The photo of her nested in the leaves with her arm around her granddaughter and my daughter occupies the place of honor on my living room bookcase. October with its crisp apple air, porcelain skies, and rainbow leaves was her favorite month. October and its promise of a restful and productive winter bring her beside me as I wrestle with storm doors and deck dismantling. October rakes the leaves of my memories of her and piles them high against the sides of the house for winter insulation and examination.
No matter where I rake October leaves, my sorrow for her is as real as raking leaves in her yard once was part of my fall reality. She died in October, but that isn’t the only time I think about her. She sits as firmly in my thoughts as she held her glass every night as she drank, trying to blot out the pain, trying to soothe the raw emotions that burned at her heart and soul like a shot of straight whiskey.
My sorrow for her goes beyond mourning the death of a beloved friend who spent eight decades and a few years living and loving people. She overflowed with love, creativity and compassion toward other people, but she had a difficult time loving herself. She believed in the relaxed approach to life, but she couldn’t relax about herself. She summed up her philosophy of life in a sign that hung on her refrigerator that said: “Looseth not thine cool.”
She didn’t lose her outside cool, but she buried her sorrow at the loss of a husband, friends, a significant other, and other things in her life deep inside. She lost her cool a lot in her innermost being. She caged her anger inside and the alcohol released it to demonize parts of her life.
The tug of war between her outer tranquility and inner chaos and the alcohol between made her later years as unpredictable as the autumn release of the oak leaves from her backyard trees. At times they drifted slowly down throughout the weeks of fall without fuss or fanfare and disappeared politely under the snow. Other years they marched down one after the other and besieged her house and yard all winter long swirling brazenly above the snow.
Her daily life followed that pattern and alcohol laid siege to her soul. She couldn’t find a flag of truce. She did not modify her drinking; instead she continued it at a steady pace throughout the years that followed. She would not stop it, could not stop it even for her family whom she loved beyond anything else in her life. She did not stop her drinking for God’s sake, even though she loved Him beyond anything else in her life.
Her legacy of love, caring, and concern for people, the memory of her joy and creativity and talent is laced with pain, especially for the people who loved her. Her drinking freed the demons that she managed to control when she was sober and often angry, hurting words would hit the people close to her like barbed arrows because she never spoke them when she was sober. This uncharacteristic anger and lashing out at people was painful to watch and more painful to endure.
Time and reflection have taught me that her arrow words were not aimed at the people they hit; instead, they were scattered shots at the unfairness and ambiguity of life and at her own hurt that she unwisely buried instead of expressed. She believed in life and love and hope, not bitterness and disappointment. She was an idealist, which is why life so disappointed her at times. But her soul, underneath the strata of life and alcohol, rested on a bedrock of love and faith in God.
I look at the picture of her on my bookcase, her arms around her granddaughter and my daughter. She is smiling and there is honestly and warmth in her smile. Her expression radiates hope.
She gave me hope and joy when I felt that my life had neither. Somehow beyond the barriers of time and death, I know that she has found joy. I rejoice in her joy when my thoughts turn to her outside of October and inside of October. I rejoice in her joy when in imagination I finish raking the leaves in her yard and she stands in the doorway holding out two cups of hot tea.