As a young girl, I was a shy and awkward and only capable of approximating happiness when left alone in my room with my books open and my door locked. For some inexplicable reason, or most likely lack of reason, my parents never sent me to camp or distant relatives’ homes during the summer. So I spent three months each year alone in my room, books open and door locked. I was not so much anti-social as anti-sports, -hot weather, -playing in the dirt, -bugs, -lack of structure and -the other kids in my neighborhood. I had friends. But they mostly read too. I grew up in a nowhere Midwestern town that provided limited opportunities for non-outdoorsy summer recreation. I’d spend three months agitatedly waiting for September to arrive on my doorstep, proclaiming the end of my miserable summer. I’d sense her approach in advance, like that of an aging diva who replaces lost bone density with equal quantities of expensive perfume. Spring arrives like an unexpected gift, summer’s arrival is only appreciated once it begins to annoy and winter appears in a single magical event. Autumn arrives like the guest of honor whose presence in the room is felt long before an official introduction. The the dry, crisp earthy aromas of autumn would come crashing into the pungent odors of overripe late summer gardens, making me delirious. Leaves began the dance that would eventually tear them from their limbs. Life reemerged from its summer stupor. Almanacs be damned, September signified for me renewal.
September. A new school year, new teachers, new books, new friends, new dramas, new clothes. A return to the routine of the intellectual stimulation, direction and structure provided by education. I could thrive again after three months of forced stagnation.
September. The Expo, the local town carnival. I fucking LOVE carnivals. I know… what’s a classy girl like me see in such low-brow dreck? I could go off making references to David Lynch or Fellini at this point, but the truth is, as a kid, I just thought they were mad fun. Oh sure, I was still a disaffected kid who judged everyone else having a fine time, their cliques, their cheep thrills, their mirrored Def Leopard pictures. But put me on fast ride and I no longer worried about the exploitation of goldfishes or the ethics of shooting toys for sport. Smart girls need stupid fun too.
September. Most and least importantly, my birthday. This was usually celebrated at the local Italian joint across the street from the fair. I was never fond of being the center of attention. Yet I was pleased to have one day each year when people were expected be nice to me and give me cake. So that my birthday was listed comfortably on a larger menu of events anticipated by the general public suited me perfectly. I wasn’t passed over like those born around the winter holidays, but neither was I a spectacle of my own. Ideal.
As I grew up, carnival rides were replaced by strolls down leafy city streets, the thrill of shopping for the newest fashions was replaced by that of unpacking favorite old sweaters and boots, textbooks were replaced by the fall issue of Vogue. Birthdays came to have less import. Maybe a friend or lover takes you to dinner. Maybe a family member sends a card. With age, there is far less pressure for everyone to pay you attention, and it is perfectly acceptable to be miserable even when they do. As an adult far from home, I used to stress out about if I should even tell people about my birthday, and how to do that. But facebook has solved that problem for us all. Like a good wine, both September and I improved with age. Until the age of 25.
In the wee morning hours of September 7th, 2000, I awoke to a phone call from my father. My mother had been in and out of the hospital with cancer for months, so when the phone rang at 4 am I knew to answer it. So when I was told I needed to come home now, my bags were already packed. “She isn’t going to make it,” my step-father struggled to get the words out of his throat. “Give her the goddamned phone, Paul. Hold it to her ear, understand?” … “Mom, I am on my way right now, going to the airport right now, I will be there by 8. And you WILL BE ALIVE when I get there. You will wait for me, understand? You are not allowed to die before 8am!!! Do you understand?!” “I love you,” a shallow whisper responded. As the setting for September tragedies are want to be, the morning sky in St. Louis that day was a perfect blue accented with fluffy white clouds and gossamer sunshine, as if heaven had agreed to meet its new resident halfway along her trip… My step-brother drove me from the airport to Barnes Jewish Hospital. She’d moved. No longer in the patients’ hall but the dying people’s hall on the other side of the ward. She was still alive and communicative. I promised her we’d be ok. Last rights were given. It was noon and no one had eaten since yesterday. The boys went down to the cafeteria. My sister and I sat chatting. When no one was looking my mother took her last breath.
My brother and I were whisked into the office of a staff social worker. “How are you doing?” she asked. My jaw dropped, and my brother screamed at her, “My fucking mother just died how do you think I am doing bitch!”
My brother and I went to the Expo after my mom died. Just the two of us. Now adults. In grief, in shock, in hell. We rode the fast rides. And rode them again. And again. We were singing at the top of our voices and laughing hysterically as we spun around and tilted about and were jerked to and fro at violent speeds. The carnie must have thought we were high. I’ve done enough drugs and can tell you nothing in the universe ever felt better or more right than riding those carnival rides with my brother that day. I’ve always appreciated the cathartic effect of a good carnival ride. But it was more this time. It had always, always been the three of us: My mom, me, my brother. Like the Three Musketeers. Like the Holy Trinity. It would never be the three of us again. Only the two of us were on this scary ride of life now. Holding on for dear life. Scared girls need stupid fun too.
A few days later, during one of the endlessly repeated conversations that take place when someone dies, leaving behind their stuff and their people, I got up the nerve to eek out, “…um. today’s my birthday. i’m so sorry…” For the next 10 years, I went through every September 12th feeling exactly as I did that day. “…um. today’s my birthday. i’m so sorry…” It was enough guilt to expect someone to bake me a cake just because I had made the journey out of the womb through no effort or ambition of my own. It was more than enough guilt to expect someone to bake me a cake while they were in the midst of a personal tragedy. To expect someone to bake me a cake in the midst of a national tragedy… Best to pretend birthdays don’t exist. Such a contrived and ridiculous rite cannot compete with the reality and gravity of Tragic Death.
And that’s what this month came to signify for me. Death. My old dependable friend September had turned on me like a dog. The last weeks of August had me bracing for emotional disaster, and when it came time to turn the page of the calendar I was nauseous with dread. Two weeks. Get through these two weeks and you are home free. Until Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. For a while. The worst will be over anyway. For a while. I was given and I took every form of advice about how to deal with my annual grief. But no plan of attack for acknowledging or not acknowledging these anniversaries made a bit of difference. There was absolutely no avoiding the pain and misery I felt for the first two weeks of September. Even a bad tooth can be pulled. There is no remedy for grief. There is no way to opt out of a month. I just had to sit and take it. Suffering. Loss. Resentment. At my mother. At my country’s foreign policy. At being born. At September.
On September 1st 2011, I awoke with a massive headache and a nosebleed but conspicuously little resentment or existential suffering.
When the year began I was contemplating offing myself because of circumstances largely out of my control. Nine months later, I am content, centered and enjoying life because of circumstances I’ve created myself. I did what I knew had to do to pull myself out of melancholia, even if it meant resorting to unorthodox measures. I made new and dear friends. I took scary risks, knowing I’d survive and have no regrets regardless their outcome. I’ve even begun to entertain the possibility of good outcomes. I’ve been wounded and I’ve learned how to treat my wounds. I do yoga every fucking day. I look in the mirror and quite like this smart vulnerable beautiful fucked up raw wise courageous curious charming person I see. I had promised my mother I would be ok. The only thing I resent right now is that she can’t see that I am. I miss her with a pain that is unearthly. But I don’t dread the pain, fight the pain, resent the pain. It just is. I don’t dread, fight or resent being born. I just was. No one deserves a cake just because they made the journey out of the womb, and no one deserves remembering just because they’ve long since taken their last breath. But damn it all I do deserve one after what I accomplished this year. And so does my mother. She must have done something quite right after all.
If I have learned anything from my Septembers, it is that nothing lasts forever. The day will come when I am not feeling so fearless and fabulous. When I hate my mother again. When a birthday will be another reminder of everything I have yet to do. The past, the future, birth, death… This time I am more interested in the present, in living life, in the cultivating and gathering of ideas and relationships and experiences, in the fruits of my labor, in the feast of gratitude. Harvesting the bounty. I’m 37 years late to the party, but the almanac and I are finally in sync.
So, who wants to go to the carnival? Grown up girls need stupid fun too.