My backyard trees are autumn-adorned, brocaded in deep scarlet, reddish gold, honeyed amber, and sassy yellow—tongues speaking in hued accents a chromatic carnival of color, a retinal assault of beauty so rich, so dense, that, had it mass, its weight on my shoulders would bend my back. I wish it would last, but, of course, I know it won’t. I know it is conjured only to be eclipsed—a requiem, really. I know that its very transience gives it its allure, that we treasure that which is soon to be lost. And even as I gaze, leaves leap from branches, “leaf subsides to leaf,” and I know the rasp and pang of a difficult truth: the change of seasons has pulsed to life biological forces not to be denied, forces that transmit hormones that create abscission cells that cluster at the nexus of stem and branch, gradually unmooring each leaf until a breeze completes the separation. The trees are unleaving. The leaves are leaving, they are leaf-letting-go. The leaves are leave-taking. To gaze, directly and attentively, at something is to become entangled with it. So it is with me as I regard the leaving leaves, watch their fluttering, pinwheeling plummet. I think of leave-takings of my own.
I think of my graduation from college, English majored, degree and teaching license in hand, and my wondering, Have I chosen well? Is teaching meant for me? And I found that I had, that it was. I think of the morning of the day I was getting married, and Mom joining me in the kitchen for coffee and telling me she dreamed that she walked into the family room and saw that the goldfish had disappeared from its bowl. And I said, “Mom, you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to know you’re experiencing a version of empty-nest syndrome. I guess we’ll have to call it empty-bowl syndrome. And besides, be glad you didn’t find the fish belly-up. I am.” And she laughed that laugh she had. And I thought of how, many years later, she was carried away into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease, where I was just a face without a name, before she finally, mercifully, got her wish and was carried away into a deeper darkness. And I think of Dad’s gradual decline after a punishing fall that left him lying on the hallway floor for more than a day before he was discovered, and the death certificate that gave as cause “Failure to thrive,” and my thinking that whoever wrote that stark sentence did not know my Dad. And I think of my looming retirement, of the colleagues from whom I will take my leave, colleagues who have cared for and inspired me and never, not once, hid their light under a bushel; and students who have gladdened and saddened and maddened me and always, always pushed me, as I pushed them, to know more, to be better.
We are always leave-taking, it seems, always, in ways large and small, saying farewell, goodbye. It’s the way of things, and it’s best not to deny the inevitable. We live through, but we cannot dwell in, or on, a moment, a day, a season. We cannot give ourselves over to pieces of time. We are in them, but not of them. Each moment arrives unfreighted and quickly departs, cargoed perhaps with yearning or joy or penance or rupture or hope. We need to be beside ourselves, to view those shards of time from the outside, to step aside and back and out from them if their relation is to appear. We are on the move, in motion, churning, always churning. We cast a backward look, for that anchors us, but we move onward, for that completes us. We unfold. We go on going on We make ourselves cohere. We gather the events and experiences and contingencies and set them to a plot, make them into a narrative, continuous and durable, whose revelatory theme is the who that we are.