Autumn blues: Loss into life

  • Article by: DAVID MCGRATH
  • Updated: October 6, 2012 - 5:55 PM
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We have begun the season of heartbreak. Fall in the north woods, like Shakespeare's Ophelia, is a tragic beauty.

The weather cool and paradisiacal. No insects. None of the heat and humidity of July. No ice, no snow, nor the slashing winds of February. A cornucopia of color.

Yet fall evokes loss. Tourists are gone. Children off to school. Loons flown south. Hummingbird feeders desolate.

I am haunted, still, by an owl from last night, its lonely wail waking me at 3 a.m.

Dr. John Sharp, writing in Psychology Today ("Autumn Now") describes autumn as the most emotional time of year, for the many memories it stirs of childhood and of change, triggered by "sights and smells and sounds that remind us of what we might have experienced."

Like recent losses in my own life. My good gold dog. All that's left is a photo on the refrigerator -- Frank escaping with my wife's flip-flop.

Now I watch the crows and squirrels he chased, and I beckon to them with an absurd, unspoken question: Is Frank OK?

And then I scold myself, a rational being, and try to adapt to his absence. He remains as a thought, a wavelength between a proton and an electron in my brain.

My father's been gone for decades, but I felt a fresh pang down by our lake. Fifty years ago, the two of us sat in a boat as he rowed seemingly effortlessly, not both oars at once, but the left and then the right in perfect syncopation, propelling us straight.

Toward the end, I had begun reading a story to him in the hospital, got halfway through when visiting hours were over. He died before I could return the next evening to finish.

His picture is in an 8-by-10-inch frame on the coffee table, a black-and-white mugshot of the old man in a suit, his mirthful smile. His life still sending current through me, my siblings, my children. Would his relevance vanish if unremembered?

My friend Joe and I began first grade together in the fall, stayed friends through school, through discoveries, successes, travails. He was instrumental in my meeting the woman who would become my wife. Since his death in January, how long can I preserve the sound of his laughter in my head? Should I?

And in another cruel trick played on us humanoids, we also suffer the loss of that which technically does not even exist. I look in the yard and see an image of my children in colorful hooded ski jackets, playing with a balloon in the yard. Their voices tinkling like a wind chime. And though they are grown up and on their own journeys of memory-making, the imagined picture fades to today's empty yard, overgrown and mottled with dead leaves, making me sad.

But they're still present in this world, so what exactly am I missing? The feeling? A dream? A segment of time that has passed?

Are time segments even real?

Sorry for all the questions. A column should not be all questions. It should have a resolution. Therefore, I offer two.

The first is that the pain of loss -- the litany of losses we start and never stop accumulating from middle age -- teaches us that we should live in the moment, clinging with bare hands to the high-voltage wire of life.

It's the theme of Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town," in which a character returned from the dead wants to shake the daylights out of family members still living, make them realize they should never take even a split-second for granted -- not the briefest conversation with a sibling, not an embrace from their father, certainly not an "I love you" from a spouse. Grasp and stare into their eyes, soul to soul.

Years ago, I callously advised my wife to get rid of everything -- the faded baby bonnet, the discolored photograph -- since they only reminded her of what was lost.

I was wrong. For anything that encapsulates a memory, enhances the present and future. There is something good in a remembrance that is spiked with sadness, because loss and regret compel us to change, to live better, more intensely, more hungrily, more generously.

The second resolution is that memories of the people and things we have lost, though painful, are therapeutic. They keep us connected to a story that, though invisible, is real, vibrating through those photos, bonnets, smells, sounds, letters, thoughts and dreams.

And as long as we can recall and relate that story, we will never be lonely -- even if we are alone.

I walk to the fridge and Frank's picture, recollecting that sunny noisy afternoon. Maybe I'll get a rescue dog from the shelter. Doesn't even have to be gold.

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David McGrath, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage, lives in Hayward, Wis., and is the author of "The Territory."

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