His Autumn: Thoughts As My Father Dies

…and gathering swallows twitter in the sky. – John Keats (last line of “To Autumn”)

The poet John Keats was supposedly “half in love with easeful Death,” and expressed the Romanticism longing for the unattainable. Easeful death is one of the most unattainable of life’s trials. In his poem “To Autumn,” he displays this longing for the unattainable by describing an imaginary ode to the autumn season and telling it of its beauty. Spring represents youth, summer equals young adulthood, autumn is the time of one’s old age, and finally, winter is death. Keats attempts to remind autumn that it too is beautiful. Specifically he writes:

 “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou has thy music too,”

Old age and the coming of winter hangs on the horizon like a dark and barely illuminated cloud. This darkened mass hangs low and foreboding. Cold and crisp winds whip through a tree-shrouded valley. Yellow and red leaves prepare to dance upon the wind as their dying anchors break the bond between limb and leaf.

My father is in the last moments of his autumn as I type this. His rasping breath, his personal death rattle, reminds me of the sound those dying autumn leaves make as the wind shake them…the call of approaching winter. My father’s bond between life and death is coming loose…he is about to float and fly on the wind and be tossed and turned until he drifts lightly to the ground…dust to dust…ashes to ashes…

I sit by his side. I listen to his autumn song. I have silenced my own summer tune. These days, I rarely hear the melodies of my spring. Now is the time for me to hear is last words…his last breathes…his last moments calling out to the hills in joyful noise.

My personal collection of life songs are bound to his. The man I am is the man he raised me to be. All that I have…all that I have gained is a direct result of his teachings. I know my own autumn and winter wait before me…my own personal dark cloud waits beyond his…but now is not the time for me to think of that…now is the time for me to sing my father’s song.

The oldest child of Alabama sharecroppers went on to be a man who owned his own land. A man with no real vocation went on to retire from two professions. A high school drop out who eventually got a college degree. He was an army veteran, with two tours in Vietnam, who found solace and peace in the lives of his children and grandchildren as he settled into his autumn.

My father taught my sister, his grandchildren, and me how to drive…how to ride horses…how to accept responsibility…how to live life as true to ourselves as possible. This man was a true raconteur…this man taught me the art of storytelling. This man never met a stranger…this man never left a person untouched. His smile and crystal blue eyes were infectious. His hands were always hard and calloused from a lifetime of work…yet never were they firm when he touched you. My father may not have been a man of great means…he was a great man.

As I watch him die…as I stand witness to his life and heritage…I feel both a torment and a peace at his passing. His was a great run…his was a life worth living…his life was a glorious masterpiece to be sung in all the seasons.

My father was not a man of poetry. My father was not one to lose himself in literature or the arts…yet he was a man who found beauty in nature, animals, and small children. He may not have ever read or heard of Keats…yet I know he would have completely understood the Romanticism ideal of longing for the unattainable. My father has easily accepted his death though…Keats would have been envious in the manner in which my father approached this final cool days of his autumn.

The last audible words my father spoke to me were “take my boots off”…he laughed as I went to his feet and pretended to remove boots. I guess you don’t need boots when you join the gathering swallows and twitter in the skies.