It’s the end of autumn in New England. It’s hard to describe how gorgeous it is. I walk around most days with a tight aching in my throat, as though I might cry any minute–the loveliness so intense it’s painful. As I type this, I am looking out the window over our backyard, covered in gold and russet leaves, out over a half-mile of rooftops and red and orange treetops to the ocean, the leaves more brilliant against the slate gray of the water than the blue sky.
I am a pagan at heart; the veneer of my Mormonism shows its bare spots when I’m overwhelmed by this-worldly beauty. I believe that I will never understand birth, death, resurrection, the Plan of Salvation carefully mapped out on the Sunday School chalkboard. All I know in my bones is what I’ve lived over and over again–the first pale green thrust of spring, the slow ripening and heaviness of summer, and the dying glory of the autumn leaves.
This autumn, death has seemed closer than usual. The mother of one of the fifth-graders at our school died slowly and painfully of cancer, the husband of a friend disappeared and was presumed drowned when the boat he had been sailing washed up on the shore of a Wisconsin lake. And a boy from our school, just 14, brave in the stupid way of adolescent boys, dared a train with his bicycle and lost. His mother had been riding a little ways behind him, and came around a corner to find her golden boy lying in the October leaves.
I see her now, every day when she brings her daughter to school, and it is hard not to turn away, to run. She is the spectre that haunts all parents’ nightmares, the embodiment of that fear we never can quite banish. My faith seems too flimsy a defense. I do not want assurance that my children’s spirits will live forever; I only want their bodies to outlive mine. My universe weighs just over 100 pounds, as tall and wide as three adored bundles of skin and bones, viscera and hair, blood and muscles.
I will the leaves to stay on the trees, to hang on against wind and rain, not to leave us with the cold beauty of the trees’ forms and the stark peace of the snow-covered garden. And yet the useless beauty of the leaves’ dying makes room for hope–surely this autumn glory means something. If death be this agonizingly vivid, life must be larger and more exquisite than we can dream. Surely a world so beautiful is evidence of sense and purpose, such loveliness the assurance of a great Love over and around us all.