Today is the day after the first freeze of the season, and it smells kind of funny around here. I am pretty sure it is not me; although one can never know for certain, I did just wash my winter sweaters when I pulled them down from the top shelf of the closet the other day for the first time since last spring. But I step onto the back patio, and I am struck by the odor.
It is the smell of decay, and I am struck by how quickly it has set in. It was just last night that the killing frost happened. When I went to bed a little after 10 p.m., which is early for me, the electronic thermometer in the living room said it was still 35 degrees outside. The freeze probably did not come for several hours after that, so a good guess is that about 15 hours ago, everything was still alive, and there was no reason other than the sterotypically unreliable predictions of the weather forecasters to expect that it would actually get cold enough to kill. But now, the leaves on the lantana have turned almost black, and their flowers, which were vividly red and orange and yellow just yesterday, have followed suit. The blooms that shone on the hibiscus out by the mailbox have faded from their yellow and orange and pink to brown, too, and their leaves, at least the ones on the outside of the plant, are drooping, ready to fall. The massive elephant ears have graciously passed out, falling to the ground behind the azaleas and the heather and the mondo grass, where no one will have to watch as the water in their cells is released, making them into a soggy pile of mush. But the bolder cannas, which just yesterday burned like torches with their bright orange and gold flowers on top of the tall towers of their stems, are now just as tall and bold in their decay, the brown hue of plant death standing in front of the bedroom windows, calling all to witness the injustice and shock of their sudden demise.
All of that death has come together to generate that smell. There is a complexity in the odor: it is clearly sour, and if I discovered it in my refrigerator, it would be a warning to me that whatever it emanates from would probably make my stomach turn inside out. But there is a sweetness to it, too, and when that odor mixes with the smell of smoke coming from a neighbor’s fireplace, burning against the chill in the air to make a house feel the warmth a home is supposed to have, that odor of decay evokes autumn.
I look again at the plants which are now, suddenly, generating that odor. They are dead now, and death always brings the feelings of grief: of sadness at the loss of things that were once so beautiful, of regret at the missed opportunities to appreciate and tend better to those things which are now gone, of fear because death is so sudden and so complete, of anger at the injustice of vulnerability, of a simple but overwhelming exhaustion that comes from having spent an exorbitant energy on a deep love. It is best not to rush those feelings that come with grief. It is best to notice them when they appear, to acknowledge their presence, maybe even to greet them politely, and to endure them and even appreciate them while they are taking up our mental and emotional space. They won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to show them the door, so we do the best we can to receive them when they show up, even though they did not have the good manners to call ahead and let us know they were coming.
But even as I look at the remains of the leaves and flowers in my garden, and even as I smell death and decay in the air, I notice and I know that there is something more going on. The hibiscus will be left with nothing but the eerie form of sticks poking out of the ground, but in a few months, new leaf buds will form on those sticks, and they will bloom again next year. The lantana will have to be cut back to the ground, but around the base, new branches will grow in the spring. The cannas and the elephant ears have complex webs of bulbs and tubers at their base, just out of sight under the leaves and mulch, and those will absorb more and more water and nutrients through the coming season, so that new towers of stems and leaves will shoot out again someday. And I even have hope that the gardenia which I bought last spring but never got into the ground, which did so well in its pot in that spot out by the bird bath, which I meant just last weekend to put into the ground to protect it from the cold air, will survive and thrive again. Death is not the end of the story; there is still the miracle of resurrection to come; I am assured of things I hope for, and I am convinced of things that I have not seen.
Earlier today, I heard the story of a man whose mother died while he was still a nursing infant. Not many years later, his father died, too, and he and his sister were taken into the homes of relatives. When he was 18, he set out on his own. In the course of his life, he traveled the world, built a career advising others in the investment of their personal finances, raised a family of happy and successful children and grandchildren, cared for his wife as she got sick, and finally died at 86 years old, having decided to give up dialysis so he could leave this world with the dignity of the ability to make choices still intact.
That story gave me hope: hope in the ability of people to survive times of deathly grief, hope in the power of family and community to make each of us feel loved and safe and strong, hope that the sorrow of the present will be redeemed by the joy of the future, hope in the abundance and eternity of life, hope even in the smell of decay that comes on the day after the first freeze. Because that odor is not the end of the story, but only a sign of new things to come.