leaves, like grief, like stories

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. 

The day is cold and has decided to rain, soaking the leaves that still cling to the grass no matter how often I rake them toward piles and toss them into the oversized yard-waste bin — which is not often enough, it seems. 

When my dad was alive, he would drive over in his truck after packing the bed with leaves from his own yard. My family would awaken to the sounds of his rhythmic raking, raking, raking. By the time we raced outside, clutching our own rakes, he would almost be done clearing our humble rectangle of lawn. 

My daughter, Jane, would race out to see him, and he would toss her into the bounty with instructions to stomp those leaves down, making room for more. She did this with enthusiasm, even as he showered her with more, especially as he showered her with more. 

A child holds herself in a certain way when her grandpa is about to pick her up and place her into the leaf-filled bed of an old pickup truck. She doesn’t raise her arms high as a toddler might. She stands, straight and tall, arms slightly spaced from her body — just enough to demonstrate he can hoist her under those arms without undo squirming. She knows she is small and must be easily lifted. When airborne, she raises her knees at just the right moment to clear the edge of the truck bed. She takes the stomping seriously. If she does the job right, he will trust her with it again. 

For 16 years, I was married. My husband wasn’t much for yard work, though he embraced all forms of fitness. My dad never understood the disconnect. Why would anyone seeking a workout avoid raking leaves and shoveling snow? He kept moving, my father did, and had little respect for those who couldn’t see taking care of responsibilities as rewarding exercise. 

So it is with mixed feelings I watch the rain soak the remaining leaves in the yard. My father is gone. I have no pickup truck. I pay an exorbitant price for a yard-waste container that never keeps pace with the volume of autumn. I rake and I rake, and then one day … I stop. I let whatever remains remain, let the rain soak and shrink it. I take comfort that I will have another chance to get it right, though not, this particular day reminds me, unlimited chances to get it right. 

Our leaf-clearing days end, so I have learned, and often before we are ready. 

I am unlike my father in the sense that I don’t feel compelled to pick up every leaf. I don’t feel driven to stay ever in motion. I am aware of my yard-work inadequacies, but not troubled by them. I’ve been responsible for all of it for some time; there is only so much perfection available these days. Plus, I find autumn leaves a rather pretty carpet.

Jane is so much more than the child holding in her excitement to gain entrance to the leaf pile. She is 19 now. Ivy League. She focuses on her academic and creative pursuits late into the night, stomping down the fluttering obstacles to make room for each new swirl of abundance. 

And I am still here, sitting quietly with notebook and pen, wrapped in a blanket given to me by my older brother who is freshly gone from this world. I am watching the leaves (like grief, like words, like stories) pile up before me, soaked and seasoned. 

Perhaps today I shall hold a few of them in my hands, turn them over and over again to see what’s on the other side. Raise them to my ears and listen for what, if anything,  they have to say. 

writing through grief with laura geringer bass

Laura Geringer Bass carries a stack of printed cards in her bag — writing prompts inspired by her middle grade novel “The Girl With More Than One Heart.”


“You are my Rock”

“Breathe Blue”

Each card stands on its own, but each one also references a theme or scene from the book in which fourteen-year-old Briana’s father has died. Suddenly Briana has two hearts — her own and her “Dad heart,” which speaks to her in her grief.

It’s a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the unexpected power of those writing prompts.

After listening to the gentle brilliance of Laura Geringer Bass at the South Dakota Festival of Books, it means something that she wants to give you a writing prompt. She understands “The Girl With More Than One Heart” has opened a door within you and beyond that door, your own story is waiting to be told.

She wants to help you tell it.

The author joined me on “In the Moment” for a radio interview. I visited her again at the festival in Brookings, where I heard her speak about mentors in her life.

By the end of our time together, Laura had gifted me two cards — two writing prompts to take home.

“You Are My Rock” and “Breathe Blue.”

What she couldn’t have known, was that I had a secret: There was one card in the pile I didn’t want to look at. I was afraid of it.

“I Miss My Dad.”

Of course, as is the way of these things, this became the card that stayed with me, even though I didn’t physically possess it.

I miss my Dad I miss my Dad I miss my Dad.

Just as Briana is surprised by the presence of her Dad heart, I am often surprised by the ways in which grief sneaks up on me. He’s been gone four years now. He never heard me on the radio. I’d like to think he would have listened, but I’m honestly not sure.

You see my father, more than anyone in my life, could get irritated with my relentless desire to ask just one more question. Maybe he would have found the idea of asking questions for a living amusing.

I like to think he’d also be proud of the work we do on public radio. But one of the consistent surprises of grief is how often I don’t know what he would have thought and how painful that can be.

Like most of us, my dad was always changing. New information and new relationships would inform his opinions and ideas, sometimes drastically.

He changed. Our relationship changed. And then it didn’t because one of us was gone.

Laura Geringer Bass reminded me that writing about grief can have enormous value. I don’t have a “Dad heart,” but I do have a writing prompt.

I sit down with my notebook and begin. “I miss my Dad …”

The next words appear in my journal without the realization that I have written them:

“I miss you too.”

We write back and forth like this, my father and I, for some time.

Perhaps I have a Dad heart after all, waiting in my notebook all this time.

Thank you, Laura. You are my rock.

Here’s my conversation with Laura Geringer Bass on “In the Moment” on SDPB Radio.

For your own copy of writing prompts from “The Girl With More Than One Heart,” click here. 

For more about Laura Geringer Bass, click here. 



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