Tag Archive | Grief

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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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.