Home > Change and Continuity > The First Red Leaf

The First Red Leaf

October 7, 2005

For me, as soon as the first leaf turns crimson and falls from a tree, we’re heading inexorably toward Thanksgiving. Not just the Thanksgiving of turkey dinners sharpened by tart red berries and anxiety-freighted or wonderful (or more often both) family gatherings.

No, for me, Thanksgiving is also the last day I saw my father alive. We had always promised that he would never have to go to a nursing home. It’s the kind of vow many families make, utterly believing it, but naively unaware of how complex and expensive illness can become. Complex enough that it cannot be managed at home. Expensive enough to be prohibitive. My father had a feeding tube and a problem with aspiration that required constant monitoring by a well-trained staff.

But this is not about the indignity or the occasional necessity of nursing home care. This is about that fall when an amazing and incredible thing happened to my father: He got sick and confused, and I took him to the hospital where he got more sick and confused. Then he was transferred briefly to the nursing home where he died.

It is, of course, the most common story in the world. But I–middle aged, and fancying myself fairly intelligent–never really understood it. Oh, I knew about death of course. I regularly read the obituary pages, mourned for the victims of the mass tragedies that regularly seize our collective consciousness. I had not reached the age of forty without losing some friends and distant family members. But until I saw my father’s uninhabited body, I never really knew.

When I visited him two days before his death, Dad was in a state of great excitement. “Great excitement” was a phrase that could also describe the way he lived much of his life, so the family was pleased to see him acting like himself. Though his mind was still confused, he was planning something big. He called all his grandchildren on the phone, and told them about it. “Everyone is coming,” he said, and there was going to be some kind of a parade. When it was over they would all go to my mother’s house.

“It’s our house, ” my mother interrupted, tugging on a sleeve. “Not mine.”

“No,” he insisted with great firmness. “It’s your house.” Those words would haunt her.

He struggled to remove his wedding band, and the medal he had worn since he was nineteen when he’d joined the Coast Guard.

“Take these,” he said, and turned away. When I tried to give them back, to remind him how important they were to him, his voice grew stronger. “Take them!”

Before we left, he asked us to wheel him to the doorway, but when we started for the front door, he shook his head in frustration. “Not this one. The back door.”

We laughed, still not understanding what he was telling us, but enjoying the return of his old enthusiasm, the strong will that had sometimes tyrannized us. “This is the door they’ll take me out,” he said matter of factly when we showed him the back exit.

In a September issue of the New York Times Magazine, Joan Didion writes movingly about the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In it, she refers to Philip Ares when she says that death: “gives advance notice of its arrival. Gawain is asked ‘Ah, good my lord, think you then so soon to die?’ Gawain answers ‘I tell you I will not live two days.’ Ares notes: ‘Only the dying man knows how much time he has left.'”

It’s your house,” my father said.

Yes, fall comes again, and that first leaf turns red. Soon it will be Thanksgiving and once again, I will think of my father as he was on his last day. They had dressed him up in someone else’s clothes. A pair of brown corduroy slacks, an attractive plaid shirt. Someone had brought in a TV set and he was watching “Rosie O’Donnell.”

I wanted to talk, of course, but he was pretty much done with that. He sat in a wheelchair in another man’s clothes, his hands clasped beside his head in a familiar pose, and waited with great peace for what would come next.

Written by Patry Francis, of The Marvelous Garden.

  1. October 7, 2005 at 7:07 am

    Wonderful, Patry. Thanks for contributing.

    As one of the four folks tasked with making editorial decisions this month, I think it would be unseemly for me to gush about every contribution. But I would like to say that, reading this on the web just now, I was struck by how much one misses when one is forced to read critically. I’ve proofread and copyedited a number of articles and several books for publication over the years, so it’s not as if this is an unfamiliar experience: how the words sit stiffly on the page like middle school students at a dance in the gymnasium. Every sentence, every phrase seems abortive, ready to collapse under its own weight. The text appears an arbitrary sequence of fragments – even when, as with the first draft of this essay, nothing is particularly amiss. Hardly any tangles arrested the progress of my fine-tooth comb; I read it with pleasure, recognizing its value. But that pleasure remained an abstract one – I kept my distance.

    Sam Johnson (I think) famously declared that the reader of fiction must suspend disbelief. The faithful reader of nonfiction and poetry must also suspend something, I think: judgement, objective analysis. In order for art to work, we must be willing to surrender, to let it carry us away or set us aflame. What fun, then, to come here and warm myself with the words and artwork on which I have already cast such a cold eye.

  2. October 7, 2005 at 8:12 am

    Thank you for this powerful little essay.

    Death is the universal human story, but the one we can only half-understand until it comes to impact us. This story reminded me of my own first important encounter with death, and the way it transformed me.

  3. October 7, 2005 at 11:10 am

    Wonderful. At first I thought it was going to be terribly sad, but it surprised me with its equanimity, and even humor. As matter-of-fact a passing as the change of seasons. And well-crafted to lead us along that path of surprise.

  4. October 7, 2005 at 12:06 pm


    It’s hard for me to add anything new in the light of these wonderful comments on your amazing piece, Patry. Few are the words that can come back with all that is lost in the world in which Orpheus hopes to put the breath back into words with song, but your memoir here, like that of Joan Didion’s, moves effortlessly between the realms of “uninhabited” bodies and the houses of the living…

  5. October 7, 2005 at 3:22 pm

    What they all said :-)

  6. October 7, 2005 at 6:49 pm

    I never really knew.
    It is amazing how far some of us get in our lives without knowing.
    But I don’t think that is grace, anymore. I once did.
    I have found it too hard to write about, but you did it beautifully.

  7. R
    October 7, 2005 at 9:13 pm

    Having known your father and having my father die at this same time last year made this story very special to me. nice job!

  8. October 7, 2005 at 9:44 pm

    Dave: Thank you for suggesting that I submit here. I can’t tell you how gratified (and grateful) I am to be part of this. The theme, and the quality of the previous contributions demanded that I dig a little deeper into myself than I usually choose to go. This story has been waiting for five years for me to tell it. Somehow “sitting together in darkness” brought it into the light. It’s a mysterious process–just like the experience of editing which you describe so well.

    Rachel: I like your word “transform.” We know that death is transformation for the one who experiences it, but it is perhaps almost equally transformative to those who are bear deep personal witness to it.

    And Leslee: I like your word “equanimity.” In the process of composing this piece, I went back and “saw” my father as he was on that final Thanksgiving. And what I saw for the very first time was the equanimity with which he faced death. Maybe it all goes back to what Dave said about editing. That you have to wait for the muck to clear before you can get close enough to really see.

    maria: I find your comment very beautiful. Thank you for writing it. I’m glad you read the Didion essay, and to anyone who hasn’t, I highly recommend it. I’ve actually never read anything of hers before, but I’ve recently ordered the book from which it was excerpted–“The Year of Magical Thinking.”

    Dale: Thank you.

    Whiskey: I love your comment which is also a poem, and I’m especially drawn to the word grace. But I’m not sure if you meant that not understanding death is a grace, or understanding it. It’s probably very clear, but I can be extremely obtuse. In any case, thank you for your comment.

    R: I used to think that having my father die when he did marred the holiday of Thanksgiving. But I now feel that he couldn’t have chosen a better day.

  9. October 8, 2005 at 9:09 am

    I’m so very glad I came over to read this. It was very touching. What a lovely memory of your father.

  10. October 8, 2005 at 8:58 pm

    This essay was poignant, beautiful, and so very loving. What I especially like about it is the way you made your father’s exit from life absolutely personal and unique to him, while letting the universal shine through it for all of us to see.

    My grandfather died the day after Thanksgiving and the holiday has always been touched with that memory – but in a good way. It is much more about remembering him than about remembering his death.

    Thank you so much for contributing here! I’m looking forward to others as the months go by. It’s already feeling like such a privilege to be one of the editors this month.

  11. awendybird
    October 10, 2005 at 5:50 pm

    What a moving piece. Your words paint an eloquent picture. Beautiful.

  12. October 11, 2005 at 9:22 pm

    Patry, this wonderful memoir speaks very personally to me even as it reaches out to many others. The personal and the universal all in one. Having witnessed and been involved in the last days of both my parents and now my aunt, I identify with so much of what you wrote and felt. Something extraordinary does goes on in the minds of those who are about to depart this world. My father began having long conversations, in Russian, with people from his past. And my mother suddenly said: “I have to take my place” as she tried to rise from her bed a couple of days before she died. Well, there’s more, but thank you so much for putting this experience of yours into words so well.

  13. October 12, 2005 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks to Vickie and Wendybird for clicking over and for commenting. Your words are much appreciated.

    Beth: In many ways, Thanksgiving or thereabout is a great time to die. And you know, I never thought of this before, but when I wrote his eulogy, the first thing I wanted to say about him was
    that he was a man of daily and incredible gratitude. Ironic, isn’t it?

    Natalie: From reading the wonderful reflections you’ve made about your parents and your aunt on your blog, I’m not surprised that you related in a special way to this. It really the quote in the Didion piece about the foreknowledge of death that released this pent up story in me. She relates how a couple of days before his death her husband, showed him so notes he’d made for his own writing, and said, “You can use it if you want to.” It is a deep and powerful mystery, but somehow I find solace in words like your mother’s. Thank you for sharing them.

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