This year, the autumn garden has captured my attention. While its abundance is stunning, I notice myself feeling sad. The garden’s last hurrah spills its bounty in fruit, root, and flower. What started in orderly rows of hopeful seeds has weathered heat and chill, too much and too little rain, insect attacks, and careless footsteps. As the days shrink, plants burst into their second wind, holding back nothing to make seeds for the next generation.
But I am turning the corner into the autumn of my own life. My October birthday mocks me with an arbitrary number – 65 – that insists I am no longer middle-aged. We may celebrate the seeds of the autumn garden, but when humans become seedy, it’s not so savory.
Winter squash vines wander, flinging tendrils that cling and twine, their spiky, hairy stems warding off human hands. Even in autumn, they produce huge yellow blossoms, trying to squeeze out one more fruit before the frost. Their cavities are almost obscenely filled with seeds. They demonstrate the miracle of exponential increase: one seed produces one plant, from which grow many squashes, each filled with hundreds of seeds. More, more, more – the quest to reproduce and flourish makes me slightly squeamish.
Even so, this cycle of plant life traditionally was cause for celebration. Abundant autumn harvests promised resources to survive the long winter. But we humans have a harder time celebrating the end of our own cycle. Older people often wither, clinging to the vine of life but no longer feeling productive. We may become gnarled and spotted, bent and broken, but we can’t just be cleared away and composted as we do with used-up plants.
There’s the irony. We claim to hold human life too precious to hasten its end. Yet we cringe away from contact with the realities of aging, and, often, with the old people themselves.
Last summer, for the first time, I spent many weeks giving care to my aging family members. My mother-in-law suffered a stroke, and my parents were seriously injured in a car crash. I love these people, each of whom has nurtured, enriched, and helped me grow in unique ways. But it was draining and burdensome to spend hour after tedious hour in hospitals and nursing homes. It was stressful to manage the mountain of paperwork from hospital and doctor bills, insurance statements, utility bills, and bank accounts. Arranging for home care aides and meal delivery, taxi services and emergency response systems. Like the spaces between the warp and weft of a weave, I felt squeezed between my family’s enormous appreciation for all the help I provided and their painful resentment that they needed it.
* * *
The autumn garden flourishes also in its diverse roots. There is a satisfaction in overcoming the resistant earth when tugging feathery carrot tops to pull out thick orange roots. Their narrow tips extend one last skinny tendril that searched for nutrients. Beet greens and turnip greens spread wide, but curl their dry edges as they await harvest. I picture smooth white turnip orbs, their tops encircled with purple; deep burgundy beets, gnarled and sprouting scraggly root beards. I almost taste the musky sweet beet flavor, knowing the blood-like stains on my hands will be a fair price for their sacrifice. Parsnips will enrich hearty soups throughout the winter; sweet potatoes will caramelize in the oven, one large root an entire meal.
We speak of our ancestors as our roots. But perhaps we appreciate them more after they’re gone than we do in their last gasp of life. I admit the deep reason it is so difficult to care for the aged: I desperately do not want this decline for myself.
Before her stroke, my mother-in-law hand-beaded her own “do not resuscitate” necklace. At 95 she asks, “Why didn’t the stroke kill me?” She feels she’s lived long enough. My mother also wonders whether it would have been better if she and my stepdad had died in the accident. Yet I watch how lovingly they dote on each other. Over nearly 40 years of marriage their roots have intertwined like a network of trees that share nourishment and feed each other.
* * *
The autumn garden produces flowers we consume for health and pleasure. The brain-like cabbages have inner leaves that inter-furl around a tough core, their outer leaves bowing wide with the graceful beauty of a full-blown rose. And their tiny imitators – the Brussels sprouts – pop out like warts from tall stalks that resemble miniature palm trees. Consider the tightly packed florets of broccoli, and the flowering heads of cauliflowers, which now can be found in purples, greens, and golds, in addition to the common white. More distant relatives include flat, paddle-like leaves of collards, their veins like rivers spreading; curly, bumpy, clumps of kale are destined for salads or chips.
Beyond the edible garden, I delight in the flowers grown only for joy. Zinnias in their cheerful multicolored splendor – reds, oranges, yellows, pinks – their various heights and shapes a reminder of the random nature of things. Butterfly bushes look exhausted, their colored cones drooping over. Bees visit them on their final pollen-seeking forays. Purple spears thrust upward from liriope, salvia, and lavender; flaming cockscombs crackle, the red and yellow almost painfully bright. The succulent leaves of sedum put out broccoli-like heads, pinking more deeply each day. From black-eyed Susans, spiky dark centers gaze blindly, their golden petals shriveled. I tilt my neck to travel the tall trunks of sunflowers, their heavy heads hanging down, the seeds pecked out by chickadees, sparrows, and cardinals.
There is only so long that spent flowers hold their charm. We talk of people in their flower of youth. Wouldn’t it be nice if we remained fresh and beautiful, energetic and capable, and then one day passed on without fanfare? But perhaps the indignities of age are what make us more willing to depart.
In my ninth month of pregnancy, I suggested that its discomforts were necessary only to make one willing, even eager, to undergo childbirth. Of course, the reward at the end of pregnancy is a baby. Not being a religious believer, I don’t exactly imagine a reward at the end of life. Although I do hope for a peaceful and natural passage of energy and a sigh of relief at letting go.
Perhaps we are driven to create art so we may leave the flowers of our life to endure. Our bodies become burdens, but our accomplishments may be remembered.
* * *
The first hint of color tinges the leaves of maples. Days that have shortened gradually all summer are now overtaken by the night. There is no stopping the greed of darkness that relentlessly chomps away at the light.
Even my older dog is flailing. He is deaf and almost blind, he has degenerated joints that make him sometimes fall over during his morning yoga stretch: the classic downward dog. He has thinning fur and age spots and a crop of warts and lumps, one so large on his right eyebrow that it’s made the eye smaller, giving him a lopsided look. Often he can’t make it through the night without leaving a puddle on the kitchen floor.
Spider webs hide in the autumn garden, the spiders crouching in wait of unwary victims. At night the crickets cry out for one last mate, hoping to leave a cache of eggs to last the winter. Their rhythmic screech seems to accelerate – harsh and insistent.
I take my dogs for a bedtime walk and we make our way slowly, so slowly, up the block. The elder dog sways side-to-side, stopping every few steps to sniff the ground. Even his ability to decipher smells seems sluggish. This slow walking induces contemplation.
Clouds shine in the darkness most every night. The edge of the moon crumbles and disappears, grows and crumbles again. Clusters of columbine blossoms lean in the breeze, their narrow seedpods dangling on delicate stems. Clumps of hard red berries decorate dogwood trees. Round, shiny rose hips have replaced soft petals. Each night I wonder, how will these walks feel when there’s only one dog?
I suspect I focus on my dog’s aging because my parents’ decline is too painful. But it’s always there in the shadow. If I let it, worry would bend me over like the heavy-headed sunflower, threatening to break my spirit like a dry twig that snaps under pressure.
The fear that, one day, I may need to ask for help is a thought I continue to bury. I’d rather go like the autumn garden, crumpling silently back into the earth without a complaint, the seeds of my life scattered and spent.