Tag Archive | Death

The Day After the First Freeze

IMG_9610 (533x800)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.

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The Extraordinary Power of Cold Air

IMG_9374 (2) (800x534)This week, I have been thinking about the extraordinary power of cold air.

When I lived up north, the cold air wasn’t so extraordinary because it was a part of everyday life for months at a time.  Most years, the air would first hit a freezing temperature sometime between mid-October and mid-November.  After that, there were only a few more weeks to clean the piles of leaves off of the driveway, to run the mulching mower over the lawn, to drain the hoses and put them safely in the back of the garage, to do whatever cleanup needed to be done in the flower beds, to empty the flower pots or find a place for them indoors, and to put away all of the other tools for working outside save the snow shovel.  Then, I would hole up in the house, and frankly, I am not sure what happened in the yard after that.  When the snow came, I would shovel.  When branches fell from the trees, I would drag them to anywhere convenient so they would be out of the way.  And I would wait; I would do no other tasks in the garden until the freezing temperatures had started to subside, in the daytime at least, and the sun began to burn hot enough to thaw the ground.

Because the ground would freeze solid.  I remember the first year we owned our little h0use in Boston.  I had decided to put in a perennial bed on the slope near the edge of the back yard.  It was near the end of March, and I was motivated by the new perennials which appeared in the garden departments at the big box stores.  They were premature but tempting, so I started to dig in the soil to make room for them.  After a time, I found that there were several hard spots.  Assuming them to be large rocks, I started to dig in front of them and behind them.  I hauled out the tall steel rod left in the tool shed by the previous owner before he died to try to pry them out.  Sometimes, I would discover that they were, in fact, large rocks.  But other times, after I loosened them, I would maneuver my hands around them to try to coax them out of the earth only to find that they were not stones at all.  They were chunks of soil which were still frozen solid after months of exposure to the cold air above them.

Here in the coastal south, by the grace of God, the soil never freezes.  But for a few days each year, for a few hours at a time, the air temperature drops below freezing.  And I think it is because it is so rare that I notice now the power of the cold air.  If it only dips briefly down to thirty degrees or so, not much happens; the leaves of some of the more tender cannas, hibiscus, lantana, or sage will shrivel and turn brown at the tips.  But if it gets below that, and particularly if it stays that cold for a few hours, the effect is far more dramatic.  Large leaves that had faced the sun all season long, strong enough to hold pools of water before channeling them toward thirsty roots, will become limp.  Thick stems which held those leaves high enough that I had to look up to them will collapse.  Flowers which had just emerged, especially vivid in their yellows and oranges and fuchsias and lavenders as if they were desperate to announce to the world what they can do to attract attention, will turn to a brown mush.

And all of that breadth and strength and beauty falls apart because of the power of cold air.  And even more remarkable is the power of the cold air is not in a scythe which cuts everything down; its power works microscopically.  The liquid inside the cells of the plants freezes, and as it does so, it expands.  It rips apart the walls of the cells.  I imagine that the tears are tiny at first, like something a small patch or a bit of hand stitching would fix right away.  But then, the tears lengthen, and more appear; the gaps grow wider, and eventually, the membranes just cannot handle any more pressure.  They shred, so that when the air turns warm again, the liquid thaws and there is nothing to hold it together any more.  It oozes and flows, and what was once a complex, sturdy structure has failed.  The whole mess is left vulnerable to bacteria and microbes, which consume what is left of those cells which had once held everything together so perfectly.

When I was just out of college, I worked in a community development organization in an inner city neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.  There were a number of neglected buildings in the neighborhood where I worked.  Those buildings had once been beautiful and functional; they had been people’s homes and businesses, they had been theaters and restaurants and apartments and markets.  Every once in a while, I would get to walk through one of them.  Often, they had signs of their former beauty and utility:  lovely carved wood banisters and moldings, dishes still on the shelves and upholstery still on the seats.  But they were collapsing, with holes in the roofs, gashes in the plaster walls, broken floorboards, and dust everywhere.

As I wandered through my yard this afternoon, I recognized my feelings; they reminded me of the way I felt when I toured those neglected old buildings.  Browning flower petals are scattered on my sidewalk like the tattered remains of an old carpet.  The leaves of my giant elephant ears evoke collapsed ceiling panels, stained brown with water damage long before they finally caved in.  The heap of whatever remains there are of my cemetery lily might as well be a pile of trash someone had long ago swept together and then left behind for someone else to clean up.  And the crisp, thin leaves of my variegated cannas I planted in front of the house stand there like exposed lathe boards whose plaster covering had long since crumbled.  The whole landscape is desolate, and anything that still stands high really needs to be cut down.

And it is all because of the power of cold air.  In the world of humans and animals, that power can have tragic consequences which speak of cruelty in injustice; the same thing that happens to the cells of plants happens to the cells of our bodies when they are exposed to the cold air.  But in my garden, where new shoots will rise and new leaves will unfurl with a magnificent power of their own when the spring comes, the power of cold air simply fascinates me.

Pulling Over

IMG_5171 (537x800)There is something about the practice of pulling over for a funeral procession which I really, really love.

I have been in more funeral processions than I ever want to be in recently.  Traditionally, the clergy involved pulls into the funeral procession directly behind the hearse.  I am not sure why this is the practice; perhaps someone thought that the clergy should have time to get settled at the little stand set under the tent in front of the couple of rows of folding chairs covered in velvet at the graveside.  It really doesn’t take me much time to get settled in before I start a graveside service, but still, when the funeral director waves me to get in line behind the casket, in front of the limousine or cars of the grieving widow or widower or children and grandchildren, I oblige.

It does make me a bit self-conscious, though.  My car is a small SUV, bright red in color.  At best, it breaks the mood of the beginning of the procession, and at worst, it clashes horribly.  I try to keep the outside of my car cleaned up, just so I don’t glare too boldly among the more formal black or white cars that surround me in the funeral procession.  But funerals tend to come up unexpectedly, and I don’t always have time to wash the car.  I like to think that it’s not so bad that my car is a little messy as it follows the hearse and precedes the limos; death is a little messy, too, no matter how hard the funeral directors try to pretty it up.

But from my vantage point at the front of the procession, I get to see how the drivers of the other cars on the road react when they see a hearse coming down the road.  Some of the roads our local funeral directors have to use to get to the cemeteries are wide thoroughfares, with several lanes across, and they are traveled by many people who have to get to their work, their appointments, their errands, their dates, and their other business.  And invariably, as we are traveling across town, many people will react to the hearse and the line of cars following it with a traditional sign of respect:  they will pull over to the side of the road and stop, showing a reverence for the deceased and those who loved him or her as they accompany the earthly remains to be put in the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all of that.

This practice is remarkable to me.  As someone who likes to work in the garden, I see things die all the time.  Of course, there are the plants.  Some plants die each year when the first freeze comes so their seeds can scatter and their offspring will find the space, soil, and other resources they need to thrive.  Other plants are supposed to live a long time, but for one reason or another, they just don’t survive.  But there are plenty of other signs of death all around me in my yard.  I have had to decide what to do with the carcasses of myriad wildlife in my yard:  several anonymous birds, squirrels, mice, and other creatures are buried amid the palmettos and confederate jasmine which spread themselves near the compost can in the corner of my back yard.  Other creatures, like the raccoon that decided the middle of our lawn was a fine place to take his dying breaths while we were away one night last June, would not fit in the small holes I can dig amid the roots of the oak trees back there.  Instead, they have been bagged and, with as much reverence as possible given the circumstances, put in the trash can the city dutifully empties every Monday.

Some more intimately known and loved creatures are a part of our landscape, too.  Fred the bird, our cockatiel who spent three or four years in our breakfast nook before moving on to his ultimate reward, was carefully wrapped in a piece of an old, white cotton sheet and placed at the base of the big oak tree in the corner of the back yard.  My son, who was about four at the time, didn’t want to participate in the burial, so I went out there by myself with my shovel.  I carefully made sure the neighborhood cats and other creatures wouldn’t disturb Fred’s feathery body while its elements combined with the surrounding soil.  I marked the place with a flat stone left over from the path in the side yard which we tore out.  I should remember to look next time I am out there to make sure the stone is still in place.

Death happens all the time in nature and in the landscape, which is why I think it is remarkable that some people pull over as they see a funeral procession driving on the road.  Those who stop their cars are willing to stop their work and stop their deadlines and stop their pace.  They are willing to acknowledge that, while death happens all the time, for the person whose body is in the hearse, death will only happen once.  They are willing to honor that person, even if she is a stranger, even if they don’t know anything at all about his life, and to honor the impact of that person’s life on his or her family and community and our world.  They are willing to show some simple sign of sympathy for the ones whose cars are following that hearse, too:  the people who loved that man or woman, the people who were most impacted by his life, the people who are most grieved by her death.  Their act of pulling over and putting on the brakes is an acknowledgement of the pain of death and an affirmation of the importance of each life.  That acknowledgement and affirmation, and the resource of unplanned time that some are willing to devote to it, is remarkable.

Mind you, I don’t get upset when some people don’t stop for a funeral procession.  Up north, the clergy is often invited to ride in the hearse or with the funeral director, and one time I was with a driver who got angry when someone refused to stop.  He said that he was often tempted to slam on the hearse brakes, stop the procession, get out of the vehicle, and scold the person to show some respect.  I don’t know that such anger is necessary; I understand that people are sometimes running late or in some other kind of hurry, that they did not plan to encounter a funeral procession, that some processions go on and on, with car after car moving well under the speed limit.  I have been late before, and I have encountered funeral processions, and I have been reluctant to stop for them.

But I have realized recently that it is a gift when someone does pull over and stop when they see the signs of death driving on the road.  It is a gift of quiet acknowledgement for the deceased.  It is a gift of anonymous sympathy for the family and friends.  And it is a gift of respectful affirmation for the one who stops.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Out of Season

My azaleas are blooming, and it seems wrong.  I live in Savannah, Georgia, which is known for its azaleas.  Shrubs which are green and plain at other times of the year transform during azalea season into shocking masses of pink, violet, fuchsia, salmon, and fiery red, so that to look at the bushes, you wouldn’t even know they have leaves.  It is only when they bloom that I notice that the azaleas are everywhere:  in parks, in medians on city streets, in hedges around schools and libraries and other public buildings, in private yards, and even in vacant lots, framing the ghostly footprint of houses torn down long ago.

The transformation of the city into this tapestry of clownish color takes place in March or early April.  That timing is part of the azalea’s charm:  they welcome the warm weather of spring in a place where no one plants tulips and lilacs because they require several weeks of very cold weather to bloom.  In the rest of the city, folks hope for the height of azalea season to take place close to March 17, when over three-quarters of a million people come together here to watch one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country.  For me, the best years are when the azalea bloom coincides with a different celebration.  The church I serve has a historic cemetery at the center of its property.  There are marked graves which date from the early 1800s, and we know there are unmarked graves which are older.  Sometime, I believe when the current sanctuary was built about 50 years ago, someone planted a hedge of azalea bushes to delineate the edges of the cemetery.  Now, those bushes are almost six feet tall and about as big around.  Each year for three or four days, the cemetery glows with the blooming azaleas, offering a backdrop of bright color to the old, crooked stones which mark the graves.  And some years, when the weather and the Hebrew calendar align just right, the explosion of the azaleas coincides with the church’s celebration of Good Friday and Easter.

When we moved to Savannah, we knew we wanted azaleas in our yard.  Why would we pass up the chance to have some of that vibrant color surrounding our home?  At the nursery where we went to purchase our azaleas, they were promoting Encore azaleas.  The tags on the bushes bragged that they would not have only one, all-out show of vivid color each year like the traditional breeds.  Instead, they would bloom throughout the year.  It sounded like a good idea at the time, and since they were about the only brand of azaleas available at that nursery, we purchased six of them in three different varieties to go in the beds along the front of our house.

I really have two problems with the Encore azaleas.  The first is that they do not present the spectacle which other azaleas show in the springtime.  They are pretty enough, but never with so many blooms that they look like the bush itself will be smothered by them.  And the second problem is what I am experiencing now.  They are competing with the wide-spreading lantana, the mature hibiscus, the last of the black-eyed susans, and other late-summer bloomers in our garden.  The bright, cheery, springtime-is-here proclamation of the azaleas feels like it interrupts the warmer show of the summer flowers.  I am ready for days to be getting shorter, not longer.  I am ready for the air to start turning crisp, not temperate.  I am ready for the leaves to dry out, not to swell in their buds.  And I am ready for the tones of autumn, not spring.  The blooming azaleas just seem wrong, and if I could do it again, I would be happy with the traditional azaleas which bloom at the proper time and no other.

My azalea conundrum makes me think about an elderly woman who came to see me in my office some time back.  She wanted to talk with me about what happens after death.  She was a smart and faithful woman who knew all of the answers which both the church and popular culture give to that question.  But she had always been a bit of a free thinker, and she wasn’t sure that she could believe the images of people floating on clouds, admiring the wings newly attached to their shoulders, hovering around some pearly gates tended by old, white men with long beards.  We talked for a few minutes about the variety of images in the Bible for what the future will be:  a great banquet, a singing chorus of God’s people, a mansion with many rooms, a city centered around a grand tree, a time when God will wipe every tear from our eyes.  We talked about the tension of mystery, and about the stress of not knowing, and about the meaning of fear and hope and trust.

And then she finally asked me what she really wanted to know:  “Pastor, do you ever think about these things?  Am I crazy to be wondering like this?”  And I said no.  I can reference the Biblical images, and I understand that death can happen at any time.  But I admitted that I do not really spend a lot of my personal time pondering questions about what I will experience after death.  However, I said, the fact that I don’t dwell on those questions myself did not mean she was crazy.  It simply meant that she was in a different season of her life than I was in, and with the different season of life came a different season of faith.  What was blooming for her at that time was not what added color to my life, and what was in season for me was not the beauty she could discover.  Azaleas shouldn’t bloom in the late summer, as we are waiting for the shortening days, the crisp air, the shriveled leaves, and rusty tones of autumn.

At the end of our conversation, I felt honored to have participated in it, and I told her so.  It was a privilege to listen to her contemplations because they stretched my own imagination about God and faith beyond what is natural for me in this season of my life.   What she was contemplating was beautiful.  The questions she was asking could reveal the glory of God.  And we could both appreciate what she was expressing to me because it was happening for her in its proper season.