Fall Teaches Me About Death

Fall has never been my favorite season. I partially blame it on not being accustomed to the traditional fall – you know, seeing your breath in the cool air while walking under colorful trees. In the Midwest where I grew up, we joked that there were only two seasons: blazing hot and blasted cold. It’s funny because it’s true. Those temperate seasons – our friends fall and spring – lasted about a week before being shoved out by extreme temperatures. Fall means harvest in that part of the country, and I remember the farmers next door harvesting their wheat or beans in heat so thick you could bathe in it. Welcome to a South Dakota autumn.

Fall heralded the end of summer, which meant good-bye to my ever-anticipated birthday and much-loved freedom. Only a few weeks after my birthday wrapping paper graced the garbage can, I was back in a desk at school. During non-air-conditioned afternoons in late August, my sixth grade teacher would turn off the lights and give us free reading time. We thanked her with placid silence, for those lights being off gave us a few degrees of coolness. I dreamed then of my summer freedom. Granted, that freedom usually had become a burden by the time school supplies were on sale.

Fall also whispered to me of winter. I dreaded the South Dakota winter, cold and long: recesses with snow pants, drifts shutting down roads, bitter wind biting my cheeks. Sure, the snow forts and “tromping” around the acreage with my St. Bernard Mollie, one of us completely happy with below zero temperatures, made the winter enjoyable, but for the most part, I was stuck inside. The same goes for the winters in the Pacific Northwest – just replace cold with rainy, and you have my home sweet home. The summers out here are magnificently moderate and sun-ridden, but winters are terribly dreary. No wonder these days fall seems like a death sentence.

It is, really, a death sentence. Fall does mean beautiful trees turning magnificent flaming colors in an instant. It means acorns falling from trees, and a bite to the air, and harvest time. But all of those things at their core are deat: the leaves are losing their connection, their life force, and are unable to grow any longer. The acorns are disconnected from their parent tree. The bite means the end of the line for many bugs and other plants. And the harvest, while it means life for us, means good-bye to the fruits of a plant. Once you pick it, it is dead.

That sounds depressing, but it’s kind of how my brain works. I’ve always had this idea of mortality buzzing around in my ears, even as a young child. I laugh at it now, but I was a terribly serious child. I drew many pictures of Jesus dying on the cross, with appropriate blood drippage, very concerned about eternal salvation. Also, for a while in late elementary school, I was internally convinced that I would die in a car crash with a drunk driver. Just to be safe, I made wills and envisioned my funeral, the latter which seemed like a pretty sweet party in my head. It’s a wonder that I wasn’t sent to counseling.

Even now, I am constantly reminded by every bright leaf that falls, every news report, every prayer request that our lives are so fragile. We are walking toward death with every movement. As a Jesus person, that should be okay with me, but so often I do not fear my own death, but rather cling selfishly to those I love. I do not want them to leave me, but I see them coughing or breaking legs or fatigued and I understand that their bodies are weak, only held together with fragile pieces of skin and bones.

Every day, there are less and less survivors of the Holocaust, the bloodiest reminder of how hate destroys and power corrupts and life can be stolen. I watched The Pianist the other day for the first time, and I was utterly devastated, torn apart by the destruction of lives with such cruelty. But then I realized that those who survived the camps, the cold stark days, the hard work and the bitter hatred, are now being taken by disease and old age. Those who lived will still die. And with them dies a little bit of our history as a world. Our children will not know these survivors as anything but a page in a history book. But that is the way it is meant to be.

There is this documentary on YouTube called “Dancing Under the Gallows.” I highly recommend looking it up. It’s about a woman named Grace who lives in London and who survived the Holocaust because she was a concert pianist, much like the movie I recently saw. She was sent to a camp with other artists, a propaganda piece for Germany to show the world how well they were treating the Jews. She is alive because she played music, and she lives still because she plays music. At over 100 years old, she continues to play on with a joy and a peace. She loves and lives a happy life, despite all of the pain inflicted on her many years ago. She lives with optimism and grace, blessing those around her and receiving blessings from others with great happiness. The film is called Dancing Under the Gallows, because that is what they felt they were doing in the camp – dancing in the place where death could come so quickly. But they danced anyway, and their dancing gave them joy.

And so, even in this season of pain, cold, and death, God gives us reminders of dancing. Even while the world seems poised to persuade us that death is a terrible, horrible, painful experience, the trees show us that death can be beautiful. As each leaf prepares to fall, it turns a brilliant shade of gold, orange, red. They have no choice but to accept their fate and fall with as much grace and brightness as possible. I want to dance as I fall, and I want to shine. I want to know my fate, understand it, and welcome it.

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2 thoughts on “Fall Teaches Me About Death

  1. I saw the musical "Zorro" in London a few years ago, and while the musical as a whole wasn't great, there's one scene that still haunts me: three men sentenced (unjustly) to hang, and their women, joined by the women of the town, literally dancing under their gallows. Dancing their sorrow, their pain, their frustration, and their anger. And dancing their survival. Their resilience. Their refusal to go gently into that dark night. I realize that that may seem like the opposite of what you're saying, but it seems connected to me, somehow. Because death is sometimes dark, and evil, and wrong . . . something to be raged against and fought, but even then we have a choice: to respond creatively. To respond with passion. To respond with hope. To make beauty out of ashes, and dance in the face of despair. As Christ, it seems to me, spent his life (and death) doing.

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