Commentary: As suddenly as the leaves on the ash out front turned bright yellow, the tree was bare. Half the leaves fluttered to the ground in one powerful gust.
In 1950 an Ohio college girl stands in line in the dininghall. Her eyes meet those of a student behind the counter slinging hash. Countless pairs of eyes are meeting on hundreds of campuses; but these two will find in each other a rare mixture of goodness and laughter, mischievousness and social conscience. They will love each other for fifty-seven years. They will travel the 50 states and to many countries. They will retain that mix of humor and caring, share it with generations of students, and instill the same in two kids and five grandkids.
She will lose words, but not her joy in life. After the words flee, she will still play the French horn in a group. As she sinks deeper into confusion, she will fear things – unless she's holding his hand. In his mid-eighties, he will still be a fiery rabblerouser, loved by students but not by those in charge. When she dies, family and friends will celebrate her life with many moving tales of her. A friend will play the French horn.
Another leaf falls: a lawman I first meet at the farmers' market in police blues. I photograph him talking with children, their huge eyes on his motorcycle. They bask in his smile. He laughs easily, but has his demons. We vote for him for county sheriff. Planning to run again, he's riding his motorcycle down a quiet street when a meth-crazed couple fleeing the cops crash though a fence and end his life.
A sudden gust and he's gone. Much mourned.
Playing chess at International Delights, I meet a retired Vegas card dealer and ex-Marine. He finally finds his true love, but too soon Death takes her. Over the years, his body deteriorates, then his mind. We no longer play chess when we meet. I lose hope that he'll stop smoking. He borrows money, but is fanatical about repaying me the day he promised to. He remains a feisty, forceful, fun character. When he can no longer afford a car, he walks to ID. When he can't do that, he buys a tricycle. Lung disease finally stops him at 75.
Even as we mourn, the fallen leaves remind us to savor each moment – for that moment may be all we have. And to do what we can that seems good, for no reward beyond the doing. Or because we're a free and generous people. When those leading the country are bent on poisoning everything, it feels good to resist with grace and compassion, if we can.
Just as the browning leaves out front don't disappear, but (if left to do their job) become nourishment for the soil, plants, and insects, maybe inside each of us our grief feeds impulses, even determination, to do better and be better.
Maybe at each small fork in the road, Connie, J.R., Pete, Lalo, and whoever we care about who left us this season, will inspire us to pause and pick up that hitchhiker trying to get home for Christmas, let that car into the line of traffic, laugh at a brother-in-law's bad jokes, or do what we feel we should do but sometimes don't.
Those leaves were so bright! I can still see them, in my mind.