The multi-hues of Minnesota summer green fade to dark browns and dull yellows, the pines now deep emerald accents in late autumn. The light is different, too, flat and muted even in midday. Clouds are the rule, light rain is common, and blue sky is rare; it is my least favorite time of the year. I am always coldest in October, perhaps because every year I forget how cold winter is, perhaps because I haven’t dressed in my very warmest jacket yet, perhaps because of the wet-cold of the Fall drizzle. Everything is dying, but winter with its stark white snow, ink-like outlines of trees, crystal blue sky around the bright, cold sun is still a half season away, but I can already feel it. Winter is coming.
My mother’s ashes are in the trunk of the car when we stop by the nursing home where Mary’s 93-year-old Aunt Iris lives. She has been there for about five years now and has given up walking. There is a faint urea smell in the background and it takes Iris a few minutes to recognize Mary. We talk about old times because that is what she is capable of discussing and because it is the things we want to hear before it is too late, stories about Mary’s mother and how Iris met her husband, Uncle Arthur.
Then she tells us about a vision he has been having lately. She finds herself in a hallway, the walls glowing with a white-gray light. She walks along the passage until she comes to two large, dark wooden doors and considers going through then hears voices that call her back. When she is back in the hallway, someone tells her that if she had taken two more steps she would have been in heaven.
“Were you afraid, Auntie?” Mary asks.
“Oh, no,” she said, “it just wasn’t quite my time. But every night now when I close my eyes I see those doors in front of me.”
We leave soon afterward and returned to the hill above Green Lake and the surrounding marshes where we walk a long way in the muted colors and wet, gray air, and again I think: winter is coming.
We shift to Minneapolis. Mary has lunch with her two cousins who have recently lost their husbands. We have dinner with a lifelong friend, David, whom we have not seen in five years (how time slips by!). We did not know about his Huntington’s Disease diagnosed a few months before his second wedding two years ago. He reminds of the motto his first wife carried through her star-crossed journey with Type I diabetes: Life is Now. David and his new wife are beautiful and courageous. But I am reminded: winter is coming.
The next morning we find out about a family emergency back home. I take Mary to the airport and check into a hotel alone. In two days a memorial service is scheduled for my mom, an opportunity for her friends and family from the Midwest to gather and exchange stories, see each other and see her off. The following day we will have her ashes interred with my father at a nearby cemetery. My sister and her husband have come and they are a great comfort. My brother cannot come; his disabilities have recently become too great. I need to go see him after this trip. Winter is coming.
On Saturday the rain stops. Sunshine sometimes peeks through the cloud cover and the temperatures rise to the low 50’s–like a winter day in Jacksonville, but a balmy day in Minneapolis October. I take the opportunity to walk through Minnehaha Falls Park. Every step evokes a memory. This is where my dad taught my brother to ride a bicycle. This is where we pretended to be pioneer woodsmen at the age of seven when we found springs of clear water hidden in the forest of the lower glen. This is where a few dads took their sons on a hike to the mighty Mississippi, built a bonfire, roasted wieners and told scary stories. Here one of my high school classmates died after a fall from the rock. There a friend from junior high fell to his death from the Soldier’s Home bridge. A slope covered with brush seems smaller than when my brother and I fled the family picnic to play while grown-ups inexplicably sat and talked. A ski jump used to stand on this hillside; our Norwegian friends came every winter Saturday to test their skills–back in the fifties before the city discovered something called potential liability. Farther up the valley I played softball with my college friends. The falls are magnificent; I remember summers when the creek bed was dry and only a trickle of water came over the cliff, I remember winters when the falls turned into giant icicles colored red and green pastels by the limestone bed.
Above the falls I stop to pay homage to the statue of Hiawatha holding Minnehaha, carrying her across the creek, an icon to all south Minneapolis lovers. I cross the creek and find the spot where we got married, not far from the historic railroad station where once the circus train stopped and elephants marched.
Time becomes slippery on walks like this. Old memories seem new. Old roads not taken still seem like possibilities. Old friends live again; I can almost hear them; I can almost feel their their touch. Nostalgia sets in and I am tempted to mourn for the things I hoped would happen but didn’t. Then I regain my center and celebrate things that did happen, and the choices and chances that took me on this journey.
The next day dozens of friends and family gathered to remember Mom and get reacquainted with each other. Healing comes with the laughter at all the absurdities of her life and character, how she started as a hurt person in a broken family and transformed her life into a helping person full of joy. We remember the others of her generation, and in our remembrance thanked them for the legacy that turns mourning into dancing.
In the morning, a few of us gather at the cemetery, exchange a few words of love and remembrance, say the Twenty-third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. We all touch the small box that contains the earthly remains of a big life. In a few hours she will be buried with my father.
Winter is coming soon.
We got a phone call this week from my daughter back in Florida. She is nineteen weeks pregnant and just completed a high definition ultrasound of her growing daughter (now the size of an avocado I’m told). She could see all ten fingers and watch the chambers of her tiny heart beat. The little one is shy; she remained curled up with her little hands before her face. We’ll have to wait to meet her until sometime in March.
Winter may be here. But Spring is coming.