. The clerical shirts Mom ironed for so many functions, year after year. Dinners at her favorite restaurant, clothes he loved to buy for her at Talbot’s.
The simple, loving acts of devotion, made up a marriage of such abundance.
So Mac and I are coming up on our thirtieth wedding anniversary, only half as many as my parents’. But I like to think that we also aspire to something like what they had.
I’m trying to become more comfortable making sacrifices, and to see it as a good thing. It’s hard to give up the “I” in the equation, isn’t it ?
I want to be devoted to him for the rest of our lives together. I strive to be patient and recognize that pride and ego only get in the way of intimacy. I know I have a lot of work to do when it comes to forgiveness.
But I want to know the same kind of loyalty as Mom and Dad. The kind that my generation hasn’t really figured out how to do.
And I hope and pray that our love will see us through the tough times, like theirs did.
How to sum up two people in such a small space? It’s impossible. My mother had an unbelievable, external hard drive kind of energy, an engine that just wouldn’t quit. A complete extrovert, she thrived on meeting new people, especially young ones. She loved games and being in social gatherings.
She was a fierce competitor, in tennis, at cards, at everything. She and Lewis had an ongoing Pick-up-Stix game right up until a month before she died. She kept score cards in a drawer to keep a tally from one visit to the next. Frankly, she had a little trouble sitting still. There was a raw energy that was practically exuding from her pores.
My father has more of an internal modem kind of energy. His is a constant, swirling, tidal pool. And his warmth, generosity, creativity and insight have always pulled us in like an ocean tide. You can imagine how their charisma together rubbed off on everyone in the room.
To be near them was to feel as if you were a part of a world that was so much bigger. A world that really needed to be loved in the way my parents knew how to love. Because they completely lived their faith.
And to be a witness to that kind of religion, whether you believed in God or not, was a rare privilege. It was Christianity embedded into every action of their lives.
And they had a working understanding that love entailed sacrifice. That to give of your whole self was what was required in marriage. With no expectation of getting anything in return. Their fierce passion was at the heart of it all. At the heart of our whole family.
I remember a few months before Mom died, and she was visiting us in Durham. She was going through chemotherapy, and even though she never complained, she was unusually tired. She didn’t have that typical spark.
She fell asleep in a chair, watching Tiger Woods lose the U.S. Open, which was surely a clue. Because she always relished a good Tiger Woods defeat – she hated him. Anyway, she and Dad were expected to be at a dinner in Raleigh later that evening. But I knew Mom did not want to go.
When she went upstairs to get ready, I followed her and sat on the bed while she got dressed. And I saw how bone-tired she looked. I wanted her to stay home. But she simply said, I know your father wants me there. That was it, no complaining, no bitching. She wanted to do it, for Dad.
All those years of fulfilling church commitments and obligations, the church meetings, the long services, standing in picket lines in the cold. Moving our family from one church to the next to start all over again.
But Mom wasn’t keeping score. She really wanted to do it for Dad. She wasn’t thinking about herself at all. And it didn’t surprise me one bit, I’d seen it so many times.
And this past year, as I’ve watched my father grieve, I’ve thought about the cost of loving so deeply. I’ve tried to imagine the immense pain he feels and the magnitude of his loss – how does he bear it?
And how will I cope when or if Mac dies before me? It’s just too scary to think about. The consequence of becoming that connected to another person is just so daunting. To love so intensely leaves us completely open and vulnerable, is it worth it? Is it worth the pain of loss?
After my mom’s funeral, the musician Ron Sowell played “Autumn Leaves” on his guitar, as we placed Mom’s ashes in the columbarium at the church. Of course, we all cried, it’s such a melancholy song, not very upbeat at all.
But it strikes me that it is the perfect emblem for my parents. It speaks of loss and a loyalty that last even into death. It’s a song about mortality, in a way.
It reminds me of the mature awareness my parents have always had of their own deaths.
I mean, most of their marriage was spent coexisting with cancer. And yet they lived so fully. They continued their service to the community and to the larger world. They never stopped their ministry of caring for others and working for justice and peace.
And rather than turning inward, closing down and living in fear, they opened themselves up even more. To life, to work, to their love – to a belief that they would keep loving forever.
And here I am, in Switzerland, watching the seasons change, from summer to fall. And even though my mother is gone, I still believe that my Mom and Dad’s love is forever.
And I want the example of their marriage to live on through the generations of our family. I want Katherine and Lewis to remember their grandparents’ autumnal marriage, and to understand what it is to really love.
Their relationship left such an indelible print on my heart. A call to sacrifice more, to practice forgiveness – to simply love better. And to love, knowing that my time here is short and I simply can’t afford to waste it.
And today, as I run beneath the dying leaves that float down through the trees, I realize that, of course, death is all around me, I’m running with it all the time. The earth around me is burning, dying, composting, sifting to ashes under my very feet. Nature is continually making way for something new.
But my mother’s death is reflected here, in the bright colors that light up the majestic mountains. In the dark, emerald evergreens that are mirrored in the cold, blue lake.
And she is in me, she is in my children, and she is in the scores of people she touched, every single day, over so many years.
And now, the wind is shifting and it’s getting cooler, so I turn and start to run back home. I’m tired and a little discouraged, I just want to quit – to give in to my grief, my depression, my weary body.
But then I try to imagine Mom’s sun-bright spirit inside of me, like a spark plug, energizing my tired legs forward.
And I sense her presence, her beautiful smile. The upbeat tilt of her head, the look she had that could always see straight though me, through all my lame excuses.
And in her face, now, I recall another familiar look, the one she wore of total confidence, in me, in my strength.
And I think, she really sees me right now. Oh, Mom, how I’ve missed you just looking at me.
And then, unbelievably, I feel that familiar tug at my elbow. It’s so imprinted on my body, from all the times that she used to do it: she locks her arm into mine, and nestles her petite body in next to me.
And I am completely alive.
My mother is here with me, next to me, inside of me. And she is gently tugging at my elbow.
It’s getting late, she says. It’s time to go back.
And so, together, we turn around, arm in arm, and, through the falling autumn leaves, past the shimmering lake, we slowly make our way back home.