I am wandering around my backyard, which is covered in leaves. Narrow oak leaves with edges like the teeth of a bread knife, coffee brown from almost the moment they loose themselves from the tree, overlap with wide veiny sycamore leaves that fade slowly from flamboyant chartreuse to mottled gold to mahogany. The rattle of the dead leaves beneath my feet sound, in one moment, like bones breaking and, in the next, like a covey of quail lifting from the broomsedge.
As the afternoon chill begins to find its way into my bones, I head back toward the warmth of the house, stopping abruptly when I notice an especially large sycamore leaf that has parachuted onto the back steps. It delicately straddles green and gold and, in the act of picking it up, I realize just how large it is — my splayed hand covers only about half of it.
There were some people at my house not many days ago, people who had never been there before, and they took note of the trinkets lying around — the iron pins from the Glennville-Register Railroad that once ran through our farm, the feathers stuck in vases and the nests tucked into bowls. I told them what I always tell people who are not quite sure what to make of my collections: “I’m like a child,” I say. “I bring things in from outside.”
Thus, the sycamore leaf comes inside. Over the next few days I watch its color fade, its edges curl. It is no longer bigger than my hand.
This week marks the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Even as I move through ordinary moments like making stock from last week’s turkey, putting away the pumpkins and ordering my Christmas cards, I am aware of its approach, so it is really no surprise when I find myself staring at the leaf and thinking of Mama.
Over the last years of her life, her color faded and her world began to curl in on itself. The arms that opened in embrace of everyone, especially children, drew inward, as though she thought she could hold herself together in the wake of the disease that was stealing all she knew of the world. It was enough, at times, to make me question much of what I knew about reaping and sowing.
This week also marks the beginning of Advent and I realize that for the rest of my life the celebration of the one, the first Sunday in Advent, will be joined to the observation of the other, my mother’s death. Yet another conundrum in my feeble attempt to live out a religion built on paradox: the last coming in first, the meek inheriting the earth, God taking on the limitations of humanity to demonstrate his love.
On Sunday night I sit down to light the first candle on the Advent wreath. I open the old hymnal to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and sing to no one but myself its plaintive words in its minor key. This night, more than ever before, its tone fits my mood.
And, then, as though my captive self has actually been ransomed, I am remembering the way that Mama would, at totally unexpected moments, burst out singing, the way she would reach up and smooth Daddy’s hair into place and the way she talked to the dogs as though they were human. I remember how funny she was without ever meaning to be and how she could never stay mad for long. I remember how she taught me everything I would ever need to know about how to love myself and other people and the world.
In the light of that moment, the paradox suddenly becomes less paradoxical and the odd proximity makes sense: In one hand, we hold death and sorrow and despair. In the other, we hold life and celebration and hope. And in the liminal space in between, the space that is the heart, we hold the only bridge between the two and that is love.