The significant moments of our lives are often etched on more than our calendars. Whether it is the sweet softness of a summer evening that wafts back to us the fragrance of some happy moment in the past, or the chill wind which stings our cheeks like old tears, the seasons give us the sense of where we have been and what we have faced before. Ask anyone who has had to face a significant loss, or had to bear a heavy cross, and part of the patchwork of their experience will be what the weather was doing, how long or short the days were, and how the air felt around them.
This is certainly the case for me in Autumn. In October 2004 I lost my father after his year-long battle with cancer. For me, as a 26 year-old, it was the most emotionally difficult and devastating thing I had ever faced. In the seemingly interminable winter that followed, sleep deserted me, and the sweetest experiences of life held a bitter tang. We endured all of “the firsts” (birthdays, Christmas, etc.) but what shocked me most was the sense of replay that the following October carried. The scent of bonfire in the air, the placid cold of early autumn, the scoured and beautiful landscapes without the softening influence of summer, all welcomed me back to the world in which my heart had been broken. Coming back into October in 2005 was like revisiting the set of a play after all of the actors had gone home, having the leisure to peruse the props and the positions which had fuelled the drama.
In some ways this was not an entirely unwelcome experience. Many of my friends and some of my wider family had stopped talking about our loss, and much of the world in which I moved seemed to have reset itself in the wake of bereavement. There was a pointedness and poignancy about the course of the year returning, but there was also a sense of pastoral help. A second October in the wake of loss reminded me that the Winter I had to walk through again would reach the Spring, and that all was not truly lost.
We can choose in these experiences both to wrestle with the reminder the season brings and find gratitude in the gracious un-forgetting of the natural world, in its sympathy and solace and solidarity with where we once were.Andrew Roycroft
Some who are reading this will have their own seasonal elegy—physical realities which confront us with what we have faced, and console us that we are walking through it. Perhaps the summer warmth was once contrasted with the chill of loss, or the drop in the autumn evenings brings again the fevered sense of some grief which once gripped your heart. We can choose in these experiences both to wrestle with the reminder the season brings and find gratitude in the gracious un-forgetting of the natural world, in its sympathy and solace and solidarity with where we once were.
In the poem which follows I seek to locate this experience personally, and then to elevate it pastorally, so that the “shucking” of Autumn gives a pledge that Spring will return. This is something which is instinctive to a Christian view of the calendar, where our cardinal truths are often combined with annual feasts which tap out the code of hope and joy, even in the darkness, even in the rise and fall of human emotions. I have tried to engrave the grief of that first October with the signature of God’s grace, and the promise of the Resurrection.
On these dark October dawns within doors
the clicking house rests down on its pipes and
sings its heat. We rise in shambled ennui,
set about the sacraments of daily
bread, watchful for the coming Fall, the new
crisp russet carpet, the scarce bearded scrub
of lawn, tricked once again back into green.
My father died on such a day, mid-month
in the middling month, at home, and now
each early autumn reads his elegy,
briefs and keeps abreast all to whom he lived,
that he is gone. This season is a
shucking off, a refutation of bold
bulbed halcyon days, uncynical. The
mere fact of death drifts down, frames our path in
shades that dapple sun for now, but later
shrouds our walks in ash, beech, skeleton leaves.
In the hours after his death we dismantled
effects, stripped down his hospital bed,
lowering its frame into vacant space
of tool-tidy garage, left his room branch
bare, until the chestnut coffin took his
place; nethered unto the silver trestle,
the plumb weight of his absence bore witness
in Sunday best, uncanny, like maple
crimson, all blushed with vital youth, though dead.
And lowered again, in clipped burial
ground, love’s pulley sinking further down and
down, tension of straps and gravediggers’ arms,
hearts heaving heaven, though months out from Spring.