Two Autumns

Melissa B. Moss, Office of Communications

Honorable Mention

2017-2018 Staff Essay Contest


“For me who goes

And you who stays—

Two autumns.”

We raised our champagne flutes high in our kitchen, pale gold glinting in the glass. Outside, the slender catkins on the weeping birch spun in the wind. My spouse, Anne, was wearing mauve nail polish; a moment earlier she had raised her hand to wipe away a tear, but I could still see the ghost of its track on her cheek. My father offered the toast in a voice swollen with pride: “To Noah, our Princetonian!”

We drank.

December 15, 2014, Princeton’s early admission decision day; it remains preserved in perfect amber slow motion in a mother’s memory. This is a touchstone moment I return to often: all of us held together in those special beams of afternoon light that make everything seem to glow from within.

One year minus one day later, Anne took her last breath in a hospice room. We hadn’t known she was ill just months earlier: the word terminal was used the day she was diagnosed.

This isn’t a story about endings, though. It’s a story about how a single encounter with a place can unexpectedly become a bridge between the past and the future and change your perspective on everything to come.

Anne and I met in 1991, and Noah was born six years later. Becoming parents bonded us as comrades on a shared mission of the utmost importance. As he grew, we had to work harder and harder to keep up with his insatiable curiosity and the speed with which he learned. We stayed up late talking about him, long conversations about how to support him on his path and give him a life of unlimited possibilities, despite our limited resources.

We spent our summer vacations taking him to violin institutes, math programs, science competitions. When he wanted to learn to identify every bird call in North America, our home became Bird Central. When he admired Joshua Bell, we followed his concert schedule like groupies. The kitchen island was a microscope and slide station for several years, and I won’t go into detail about what we refer to as “The Panda Years” except to say that his collection of literature on Ailurus fulgens, also known as the red panda or the lesser panda, required the purchase of a special bookshelf.

When the time came to explore colleges, I happened to be the parent who accompanied him to Princeton for the tour. As we passed under Blair Arch, Noah whispered to me in a voice filled with both longing and helplessness, “Mom, I want to go here.” What can you say when it’s all out of your hands? I encouraged him, while we also made plan B, C, and D, and enumerated the specific advantages of each, hoping that would soften the blow if he didn’t get in.

On that December day when we popped the champagne cork, Anne confessed to me, her atheist spouse, that she had gotten on her knees that morning and prayed for him to be admitted. “What did you say when you prayed?” I asked. She answered, “I just said ‘Please, Please, Please’ over and over.”

Please. Please. Please. And Noah got in! “I can’t believe I’m really going,” he told us in awe. But by the time Anne was on her knees praying for him that December morning, her invisible illness was already too far along to stop.

The three of us had always been on the same path, the one she and I stayed up all night paving for him with plans and phone calls, reservations and loans…paving that road with all our might so our shining boy could run on ahead of us. But we didn’t count on the road diverging and Anne going away too, first to Pittsburgh in August for surgery, and months later, when the winter came, into hospice. In between though, there was autumn.

Anne had been a professional modern dancer and choreographer, and she had once created a dance inspired by her favorite haiku by Masaoka Shiki:

“For me who goes

And you who stays—

Two autumns.”

She was home recovering from surgery when the invitation came: Freshman Families Weekend in October. From the moment we opened the envelope, she set her mind to being there no matter what. She had never seen the campus, she had missed his move-in day, and despite his frequent calls home, she felt like he and his future were zooming away from her, as she struggled to stay in the frame. “For me who goes . . .”

But before the parting, there might be a shared path one more time.

Anne, the athlete, pushed past her pain to walk longer distances every day so she would have the stamina to explore Princeton and see our boy in his new element. I rented a minivan so we could transport her coolers of special food and medications, as well as the “motorized mobility scooter” I arranged for the weekend.

Imagine Princeton on the most stellar fall day possible; that was our luck to share that weekend. We took lots of photos of us all together on campus, but some of the most important images are just moments I remember: Anne got out of her wheelchair and found a sun-drenched spot on the grassy hill in Prospect Garden. “I love this,” she said. We walked on Nassau Street, and Noah pointed out all his new haunts. “I like coffee more than I thought,” he told her, and she and I snuck that shared smile of parents as he strode on, ahead of us, our Princetonian.

Like an infinity mirror, all weekend I encountered Anne encountering Princeton as we both encountered our son encountering his new life. It seemed like we were held in a timeless space for a short while, where we could stop together on the path and look both back and ahead.

I thought of her life, her art, all she infused into our lives to bring our son to this moment. I thought of Anne performing on stage, extending her dancer’s arm out, gesturing far, far away and then swinging it back to the now, in the pendulum of time.

Please. Please. Please.

We got the one perfect day at Princeton together that I prayed for. I think of it as grace, or as the garden; it was the bud; it was the blossom and the harvest all in one, before the winter came.

Listen to Melissa read her essay here: