Do you remember the child’s vision? —-The place of spring where all seasons arose, where summer was endless fun and bounty; fall a school’s game; winter, for many of us, the white holiday play; and spring, like us then—-the matrix of it all? Beyond the later reconstructions, recapitulations, stories handed down, the spin of family fable or identity myth lies the fertile place, the pure mind where all was new, colors were magic, and everything amazing to form on the clean slate.
I never see winter as late in life, although for the conscious elder all seasons live there, rise from there, and often, by counter-intuitive will, find future there. Who’d have thought that in our spring years or the summers of unfolding, we would truly understand autumn and the fecund stillness of winter? Who would have thought that in those seated old, a timeless life of seasons repeat, when remembered as if just happened? Sometimes a fragrance wafting through a summer garden will bring the time forward as pure as it was once first experienced. Other times, a pink dawn, an autumn hillside, or a vineyard spring recall other sensate, rich in-the-moment traces of our lives and the particulars of love.
The sight of hollyhocks and lilacs often do that for me, and in seconds, the warm world of a long lost summer reappears, or the thrill of lilac perfume encasing an ’Olly,Olly, Oxen Free’ hiding place seems at once—- again. For the briefest instant, recall trumps memory, and child-bright is still alive. The sound of water remembers all the rushing torrents of winter melt and spring burgeoning. But more often now-a-days, it is transition seasons that stand most firm. They are the farewell seasons one finds hidden to youth, but collective to age—-the seasons in which we lose life, stand dumbfounded again at the uniqueness of death and its stunning, absolute certainty. In the seasons of farewell, we know that love and grief are one, and greater in that heart than either alone.
The months of February and October are like that; matrix months, passage months, and months of transition. They are the certainties of bean-counters and profitable actuaries. But for all the hardness of numbers and predictability, there is the human heart that often first recognizes the seasons of farewell, and then places itself on the outgoing tide of life. ‘Wait, just wait, until Spring’ ’One more Spring!’ and ‘I’ll wait until the end of Summer, when the leaves turn and all is sparkling in Indian Summer light‘. I’ve thought that way myself. Have you? We’re still here, but know already the way to passage. We do not think morbidly, but of celebration and the intense beauty of immediate life.
Except for the precocious, it takes a certain amount of seasoning to engage the above, but I do so joyfully. Often, when hiking the West County Trail, I think to myself, “This would be a good spot to go, here in the green grassy meadow, among the wild yellow primroses and lavender peppermint.” For those who have lost loves in the farewell seasons, such thoughts are as naturally graceful as Gaia’s rhymes, and life’s most astonishing cadences.
My father was born in October during the beginning of the last century. It is he who taught me the visions of the mystic’s mind, and the endless play of rational reconstructions to make—real. He died in February several years ago at the end of winter. Spring was always his season, and yellow flowers his quiet delight. He was a brilliant spiritual man, a war hero disciplined and compassionate to depths I still might know. He was Irish, and I still am, plumbing the depths always, and always expressing the experience, bringing it to the outer world.
A week or so before he died, I received a phone call from him. He could barely talk. His voice was gone, and he called me surreptitiously. He said, “Honey, I just had to hear the sound of your voice, but I can’t speak very well now.” I replied, “I know Dad, but don’t hang up, I’ll talk.” In a process for which he mostly soldiered alone, coalescing a lifetime of spiritual, religious, and intellectual life was very important to him.
He was afraid at times—of death, and courageously honest about it. He once told me that a man who had never experienced terror could not be free. He opined that accidental bravery became a practice of courage in time. Those thoughts came from a forced march to a German concentration camp and the strafing-killing of American soldiers by its own air force. He, like most of us in the facing of truth, are simply overwhelmed by the perfection of it; and at the last, was consciously uncertain of eternity.
He was disturbed by tendency of his caregivers to infantilize these concerns or medicate them away, and he was on his own—-except for our correspondence and the occasional call. He had been interested in theoretical physics and the nature of fractals, thinking perhaps therein lay the actual transition. “What do you think of the Mandelbrot projection? What about String Theories?” And so it would go. I sent him every Carl Sagan book I could find, but I suspect he may have found them more like comic books. My choices improved when I realized the maturity of his learning.
I did have a chance to see him at one point. My brother cleared his house, his housekeeper and cook remained quietly discreet as the mysterious black sheep and his ’friend’ were allowed a few hours, and a moveable feast picnic to mark the occasion.
Of that day he wrote:
“I can’t write very well—-my hands refuse to obey me so please excuse this scribbling. I think of you both all through the day because your painting hangs on the wall opposite my chair and its so full of light and joy that it reminds me of a good friend, who was dying and when asked by someone why he didn’t end it, say that thought was always in his mind but he would wake up and see the glory of a morning and the beauty of the sky and the trees, which he knew intimately—and even the rabbits who ate his bulbs. It was worth living another day.”
Love you both,
He was referring to a bucolic landscape that I had painted just for him to brighten his room and replace the cheerful clown painting he said reminded him of a Steven King horror story he would rather forget. He would look at the painting of flowers, sparkling light, distant forested hills, and listen to CD compendiums of music collected just for him by Trace, who over the years had become a good friend, and with whom he shared an abiding love of music.
I had told Trace the story of my childhood and the music rituals that began in late spring and lasted well in to fall. On a Sunday after church, we would help Dad collect firewood to build a late afternoon bonfire. He would then bring out a small suitcase/phonograph and a long extension cord. With that, he would play Mozart, Beethoven, the Bach’s, various requiem’s: Mozart, Verdi, Dvorak, Brahms and the haunting Faure. But for all that beautiful music, one particular Baroque favorite stood out: Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons.’
To this day, I can see Dad with his eyes shut, still as a night sky listening to that piece with these waves of feeling changing his expression, from dappled light on the lawn, to powerful wind storms and heavy silent snow, then to the delight of May flowers first appearing. He taught us how to listen, not just hear, while we roasted hotdogs and marshmallows. We had come full circle, and he had brought Trace within the magic.
On that day, he gave his finest gift: his last name to my friend, who is now also my brother. In great matters of the heart, and in the true freedom of love these gestures are spring-everlasting. During the few minutes alone with him at the end of that day, we didn’t speak of a next visit, for he knew that it was to be the last time. I recall so clearly those intense pale green eyes looking me, and at once beyond me into an endless universe of love. He simply said, “I will never say goodbye to you.”
Later, the call came from my mother on a stormy day in February. I was in the studio finishing up a painted cornucopia of fruits and vegetables on an elaborate Italianate table. Putting down the brushes and potting the glazes, I headed down the lane to the vineyards. The news wasn’t unexpected, but a rising roar of sound came up from the depths of soul and filled the hills with its grief. When I opened my eyes, the sun had broken through, and before me in the Dry Creek Valley, miles of barren wet grapevines floated on a sea of brilliant sunlit dazzling pale yellow wild mustard. The hills shown emerald, and the Irish mist had lifted.
We all have them, don’t we—the ‘changeling months’, the ‘farewell months’, the months on our calendars that are much more than they seem, the months that (from some point in the past) take us forever into the vibrant loss, and the ongoing love alone? October is that for me: joyful, melancholy, beautiful, and powerful. The feelings are often so powerful, I don’t know whether it’s grief or joy I feel, as the change envelops every atmosphere of the heart, and the past becomes for a brief moment, present and eternal.
Here in the golden hills and vineyard valleys of Northern California, an arid dry summer ended in a magnificent wet storm driven across the Pacific by a distant typhoon grazing Japan and the Far East, baring from our west, and transforming everything in a day or two. The changeling month of October has happened. The golden hills are now green, and oceans of bright new grass sweep across the valleys.
The vines have turned yellow, the crush is over, and the berry farms are hundreds of crimson burning bushes, divine to any viewer. A last surge of wildflowers appear before the coming frost; spindly delicate phlox; tall majestic bright-yellow evening primrose; and the rare white native poppy. Red-orange hips have replaced the wild roses that escaped farm gardens decades ago, and intertwine themselves in thickets of impenetrable blackberry. Lacing it all together, the hidden summer poison oak now climbs brilliant scarlet among the wild oaks, bay trees and Russian olives.
I went out into the storm, into the thick of it early in the morning. Called by her, for some reason I knew to be a storm. It was almost a year since she left, my much beloved Janet. No matter that, at the eleventh hour they raised her from her bed at home, exhausted by the care she took in her dying hours. They lifted her up and onto a gurney bound for a nursing home. She knew, and on the fragile line of life…left. The storm called, so perfectly she…passionate, beautiful, powerful and ever changing.
There are many stunning memories of her during that last October in New England; in that extraordinarily beautiful land known as Vermont, and in her home town, the bucolic village of Bennington, with its red covered bridges, verdant hills, and the ancient Walloomsac River.
There across the lawns, marshes and birch forests of an old farm, we often walked and talked of poetry. She would recommend books that moved her soul. Books I might never read by Toni Morrison, or others that dwelt in her fascinated heart. She would show me her tag sale finds, and I learned about a world of fashion for which I had absolutely no instinct or interest, except that when she talked of it, I heard music.
I think I was a bit in love with her. That wasn’t unusual, there are many of us. Something about the way she danced a tea cup while confiding a precious line or two, that delicate soft white skin and laughing squinting eyes broke my heart and made it soar. Our last walk together was in the late afternoon on a brilliant, sparkling day amidst a sea of dazzling color, with maples, birch, and oak filling the hills with red, scarlet, gold, yellow, green and chartreuse patterns of undulating autumn foliage.
At first, we sat on the granite steps of the back porch warming ourselves in the sun. She had closed her eyes to feel the sun on her lids. Her knees were drawn up under the long cotton skirt she wore. She had set the tea cup down and said, “Let’s go to the garden.” She had trouble rising, and the pain was obvious. I felt so damn helpless, but didn’t let on. I knew the treatments were over—the time had come. I took her hand, helped her rise, and we went out into the lawn. She kicked off her sandals to feel the cool grass and watched Bodhi Dog run beside her, excited at the adventure.
She wanted to see the wall of scarlet runners and heavenly blue morning glories that enclosed the vegetable garden—-one last time. I remembered that day so vividly, when returning home along the trail in the driving wet storm. The Japanese are so astute to the sound of soft intermittent rain— ‘pikka-pikka’, or the driving forceful— ‘zaa-zaa’. And so it was. I stared at the ordinarily dull gray asphalt to find it a deep rich aubergine sheeted in fast-moving, transparent water covering a swath of gold, red, yellow, and bright green leaves as far as the eye could see. How beautiful… magical…’Janet‘ again.