It is late in the day. I am driving out with my husband and my five-year-old son to Lake Park to observe autumnal rituals. When we arrive, the park is deserted. The trees have dropped their leaves. Parking the car among a basswood-maple-and-pine forest, we take a moment to collect ourselves and our things. Leaving the car behind, we walk into an area where large groups camp in-season.
After setting our things on a picnic table, we gather downed sticks and dry twigs. With everything gathered, a fire is soon blazing in a favorite, rusted truck wheel, which serves as our official fire pit. As the wind comes up and the fire matures, the remaining firewood fractures in the heat, turning to red-orange coals. White ashes organize themselves into miniature dervishes performing a holy sema.
With the coals from the fire now fully formed, foil wrapped onions, potatoes and yams are tucked in to roast while we warm ourselves and wait. The prayerful dance of the ashes progresses. We sit to eat the roasted potatoes dressed in cottage-cheese pesto. Then, with the flames gone, our fingers grow cold and the spell of the fire is broken. Spreading what remains of the ashes and coals, the last wisps of smoke go skyward.
It is a trail we know, over a small wooden walkway, past the beavers’ lodge and through a low, marshy outcropping of land that breathes with the Lake. Shallow patches of water are frozen over with thin sheets of glass. Mid-October. Cattails are tan, brittle and broken. Large skunk cabbages and other marsh plants are hunkering down for the winter, their leaves already appearing wet and wilted after two hard frosts.
The last harsh gusts of autumn wind accompany us on our walk. Some of the remaining brown oak leaves continue to scatter. Only the pines remain erect; their needles threading erratically through the wind, sewing the clouds to the sky.
When the wind is bellowing through the woods in strong, irregular patterns, it becomes fiercely difficult to think. For the contemplative walker, it is sometimes impossible to discern internal dialogue from the wind’s messages or the voices belonging to the trees themselves. Like an old-folks’ home at bedtime, the woods snap, groan and creak.
In an effort to clear my head, I walk on without my family, leaving partner and child behind to enjoy a shouted, nature tutorial. Then looking up, I see a crane take flight from the top of a singularly tall pine; this is when I am told that my father will die.
“But, when?” I ask, as if the information, shouted over the wind or by the wind, is not enough.
After returning home that night, I lay in my warm bed reviewing our family’s relocation schedule, which I have been holding carefully mapped out in my mind. Then, addressing any higher power who will listen, I ask that, if my fifty-four-year-old father’s death must be soon, please let it happen within the next year. I need to be close to home for my mother. Leaving her alone at this time is not an option.
On Sunday morning, just as I had seen it happening and forgotten about seeing it. I am standing in the doorjamb of our bedroom, four days after the telling and four days after the hearing. My mother is on the other end of the telephone, asking me whether or not there is someone there who is close enough to hold me. I want her to just spit it out. My father is dead. It is not a surprise; it is a shock. It happens sooner than it should have and sooner than what I thought the telling had told.
Only hours ago in a dream, I saw the close-relative pallbearers. They carried a polished, red-mahogany ship hull up out of the main marshy area on my parents’ property. The sun was breaking through the pines’ thin needles in ribbons, glinting off of the boat’s polished body. My father was not among the pall-bearers. With that image, I knew that my father was being carried away. Dead. Again, I stand among the long-needled pines, in the cold wind, watching a crane take flight.