“Mommy, why are the trees on fire?” His three-year-old eyes look concerned, in my rearview mirror.
I glance back to smile, reassuringly, as we pause at a stop sign. The red and orange leaves of street-stalking maples fill my periphery as I do.
“They’re not on fire, Honey. It’s autumn.” He seems to be thinking, as I pull onto the main road. A seasonal gust dances clusters of brown, red, purple, yellow, and orange around our moving car.
“Why are the leaves blowing away?” He asks next. His eyes dart from one window to another to follow the erratic wind-paths.
I think over my answer. ‘The trees are getting ready to go to sleep,” I say, stopping at a traffic light. I watch the leaves as well, a happy warmth glowing inside at this vibrant change to mundane landscapes.
I watch his tiny face scowl. “Trees sleep?”
“Yes, Sweetheart. The leaves fall off so the trees can sleep when there’s snow on the ground.” His face lights up at the mention of snow. “They need to sleep or they get too cold,” I explain.
Just before the light changes, I catch my own eyes in the mirror. They’re dark, like my hair; like my son’s.
Memory-image immediately draws me back to that morning, when he’d walked in after my shower.
“What are you doing, Mommy?” He’d wondered. Still wrapped in a towel, I’d been anxiously pawing through my reflection’s scalp.
I’d found my first gray hairs while brushing.
We’re nearly to his preschool when he asks, “Will the leaves come back again?”
We slide back and forth against the seat belts’ embrace as the car bumps over the parking lot entrance. I wait in a minivan queue.
“Mom! Will the leaves come back?”
No, I think, I’ll keep getting gray. Aloud, however, I tell him, “Of course, Honey! The trees grow new leaves when the snow melts and it’s spring again.”
That’s too far away for his mental reach. He’s trying to puzzle it all out, scrunching his lips and small, dark eyebrows.
I park, exit, come round to his door. Rustling leaf-rain sweeps under my feet. A few blow into the open sliding door as I unbuckle my thoughtful child.
“I like it,” he finally decides, smiling. He laughs; and, clutching my hand, skips and crunches through the leaf storm all the way to the school doors.
He goes inside, to his waiting teacher’s arms. Through the glass I see him point backwards, waving his stocky little arm in a swirling motion. He’s explaining autumn to his teacher; while she intently watches his face, smiles in return, and nods dramatically.
They head off to the classroom, hand in hand. I turn to face the wind and its accompanying leaves.
Everywhere a deciduous tree has been planted, I see color. They’re shouting on their way to the death of winter.
I absently run a hand through my hair, just about where I’d found the gray strand. I smile, as my son had.
When I die, I plan to go out like the burning autumn.