Mono No Aware

All through autumn we hear a double voice: one that says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. Greta Erlich

Jimmy and I spent most of his final fall in San Francisco, anchored in place by Monday through Friday daily radiation therapy. His brain cancer was advancing swiftly, but the June radiation had effectively beaten much of it back, so we were hopeful another round in October might control the areas that hadn’t yet been treated.

I was unable to shake off the heavy despair of knowing we had crossed the Rubicon from “living with cancer” to “buying time.” No longer focused on years, or even seasons, we were hoping to add months to Jimmy’s life. I relocated reluctantly. It felt like a time when the four of us should have been cocooned at home as a family, not divided in two. But as we settled into our new reality: a cozy corner room at Family House, a narrow three-story building housing 34 children with cancer and their families, the tension in my shoulders began to release, and I was able to refocus on what lay ahead.

I got up early the first morning, hoping a brisk walk would burn off some of my anxious energy. The Sunset District streets were quiet and uncrowded with only early morning commuters and dog walkers out at that hour. I walked blindly along the sidewalk, head down, careful to avoid stepping on the doggy deposits or stumbling into the intermittent squares of dirt, each encasing a solitary tree.

On my way back, I stopped at Arizmendi’s Bakery for fresh scones. Clutching the bag of still warm treats, I slipped back out to the street, looking up as another early riser brushed past me. There in front of me was a spindly tree covered in bronze and bumblebee yellow leaves. The tree’s skinny siblings on either side were still green. As I gazed up and down the block in both directions, I realized that every tree on the street was different, making those with copper, crimson or purple leaves stand out like fireworks displays.

The weather that October was sunny and warm, inviting us to go outside at every opportunity. Jimmy and I left the car in a prime parking spot near Family House, choosing instead to trek to and from treatment in the chilly early morning air. In the afternoon, we walked to Kezar Stadium to amble around the track or to shop at the market just beyond it.

Within a few days, we fell into a daily routine. Warm strawberry scones for breakfast, a walk to the hospital, lunch at a little café on the way back, a nap for Jimmy and some reading time for me, an afternoon stroll and dinner at one of the little bistros sprinkled on the streets around us. I sunk into the rhythm, shoving aside the knowledge that our days together were counting down, focusing instead on making the most of every moment. Even the most ordinary conversations felt rich and meaningful. An opportunity to learn something about Jimmy I didn’t know or a chance to hear again some of what I loved best about him. Snapple facts, San Francisco Giants stats, the latest Indie movies … I let him drive the direction of our exchanges, savoring the sound of his voice. I lived for our late-night talks and the confidences we exchanged. Secrets were golden, something for me to treasure and hold on to. Lights out, snug in our twin beds, time slowed as we whispered into the wee hours.

Bright orange fall leaf on the pavementWhenever we were outside, I watched the fall leaves dance in the trees or looked down to admire the mosaic tapestry they painted on the sidewalk when they fell. Leaves know when it’s time to let go, taking flight in the wind, soaring up, then swirling down to the ground. I could feel the season passing.

The Japanese call this sensitivity to ephemera mono no aware. Roughly translated, it means ‘the sadness of things.’ An awareness of the impermanence of life. How transient everything is and how beautiful at the same time. The way you stop to admire a burnished red Maple tree even as you lament the way the light is leaving out the back door a little earlier every evening.

I miss Jimmy most in the fall. The start of school years he never got to have. His birthday and mine in September. The brisk, cool mornings before the day heats up. Days getting shorter and darker. Winter’s calling card, letting us know the holidays are coming, followed by the dawn of a another year Jimmy won’t be here to live.

Those autumn days in the City with Jimmy stay with me still. The feeling of a warm strawberry exploding in my mouth. The crunch of dried brown leaves under our feet. The cadence of Jimmy’s voice and the sound of his belly laugh. The strength of his hugs. How fiercely we held onto each other. That our time there only lasted the length of a cherry blossom season makes me cherish the days even more.

Life is rich and flawed and over far too soon. Its costly preciousness is what helps us endure. To remember the sweetness even as the bitterness burns in our mouths. To know that Jimmy’s 7,809 days on the planet will never, ever be enough and not be willing to trade a single one of them.

Even as autumn strips the trees bare, their taproots remain. Like them, I have learned to trust I am strong enough to withstand the loss and remain standing until the new growth begins.

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