Autumn came bright and early that year. My toddler and I wandered down the sidewalk over a carpet of leaves, one that created a riot of color crackling under our feet. I held his hand as he balanced himself, precariously, on a low stone wall. Periodically pain streaked, low and mean, through my belly. For the second time, I was in labor.
But I wasn’t ready yet to go to the hospital–even though my contractions were three minutes apart and we lived a half hour away. I wasn’t ready yet because somewhere inside me lay determination, determination that I would not slow down this labor by lying inert in bed, hooked up to an IV and fetal monitor per obstetrician’s instructions–the way I had done with my first son, thus prolonging my birthing trial into a thirty-six hour marathon. This time I would make sure it progressed by taking a last walk with my little boy, before our family turned from a threesome into a foursome, and also make sure that his brother would be born more quickly, and, more importantly, on this precise afternoon. It was October 4, 1984. Ten years to the day my mother died.
Every year when summer changes over to fall with the Autumn Equinox, and October 4th rolls around on my computer’s calendar, I pause. Not only is it my younger son’s birthday, as he was indeed born on October 4th, but another anniversary of Mom’s death as well. Hard though it is to imagine, she would have been ninety tomorrow, gone now for as long as she lived, only to forty-four. I was twenty-one when she killed herself; still, even though I am now sixty-five, a certain sorrow–though it is one which is resolved as much as sorrow can ever be resolved–flickers in me again every year, as we come to National Suicide Prevention Month in September. The observance of this time and its attendant call to action prompts memories in a way that nothing else can.
Yet, as much as I continue to mark my mother’s loss, I now celebrate as well. On the day when a life vanished, a new kind of joy and rebirth flooded into my world with the arrival of my second son. This will always be a somewhat bittersweet time, but over the years it has become increasingly less so, as our shocking loss back in 1974 has faded and the celebration of my son’s birthday has assumed precedence. In this way, in a very literal sense, life has “gone on.” I no longer visit my mother’s grave as regularly as I once did. I think of her throughout the year instead, our good times and our bad, and this process brings healing.
Over the years, my family has opened a multitude of presents, lit an increasing number of candles on chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting, and enjoyed watching my son’s milestones as they pass. I celebrate him while still thinking of Mom and sing Happy Birthday with pleasure. Light did indeed blaze on this difficult day and so extinguished the darkness of another time.
In this way, the inexorable clock ticks onward. My mother’s life fades and my son’s life sharpens. Across the back of my Dalmatian, new small spots spread to signal increasing age, and she naps more often during the day. My own life swells and recedes in a rush as determined as waves breaking on the sand. Life changes and then passes by, a hawk riding the high currents. Another autumn moves in to transform us, trumpeting its scarlet glory.