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Of Fall and Passing

Bill Meredith

The most newsworthy event to report may be that fall has come. In ordinary times this would not be news, especially when the season is already half gone, but these are not ordinary times. The perky young announcers on local TV stations, who ordinarily would be gushing about fall colors and reminding us to set our clocks back, have been busy trying to project an image of gravitas as they breathlessly repeat "breaking news" that CNN announced several hours earlier. Meanwhile, the country’s collective attention has been directed toward anthrax spores rather than the passing of another season in our lives. No one seems to have noticed fall.

My wife is somewhat typical of the majority of our citizenry; she has been mesmerized by the little band of headlines that runs across the bottom of the TV screen. However, she did manage to tear herself away long enough to join me on the porch one day shortly after we had the first hard frost of the season. There she was the first to notice an ancient Daddy Longlegs as it crept out of the wilted remains of a potted plant and hobbled across the floor. Three of its eight legs were missing, and a fourth was crumpled and useless; whether it was the victim of an accident or a birth defect was impossible to tell. When I picked it up I could see several bright red parasitic mites clinging to its body, sucking blood like miniature leeches. I set it down and it limped to the edge of the porch, tumbled into the remains of the flowerbed, and disappeared.

Arachnid locomotion is not one of my wife’s fields of expertise, but she could tell something was seriously wrong with it. More from the emotion of the moment than from analytical thinking, she asked, "Will it die?" And, more from the certainty of general principles than from the particulars of this individual case, I replied, simply, "Yes."

Simple things can be profound, as Robert Fulghum reminded us. One of the "things he learned in kindergarten" was that the goldfish in the aquarium, the hamster in the cage on the table, and the geranium in the styrofoam cup on the windowsill all will die; and so will we. The only difference is that the goldfish, the hamster, the geranium and the Daddy Longlegs are not aware of it.

When I was a child we did not have antibiotics or vaccines for flu and polio, and funerals were a common experience; I learned that people die before I learned to read. But times changed. When my father was born, the average life expectancy in this country was less than 60 years; when he died at age 87, the average had risen to 74, and it is now nearly 77. Backed by the success of modern medicine and nutrition, the advertising industry has convinced modern Americans that Fulghum was wrong, and when someone dies it is either some sort of cosmic mistake or a failure on someone’s part. Most adults have become like teenagers with their first experience at drinking and driving: it couldn’t happen to them. This is one reason the anthrax scare has terrorized the country so completely. It reminds us that we are not immortal.

Being aware of one’s mortality is probably a component of mental health on an individual scale, but when a whole nation starts dwelling on it obsessively, it isn’t healthy. At one extreme, something like mass paranoia results— witness the recent surge in sales of gas masks, and the rush across the border to Mexico to buy cheap antibiotics. At the other extreme people are paralyzed by pessimism. One can only hope that the mass of our populace will come to their senses and settle somewhere between these extremes, reminded of their mortality and resolved to live fuller lives as a result.

The Daddy Longlegs is surely dead by now; even if it’d had a full complement of legs and been free of parasites, the season was over and its life expectancy was expended. But somewhere in the leaf litter under the boxwood by the porch are masses of eggs that will carry its genes on to a new generation of Longlegs next spring. Nature looks forward, not back; so I will too. Considering the drought we’ve been through, this fall’s colors have been sufficient to add a lot to the enjoyment of my weekly rounds of golf; and while I have spent the past weeks cleaning and mulching the flowerbeds for next spring’s bloom, my wife has been canning quarts of apples to add to the supply in the basement. There will be apple pie for Christmas; winter will pass, and spring will come. Mortality is what you make of it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith