The first day of fall was yesterday. When I was much younger I used to think that the official first day of any new season was supposed to be magically different — leaves would suddenly be brilliant orange and yellow on the first day of fall, snow had to cover the ground on the first day of winter, and I always thought you had to, just had to, go to the beach on the first day of summer. Or, at the very least, to that little piece of ice water-filled concrete heaven we called the Plains pool.
As best I can recall, at least 30 some odd out of 44 changes in season I’ve lived through weren’t that way at all. There may have been a nip in the air in the wee hours of the morning or a leaf may have been teetering on the yellow side of green, but no explosions of full blown fall that I can remember.
And for nearly half of the all the days of fall I’ve been around for, I haven’t liked the season at all.
I sat with a stranger on a bench recently, for just a few moments, enjoying a brief break of sunshine on a late afternoon. She was older and sat alone, an unopened book on her lap. The September air was still thick with remnants of summer that refused to let go. But every few minutes they were pushed aside by an ever so faint breeze that teased of something cooler. We were both in our own worlds, but as another cool hint of fall washed over us, I heard her say, “I love this time of year.”
Most folks would have said, “Me, too.” Not me. I haven’t liked fall for a long, long time.
It was early September 1987, just a few days past Labor Day. Nineteen years old, I remember sitting on the arm of the sofa in our den when my uncle told me that my daddy had cancer. I don’t remember anything else about that day. Only that one word. Fall that year was spent going back and forth to Atlanta, visiting daddy in the hospital there, praying that the doctors were wrong and everything would be all right, realizing it wouldn’t, and waiting for the day he could come home. Halloween decorations turned to Thanksgiving in the hallways of the hospital.
He came home before Christmas.
It was late September 1988, a few days after the first official day of fall. I was asleep on the sofa in our den when someone woke me up and told me it was time. It was still dark outside when I went into my parents’ room. My sisters and my brothers and my mother were already there, sitting by the hospital bed that was tucked in the corner of the room. He didn’t speak when I sat at the foot of the bed. I placed my hand on his leg and felt his whole body move as he struggled to breathe, each breath coming farther and farther apart. And then there were none. Two days later, in a little cemetery on the outskirts of town, we placed him next to his mother and father. I don’t remember if the leaves were orange and yellow or if there was a cool breeze in the air. I just remember it was fall.
“I wish I loved this time of year like so many people do,” I told my companion under the pavilion that day. She asked me why I didn’t and I told her that it held bad memories for me, that some of the saddest times of my life have happened in the fall. And then, I’m not quite sure, but I must have sighed because she looked straight at me and told me something I won’t forget.
“But you’re here now and you’re alive,” she said. “And no matter how much sadness you’ve had in years past, you don’t have to be sad now. It’s up to you.”
And with that a breeze like none so far we had felt in those few moments washed over us, gentle and calm. It wasn’t cold. It was barely even cool. But it was different, and I took it as a sign — a nudge from heaven that this stranger was right.
On Tuesday my daddy will have been gone 24 years. Twenty five years of me not liking this time of year. But I think this year things are going to change.
Because I’m here now and I’m alive and as odd as it may sound, a perfect stranger and a calming breeze told me it was okay not to be sad anymore — at least not just because it’s fall. And the next time someone says they love this time of year, I might just be able to say me too again.
Contact columnist Mandy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org.