Memento Mori

When the committee that organized my high school reunion announced that the sixtieth would be our last, it was like having an ice bucket challenge of mortality dumped on my head. 

They didn’t say why there’d be no more reunions. They didn’t have to. We needed only to observe the “memorial” posters — thumbnail photos of our fellow graduates who’d passed their final, final exam. There were more faces on the posters than living souls in the banquet room. Fewer than twenty percent of our class were still alive and adequately interested and/or able to attend. We survivors among the Class of ’62 should not feel too bad. Born just ahead of the Baby Boom, we “war babies” have already outlived the age expectancy for our generation.

The reunion was in September, a month that ushers in autumn. Poets love to use autumn as a metaphor for old age, preceding winter and death. Hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien began cheerfully enough with “O blessed spring,” followed by a stanza about “summer heat of youthful years,” then getting to “When autumn cools and youth is cold …” and ultimately, “As winter comes, as winter must, we breathe our last, return to dust …”

The last summer roses and Christmas decoration at the cemetery

I’m writing this on November 2, “All Souls Day,” also known as “Day of the Dead.” This is the time of year when many traditions, dating at least back to ancient Celts, focus on death and those who’ve departed. The Celtic tradition of Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve after Pope Gregory III declared November 1 as All Saints Day in the eighth century. Our death-denying culture has commercialized it as Halloween, a time of macabre costumes and candy treats. Even that is quickly overcome by Christmas hysteria. A stubborn traditionalist, I visited the cemetery on this All Souls Day. As I lay the last roses of summer on my husband’s headstone, I noted a large candy cane with flying reindeer decorating a grave nearby.

As for my own demise, my attitude varies from Woody Allen’s oft-quoted philosophy: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I have a healthy fear of death. I just want it to catch me unaware, suddenly. I’d like to avoid a lingering illness, disability or —dear God, please — senility. And wouldn’t we all?

Even when we outlive actuarial tables, it can be challenging to celebrate these “bonus” years if our bodies taunt, even torture us. Some folks thrive. Others endure loss after loss: mobility, independence, dignity. 

If autumn represents old age advancing toward death, then let my autumn be like today. This autumn day the leaves on my front yard maples turned a shimmering gold so exuberant you could almost hear them shouting an alleluia chorus. 

This day the prolific cherry tomato vine gave up its final, generous bounty before tonight’s killing frost. 

This day sunshine reflected on the river as it quietly flowed beneath a necklace of brilliant, shimmering diamonds. 

This day I received two pieces of news: the unexpected death of one friend and the full remission of cancer for another. 

May all my autumn years be as generous as this day. May I embrace the paradox of autumn, its extravagant celebration of life as a last hurrah and gateway to the mysterious inevitable.

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