I’ve been thinking about the whole business of seasons and life cycles lately, especially with these past days of autumn weather when the light is different. Historically, I come from stock that is in tune with the flow and ebb of sap in New England’s trees and the length of days and the temperature of soil in the Midwest. Connecticut Yankees and Ohio farmers, it’s all about the seasons. At the farm market on Saturday, I wondered if there was a place where we might live where we could eat locally, dining just on what is in season and put aside (by me) for the cold still days of winter. I was remembering a couple years ago when this time of year my kitchen would be non-stop activity for ten and twelve hours a day, grape juice stains everywhere, the sink full of tomato skins, pepper seeds dotting the floor and all those lovely jars lining the countertops. Because I’ve been having an uncomfortable time of it with these many stitches in my back, I was slightly less tempted to buy a bushel of anything, but still, I considered it. I would like to get back to that within the next couple years, one way or another, maybe more earnestly than I’ve done it before.
I feel kind of autumn-like lately. Fall colors suit me and realistically, I’m probably early into the third season of my life. Surprisingly, I can actually feel and see my skin knitting back together each day so some part of me is still constantly regenerating but not the way young people do. Abby was so active and without caution that she was always on the mend from some bruise or break. One time she slammed into a cement wall while racing down the basketball court and she knocked a tooth all the way around 180 degrees. I was astonished when the dentist turned it around, pushed it back up into her gum and shazaam! It just settled itself right back in where it belonged.
Anyway, I like fall better than any other time of year. I was born in the fall and the myth in my family is that it was always sunny on my birthday. Since I’ve been consciously keeping track that’s been true. We’ll see if that holds for another year.
Today is a spectacularly beautiful day. It rained yesterday afternoon, while I was having tea with a new friend from Ann Arbor (that sounds confusing. She moved there right around the time I moved here, but we read about each other’s lives and interests and birds, online. I’m batting a thousand when it comes to picking good people around this internet neighborhood. Every one I’ve met in real life has been precisely the sort of person I would choose for a friend.) Anyway, the rain came down in sheets for a brief bit and then last night the temperature dropped about fifteen degrees and today it is crystal clear and sunny. Today is the day: the season has changed. I have just a small garden here but I can tell that, with the drop in temperature- not a frost, mind you, but just a dip from warm to solidly cool, solidly sweater weather- with that drop, most all of that upward green push to the light is done for this growing season. And yet, the flowers that come into bloom now put on a show unlike any before them.
Today a wonderful young woman I know died. Wonderful is the right adjective; when she was still full of life, she was also full of wonder. Just starting out in the world, away from home, in college, in love. She died very early this morning, before the sun came up, but actually she’s been dying for quite some number of months now. She had leukemia and then no white cells and then some newborn’s cord blood and then Graft v Host disease and then fungus and infection and finally just a total systemic breakdown. In the beginning she had more spunk and determination than any person I’ve known, ever. Knowing her family as I do, I wasn’t surprised at that. Before she let anybody wipe out her unfaithful immune system, she went through the painful and tedious procedure of stimulating and harvesting her little packages of DNA in anticipation that she could, someday, be a mother. She wrote a more eloquent journal than you can imagine, detailing her hopes and fears surrounding her very personal war with her own body.
The last number of weeks, reading the Care Pages updates posted almost daily by her boyfriend, it’s been clear that she was slowing down and starting to shut out the energy of life. She didn’t want to talk much and she had an irritable reaction when people tried to engage with her. For well over a month her physical life has been no more than one nasty sore that required ever increasing doses of morphine. I wonder if, during these passing days, she actually thought about dying, and whether she exerted any control over the life force within her. Mostly, I wonder if there was a time- a day or a moment- when she knew that her body was all done with growing any new shoots and had started it’s irreversible retreat from this life.
Most of us are in that camp where the natural cycling of things happens in relatively slow motion. The retreat comes in the form of hairlines and gums; skin doesn’t mend itself quite so quickly and thoughts trip over a word here and there. We have enough time to consider that the bloom is most certainly off the rose but still, there are golden days when the sun is warm and the light is supercharged with a clarity you don’t really get during the pastel buzz of spring or the shimmery green haze of summer. Louise never really made it past the season of snow peas and baby lettuce.
I used to teach medical students when they were on their neonatology rotation. I taught a course on infant development and I always spent a couple days on the psychology of newborn loss and miscarriage. I would drum it into their skulls to not say clumsy, stupid stuff like, “Well, you can always have another one.” or “It was probably just as well.”
Perhaps I was smarter or more sensitive back then but if I could say anything of comfort to Louise or her family I would say this: “Hey! Today is not such a bad day to die. My God, this is a beautiful and glorious day!”
Rest in peace, dear Louise.
(Here is the last entry in Louise’s care pages journal, made early this morning by her boyfriend, Josh.)
When I arrived at the hospital this morning, Louise had a pretty high fever and some bloody stools. She slept for most of the morning, then did physical therapy. She was more awake today then the few days before, but still pretty sleepy. She talked to Dr. Paras who is the bone marrow doctor who did her transplant. She also blew me a kiss after he left, and said that she loved me later in the day. She started to have trouble breathing, so they put some oxygen on with a mask, and gave her some blood pressure medications, to keep that up. We checked some of her labs, they looked really bad so we waited for the doctor. The doctor informed us that Louise was dying. There was nothing we could do but wait it out. We took her off dialysis, and made sure she was completely comfortable. this happened around 8 pm. she was still on oxygen, but we took her off all of the other medications, except for the pain meds. She still got morphine, adivan, and versaid (spelling). She slept the whole time, getting weaker and weaker. She finally died at 3:50 am. It was so scary to watch. I thought I was ready, but I really wasn’t. I loved Louise so much like I know a lot of you do too. She will be with us when ever we need her. Rest in peace, Louise.