Yesterday I stood on a bluff in the hill country of Texas and surveyed the stark reality of a forest trying to recover from the fire it sustained half a dozen years ago. I took a picture of bright green leaves growing from the center of a charred stump and felt a lyrical grief for the spirits of the trees. They were so graceful in their creamy baldness, as if they had survived chemotherapy and lived to tell about it. Beside them, an adolescent deer blinked at us from the side of the road as we headed down into camp.
Earlier that day, in the city of Austin, I watched a proud grakle perch himself on the metal railing next to our table; he was shiny and dark, with a magnificent tail and a crooked left foot that jutted, unusable, out to his side. Then today, a huge buzzard flew over the long rolling road of red and green, encircling a road-kill raccoon; I could see the definition in its fur.
Life and death, it would seem, flourish simultaneously all around me.
I noticed this today, more than others perhaps, because of yesterday’s tragic news. Our son’s fiancé is a nanny and one of the little girls she has nurtured over the past year was in a tragic drowning accident and will not survive. I don’t know any of the details because my soon-to-be-daughter-in-law was not present, but the reverberations of their pain have washed over me like the hot, dry wind that blows us westward.
I have given birth four times and have attended others as a doula and I can tell you that births hold a mysterious connection to death. The scent of blood and amniotic fluid mixed with the low guttural groans of labor give way to that miraculous moment when a child emerges from the dark recesses of what seems like death. I have also attended deaths. Two. And the midwifing of a soul into the next life is a miracle akin to birth. But though life and death seem inexorably intertwined I simply cannot fathom what it would be like to lose a child. It is out of order. Nonsensical.
Todd and I are loving our son and his fiancé from the road, checking in when we have internet and trying to be a grounding force in the midst of this storm; we have plans to meet them in the Rocky Mountains in a week or so, but we have no idea what will happen now. For the most part we have carried on with our trip. I have taken photographs and posted our adventures in unfamiliar places, but the shock of this loss for my daughter-in-law-to-be has left me with a keen eye for the other deaths around me. Death is everywhere. As is life.
I believe we are created as eternal beings for whom death is simply an egregious error—and yet the cycle of living and dying permeates the very nature we belong to. Winter precedes spring; death, new life. It is a curious dichotomy, this rhythm that shapes us. It has been said that we cannot know light without first knowing darkness, so perhaps these deaths, that suffering, those losses, offer a foil for the light of our eternal beings.
Tonight the forest sings it so.