Autumn Vigil

by Leslie Kendall Dye
Originally Published: 

Today I am packing up the summer box. It is a clear, plastic box that neatly slides into the top of our Ikea wardrobe. The wardrobe, like its contents—the scarves and sweaters that have just been released from the prison of a plastic box—is fresh and tidy as the day my husband assembled it. We moved here only two years ago, in spring. If spring is the season of not yet opened buds and just greening trees, autumn is its own new beginning: School and cooler winds bring people back to the city, to school, to local pubs and restaurants, to their plastic boxes filled with corduroys and sweatshirts and tweeds.

I am a Los Angeles transplant. To me, New York City will always be the cinematic Woody Allen universe of bright yellows and reds in fall and rainy days in front of old movie houses on side streets downtown. It will always be my freshman year at Columbia and the first time I had to wear a cable knit sweater. It is football season and short days and bright candles and a tinge of homesickness and the thrill of the avenues of New York City lighting up one by one as the trees and lampposts are trimmed with bright white bulbs. It is midterms and finals and trains to friends’ houses upstate and envying rich kids’ sleek J.Crew boots and attending a capella holiday concerts in Furnald Hall.

But this autumn does not beckon in the way that it always has before. For many people, autumn’s chill and fading light is a metaphor for death. Poets call upon the season to symbolize nameless specters lurking in their minds; it is a descending darkness that represents our fears, both named and impossible to name.

My mother is sick. I cannot live in denial anymore.

She has been sick for a while now, if dementia constitutes an illness. She suffered a stroke at only 68 years of age—a bleed that was most likely caused by a drug that ought never to have been prescribed. It happened in November of 2009. Fall is my mother’s favorite season, too; she lay in the ICU that fall while I ate cold turkey slabs with boxed gravy slathered on top in the hospital cafeteria.

My husband was with his family in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day of 2009, but I could not leave my mother, regardless of whether she knew who I was or not. She was awake, and she was afraid. She was comforted by familiar poetry even though she couldn’t remember my name. She knew at times that I was her baby, the baby sister, and she knew the older one too, sitting next to me while we held her hand, the one who was nauseated and in her first trimester of pregnancy.

I told my mother that when she got better I was going to take her to see the origami holiday tree at the Museum of Natural History and the skating rink at Rockefeller Center where she had performed for thousands in her youth. I told her that autumn was waiting for her: the cold dark nights that she loved so much, the crunchy leaves that had never to her symbolized finality and death, but instead thrill and possibility. My mother was the Morticia Addams of weather. If it was raining or sleeting or bitingly cold and dark, she grew electric with excitement.

This year my mother does not know that it is fall. She is in the hospital again, as she has been many times in the last year. She has begun to suffer from panic attacks. I begged the doctor to make her comfortable. I begged the doctor for a prescription for Xanax. I think today—at long last—it was granted.

My daughter turns 3 years old this November. After two and a half years of harmony, I’ve had to face what every parent must face at various times throughout parenthood: disequilibrium, the experts call it. Children, they say, go through periods of equilibrium with their caretakers followed by periods of disequilibrium. I have witnessed—for the first time in my daughter’s career as a person—much foot-stamping, boundary-testing and a trait certainly not exclusive to small children, an inability to appreciate her good fortune in life and a stubborn focus on anything she is denied.

I love my child so much. She has certain expressions and a movie-star glow that recall my mother’s baby photos. I put her down on the street, and she dashes into the crowd with a speed I thought only possible in cartoons. My mother has told me she was the same way, and that my grandmother was forever pulling out her hair trying to keep track of her as a toddler. That’s why they gave her figure skates at the age of 4. She did a lot with them.

My first long season of harmony has passed with my daughter, but I know we have many more in our future. I also know that the daily battles will pass as we reach a new place in childhood. I always had a pipeline to my mother, and I don’t remember any major rebellions or secrets. I hope my daughter and I have the same essential trust and love as she grows.

My season with my mother is over. All the seasons with my mother are over. Yes, she is alive; she can still feel pain and panic. But our relationship is mostly one of maintenance. I maintain her as best I can when I see her, when I call her, when she calls me late at night. Some nights my husband goes to her apartment to hold her hand, to give her something to calm her down.

She won’t ever put out my clothes for school again. She doesn’t remember what I looked like when I wore them. She doesn’t remember her granddaughter’s name, but she hears her voice chirping in the background and clucks with delight at its charm. She tells me how much she wants to see her; I remind my mother that she saw her yesterday. And around we go.

It’s always winter for my mother now. There will be no more springs and no more falls, even if she lives through 10 more. I mourn, I remember, I study old photos, and I hold my daughter close and read her even more books at bedtime. I don’t care if she goes to bed late or makes paper chains with her father at 10 p.m. I don’t mind if she wants to wear her nightgown and rain boots to the local bookstore.

This is one of many seasons with my daughter. Disequilibrium or no, we are together. We both know who each is to the other, and we both remember what we did the day before, and we sleep in the same house because she is our little girl. And there is still much cuddling, much joy, much seeking of approval and an avalanche of questions about how the world works. Life is good with my young family.

I wish I could bring my mother into this world. I wish she could remember a day spent at the park. I wish she could remember the days of my youth. But she doesn’t. I must not stubbornly focus on what I cannot have. I’m trying to teach my toddler to appreciate all she has, and to delight in the beauty of the season that officially arrives on her father’s birthday and the autumn equinox. There is no way to teach but by example.

I must not relinquish autumn to the dark winds that swirl this year. This is my season, and it was my mother’s season. It’s time to turn up the music and switch on the lights. It’s time to dance with my husband and my daughter, and, when she is here, with my mother.

When my mother is no longer, whenever that may be, it will be more important than ever to claim autumn as a time of celebration. I will say this to my daughter:

Image courtesy Leslie Kendall Dye:

This was one of your grandmother’s greatest joys, this season. It all begins now: decorative store windows, school supplies, fall clothes, holiday parties, twinkling lights, scarves wrapped protectively against the chill on a late night walk.

This was your grandmother’s.

She gave it to me.

And I give it to you.

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