It was the Autumn Equinox 2002. We lived on New York’s Long Island, a 20-mile-wide swath of sand and rocks dropped by a glacier a few eons ago. “The Island” radiates west to east, beginning at the grimy industrial edge of Queens and Brooklyn. The land flows 100 miles to the East, separating the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, from Long Island Sound to the north. The sand surrenders to the water once again at the rough rocks and windy cliffs of Montauk Point. Long Island’s flexible, mutable geography supports little elevation, other than a few hills and some sand dunes in continuous flux.
From the pebbles of the north shore, or the southern sandy coastline, you can turn your back on the millions of people, the tangle of highways, and the hundreds of square miles of overstuffed suburbia. From that position, there is open sky; a celestial amphitheater in the reflection of the open water. On that day in 2002, I stood in that locus and witnessed the zenith of a short lifetime. Autumn happened in the momentary pause between the exhale of Summer and the inhale of Fall.
Leonardo da Vinci, Study for a Madonna with a Cat, about 1478-80
I was a Hospice volunteer then. I sat vigils, and ran errands for those who couldn’t get out anymore. Mostly the need was for family respite; a planned visit that allowed family caregivers a few hours of personal space. Just a short breather for sanity’s sake. Tending a family member at the end of life is hard. It extracts the very best, and the absolute worst of us; all at the same time. In the sacred atmosphere around the end of life, all of our well-guarded facades are ripped away. We find our long-denied emotions dropped there on the carpet, at the end of the bed. Sometimes that “short time left,” is achingly long. For others, the longest life will never be long enough. I had some “regulars.” They are the best teachers and they were generous with their lessons.
There was Rose, feisty 80 lb., 90-year old, who arranged for her own discharge from a substandard nursing home. From her wheelchair, via front lobby pay phone, she reported her own neglect case to the Adult Protective Services Elder Abuse hot line. When they came to investigate, she convinced them she was put there against her will, and she was returned to her home. Her victory, was much to the chagrin of her concerned; but unavailable, adult kids. She admonished her children for their attack on her independence with a promise, “If you put me in a nursing home again, I will just have to die.” After six months of hard fought freedom, supported by tenacious Hospice folk, they did, and she did. She remains a personal hero of mine.
Ellen, was another petite powerhouse. The top of her head reached my shoulder. She spoke with the quiet, polite lilt of her Killarney childhood. Despite her bone warping rheumatoid arthritis, she displayed the personal pluck of the new bride, just “off the boat.” She had come through New York harbor, emigrating to the US in the 1960’s to join her brand new, US Army husband. It was the drugs prescribed in large doses to help the pain of the arthritis that caused her kidney cancer; a “potential side effect.” I brought her groceries, and she made us Irish tea that could melt rust.
On this Equinox, September 21, 2001, this request for assistance was very different. The woman from the Hospice office sounded frantic.
“Everyone is out on calls, there is no one can get there now, will you do this?”
“This” was pick up morphine from the Pharmacy in Ronkonkoma and drive west at rush hour to Oyster Bay on the north shore. There was a baby there dying at home, 2 days old. Her parents had asked only for some morphine to ease her labored breathing in her final hours.
I used the shortcuts to avoid the Long Island Expressway, snaking through the side roads and finally onto the Oyster Bay Expressway to where it nearly ends on the sand. Turning off the final exit, I found the gateposts of the community. This was a grand old North Shore neighborhood built when Wall Street folk began to wander off Park Avenue and onto Long Island fairways. Green islands of manicured grass swept upward to meet sculptured shrubbery, leading the eye, and the invited foot to the imposing front entries.
I found the address and pulled into the wide driveway. Holding the medicine in my hand, I said a prayer for this family, for this baby, for myself to be helpful, and as unobtrusive as possible. My heart was beating in my ears as I walked up to the dark wood door. I looked for the name on the bag. Her name was Autumn. Her birthday was yesterday. I rang the bell and kept my tears in check.
An older man, the grandfather I thought, threw open the door. He greeted me with practiced affability and a hearty laugh, his words somehow tumbling through a clenched jaw.
“Come in, Come in please!”
I stared at the man, perplexed by the manic hospitality.
“Have I had come to the wrong door?” I thought.
The ice hit the side of his glass, the crystal jingled like the ringing of a tiny bell. I wondered if I was being mistaken for a cocktail party guest. Sensing my confusion, and taking no chances that I would abandon his doorway, he reached out to pull me into the foyer. The quick movement spilled his neat Scotch down his wrinkled suit pants, and onto the marble floor. He watched somberly as the amber liquid sought equilibrium. He seemed so grateful to have an alternate place for his attention.
“Come in, come in! Would you like a drink?”
I thought then, “Certainly I am in the wrong house.”
I looked beyond him, across the foyer, up the single marble step and into the living room. The expansive space ran across the front of the house facing north to Long Island Sound. Early evening light radiated through the long windows lending a warm late September glow to the pale carpeting. The shadows were lengthening; daylight was waning, and no one had thought to turn on a lamp. Tossed on the long green sectional were hastily discarded jackets, and a new diaper bag. Mother and baby sat in a wingchair covered in mauve brocade. Dad stood behind the chair with one hand on his wife’s shoulder and his eyes on his daughter.
I imagined the other woman in the room was the grandmother. She sat in a matching wingchair, heels together and hands folded in her lap. She was so still, I wondered if she was saving the air in the room for her granddaughter. Her eyes couldn’t leave that tiny body.
I understood now the terror of this Grandfather. The grief in that room was vast and raw. He couldn’t find his way into the room. The intimacy was too much. I could hear her strained breathing from where we stood in the entry and I remembered my task. I reached out and gave him the medicine. He stared into my face, unseeing, frozen in place.
“What is her name?” I asked the Grandfather.
“Autumn, her name is Autumn.” He said. His face relaxed, his eyes filled with tears.
“Is there anything else you need?” I asked quietly.
The Mom looked up then, softly she said with a smile, “No, we are fine.”
In the young woman’s face, I caught a glimpse a 15th century painting of Madonna and child. She smiled at her daughter, talked to her, held her. This was her child’s life, and she would not miss a second. Whatever would come later, she was here for her, now. By the time the Grandfather had reached the top of the marble step, I was quietly closing the door behind me.
I had too many emotions to drive amidst prosaic commuters. I had just witnessed “love” in its most pure state. I was ungrounded and profoundly grateful for my healthy children. I drove the three minutes to the beach, and parked my car in the empty lot. I walked across the boardwalk, past the closed snack bar, and out on the sand.
As I watched, the sun dropped into the western horizon. A sail boat moved across the water toward the harbor. The long shadow of the mast on the water reminded me; this was the Autumn Equinox. Down the beach to the East, there was a jogger, the slight woman ran easily along the shoreline.
From behind her, seemingly from out of the water rose a huge ball of orange. At first I thought the brightness of the sun was echoing on my retinas. I looked to the left and there was the sun setting, looked to the right and a harvest full moon was rising at the same time. It appeared I was standing on a different planet. The jogger, a woman near my age, came to where I was standing, breathing heavily from her long run down the beach.
We looked at the sun, the moon and each other, grateful that there was another human to witness. It was comforting to have validation. We stood silently until the sun dipped below the horizon, the moon rose and the moment passed into memory. There was a wordless wave and she was off down the beach, and I was back to car and home.
I had a message from the Hospice office when I got home. “Autumn passed peacefully.” I can only guess how many lives were touched Autumn, a tiny ethereal being who never touched the Earth. The date has magical proportions for me. It remains a day to wonder, to appreciate, to imagine:
What kind of spirit comes into the world for only two days and leaves with the sun and the moon as her companions?
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