A Summer of Drought, Extreme Heat, Loss and Grief, and Transitioning to the Fall Season of Embracing What Really Matters

The summer is finally winding down, and with it will go the heat waves and high heat index days, the lack of rain and lack of prime season pasture growth, and the fear and worry and anxiety of this very dark season. 

As our planet experienced the hottest July temperatures ever recorded, my father's cancer spread throughout his body and his life wound down to its final days.

As the West experienced a seemingly never-ending heat dome, and Canadian wildfires burned out of control causing air quality to plummet even here in the Midwest U.S., my father began receiving hospice care back home in Michigan. 

While thunderstorms and extreme humidity repeatedly battered my childhood stomping grounds in Southeast Michigan, my father's conditioned worsened. Back in Central Illinois, I battled heat indexes and dry pasture grasses, a sheep down with extreme heat stress and respiratory distress, all the while worrying about my father as I saw him slowly become less and less of his old self during our regular video calls.   

I visited him in July, during the height of thunderstorm season, the loud booms from storms chiming in with the sound of fireworks from neighborhood displays, as I tried to fall asleep in the little room at the back of my parents house, trying to accept this new reality of my Dad's unwinding. 

Unwinding, like a richly colored and highly textured spool of fiber. The experiences of his life from birth to old age wound around the bobbin as the years moved forward. Then, at some point, when the fiber is layered on so thick, it's time to slowly unwind, back to the beginning-end, full circle. 

Fires, heat, drought, floods, suffering and loss. So many things happening over the span of three months. This summer. 

I am privileged to have been able to go along on this perilous summer journey and bear witness to the unwinding. Although I wasn't able to stay there in Michigan for the entire summer, because of the farm, I am grateful for the technology that allowed me to regularly visit my Dad "virtually" through video calls, having a sweet conversation with him on the last day he was conscious and talking. He told me he was going to be coming down to Illinois to see me soon. My heart still breaks at this memory. But I know he will be here, is already here in fact. He will reman with me as I continue to struggle, ask questions, and plan for the life ahead of me. I will look for him and the comfort of his spirit when I am alone and afraid. 

As the summer shifts into fall I do not want to forget this difficult journey, the struggles, the hardship, the questions about "what now?" I do not want to become complacent. The heat and storms will come again, more devastating with each year moving forward. New losses, new deaths, new grieving will come with each year moving forward. So, what does this brief moment in time, this pause, this transition between the worst summer of my life, and the colder, grieving fall that lies ahead have to teach? 

What does it mean to live a "good life"? What is a "good death"? How can we hold our loved ones spirit within ourselves long after they're gone? How do we accept where we are now at this exact moment in time, on this ever hotter and more devastated planet? How should we use what time we have left here? 

This is what grieving is about. This is the hard work. Funerals, wakes, and other rituals are important for grieving, yes, but the process doesn't stop after the flower arrangements are dead. The hard work has only just begun.

So, during this moment, this liminal space between the high heat and humidity of summer and the crisp, cool moonlit nights of fall, I will grieve for the earth, for the lost summers of my childhood....my sister and I running barefoot over cool nighttime grasses to chase fireflies to put in mason jars, hundreds of them lighting up the summer night....winters spent digging tunnels in deep, deep snow and rejoicing over the snow day and no school.....fall afternoons spent roaming the woods searching for the most beautifully colored leaves to place in-between sheets of wax paper when we returned home to make our nature scrapbooks.....and spring mornings picking armfuls of tulips and daffodils to leave on our neighbor's doorsteps. These simple childhood pleasures may not be available to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Heat, forest fires, air quality, floods, storms, and other disasters will become more and more commonplace. 

Where will the fireflies be? I grieve for the fireflies. I grieve for the cold. I grieve for my father and a way of life now lost. 

Beyond grieving comes the transitioning....transitioning to what really matters. What really matters in your life? Is it that work meeting that was scheduled at the last minute? Is it the things that you purchased online? Is it the social media accounts you follow? Is it that series that you've been watching? 

Probably not. Let's embrace that which really matters to us, together, holding our loved ones closer and chasing the fireflies while they are still here.

As I walk through this time of grief and transition, the words of Mary Oliver have helped heal my spirit. I'll close with the piece below, from her book of poems titled, Why I Wake Early (2004, Beacon Press).