How a walk through autumn leaves helped my son (and me) see the death of a dear friend in the light of heaven.
by Lynda Marie
“Mom, why are all the leaves turning gold?”
It was the end of October and my five-year old son and I were walking down our driveway, gathering an array of red, orange, and mostly yellow leaves. My son gently placed each leaf in a basket. We would later press the leaves between newspapers until they were dry, and then tape the leaves to our windows, in an attempt to bring autumn indoors.
My son, ever inquisitive, had asked a simple question, and instinctively, I started to give him the scientific response. This was my chance, I thought, to explain to him the chemical changes that occur in a leaf as the green chlorophyll breaks down, making visible the orange and yellow carotenoids remaining in the leaf. We could talk about photosynthesis and how plants respond to the shorter days and how decreasing amounts of sunlight trigger this response. As a homeschooling mother, I nearly jumped at this opportunity to incorporate a little science lesson into our nature walk.
Our Miss Mary
But then, I thought of something else. I thought about the day before, when my son and I had gone to the hospital to visit a dying friend. She was a lovely 96-year-old lady who belonged to our parish, and we all called her Miss Mary. Every Sunday after Mass, my two boys would give her a hug and she would snuggle them and always comment to me, “Those boys sure are full of life!”
My children don’t know many people in our church, but they knew Miss Mary well because she would always speak kindly to them and give them a hug and a smile.
The day before our leaf-gathering foray, my son and I had gone to visit Miss Mary as she lay in the hospital during her final days. When we saw her, she was too weak to speak and so we said very little. Instead, I simply let my son gently pat her forehead and the two of us held her hand while we sat by her side.
After we left, I explained to my son that Miss Mary was dying and that with God’s grace, soon she would be with Jesus in heaven. My son seemed to find consolation in that and, as he often does, commented, “Heaven is a wonderful place. We should all want to go there.”
So the following day, on our nature walk, when he asked me to tell him why the leaves were turning gold, instead of following my impulse to embark upon a lengthy scientific explanation, I simply said, “Because they are dying.”
Upon hearing this, my son reached out to pick another golden leaf from a tulip poplar, and as he placed it in his basket, he replied, “They sure are beautiful!”
And with that, I realized that he was learning a lesson even more valuable than the mechanics of photosynthesis. By gathering a basket of autumn leaves, he was learning that even in dying, he could find peace and beauty.
Another week later, we went to Miss Mary’s funeral. My wide-eyed son stood beside me and watched as the priest sprinkled her casket with holy water and said the prayer of commendation. When it was time, he held my hand and we approached the casket. We made the sign of the cross and when I told my son it was time to tell Miss Mary goodbye one last time, he bent down and gently kissed the casket.
She was at peace. I was at peace. But perhaps most importantly, my little boy was at peace.
It was a chilly November day, and as we walked away from the grave, winding our way through the cemetery, the wind shifted, and a cascade of golden leaves fell upon us.