It’s Thanksgiving time, which always makes me philosophical. Bear with me as I wind my way through this torturous route towards my main point.
I remember, as a kid, how much I always enjoyed autumn. Being an avid baseball player and fan, I loved the spring and summer too, but autumn was special. Summer vacation seemed to last forever, and my friends and I spent virtually every waking minute playing baseball in one form or another. Fast pitch, softball, waffle ball—it didn’t matter. All that mattered is that we had all the time in the world, and we enjoyed every minute of it. The trees were bursting with greenery, the lawns were rich and verdant, and we basked in the greenery of it all.
But nothing lasts forever, not even for young kids. Summer waned, school restarted, and the weather began to cool as the days grew shorter. Soon it was autumn that time of year that Mother Nature revealed her magnificence, magically transforming the green of summer to the incredible palate of colors. I reveled in the reds of the towering oaks, the yellows and golds of the majestic maple trees, and a host of other colors on other trees.
I remember my father taking me, and our family dog, Sam, on long walks in the forest preserves of suburban Chicago. Sam was a very well-behaved dog, so we let him run without the leash, and he’d run off, sniffing everything, so busy poking through all the trees and shrubs that he missed the forest. Dad and I would walk, and talk of important things (like the Cubs and Bears), or not talk at all as we soaked in the colored finery that was autumn. We walked over trails, winding and curving, taking in the gently moving waters of the Des Plaines River, listening to the wind blow through the trees, and watching the leaves silently spiraling down to the ground. As the season wore on, and the leaves lost their colors, and twirled silently downward to the ground, I remember thinking that each autumn was incredible. I’d tell myself “there’ll always be another autumn, and as winter moved in, that happy thought warmed me until the cycle started anew the following Spring. It was a magical time of the year, and those are some of the best memories I have of my childhood.
I remember, too, how grateful I was to have so much time off from school and how much time I had to play with my friends. Time seemed to move very slowly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My mother used to tell me that time flies as we grew older, but as a youth, I had no frame of reference. I heard her, but didn’t really listen, since I still had all the time in the world.
Our childhood dog, Sam, had long since crossed the Rainbow Bridge, a few years passed, and I went off to college at the University of Illinois. Dad and I didn’t spend much time together at that point, as some of my innocence was lost as I matured. At school, I remember fondly the memories of walking the campus with my friends, then with my first serious girl friend. There weren’t as many trees as in the forest, but the quadrangle was lined with trees and very beautiful, and still I reveled in the season. Time still moved very slowly, even though school kept me busy, I still had time to enjoy the seasons.
My mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and in my junior year of college, she passed away. We spent the days before Thanksgiving planning her funeral, for we knew the end was near. She passed the day after Thanksgiving, 11/26/1982, and let me tell you, that was one bleak holiday. It’s hard to be grateful when the most important person in our lives was dying.
College ended, I graduated, and soon became consumed with my career, trying to make my way in the adult world. Dad had remarried, and was living his life with his new wife, Sheila, so our long walks together had long since ended. The years started to flow by, and slowly my mother’s words came back to me. Time does indeed seem to fly as we get older. Still, the changing of the seasons warmed my heart, and I remember thinking that there will always be another autumn.
The years continued to pass, a bit more quickly. Tragedy struck our family as Dad and Sheila were killed in a car accident in January 1996. The ground was frozen, the wind whipping the snow in our faces as we laid Dad and Sheila to eternal rest. Winter seemed unusually cold that year, though it was probably just my state of mind that made it seem that way.
With a very modest inheritance, I was able to pay tribute to Dad by purchasing my first house. And that house soon became a home when I got my very own dog, Elmo, a beautiful Golden Retriever/Chow mix whose vivid red fur was the impetus for his name. With Elmo by my side, we’d go for walks in the woods, and the seasons, especially autumn, were still very special. I worked long hours, and felt guilty leaving Elmo alone all day, every day, so I adopted another dog, Max, and soon we became an inseparable family of three. I erected a fence in my back yard, so the dogs could run and frolic all the time, and our long walks became few and far between.
One day, I woke up and realized I was 43, and wondered where the time had gone. Unhappy at work, and unmarried, it seemed the perfect time to move from the urban area of Chicagoland, and live amongst the forests of Northern Michigan. I decided to start all over, so I bought a house, sold my current home, quit my job, and moved north while I was still young enough to start a new career. Elmo and Max moved with me, of course, and we all enjoyed our time in the heavily wooded town of Lake Ann and the greater Traverse City area. With so many trees, autumns were even more magnificent. With the expansive forests, and gently winding roads, we could walk or drive for hours, enjoying Nature’s magnificence. Our lives were enriched by the presence of my girlfriend, Amy Beth, who would soon become my wife.
But I realized one day that, as special as the changing seasons were, they had lost some of their majesty to me. Having lost my mother, then my father and step-mother, along with countless older aunts, uncles, and cousins along the way, I had been reminded too many times of my own mortality. A major health issue in late summer of 2007 reminded me yet again that life was tenuous. Hospitalized for a week, diagnosed with having suffered a stroke, I came home, determined to rebuild my strength, balance, and life. Two weeks later, Elmo became very, very ill, and we had to put him down at the end of September.
That was when I fully realized that those changing seasons, especially autumn, were also a metaphor for life. Spring is birth and re-birth, Summer is our adolescence and growth, Autumn is that transition from youth to middle age, and winter symbolizes dormancy and, eventually, death. I still loved the fall colors, but now they took on a deeper meaning.
And so I sit here, on the eve of Thanksgiving, memorializing my mother, who’s been gone for 31 years now, and I am forced to acknowledge that we are on this Earth for a very short time. There won’t always be another autumn. Eventually, fall turns in to winter, and middle age turns in to old age. I’m not there yet—I am still in the autumn of my life. And though this seems kind of maudlin, it’s actually not. This realization that time does fly as we get older, that the changing seasons are both magnificent and metaphorical, and that our days should be filled with the people and the things that bring us love and joy. Tomorrow, Amy and I will drive downstate to be with our families for Thanksgiving, and we’ll be surrounded by both of our daughters, our four grandchildren. Then we’ll drive on to Chicago, where we’ll spend the weekend with my two sisters, my nephews and nieces, cousins, and our two grand-daughters, who will be visiting the big city for the first time in their lives.
These are special days indeed. Knowing that there are fewer days ahead than behind, and knowing that life is tenuous, I can enjoy these days even more. I’ve been introduced to something beyond my own life. I have a wife whom I love more than words can say. She has two grown daughters who have become a huge part of my life, too. And each girl has bestowed us with grandchildren. Being called Papa, reveling in the joy and enthusiasm that these kids bring to our lives, and then sharing these experiences with family on both sides….well, that makes me feel very special and blessed.
And so I think I’ve found my way to my point, if you’ll forgive my tortured route. Enjoy these days, my friends. Each day, each season, each holiday, should be spent in the company of those who give your life the most joy and meaning. Thanksgiving has taken a bittersweet place in my life—it’s both my favorite holiday, and an annual reminder of a painful loss. Remember, please, that we are on this planet for an unknown period of time. That time between birth and death is ours to create the fullest, richest lives we can. So gather with your family and friends, and enjoy each special day. As children, we think we’re going to live forever, but as mature adults, we know that is not the case. So, please, take the time tomorrow to pause, and give sincere thanks for all the riches in our lives, all the love and memories we share. Cherish these days, and realize that there won’t always be another autumn. That is my Thanksgiving wish for you.