As I sat down to write this, August was almost over. “Big kids” had drifted off to college already, and the “littles”—no longer so little—were sleeping the sleep of the just; enjoying another couple of nights of carefree rest, untroubled by homework, due dates, and crowded schedules. My house was quiet as I took stock of another summer ending.
Each summer, I struggle with melancholy. It usually settles in about a week after school gets out. For a few days, I’m simply relieved that school is over and I can sleep in. Then, like coastal fog, melancholy settles into my soul. The rest of the world is enjoying vacations, barbecues, sun and sand, seemingly without a care. I, however, wake up to sunlight and a persistent sense of sadness that just won’t go away. My mood is more attuned to the days when a cool marine layer masks the morning sun.
Despite this, I have a wealth of cherished summer memories: long, lazy days; unhurried breakfasts; late-evening dinners outside; road trips; afternoons at the beach, sand everywhere; kids, dogs, laughter. But those memories are interwoven with a mild sadness—not the wistful sadness of reminiscence but a sadness that was there while those memories were being made, part of the fabric of each mental scene.
I am not generally a depressed person. In fact, most of the time, I am obnoxiously cheerful. So why does summer bring melancholy?
I’ve concluded that for parents, summer, for all its charm, is a potent reminder of change. It punctuates the transition from grade to grade, from child to teen. It’s a pause between seasons of life.
Summer, for me, has always included a sense of mourning for the season that has ended, anxious anticipation of what lies ahead, and downright distress that childhood is so quickly slipping through my fingers.
I’ve always admired parents who, early on, start consciously prepping their children for a successful, responsible adulthood. I, on the other hand, have always been the parent who tries to slow things down, to hold on to every bit of these years.
Of course, my reluctance to let go has made little difference to my children. They have perversely continued to grow up and expand their horizons. Some have actually—gasp—left the nest, despite my best efforts.
It’s frequently not until school has started in late August that my pervasive sense of dejection evaporates, most likely driven out by the cheerful bustle and new routines of the school year.
This past summer started off like so many others. But as it drew to a close, I realized I had finally made peace with my melancholy summer companion.
Ironically, it was the thought of death that banished the sadness that for so long skulked around the edges of my summertime memories.
A few months ago, as spring slid into early summer, events in my life turned my thoughts toward mortality: a sudden, tragic death; a friend’s illness; heartache at the continued exodus of friends and family from my liberal state to more conservative pastures.
These things turned my mind toward death. My own death. I began to actively reflect on this eventuality. It was a strange mindset for the sunny days of a California June; but then again, my summer mindset has always been a little strange.
I found myself embracing memento mori.
What is memento mori?
Memento mori—“remember that you must die”—is reflecting on the inevitable fact of one’s own death.
Scripture, spiritual writers, and saints recommend this venerable practice. Many recommend that we spend some time each and every day consciously reflecting on our death.
Lent, still months away at summer’s end, begins with a succinct memento mori that hearkens back to Genesis: “Remember man, that thou art dust and to dust you shall return.”
One of the most famous exhortations to memento mori comes from St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life:
Consider the uncertainty as to the day of your death. One day your soul will quit this body—will it be in summer or winter? In town or country? By day or by night? Will it be suddenly or with warning? Will it be owing to sickness or an accident? Will you have time to make your last confession or not? Will your confessor or spiritual father be at hand or will he not? Alas, of all these things we know absolutely nothing: all that we do know is that die we shall, and for the most part sooner than we expect.
St. Francis de Sales concludes, touchingly, “Gather a bouquet of myrrh.”
Another exhortation, widely cited and variously translated, is St. Augustine’s “Remember Christian Soul:”
Remember, Christian soul, that thou hast this day,
and every day of thy life:
God to glorify,
Jesus to imitate,
The Angels and Saints to invoke,
A soul to save,
A body to mortify,
Sins to expiate,
Virtues to acquire,
Hell to avoid,
Heaven to gain,
Eternity to prepare for,
Time to profit by,
Neighbors to edify,
The world to despise,
Devils to combat,
Passions to subdue,
Death perhaps to suffer,
And Judgment to undergo.
Many of us unconsciously practice memento mori as we say the Rosary—repeating the petition “pray for us now and at the hour of our death” as we meditate on the mysteries, events lived out under the shadow of the Cross.
Certain mysteries, such as the Crucifixion and Resurrection, clearly lend themselves to memento mori. Others, even in the midst of joy, contain a prophetic or poignant note of sorrow.
I had never been overly fond of memento mori, sound as the spiritual practice may be.
While I might have very occasionally included the practice in my devotions, my life did not bear that out. To be honest, I avoided the thought of death—and anything that brought with it those somber thoughts—like the proverbial plague.
I told myself there were some good reasons for this.
As someone naturally prone to anxiety, I was wary. After all, my imagination—which runs to extremes—constantly and vividly presents to me the various accidents or diseases that might lie in wait for me or for my loved ones. I’m well aware—too aware, perhaps—that this life is fleeting.
A little backstory is in order. I was the tail end of a large family, and death was a regular visitor in my childhood. As grandparents and aging relatives passed away, I knew all too well how to pass the time at a wake—playing hide and seek among the forest of chatting adults; exploring the dim corners of funeral homes; sitting, bored, on an overstuffed mortuary couch.
Then, tragically, my parents passed away when I was quite young.
By the time I was 20, I had attended more funerals than most people attend in a lifetime. Not surprisingly, as I grew up, I consciously associated human love with the pain of letting go. It took some courage to open my heart to marriage and children.
How thankful I am that I did. Nonetheless, on a spiritual level, I generally had mercy on my anxious tendencies, banishing thoughts of death before they could get a foothold.
Now, for the first time, I began to see the beauty of this ancient practice. I began to see that memento mori was not just a pious thought or preparation for how one would live one’s last hour; instead, it was an attitude of acceptance and peaceful preparation.
I won’t enumerate all the ways in which reflecting on death changed my life. Suffice it to say that it was quietly, surprisingly, transformative.
Once I opened myself to thinking about my own death, I found myself thinking about my parenting in the same light. An attitude of lived memento mori means not being overly attached to the passing seasons of life, looking—not anxiously but with prayerful preparation—toward one’s children’s ends as well. What do I want most for them? What am I preparing them for—a saintly death or merely a long and comfortable life? And if I’m called to give them back, God forbid, have I prepared them?
I thought of the births of these beloved children—the trials unique to each pregnancy, the joyful anticipation of each child’s birth, mingled with a distinct sadness that the special bond of pregnancy would be severed.
In the midst of that season of giving birth, my father-in-law passed away. The week of mortal struggle preceding his death remains a blur. But the afternoon of his death—arranged so he could die at home, away from the sterile hospital atmosphere—is crystal clear in my memory. As I sat in the dim room, the clock ticking loudly, the parallels between this death and my experience of childbirth struck me forcefully. The stage was set; all that was left now was the quiet waiting, monitoring, expectation. The hand-holding. The knowledge that only one of us could go through that door.
Finally, I thought of my own parents’ deaths. As a child, I was perhaps peaceful, perhaps merely stunned, by the almost unbelievable occurrence: my father dying of cancer the winter I turned eleven, my mother beginning her own struggle with the disease six months later. As an adult, I was, for a while, unreasonably resentful, as if they had some say in the matter.
But perhaps the greatest gift my parents gave me was their beautiful example in accepting death peacefully, bravely. So bravely that, yes, I was peaceful, like the child whose parent goes before them matter-of-factly into a dark room.
That peace was no accident: it stemmed from their own lived memento mori. A simple remark by my mother—that my father’s face, in death, reminded her of the face of Christ crucified—was revealing: she viewed everything in her life, including her husband’s death—and, ultimately, her own death—through the lens of her deep faith.
Somber thoughts. But strangely, freeing.
How interesting that this little turning of one’s mind to the point of separation between this life and the next should ultimately obtain the grace to serenely contemplate time’s passing.
Why should thinking about death banish melancholy?
The answer lies in what is on the other side of the door, in the birth that follows the exhaustion of labor, in the resurrection that is our Christian hope.
Without the Cross and Resurrection, memento mori belongs to the stoics, to the realm of the fashionably dark, the trendy, to the stylized skulls that seem to be everywhere as the days grow short.
My family tells the story of how my father, seemingly unconscious for days prior to his death, suddenly lit up—a huge smile transforming his face—when a hospital chaplain called out to him jubilantly “Joe! You’ve almost made it!”
It’s Michaelmas as I end my reflections. Autumn is here, the waning Church year echoing the reminiscent season.
A few weeks ago, my 17-year-old son fulfilled a longtime, somewhat quixotic dream. With his younger brother, he dragged our old paddleboard down the beach, climbed aboard, and spent a blissful early evening rowing around the harbor in our coastal town, with a green umbrella as a sail.
It was a perfect end to summer—one to be filed away among happy childhood memories.
The next morning, my young seafarer discovered he had outgrown last year’s school pants, measured six feet on the kitchen wall, and started his junior year of high school.
A carefree summer, like a happy childhood, is an interlude, a look at future joys. Summer’s end reminds us that this life is not our lasting home. And the best is yet to come.
(Editor’s note: This essay was published originally on October 11, 2022, by Crisis Magazine. It is reposted here in slightly different form with kind permission of the author.)
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