November is complicated.
I’m sitting in front of my computer next to a window which looks out over a small grove of fir and maple trees. With most of the leaves gone, the branches of the maples fan out against a vast blue sky. On the ground, a carpet of saddle-colored leaves glistens as shards of sunlight stream through the trees.
I love the light this time of year. What I hate is when around 3:00 p.m. that light dims to gray, first on the fallen leaves, then up the trees before turning the sky first charcoal, then black. Before I know it, I’m no longer looking out the window at trees and leaves, but at my refection in the glass. And it’s only 4:30 in the afternoon. In another month, it will be 4:00, leaving me in darkness for the next fifteen hours.
November is the month where Nature pares down, lets go, buttons up, readies itself for the storms to come. Except for some remaining kale (which I’m not sure I can eat any more of) my garden is bare. The landscaping crew has removed the leaves from the lawn. I’ve cut back the shrubs. There’s less color, more emptiness.
Like the maples outside my window, I’m losing my color, my sap, my strength. Like them, I have no control over these changes. I’m entering the season of my life when I can no longer shoot a basketball, climb a mountain, dive into a wave, lift my grandchildren.
I’m also intentionally paring down. I’ve stopped “discussing” politics with people whose views on COVID, race, and global warming I find repugnant. And speaking of repugnant, I no longer watch sports on TV because of the announcers and the commercials. As I ready myself for what lies ahead, I find myself rereading the books (The Lord of the Rings, the essays of E.B. White and Frederick Buechner) and listening again to the music (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa solomnis) I love.
On the other hand, November is a time of abundance. My garden produced well, and we have enough tomato sauce and tomato soup to last us until next summer. I suspect I could be making kale smoothies until then as well. November is Thanksgiving dinner, with a bounty of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and squash and beans and turnips and cranberry sauce and pumpkin and apple pie. November is feeling the abundance of family, some of whom I haven’t seen for two years, but who’ll hopefully arrive this year so that we have to bring down chairs down from the bedrooms and up from the TV room and my office so that everyone can have a place to sit.
Perhaps because I could very well have died two years ago from a heart attack, I find I now have a greater abundance of gratitude for each day—for my family and my friends, for my twelve-step groups, men’s groups, and writing groups that nourish me.
Amidst this abundance, however, I also feel a sense of loss for those members of my family and my friends whom I can no longer see. For me, November is the month of deaths, probably beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy when I was in college, an event which marked the end of my childhood. My father, a grandmother, and my mother-in-law all died in November.
November is hunting season: a time for legalized killing. For many years, I hated this time of year. My in-laws had a camp on an ocean bay, surrounded by acres of woodland—a beautiful spot. Except in November, when hunters from all over New England and New York took over the woods. For years, whenever I thought of November, I thought of a Saturday afternoon when my first wife, my young daughter, and I drove down the three-mile road to her parents’ camp. As we rounded a corner, on my right were four or five guys in blaze orange caps crouched on a hill, sighting their 30-30s across the road to the field on our left and some apple trees at the edge of the bay. When one guy saw us, he lowered his rifle to take a drink from a brown bottle. The rest just held their rifles steady. The Viet Nam War was still going on, and all I could think of was that I was driving along the DMZ. I felt helpless and afraid.
I thought of that afternoon and that fear and powerlessness many times several years later during the November my daughter went into the hospital for the last time because of the cancer that was ravaging her body.
That was the November my second wife and her children came to see Laurie. For Mary Lee’s sons, it would be for the last time. Before going to the hospital, we had a Thanksgiving meal at the Ronald McDonald House with Henry, who was getting radiation for prostate cancer and his wife Martha; Jennie (only five, being treated for a brain tumor), her mother, and Jennie’s stuffed penguin, Opus, sitting on the chair between them; and Dave Shepherdson, a potato farmer from somewhere in Aroostook County, whose nineteen-year-old daughter was in the hospital because her transplanted kidney, the one Dave had given her twelve years earlier, was failing.
And yet, my painful recollection of that Thanksgiving at the Ronald McDonald House and my sorrowful memories of my father, grandmother, and mother-in-law all dying during November have at some point in the last ten years or so—like that optical illusion of the two candle sticks which turn into a face if you look at it long enough—become cause for gratitude. Besides recalling my father’s death, for example, I think of the times he played baseball and basketball with me, our fishing trips. Yes, I still recollect Laurie lying in the hospital, but I also see her walking on the seashore, playing the piano, painting a picture.
In other words, November has become not only about death but about honoring and giving thanks for what St. Paul called those “clouds of witness” and the gift of life.
It’s complicated. But I’ll take it.