The Strongest Leaves of My Tree

What’s it all about, Alfie, Bernice, Leslie? I suddenly think of the song Holly Near sang, They Are Falling All Around Me, on her album Sky Dances. The song was written by Bernice Johnson Reagon, an African American singer/composer/activist/all kinds of things who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, among her many accomplishments. What a powerful woman. What a legacy of a song for times of mourning.

They are falling all around me
They are falling all around me
They are falling all around me
The strongest leaves of my tree

Every paper brings the news that
Every paper brings the news that
Every paper brings the news that
The teachers of my sound are movin’ on

Death it comes and rests so heavy
Death it comes and rests so heavy
Death comes and rests so heavy
Your face I’ll never see no more

But you’re not really going to leave me
You’re not really going to leave me
You’re not really going to leave me

It is your path I walk
It is your song I sing
It is your load I take on
It is your air that I breathe
It’s the record you set
That makes me go on
It’s your strength that helps me stand

You’re not really
You’re not really going to leave me

And I have tried to sing my song right
I have tried to sing my song right
I will try to sing my song right 
Be sure to let me hear from you

They Are Falling All Around Me by Bernice Johnson ReagonSongTalk Publishing Co.

When Holly’s album, Sky Dances, came out in 1989 I was living in El Cerrito, CA near Berkeley. In line with my latest heartbreak and needing to exercise regularly, I used to walk in a park near my little Elm St. home, listening on my Walkman (or whatever device it was) as I walked. Again and again this song brought me to watery eyes, if not downright tears.

At that time I was thinking of all the young men dying of AIDS, so many artists and creative forces for a generation and the leaves of all of our trees, falling, falling, in bright spring instead of late fall.

I am just 67. My best childhood friends died in 2003 in their 50’s. My dear friend, Les, just died at 60. I try to feel excitement at remembered dreams, adventures such as finishing my tour of the world by tennis tournament, the French Open and Wimbledon still to go. But then I wonder if my own leaf will be falling soon, perhaps even before my mother, or whether I will be one of the long-lived women of my mother’s maternal side, moving on through the world while others go before me.

In these moments I feel simply sadness, confusion and grappling with the irony of my life. I spent much of the middle 40 years of my life in chronic suicide mode, everything seeming sunny and bright on the outside, but dark, purposeless and full of despair inside.

Now that the finish line is in sight, I no longer think of ending my life before its time. I still experience despair, purposeless and confusion about why I have followed such a life path, why I should have chosen such a solitary life, wondering at the appearance of people in the world, only to see them pass on with barely a memory by the new world.

I have asked my friend, Les, to let me hear from her. I do constantly see her face shining brightly with an enormous, compassionate smile and her always-sparkling eyes. But is that what I am supposed to hear? My grandmother promised to send me a message after her own ship sailed on, but I don’t know whether I have heard it or not.

So this day, this Memorial Day Monday of 2014, I simply remember. I remember those I have loved who have gone before. I remember those I love now. I will try to sing my song, but “right” is not a word I can connect with. I will just try to keep singing, the best I know how.

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