By Kathryn Wallingford
My seasons are shapes. The long tunnel of Winter. The triangle of Spring. The four lines of Summer. We all come together in the Fall. My birthday marks the onset of Fall.
Years ago, for my 8-year-old birthday, my three friends and I watched Bette Midler’s Beaches. It is a terribly sad movie about dying, friendship, and heartache. We cried while my mom popped popcorn, and peered inside the family room to watch this remarkably strange celebration. But even at that young age I seemed to know that Fall had expectations.
Fall is here again but I can’t remember how to rest, say goodbyes, and prepare for Winter.
Leaves know the cue: they produce less, they let go of chlorophyll. They let themselves fall and they come into the earth.
But this Fall I have a lot to put together, to pack, and to store. I say goodbye to my house of almost a decade. I moved into this old house right after marriage and sobbed over the 2500 square feet. Each foot seemed burdensome and pleaded for domestication. But each room also found a place and we filled the home with footsteps and dog hair. I am okay taking my family elsewhere. It is time for a new family to enjoy the creaks and cracks, but I am worried about the plants I leave behind.
In April 2006, I cried ferociously as I planted my coneflowers– mad as hell at my graduate professor. When my first son was born, I carried pieces of limestone from the Kentucky River and formed a vegetable garden. And now my two boys run through the lemon mint, catching its aroma with their superhero pajamas.
This new house will have room for new plants. We will also have to make room for this new baby. Another baby, I think? “It is no small thing that they so fresh from God, love us,” I recite in my head. I think of my friends struggling to have their own and I surrender myself to guilt. But how can I love a third? I know too much of toxins and disease. I left the summer saying goodbye to a friend.
I met this cancer this Summer, my four walls quickly invaded.
This Summer I also planted marigolds and saw a bear. The marigolds came first. I know marigolds like sun. Marigolds keep bugs away. Marigolds are copious. I counted on this-the sun, the growth of flowers, the ceaseless flow of life.
On these summer days when there was no rain, I pulled a blanket from inside and spread it onto the grass. My boys littered the blanket with peanut butter crackers and slices of bananas. Sometimes the bananas smashed like molasses. And sometimes they would pick the marigolds and throw them on top of the bananas. Fruit and flowers.
I would lie down on top of our creation and stare at the clouds. “There is a rocket ship,” I told them. I saw it in the clouds. But their feet were too quick, too busy to stop. So I searched into the sky alone.
When the sky turned purple, I took my boys inside. I gathered the blanket. That is when life began to feel heavy. It was more than the encroaching dark clouds and the June storms, it was the weight of the world.
It seemed to be the end of everything.
The last night she was in the hospital the parking attendant had said, “have a good night.” He said it steadily and calmly. I wondered how he could pass out goodbyes so quickly, so easily? He had not seen what I had seen. Her colossal-like strength reduced to nothingness. Where was her silent killer? He did not know the weight I carried.
The end of the colossal-like strength and the death of my dear friend and neighbor actually came before the bear.
The day I saw the bear the air was heavy and thick with humidity. Each summer I visit my parents in the Blue Ridge Mountains and wander the woods alone. I look up into the trees and remember that bark has faces too. The smoothness of beech. The deep-wrinkles of oak. The muscles of hornbeam.
On that day a grey fog covered Grandfather Mountain. The forest was dark. It was only 11:00 in the morning but it appeared like nighttime. The path was splashed with large rock outcrops and I looked downward. I needed my eyes to see the next step. I rounded a curve and followed the path upward, pulling my legs over a fallen tree. And as my eyes searched for my trail I saw her blackness staring at me.
It was a black bear. I had been around bears before. I had worked and lived in various national parks drowning with grizzly, brown, and black bears, I knew what I should do a when a bear was staring at me beneath a chestnut oak tree and a standing in the patch of solomon seal. I knew I should walk away slowly, but she was the deepest part of the earth I had seen in a long time. I had to stare.
Neither one of us wanted to be looking at the eye of a stranger and wondering what was next. But she seemed to have all the answers and I suddenly wanted my children to be there too.
Maybe the truth of life would come to them in this instance. The quietness that eludes from looking something unpredictable in the face. Something bigger than you. Quiet with fear. What can you hear when you listen? The cry of a towhee. The heartbeat of a hummingbird. Yes, another robin. Or maybe even a bigger voice? What would she say in her wildness. Had the summer rains altered her patterns too? And would she help me explain death, saying goodbye to the ones we love, the myths of heaven, my hopes for an everlasting spirit?
The depths of death are near impossible to explain to a four and 2-year-old, and yet fundamentally easy. Our bodies just get tired. And there are other theories: we are cursed, God has another plan, we go to a better place, or we give up on life. But what if I did not have to provide any of these rationales and just a glimpse of a bear in the woods?
The bear grew bored with my gaze and eventually retreated into the woods. We parted
I think about my bear now as I try to complete my circle of Fall. Hunkering down for the cold months ahead. Preparing for Spring. Planting new life.
Fall will not let me forget goodbyes.
I don’t make the time I once did for tearful celebrations of life, but I need it this year more than ever.
My birthday has come and gone this year. I did not watch Bette Midler’s Beaches, but I did pack boxes. I see those pictures of my college girlfriends: our midnight swims, all-night road trips, and Friday afternoons getting lost in the East Tennessee Mountains. I see a picture of my mom tubing with me near Sliding Rock, North Carolina in the mid-1980’s. I forgot she had a perm, but didn’t everyone? I see my brother and I, once my own sons’ ages, dressed in superhero gear. I see my husband and I on top of a mountain in Montana.
Life lost, remembered, and stored away. I wrap tape around the boxes.
Kathryn Wallingford is a stay-at-home mom in Lexington, Kentucky. On good days, she writes about religion, mothering, and the natural world. Her most recent work has appeared in Literary Mama and Hip Mama. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.