Autumn is my favourite season. It offers a beautiful example of how nature transforms, and life can ‘shift gears’. During a year Queen Elizabeth may again describe as annus horribilis, fall has also become a season of mixed feelings as my father — who would have turned 89 on October 20th — recently passed away rather suddenly.
Happiness and awe have become mixed with sadness and solemnity. As I lament the end of my dad’s life, his passing has provided some beautiful lessons about life, loss, and hope.
Toronto in September and October sees summer’s greenery give way to brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows. But as much as it is possible to enjoy an exhilarating stroll — inhaling crisp air, and lingering in the soft sunlight of the season — one knows that cold winds and barren trees are just around the corner.
It is only a matter of time.
And so it was with my father. A vigorous, healthy man, he rode his bicycle just about any chance he had right up until the moment he died. He loved his rides early in the morning from his home in Ottawa through the nearby forests and fields. He would observe the plants and animals, and indulge his senses in all nature had to offer.
Throughout his life, my father lived with great gusto. From his love of food to his enthusiasm for birdwatching and travel, he embraced the world around him. Music was one of his passions and he pursued it up until his final days. An active member of the Ottawa Choral Society for decades, he sang and traveled with the choir, enjoying trips to exotic locales and receiving much praise for their performances. He loved choral music and especially playing the organ, a talent he developed as a boy attending an exceptional school in Cape Town, South Africa.
Regularly seen with a camera in his hand, my dad was also an avid photographer. Slide shows were part of my childhood and I remember them fondly, the projector hypnotically clicking from one image to the next. Many of his pictures were moments in which he had captured the beauty of a bird or the foliage of the fall. Nature was his muse, his place of worship.
But my father’s time came, like they do for the leaves of the trees. Right up until the end, he shone brightly.
Share and grow
A highlight of the fall is the kaleidoscopic carpet of leaves it presents. A blanket of beauty upon the forest floor, only visible for a short time. But leaves, in all their splendour, are not simply garments for the trees. They sustain nature’s mysterious web of life.
And so it was with my father. Siring two boys and a daughter, he raised a family across two continents. He provided for us and cared for us, ensuring we were safe, fed, and educated. From these three children, five grandchildren have emerged: bright, adventurous, and each one unique as the trees in a forest.
Throughout his life, dad regaled us with tales of triumph, youthful folly, and humorous missteps. As a child, I fondly remember snuggling in bed as he shared stories of ‘Broken Toe’ the lion, and read Jock of the Bushveld in his deep, booming voice. Peppered with many accents and antics, he always entertained us.
Over decades of living my father made many friends. From his schoolboy days to the times spent working and studying in Johannesburg, Dublin, and Montreal, he amassed a great collection of characters who speak fondly of him.
Sadly, many of these friends have passed away. May those who remain share and grow his legacy.
More hope and awe
During autumn, one can lament the loss of summer, but also look forward to the joy of snow and most especially, the new beginnings offered by spring. Fall is a time when life and death co-exist. Beauty shines through in the face of decay.
And so it was with my father. As a Christian, he had committed his life to God in the belief that upon dying, he would enjoy eternal life with his Father in heaven. He never feared death. Rather, he anticipated unimaginable glory and wonder. Psalm 139 is one of the readings my father requested for his funeral, from which verses 17 and 18 stand out for me:
“How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand — when I awake, I am still with you.”
As much as my father had a great appreciation of nature, his relationship with God was one of awe. There was a hopefulness in his faith and a sense of immeasurable love innate to his Creator. I believe that even in his later years, as much as old-age frustrated him, my dad possessed a profound patience in anticipation of celebrating life after death.
In the mixed-up world in which we currently reside, hope remained an emotional cornerstone for my father. While love may very well be the emotion that protects, trusts, and perseveres, it is hope we cling to in tough times. Hugs are currently discouraged, but we all hope for a vaccine. While we may not fully understand what is happening around us, we all hope sanity prevails in a world that has seemingly gone mad.
And so it was with my father. From death emerges life. Amid loss there is hope.
I look forward to autumns ahead and all the new beginnings and lessons they may offer.
— — —
A memorial for Dr. Sholto Fletcher Cole will take place on November 7, 2020 in Ottawa and online.