It is not a coincidence that fall foliage is the same color as the sunset.
I learned something about the changing leaves during my recent trip to New England. Autumn leaves are simply breath-taking. We describe them ubiquitously as “vibrant.” Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “vibrant” is “pulsating with life.” Despite that perception of vitality, the changing leaves are more about death than life. The process by which leaves change colors is not as much about creating something as it is about destroying something. Time’s weathering strips the tree of the chlorophyll that allows the life-giving green color to flow into the leaves. It is scarring that robs these trees of green… of life. The colors we see during the autumn are the “real” colors of the trees. The fall leaves are the essence of the tree, all that is left visible and beautiful in the aging process.
Before my mother’s illness and death, I never used to think much about my own mortality, nor, by extension, my own aging. I never felt terms like “old” or “elderly’ or “senior citizen” applied to me. Even when I retired, which is probably our cultural definition of “aging,” I never felt myself to be “aged.” I saw my retirement as simply compensation for fulfilling a contract. I knew that there was an age qualifier on that contract. I simply chose to concentrate on the fulfillment of 30+ years of hard work that I promised to complete for the government as opposed to the number of years in my age.
After my mother died, I think that changed. Suddenly, the idea that I will die within the foreseeable future came sharply into focus for me. I began to lose interest in dreams because it seemed like nothing really mattered- I was going to die anyway. My gut turned over and threatened to escape whenever I contemplated life events and opportunities that I will likely never get to experience or experience again. I will never be a parent. I will never get to live in an environment, like New England, completely different from anything I have ever known. I will likely never see some of the places I have visualized going. When I start thinking about major purchases, like cars and computers, and vacation trips, it disturbs me greatly that I can see the “lasts” in my future. I am getting nauseous just writing this. It feels really terrifying.
I am only 59. I am sure some of you are wondering what right I have to be so morbid at such a comparatively young age. I don’t know, but my mother’s death seems to have been the catalyst that reminded me that my life, like every other life, is limited. I still feel some futility and impossibility when I look at the future.
I think this is the scarring talking. I am a Christian. I believe this life is fleeting for all of us, regardless of our age. I believe that the life to come will be eternal and eternally joyful. There should be no terror in contemplating that future. Still, it saddens me to think of what I will be missing. When I was younger, it always seemed like there was plenty of time to start again. There was plenty of time to pursue my dreams. There was plenty of time to travel the world. There was plenty of time for new experiences. It saddens me that I now see that there is not plenty of time. As the song from The Lion King says, “There is more to see than can ever be seen and more to do than can ever be done.”
I am pretty happy with the priorities I have set in my life. I’ve had wonderful experiences and beautiful relationships. I always have joy somewhere in my heart. The problem now is learning to accept that I won’t have everything and to believe once more that whatever life I have left is valuable and meaningful and rampant with possibilities…. even though that life is going to come to an end.
Just as the trees are losing their green, I am losing my youth in this autumn of my life. Still, autumn is pretty wonderful. The mosaic of reds and oranges and golds and browns is certainly more interesting and more eye-catching than the landscape of green. My own landscape is more colorful, more interesting, and warmer than it was in my youth. I don’t have to concentrate on the fact that my snapshot of the world is fading. I can concentrate on the beauty that snapshot captures. My activities and dreams are not moot because the chlorophyll is dimming. They are still precious and wonderful because they are made up of the stripped-down, primal essence of the beauty that is me.
I’m trying hard to avoid dismissing the joy of my life because the day will come when that joy will cease to exist. First of all, I may not know what joy will look like in God’s kingdom, but I know it will be there. Secondly, I think we were meant to experience our lives fully, not ration some happiness “for later.” Thirdly, gifts are gifts, no matter when they arrive in our lives. An awareness that those gifts are finite can increase our appreciation and enjoyment of them. Also, the timing of those gifts can make them even more precious to us. After all, we do not mourn the loss of the green when we gain the beauty of the fall foliage.
Yes, the colors of the autumn foliage are the same colors as the sunset. They do represent a loss. However, they are also brilliant and joyful and lovely. They beckon me to immerse myself in life and create joy. Fall is a time when I can experience some things I can experience in no other time of the year… or of my life.
You know, the colors of the autumn foliage are the same colors as the sunrise, too. And that is not a coincidence either.
How do you think about death? Have you experienced any losses that have also helped you gain a richer perspective about life? Are you living a sunset or a sunrise? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a colorful day!