What Autumn's Trees, and My Friend, Show Us About Resilience

Instead of moping because summer's over, they explode in a riot of color.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

I’ll be driving to Vermont this coming weekend to help celebrate the life of a recently deceased friend at the family farm where he grew up.

The spectacular fall foliage along my three-plus hour journey will be more than ample reward for my continuing love of New England, and autumn in particular.

Fall’s crisp, cool air, the trees bursting with red, orange, yellow, and russet, the smell of the earth as I hike beneath those trees—they make me feel vibrantly alive. Not only that, but I find in those trees a model of amazing resilience.

The leaves may be green and lovely all summer, but they show their truest colors when the light shifts, the temperature drops, and the rains come in the fall. Then they reveal what they are really made of.

Many of us, when we think about the “autumn” of our lives, picture physical decline, prescription drugs, hearing aids, and increasing dependence on others to help with “little things.” We can fall into the trap of believing that these facts of living in aging bodies somehow make us unworthy of full equality in the human community.

Depression and isolation—especially if we are single—can follow that line of thinking all too easily. So can behaviors that put us at risk for serious health problems as we try to mitigate the depression and isolation.

But what if we behave like the trees in autumn? Instead of letting the pads, pills, potions, and other props required of aging bodies overthrow our sense of who we are, how about choosing instead to accept those things as simply the necessities they are, without letting them “mean” all sorts of bad things about us?

I like to say that aging is a fact of life; “old” is a choice.

What if we reject the stigma our death-denying culture attaches to aging, and choose instead to blaze out in the fullest, richest colors our lives have developed in us?

Instead of bemoaning what we may no longer be able—or want—to do, why not shift like the autumn sunlight to celebrating the compassion, insight, knowledge, skills, and wisdom that are the fruits of well-tended, advancing lives?

And what if that advancing life were to be cut shorter than expected—and you had to watch as the oncoming train rushed toward you?

Photo by John-Manuel Andriote. Used with permission.
Steve Cadwell reigns over the crowd at a June 23, 2019, live, staged reading from his poetry collection 'PoeMEMoir: Volume 2.'
Source: Photo by John-Manuel Andriote. Used with permission.

The friend whose life I am going to help celebrate in Vermont was a psychotherapist in Boston for 40 years. Steve Cadwell shared from his Bay Village office with other wounded people, particularly gay men and lesbians, what he knew about healing the wounds of trauma.

Steve knew firsthand about not allowing trauma to define him. He showed and told the world in his one-man show, “Wild and Precious”—its title taken from his favorite poet Mary Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day”—the struggle and eventual triumph of evolving from a self-described sissy farm boy, one of six sons on a farm in rural Vermont, into a grown man with a legally wed husband, a grown son they raised from infancy, a beautiful house, and a successful career.

Only a few months before he expected to close out his psychotherapy practice and retire, Steve was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, the kind of aggressive brain tumor that killed both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Ted Kennedy. He had to move up the closing date so his clients could find new therapists.

In what would mark the unflagging humor of his final journey, Steve let friends and clients know about the closure with an email titled, “Announcing Sudden Closure of Practice Due to Brain Tumor.”

Throughout the months of surgeries (two craniotomies), chemo, radiation, travels to Duke University—to the same surgeon who operated on both Sens. McCain and Kennedy—I worked with Steve as designer and production manager for his second volume of poetry and photographs, titled PoeMEmoir: Volume 2, as I’d done for the original PoeMEMoir.

I told him last summer that as I’d been thinking of him, one word kept coming to mind: alive!

Steve was so exuberantly alive. It bursts through the pages of his poetry, the words he chose, the metaphors he evoked, the images he selected to illustrate their emotion. They overflow with love for life that can only be expressed in brilliant, flaming color—exactly like the autumn trees.

“All that’s asked of me is to notice,” he writes in "Art Illuminated," his reflection on autumn’s beauty.

Steve noticed.

He showed by living it what resilience looks like, how brilliant and colorful life’s autumn can be when we define it for ourselves, and that it’s possible not to let ourselves be anyone’s victim—not even a deadly tumor’s.