A Sudden and Merciless Joy: The End of Summer
On Grieving the Seasons
Our herbs are dying. At first, the heat was too much, now it’s too little. The basil fared the best, especially in the peak of the season when hundred-degree days are the norm. But this was a mild summer in Tennessee, and they thrived until now. In futility, I water the plants quickly approaching their expiration dates. When I tug at some rosemary needles, the whole plant wants to lurch from the earth. I leave it alone and look out from our front porch at the rainy day.
In the house, the record player spins an Arlo Guthrie album. It’s one I have never heard before, from the eighties, and you can hear its datedness as soon as the first song begins. Still, it is clear and crisp, and I like it very much, especially since it was free. If I were to read the reviews, I am sure that it would not be something people liked. They would say it was a departure and a decline. But I like it very much.
My wife makes a cup of coffee for me. We both woke up late, and maybe this is why I have a headache. I drink the coffee on the couch while reading a short book by Camus. It’s something about the sea and growing up in Algiers and I am envious of every word. He calls summer a “sudden and merciless joy.” Or maybe that’s youth. It’s all the same, really. Wedged in the middle of the book is a Shakespeare and Company receipt from a time when my wife was married to another man. I wonder if we'll ever go back to Paris. The children are somewhere in the house, either sleeping or staring at screens. When I was growing up, weekends were for bike rides and boredom, and I suppose every generation has their own version of waiting for something to happen.
I make a second cup of coffee in spite of my desire to wean myself off the stuff. The surge of energy is usually too much for my body, makes me jittery, but I don’t know how to go fully without, so I drink half-decaf with a couple pain relievers and a glass of water. One of us flips the record, I can’t remember who, and we are listening to Bach now. At first, the violins grate on me, the melodies discording with something inside me. But eventually it becomes background. There is a ringing in my ear I am afraid to acknowledge, one that has lasted for days. At some point, I listen to the ringing more than to the music and notice that the tone has a certain pleasantness to it, especially when you don’t try to wish it away. Everything can be music. I think of my mother, and how as she got older she became more sensitive to loud noises, how caffeine stressed her out, and she would easily startle. Is this how it is, I wonder, everything your parents told you becoming true and you marveling at why you never listened? I think of my grandfather and how he loved jazz and a quiet, listless Saturday inside his books.
In our neighborhood, there is a marquee declaring, “First day of fall September 23!” You can see it as you exit the community, driving past the swimming pool that will soon be emptied. Sprawled across some yards are Halloween decorations—pumpkins and witches and skeletons—and it feels too early for that. A friend was recently telling me about his upcoming trip to Iceland, so I ask in a text message when he's leaving, and he says he just got back. I can’t keep up with anything anymore. I put the phone away. By the time I get to the second cup of coffee, it is cool. I sip it, tepid as it is, while looking out the window and watching yellowed leaves fall to the ground while the rain drearily falls. When I was twelve, I wrote a story about a tree goddess who gave herself to the world, dying a gruesome but beautiful death. In the story, the leaves falling to the ground were her tears. Her name was Autumn.
Regret died with the last life we left behind. Now, we only look forward.
As a child, the end of every summer came with an instinctual dread. At some point, we knew that what was ahead was shorter than behind. That was when the grief set in. It was something you could feel in the air: a smell, a sensation on the skin, a coolness in the atmosphere. It was a whisper in your ear saying it’s time to put on a sweatshirt, the premonition that everything is both dying and coming back to life in one final firework display of color. I haven’t eaten since yesterday, and it is already past lunch. It’s hard to do things you’re supposed to do when you don’t feel like it. My body has accumulated enough fuel in forty years that if I skip a meal, there is still plenty left to eat. It doesn’t take much to fill me, anymore; after a few bites, I am satisfied, able to hold out for another day or so. There is always more time until there isn’t.
From the couch, I stare up at the impossible pile of books, the ones stacked many layers deep on our mantle, ones we may never finish. Thoughts of money come to mind, and I am reminded of the small life savings it took to get this house and the troubles we’ve experienced since. We worked so hard to get here, and it’s been so hard to stay. It would be easy to regret, but neither of us does. Regret died with the last life we left behind. Now, we only look forward. From within our home, you can hear neighbors outside coming and going while we stay sitting, listening, reading. A friend published a book this year and recently told me of his disappointment with the aftermath. He had hoped for more. He’s never published a book before.
Soon, a child will emerge from the cave of her room and ask what we are doing today. I will tell her that this is something and we are, indeed, doing it. She’ll turn to her mother and ask the same question. And her mother will tell her the plans. Soon, we will be somewhere else. Now, my headache is waning. The medicine is working. I stop reading and go outside to grab some herbs, scraping off the stems and branches, depositing dried leaves into a bowl in the kitchen where they will wait for what’s next. I think of the second life these plants, now extinguished, will know: how I will turn them into a spice blend and sprinkle their remains on the food that will get us through the winter. They said it was going to rain all day, but I can see the sun starting to poke through the many windows in our house. Nothing ever happens the way you think it will.
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