The trees were brilliant just a few days ago, their branches a shimmer of scarlet and amber. As I set out for my morning run, I notice they have grown more subdued. The scarlet has faded to russet. I hold out my hand and catch an ocher leaf as it plummets towards me.
Autumn is beautiful in the morning light. Even so, the Japanese writer, Sei Shōnagon (c. 966 – 1017 or 1025), elegantly claimed autumn for the evening.
“In autumn, the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.” —Morris, Ivan, trans., The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon. London: Penguin Books, 1971.
Autumn presages the end of things.
As I run I think of an autumn ten years ago, when I returned to North Carolina to visit my father. I knew it would be for the last time. He had been dying in slow motion, ever since he took a fall in 2007, and had subsequently made the rounds of one nursing home after another. None would keep him long because he liked to escape, and no institution wanted to run the risk of a lawsuit should he come to harm while on the lam. But, now the end was nigh. His hospice caregivers had been in contact frequently to let us know his slow-motion decline had sped up.
I was ready for the inevitable.
Except, I wasn’t.
I flew from St. Louis to Raleigh on the evening of November 12, 2011, rented a car and went straight to the motel—a fleabag with paper-thin walls. It wasn’t as if I was actually going to sleep. The next morning, I visited my mother in her assisted living apartment and then drove to see my father. I planned to spend most of the day with him. It wasn’t that we would have much to say, he no longer spoke. I just wanted to sit with him. And so I did.
After I left, I drove two hours to see my sister, who lived in the Sand Hills region of North Carolina. The light was slowly fading on the lonely stretch of highway. I sped past soy bean and cotton fields, now empty but for the stover. Beyond the fields were stands of trees, loblolly pines competing with clutches of hardwoods. The oaks still clung to raspy brown leaves, here and there a reluctant sweetgum flickered red. Mistletoe peeked proudly from naked branches. The sky was a quiet swirl of grey and in the distance geese took wing in perfect formation. It was the kind of scene Sei Shōnagon would have admired. Season and time perfectly in sync.
It was the kind of scene that always reminded me of my father, of the walks we took together in the crisp November cool, usually with my brother along as well. The leaves crunched underfoot and the air was sharp with the smell of decay and sometimes smoke, someone somewhere burning leaves. Daddy would point out plants.
“This is sassafras. Smell it?”
He‘d break the twig in two and give us each an end to sniff. We held it to our noses and inhaled.
“Um, smells like chewing gum.”
“Well, I suppose.” My father detested chewing gum!
He‘d name the pines—loblolly, white—and point out the hardwoods. “Locust—they make the best posts. Over there’s an oak.” We learned all about the blighted American chestnut. And Yul Gibbons did not know what he was talking about when he claimed Grapenuts tasted like “wild hickory nuts.”
“There isn‘t any such thing!” my father would say with disgust.
The memories rushed into me as I cruised along. I heard my father’s voice. I knew he was there in the whisper of the pines, the flutter of wings.
Photo by P A on Unsplash