As a kid, I loved going back to school. I counted down the last days of summer with the same anticipation most kids count down to Christmas. I loved the sound of leaves crunching under my feet as I walked to school; I loved how, in the right alcove, the wind would form a little baby tornado, swirling the leaves around and then dissipating, as if it had never been there. I loved back to school shopping. I loved putting on jeans and pulling out the sweaters; the return of pumpkin flavored lattés, caramel-coated apple suckers; fresh notebooks and unsharpened pencils. Depending on the year, my birthday falls either on the last day of summer or the first day of fall (and, occasionally, the penultimate day of summer). I loved that it straddled the seasons.
It's different now.
I'm an adult, I've graduated college. There is no more school to count down to, at least not at this point. Without school, I don't really need fresh notebooks or pencils. I still enjoy pulling out jeans and sweaters, but it's not the same when you work in an air conditioned building and have been wearing those same jeans and sweaters all summer. I still enjoy a pumpkin latté, but less frequently because as an adult I have actual bills that need to be paid. I experience a certain amount of dread with birthdays now, because the anniversary of my father's death precedes it by two days.
Two years ago, at about this time, I was managing a quick service restaurant, living in my own tiny apartment, and had just started dating my now-husband. My restaurant was struggling; I was working a ridiculous amount of hours, struggling to find and hire and train and keep strong team members. My recently-retired Dad had volunteered to drive delivery for me, on an as-needed basis. I was lucky to get one day off per week. My parents would invite me over for dinner that same night every week, and I would always decline. I was tired. I had just enough energy to catch up on laundry and keep my apartment in a vaguely tolerable condition, but not enough energy to socialize and be decent company.
Monday, September 20th was a perfectly normal day. I was working a double shift, but Mondays were typically slow. A good day for getting things done, and I had been fairly productive. I was prepped and ready, waiting for Monday's dinner "rush"--which is only a relative rush, the phones were beginning to ring. I answered the phone. It was my mom. I knew that tenor of her voice, I had heard it a month or so before when she had broken her wrist and called to ask me to give her a ride to the hospital. When she got home from work, Dad was sitting in his La-Z-Boy as usual, asleep with the newspaper open on his chest. Except this time, the sound of the door opening didn't wake him up.
I called my boss; she arrived in record time and took control of the restaurant. Time seemed to crawl as I drove to the hospital, just four blocks from work. I missed the first turn. There was literally one turn, and I missed it. As I circled the block, I reached Mom on my cell; from her voice, I knew he was gone.
I met my Mom at the hospital, my grandmother had gotten there just minutes before me. Mom confirmed what I already knew in my heart: Dad was gone. Gramps arrived just before we went in to see him with the priest; as he hugged my mom, his daughter, he was already crying, "it should have been me." I hadn't wanted to see his body, I wanted to remember him alive; but I also didn't want to be left alone.
My recollection of the rest of that week is spotty. I remember pulling a hard lemonade from the fridge at my mom's house that same day, and the look on my teetotaling aunt's face. I remember gamely trying to celebrate my birthday with my mom and brothers. I remember deciding who I would or wouldn't trade to have my dad back. I remember the outpour of love and support, but mostly I remember the emptiness, the feeling like an invaluable but unappreciated appendage had been amputated.
Most of the year I'm fine, but every September that feeling comes back.