Another piece of older writing, but one that returns to me every fall, with the leaves, new students and the new year. New writing will be here soon, I promise!
The reason it’s so hard to tell this story is because it’s a story I don’t want to tell. I want to talk about everything around it until the space where this story lives is a tiny white dot, surrounded by circling black sentences. Every time I add another layer of writing, the white dot grows more visceral, and its silence, louder. I’ve written about goodbyes, graduations, new homes, and final resting places. I’ve called them “rituals,” hoping to lessen the finality of endings. Rituals are predictable; life itself is not so patterned.
It was September, and everything was beginning. September brings autumn breezes and new books. Old friends reunite with excited cries, while new students grow younger every year. When I was a child, I rose at five in the morning, even though my first day of second grade would not begin until eight. I couldn’t wait to see what second grade would bring, and this was the start of it all. In college, September still brought the familiar rush of excitement and nerves, and a fresh sense of purpose…which always faded by midterms. Longing for September’s optimism soon became part of the ritual as well.
In September 2005, I had just returned from a National Historical Park on the East Coast, where I worked as a historical re-enactor for three months. I barely had time to recover from my colonial adventure before my senior year of college began. That September, I began writing my history undergraduate senior thesis, after eighteen months of research. I wrote my first few blurbs as a new intern for the Santa Cruz Good Times, a local weekly newspaper, and I discovered that I loved writing literature features. I studied for the GRE’s, enrolled in my last two literature courses, and I began applying to history graduate programs. Everything felt enormous as I prepared to finish college, and took my first steps toward the unimaginable territory of graduate school.
Then, on September 20, my friend Randy died. He was 25 years old, and he had graduated in June with a degree in politics. I remember his bright orange “party shirt,” and sharing cold drinks on his porch. I remember that everyone sat up straighter when he started coming to Kresge Student Parliament meetings. By his senior year, Randy was the Parliament chair, and I was the secretary. I gave him Robert’s Rules of Order for his birthday. He made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. Randy had worked on Ryan Coonerty’s mayoral campaign for the city of Santa Cruz. He was going to go far.
When I found out that he had died, there was a scream that started in my stomach.
The only poem I wrote that school year was about his funeral. I wrote it without meaning to, sitting at my desk in the Good Times office in September, waiting to hear back from a possible interviewee. I called the poem “Twenty-five,” and when I went outside to get some coffee, I read it to my mom over the phone. Meanwhile, leaves scattered on Pacific Avenue, and students huddled together in coffee shops. Somehow, it was still September.
The day after his funeral, I tried to read Clouds by Aristophanes. It was inconceivable. I asked for my first extension on a paper in my fourth year of college, because I was so overwhelmed with grad school applications, the GRE’s, my burgeoning thesis project, and Randy’s absence, which made everything else seem trivial. How could the leaves fall?
On September 20, 2006, I was a busy new graduate student. I spent the entire day reading, and trying not to think about anything. But in the middle of the night, I blew a tire right in front of his old house, and I heard him say “Sweet pea, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to blow a tire too.” I stumbled out of the car and cried “I know, I have to slow down, I’m sorry! I love you! I miss you!” It was the one-year anniversary of his death. I hadn’t forgotten. I was just tired of remembering.
Each September, I start another year working at a university Hillel. Autumn arrives with its familiar markers – leaves and books, new students to meet, High Holy Day services to plan. My sense of memory is stronger than my sense of present – the past is vibrant, finished, and contained, while the moment is gray and intangible. Rituals provide an imagined structure, the illusion that I can order the present because I can count on new students. I can rely on September.
In 2005, Randy’s death disrupted autumn. Familiar rituals seemed insignificant, cruel in the face of shattering change. But over the last few years, I’ve learned that life is not ritual, and that rituals change based on life. I never wanted September to mark an ending, but I didn’t get to make that choice. I can, however, choose the way I want to remember, now that Randy is part of the autumn landscape. Like books, like leaves. Like new beginnings.