Death Comes in Threes

They say deaths come in threes. My father-in-law died earlier this week. The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday. Today, I stand in the cold and snow, watching a lot of trees being cut down.

Earlier today, as my wife and I waited at the airport to pick up family arriving for a memorial gathering, I shared with her Mary’s much-quoted poem:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

As my wife and I sat there, silent for a while, sniffling, she finally asked if I would read the poem at the family gathering. We both know that I’m not good at that kind of thing. In fact, I couldn’t even read it aloud to my wife without getting all emotional. It would have to be enough for the two of us to share it with each other, remembering those we’ve lost. My father-in-law was an engineer, but something of a poet at heart. A lover of the arts, anyway. Music. Opera. Theatre. He was an accomplished photographer with a particular passion for nature. He loved, loved, loved the view of the woods and the creek, right outside his back door.

This afternoon, my wife keeps herself busy, distracted, preparing for the big, family gathering tomorrow to say farewell to an extraordinary man. I take a little walk. As I need to do. I retreat to a favorite place. I look forward to a long walk though deep snow in the winter-quiet woods. I arrive to find a work crew and big, loud machines, cutting down a bunch of large trees.

This is a good thing. This is what good stewardship looks like. Dedicating major resources to recover the health of natural lands that have become choked with all sorts of invasive species. I applaud and celebrate this. It’s just not what I expected today. It’s not what I needed.

Or, perhaps it was. A little shocked, a little disappointed, a little awed, I just stood there. Watching. Listening. Taking it all in. Reflecting on the loss of the past week. My father-in-law. Mary Oliver. My own mortality. The necessary death of these trees. I trudged back to the car and wrote the following:


The embrace awakens me
The enfolding arms surprise me
It’s been a long time since I’ve been hugged
If ever
Sap stirs in my roots, deep beneath the frost line
But I let it lie
I forget myself
I give in to the firm, comforting grasp
So much so that I feel not the cut
The cold steel that slices through my entire trunk in seconds
The arms lift me and lay me gently down in the snow among my fellows
Like logs, for such we now are
For several several years I grew
My sap rose and fell with the seasons
I set solar panel leaves to gather the sun
I drank from the sky, both liquid and gas
I flowered
I fruited and set seed and cleverly offered it up to birds
To swallow and spread
I did not notice, I did not care
That I had so much space in which to grow
That I was alien to this place
An invader
That the multitudinous wildflowers among which I’d sprouted
Slowly disappeared under my spreading canopy
I did not notice, I did not care
As fire lately licked at my bark
It had grown too thick
My roots too gnarled and deep
Winds bent but never broke me
Lightning never struck
I can’t recall ever thinking it
But I suppose I figured I was forever
I could fight back, of course
Come the spring, I could send a tangle of re-sprouts up from my roots
To snatch and snarl and shade
But, no
I think I shall be glad of another hired hand coming tomorrow
Or the next day
To grub out my stump
I shall be glad of the sunlight, too long stolen by my leafy arms
Touching the earth once again
Awakening seeds too long a-slumber
Filling the slight depression of my stump scar with spring blossoms
And perhaps a new-dropped fawn
I think I shall even be glad of the hired hand
Turning my trunk into wood chips
To cushion your step as you wander among the wildflowers
And birdsong
And the clearing of your own heart

3 thoughts on “Death Comes in Threes”

  1. I just lost a sister February one, and a nephew June twenty seven, and I was curious about this three thing and decided to google and I found you. Thank you I’m going to read Mary’s poem next week, so beautiful, as well as yours,

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