This week I turned on a Spotify Fall Playlist and after a few songs my twelve-year-old said, “Why are fall playlists always full of sloooow songs?” I’ve never thought much about the pace of the songs that get pulled together when fall arrives. When I do think of those playlists, I think of the upbeat sound of Andrew Bird whistling in my ear. The next morning I turned on the same playlist in the car and could barely notice anything but the slooow speed of the songs. And then I started to notice the words. Most of the lyrics were about sad childhoods and lost love. So I began to ponder: Do I associate the season of fall with joy or sadness?
Having spent my first two decades in Florida, I dreamed of white Christmases while I sat by the pool in a bathing suit. I don’t remember seeing fall colors until I got married and moved to Tennessee. But, oh, was it worth the wait. It was like nature was having a fiesta and everyone was invited to the celebration. The trees went all out for the occasion with shades of pumpkin orange, barn red, lemony yellow and plum purple. And autumn knew how to keep the weather not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Experiencing the season in all its glory turned my heart toward the master Creator. It energized the air around me, the food I ate (here’s looking at you, sweet potato biscuits), and the chance to wear cozy sweaters. There was no turning back.
As our family of two grew to a family of six, the fall season turned into a bigger party with costumes, church festivals, eventually trick-or-treating and our friends’ annual adult costume party. My husband and I found our favorite chili recipe, added his signature pumpkin cheesecake to the menu, and started attending Hutchmoot, which always happened in October. I even discovered that orange was one of my favorite colors and painted a wall in our house the color of a tangerine. Undeniably, I was hooked on autumn. It was the last great shindig before the sun began disappearing in the middle of the afternoon and the endless, dreary gray of winter enveloped the world.
But something changed about nine years ago. As I drove around a curve in Nashville, the luminous trees of October burst into view but instead of igniting the usual spark of joy, I cringed at the burning orange and red that appeared like flames on the towering hill above me. Instinctively, I wanted to shield my eyes from the glow. I couldn’t block the view though, because one hand was on the steering wheel and the other hand was wrapped around the cold metal urn that held my father’s ashes. So I squinted my eyes to soften the fiery glare and drove on toward the church. A few weeks earlier my father had given up his last breath after a six-year battle with dementia that left him like a tree in the dead of winter, a mere skeleton compared to his former self. As I continued my drive that day, I wrestled with how the same God could be master over this brilliant Tennessee fall and also over the slow erasure of my father. The idea was almost too much to bear.
In the weeks and months that followed, I quickly discovered that grief wasn’t divided into neat little categories. When I lost my father, I thought I would only miss the Dad I knew before dementia took over, back when he was a voracious reader, a lifelong Georgia Bulldog fan, and a deep-sea fisherman. But, in fact, I found myself even missing the later version of my Dad who could no longer understand the written word, or follow a football game on television, or enjoy a piece of fish (dementia likes to steal taste buds). Even stripped down to a shadow of himself, I could at least be near him but now, he was truly gone. One memory persistently showed up uninvited: the day that I went to visit him and he held my hand more tightly than I thought possible in his fragile state. I had to call an orderly to peel his fingers off of mine when I was ready to go. It was incredibly painful to leave him that day. The desperation in his eyes and in the grip of his hand still haunted me. I longed to hold onto a happier memory, but we don’t get to choose what grief will remember.
When the first anniversary of his death coincided with the emerging fall colors, I was assaulted by hues that had once reminded me of a party but now reminded me of a funeral. I wrote in my journal:
A year later I am less like that girl
taking her Dad for one last drive,
I am more like the trees themselves
because when I see the fall colors,
I remember him, but mostly,
For several years after my father’s death, all that had represented joy when I first encountered fall was tainted with grief. Loss was added to loss because I had lost my dad and also lost the deep joy that the turn of seasons usually brought to my life. I could not understand why anything should be beautiful when my heart hurt so deeply.
It’s been ten years since I lost my father and as the years have passed, time has mercifully softened the pain. Eventually a fall arrived when I watched the tree in my backyard ease from kale green to pomegranate red and I didn’t immediately think of my Dad or his hard end. My senses could once again tap into the tastes and smells and community of autumn, while my heart kept a quieter grief.
Yet with the gentle healing of time, fall has not remained unmarked. This year, fall arrived with a fresh tinge of pain, as reminders of fractured relationships during the Pandemic showed up loud in the absence of October celebrations. It’s a loss I’ve felt intensely, but at the same time, I’ve still enjoyed the taste of butternut squash soup melting sweetly on my tongue.
Which brings me back to my question: Do I associate fall with joy or sadness? For me, it’s been a messy tangle of both. Sometimes joy is the more dominating theme, and sometimes grief has overshadowed everything. Autumn is subject to the same truth that all the other seasons (and humans) are subject to: Joy and Sadness occupy the same space. I’ll always remember the first time I was aware of this truth. I was standing in the back of the worship service and my eyes landed on a friend and her husband holding their newborn child. The husband was bald from his latest rounds of chemo. My breath caught with the picture of life and death holding each other. A reminder of how the cross itself also held both life and death. Joy and sadness can’t be divided into neat little categories. Not in life, not in the seasons and I suppose, not even in a good playlist.