The first time I saw a Michigan autumn was in 2011. We’d driven out for my husband’s interview, for the job he currently holds, in mid-October. After spending 26 years of my life in Colorado I really wasn’t prepared for the dense hardwood forests and their brilliant yellows, oranges and reds in the fall. We stopped by a nearby property that was listed for sale; just to peek of course, still having not heard back from his interview, unafraid of creeping out the residents since it was vacant. We walked a little ways down a path through its ten acres of woods, and I couldn’t imagine any place being more beautiful.
Fall has always been my favorite season. I used to hug the pumpkins on display in the grocery store, to roll in the piles of leaves my father raked up and then shake out the slugs in my hair. Halloween was my favorite holiday, even after trick-or-treating was banned due to my mother’s religious convictions. The first time my oldest daughter was big enough to make the rounds through her grandma’s neighborhood I probably had more fun than she did, carrying her to house after house even after her legs were tired.
The season has remained beautiful, but harder to love the same way as time has gone on. Tragedies have tainted it, a grim toll that threatens to add a new pain to its list every year. The death of my baby brother Jack on Nov. 11, 1994, and the sight of his tiny soul leaving his body in our mother’s arms only 2 days after his premature birth. I’ve been witness to so many deaths in my life but this, the very first at 11 years old, will never leave me.
The sudden and violent passing of my childhood best friend a year later, on November 17th. My family attended her viewing and filed slowly past her casket, my mother’s gently guiding hand on the back of my neck, and I was shaken by the sight of her. The injuries from the horseback riding accident that had taken her life were still so evident under the mortuary’s carefully applied makeup. She didn’t look like the friend I had laughed with a week before. She was a month younger than I, and seeing her body made me feel so vulnerable to death. I had nightmares in which she suddenly opened her eyes, screamed out for me to help her, before falling back on the silk pillow again. I tore my hair out and poked myself roughly in the eyes, seeking pain that would prove to me that I was still alive myself.
The three miscarriages that marr my obstetrical history took place in September, early October and early November. Three babies who never saw the springtime, never felt that first warmth on their tiny faces. Two were due just days apart. Three beginnings that ended as the summer breathed its last and succumbed to the bitter cold; almost as if my body sensed the presence of death around it.
My mother died on November 21st, 2013. One day before my precious niece’s birthday, three days before we planned to talk for the first time in a year. The start of a lifetime ache of guilt and regret. Old hurt that was left to fester, broken bridges that went untouched just long enough. I stood beside her body, numb yet shaking, clutching my baby son. Determined to make the introduction my anger had denied. I had written a letter filled with the apologies and love that my voice should’ve delivered long before, but my hands tucked it into her casket instead.
The incident that took place on November 15th, 1997. The thing that I rarely talk about but have had to finally face in order to quiet the demons that threatened to consume me from the inside. A deep well of shame and self-loathing, a septic tank that was tightly closed and buried again and again and again. A new pile of dirt tamped down daily by the biggest shovel I could lift, yet whose sewage still seeps out without warning. The smell of cinnamon gum, ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac, white turtleneck sweaters with blood on the cuffs; slow, deep breaths in the grocery store check out line over a decade later while my heart thunders in my chest.
The fall colors reached their peak last weekend. My teenage daughter and I charged up our phones and drove out to a few local roads to look for photo opportunities. Ignoring the dull healing ache from the surgery following my most recent miscarriage, I ducked under branches and climbed over fallen logs to search for the beauty my soul screamed for. At any moment the wind could start again, stealing the last of the colors and leaving the bared branches waving nakedly in the wind.
They seem so optimistic, waving in the breeze like pennants, completely unaware that their grasp on existence is growing more and more faint by they day. They dance in their brilliance until the fateful wind blows just right, loosens their last hold and sends them gliding slowly to the ground below. Death in slow motion, again and again.
They say the trees let go of their leaves in order to blanket their roots ahead of the coming snow. Drawing in on themselves, allowing their limbs to become brittle in order to soften the winter’s brutal grip on their core. I do the same thing now, year after year. There’s just no way around it anymore. Becoming dormant in order to survive the season of death, the destroying wind that sweeps down out of nowhere to strip our souls bare before the approaching cold. Weathering the next storm, and the next and the next; waiting for chance to feel warm and alive again. The opportunity to regrow and be whole, to dance.
Once the leaves start turning it always begins. It gets harder and harder to eat, to get out of bed on chilly mornings. My inborn masochism screams out from within. I push myself too hard; I move too fast and too carelessly. I wander and forget. I look both ways but still lay flat on my belly in the middle of the road to take the photos I want. It’s reckless, it’s foolhardy, but I do it anyway; because things like that cut through the numbing wind and prove to me that I’m still alive.
Sometimes it’s hard to be around people who have never been touched by tragedy, have never felt the Arctic wind lay waste to their very being. It feels like they live in such a state of blissful ignorance and it often makes me angry. Why aren’t they aware of just how fleeting that blessed calm is, of how incredibly tenuous and thin its membrane? That at any second they could be thrust into the dead of winter, to suffer and endure along with the rest of the damaged trees? We, and everything around us, are finite. Mortal. Everyone we love could be gone in an instant, and safety is nothing but a cruel illusion. At any second you could lose your grip and come crashing down. Covered in penetrating cold, to be chewed up by time and returned to the soil once again. That’s your reality when the relentless wind turns its sights on you.