I used to find Fall extremely depressing. The sun sets earlier and earlier and the ensuing darkness and chill carries with it a certain melancholia, bordering on hopelessness. I wrap myself in thicker and thicker layers of clothing that make me feel ponderous but still don’t offer any protection against the dreaded chilblains. Suddenly it’s deathly quiet as nature shrivels and succumbs to the ebbing part of its cycle. I can’t wait for Spring to come.
This year, for two Sundays in a row (November 24 and December 2), we went to our favorite park Shinjuku Gyoen. We couldn’t have picked two better days to visit. In a span of one week, we witnessed the park dramatically transform, as if all the trees decided that that second Sunday was the day to flaunt their most brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. Such magnificence left me speechless. How can something dying be so vibrantly, so shamelessly beautiful?
I (along with my huge ten-month bump) sat on a bench and watched my husband and two year old daughter laugh and roll around in the piles of dried leaves. Ruby squealed as my husband tossed the leaves in the air over her. I couldn’t help but cry thinking how fleeting and precious this moment was. Next year this time, Ruby will be three years old. Next year this time, we will have another wee one to roll around in the leaves with. Next year this time, my husband and I will be a year older, hopefully a year closer to each other. The moment was maddeningly poignant and I just wish to remember it, exactly as it is, forever.
I think one of the main reasons I didn’t like Fall was because of how it alludes to our own mortality and frailty as human beings. Some people fear death and everything related to it, subscribing to superstitions and beliefs that are sometimes silly but often point to a lack of compassion (e.g. The belief that the bereaved should not be invited to weddings and other happy celebrations for fear that they may bring misfortune. These life-affirming celebrations may just be what the bereaved need). I also know people who are afraid to touch anything that belonged to someone who has passed away. I don’t fear death, not the death of others or my own death.
A year ago, I saw the lifeless body of a young girl, probably a Middle School student, sprawled next to her bicycle just outside our house. She was hit by a speeding van. Her mother could not stop wailing for her daughter to regain consciousness as they waited for an ambulance. I held my own daughter Ruby tightly in my arms as my heart wept for the mother. How fragile life is. A few days later, we saw flowers by the roadside. The young girl did not make it. How pointless the death of that young girl. Or was it?
I thought of my own death. The closest encounter I had was when I got hit by a motorbike that was trying to beat the red light as I stepped into the pedestrian crossing. I was completely immobile as I watched the motorbike head straight for me. I did not experience what people often describe as time suddenly slowing down enough for your entire life to flash before you. I survived the impact with some bruises and without any profound insights into death, except that I was so grateful to be alive. These past few weeks, death became real again as my doctors warn me of the possibility of uterine rupture with this pregnancy, having had a previous c-section. “Once it happens, we have to act quickly. It can be catastrophic for you and the baby in a matter of minutes,” one doctor said. Sure, the likelihood of that happening was very small (1%), but what if by some fluke I am one of the chosen few? I was scared, but not of dying itself.
I told my husband that night, “I don’t want to die. I mean, I don’t want to die now. I want to see Ruby grow up and be there for her. I want to see this baby and cradle him in my arms. I want to spend, no, waste more time with you. There are so many things I still want to do.” I was not so much scared of my death itself as scared that I haven’t lived enough. Ric Elias, who was on board Flight 1549 when it crash landed on New York’s Hudson River, said “Dying is not scary. It’s almost like we’ve been preparing for it our whole lives.”
It is the existence of an end that gives meaning to all our pursuits. Imagine going to school everyday and never having a graduation. Imagine never having to die. Would there be anything else as powerful as death to compel us to live, and I mean really live? Artist Candy Chang says, “…preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do… Thinking about death clarifies your life.”
I thought of the many ways that I live as if there is no graduation, no end: Saving the good dinnerware for that special occasion, keeping stationery until they are too yellowed to be used, setting aside that last piece of licorice until it turns moldy and inedible. One of our (me and my husband’s) biggest regrets was that we put off inviting our friend Ruby for dinner at our house last winter holiday due to some inconsequential tiff that we don’t even remember what about. She passed away a few months later. I regret not making the trip home to the Philippines last September for my nephew’s first birthday. That would have been the last time our family would have been complete – my Dad passed away a few weeks later.
Life is brief, life is tender, says Candy Chang. “It is easy to get caught up in the day to day and forget what matters most to you.” I know I have wasted so much time and emotional energy on things, people, and goals that turned out not to add (and may even subtract) value to (from) my life and if I truly was aware of the urgency of how short life is, I would be turning my back on these negativities.
And just like that, I began to appreciate Fall. I still grumble about having to suffer chilblains and wearing layers of clothing that make me feel like a harumaki (spring roll). But I like how the season speaks to me, invites me to participate in its course, and reminds me that in the Fall of our lives, we can also die with fierce beauty.