In this photo, a fallen leaf lies alone on a fallen log. To me, it is a striking image of wonderful beauty and haunting loss.
I took that photo late last month, when I spent time among the glorious fall colors of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Locals told me I had timed my visit perfectly: bright sun, warm weather, colors at near peak except for the highest elevations, where most of the leaves had already fallen.
I wasn’t there just for the fall colors. I was there for Homecoming at Milligan University
, to attend the 50th
reunion of my graduating class. It was a weekend of wonderful memories. It was a weekend of sadness and loss. I learned that one of my classmates, whom I had hoped to see again, had died a few months earlier. Another classmate I had hoped to see was there, with her husband, but not fully present. She was obviously struggling, in the early stages of dementia.
I come back to that image, that fallen leaf, alone on a fallen log. Fall in the Appalachians is a glorious time. (See the video below.) I marveled at wondrous color on ridgeline after ridgeline, viewed from roadside viewpoints or short hikes off the Blue Ridge Parkway
. But it is also a time of loss, a time of dying.
After my reunion, I did not fly directly home. I flew west to Idaho, to visit my older brother. We laughed at shared memories. We played cribbage (our family-favorite card game), for the first time in years. But we did not go out to eat as we had hoped. My brother’s frail health kept him confined to the home where he lives alone.
Both visits were filled with memories of good times. Both visits were haunted by loss.
Just after returning home, I joined an online prayer service. One of the leaders was Deirdre Ní Chinnéide
, an Irish singer and spiritual director. During the service, she showed an image of a tree that had lost most of its leaves. “I think trees are incredible teachers,” she said. “And in this image, we have the tree that has the courage … to surrender and to totally let go, knowing that there will be renewal and there will be the return of spring.”
Now in my 70s, I am in a season of letting go. Just within the last two months, two friends here in San Antonio have died. My trip to Milligan reminded me of the dreams I had as a young man, dreams of a career that never fully came true. Each time I see my brother, he is more frail.
Trees are, indeed, incredible teachers. I pray I may learn their lessons: that life’s final season, just like the autumn of the year, can be beautiful and glorious; that letting go requires great courage and great faith in the promise of renewal.
I pray that, like that fallen leaf on a fallen log, I may celebrate a life well-lived, giving thanks for all of my days, all of my seasons, including the season of letting go.