When I first learned that there would be a day of remembrance in November 2021 for those who died from COVID the previous year while incarcerated in San Quentin Prison, I was excited to hear that such an event would be held and I looked forward to attending. The memorial service was organized by Mourning Our Losses, an organization that works to memorialize people who die in prison. This connects deeply to my doctoral work and writing around death, dying, and marginalization and how those who are unseen to the larger community, such as those experiencing homelessness or incarceration, often don’t get memorialized in the same ways that others do.
I didn’t have any intention of speaking at the event, but Arthur Jackson, one of the clerks inside that works for Mount Tamalpais College, invited myself and a few others from the college to give a reading or offer up some words. Initially, I was hesitant, afraid of being an interloper and inserting myself in something that I wasn’t a part of. I hadn’t known any of the people who had died, as I hadn’t yet started working at the College. But being so passionate about this issue, I looked past my fears, and accepted the invitation, writing the piece below that I now share with you. I also recognized Arthur’s invitation as representative of how generous and inclusive this community of people I have met are, including those incarcerated at San Quentin, the faculty that volunteer their time to teach in our program, and my colleagues at the Mount Tamalpais College.
Day of Remembrance Reflection on Loss & Renewal
In reflecting on loss and renewal, my thoughts turn to a children’s book about death that I read as a child titled, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia published in 1972. I don’t recall a specific moment with my parents sitting me down to read this book. My memory of my first encounter with this book is of a more organic nature, a memory imbued with a sense of discovery, pulling it from the shelf and sitting down on my parents’ bed to read about Freddie’s journey.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf follows the story of a young bud that comes up in early Spring and as the seasons pass, he grows up amongst all the other leaves that cover the branches of this sturdy, life-sustaining tree. With pictures of trees in ever-changing states, we read about Freddie and his fellow leaf friends: how they grow and experience life together. Lives filled with warmth and cold, with changing colors, and with other life in it, such as birds and people and dogs in the park. Until one day winter arrives and one by one his friends are blown from their tether to the branch and they fall to the ground. Eventually, Freddie succumbs to this same fate, and as he does, he recognizes the role he has played in this larger thing called life.
Death is a difficult thing to accept whether you’re a child or an adult, it’s harder to accept when you lose someone you love, especially when unexpectedly or too soon. When a friend or loved one dies, we often take comfort in the ways with which we remember them: holding memorial services, saying their name aloud, looking at photographs, reading old birthday cards and letters, watching home movies, telling stories about the good times – and the bad. Yet, I believe the reason we do this is not just because it allows for moments of consolation, but also because we all play such integral roles in each other’s lives. So that even when we’re gone, our existence isn’t. It lives within those whom we’ve touched, creating something larger, something stronger than our individual selves, like a tree with its many leaves.
We grieve those we lose; their absence on the branch beside us noticed, felt. Eventually, just as Freddie did, we too will fall and return to the Earth, our contributions carrying our memories on in the hearts and minds of loved ones. Memories that will sustain and nourish them as they move through their lives, just as those who went before sustain and nourish us.
On the final page of The Fall of Freddie the Leaf is a photo of a barren tree, with a lone bird sitting on a branch. The words, “The Beginning,” written in one corner. It’s here that we learn of Freddie’s final day:
“The first snow fell the following morning. It was soft, white and gentle; but it was bitter cold. There was hardly any sun that day, and the day was very short. Freddie found himself losing his color, becoming brittle. It was constantly cold and the snow weighed heavily upon him.
At dawn the wind came that took Freddie from his branch. It didn’t hurt at all. He felt himself float quietly, gently and softly downward.
As he fell, he saw the whole tree for the first time. How strong and firm it was! He was sure that it would live for a long time and he knew that he had been a part of its life and it made him proud.
Freddie landed on a clump of snow. It somehow felt soft and even warm. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. He did not know that what appeared to be his useless dried self would join with the water and serve to make the tree stronger. Most of all, he did not know that there, asleep in the tree and the ground, were already plans for new leaves in the spring.”