FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This essay originally appeared on October 28, 2020.
October has always been my favorite month. There is something about the autumn light coming through the red and orange leaves that makes me happy. Feeling cool morning air on my skin reminds me of Jordan Baker’s response to Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
But honestly, I think my love affair with October began much less poetically. I grew up in Alabama, and until I was in 7th grade, our home didn’t have air conditioning. For several years, neither did my school. Sometimes people of my generation reminisce about those days and say things like, “You know, we didn’t even notice the heat back then.”
That was not me. I did not know what air conditioning was or how it felt, but I knew I hated the heat. I hated tossing in damp sheets, praying that the fan would finally cool down the room enough for sleep. I hated sitting in hot classrooms, my arms so wet with sweat that they sometimes slid off the desk when I tried to write.
In Alabama, October was the first month that you could trust cooler weather was coming to stay. Occasionally, I could even wear a sweater in the morning, and although it was wrapped around my waist by afternoon, the heat was not overbearing. Finally, at night, I could snuggle under a sheet and fall asleep. To make a good thing even better, the month began with my father’s birthday and ended with Halloween. There was nothing bad about October in my eyes.
As I grew up, the litany of love grew even longer. I work at a college, and by October the craziness of the beginning of the semester is over, but the equal insanity of the rush before finals has not started. And it seems that every weekend has a festival of some sort, a chance to walk outside and enjoy the beautiful weather.
For a book nerd like me, there is no more perfect festival than the Southern Festival of Books. Both my worlds commingle there; I see my writing friends and my teaching friends. We catch up between sessions, find a place for a quick cup of coffee, or agree to meet for a glass of wine after the day is over. In more solitary moods, I skip a session and just walk among the vendors. Most years, I buy a selection of poetry books and a t-shirt (or two). Then I buy a hotdog, sit on a bench, and watch people.
I know from my journals that there have been some festivals where the weather was rainy and miserable. I know sometimes it was unbearably hot, and other times it was chilly enough for heavy jackets. But I only know this from my journals. In my memory, the Festival weekends are always cool and comfortable under blue skies. They are the epitome of the perfect autumn.
Or they were.
At the end of August in 2013, I drove to Alabama to have lunch with my family. My father wasn’t there; my mom said he wasn’t feeling well. After lunch, she finally broke down and told us that Daddy had cancer. In fact, he’d had it for years. And now the doctor said there was no chance of survival. I was devastated and shocked. I’d just seen him a month earlier, and I had no clue.
The following weeks were a blur. My father was the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing before I finally went to sleep. I pretty much sleepwalked through my job. At times, I thought I might actually die before him due to the unrelenting anxiety.
His birthday that year was a somber affair. He was in hospice care by then, given enough painkillers that he slept most of the time. My family was going week by week. I decided to attend the Southern Festival as usual, hoping books might be a distraction from the mourning that had already begun. But, of course, they were not.
On October 25, he died, and we held his funeral on the 28th.
As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, it takes a year to even start feeling normal, because that first year is full of firsts: the first Thanksgiving without the loved one, then the first Christmas, the first birthday, and so on. I didn’t know there could be so many firsts.
I anticipated that the first October without him would be especially hard, starting with his birthday. There would be no buying a card and a gift. There would be no birthday lunch. The weeks leading up to the first anniversary of his death were even worse than I imagined. I learned that my grief was not unusual. A friend of mine told me that her father died around Christmastime, and she never had the same holiday spirit again, even though she celebrated with her children and then her grandchildren. There is something about a death anniversary that lingers long after you think you have healed and come to terms with the loss.
Still, while I was sad that I couldn’t greet October with my usual enthusiasm, I made myself go through the motions. I took my usual autumn walks. I went to the book festival. And I think I was the only person who knew that my heart wasn’t in it.
Eventually, I did start to heal. I could talk about my father without crying. Memories could still make my heart ache, but there was a sweet tinge to them that no longer made me dread them. I just couldn’t get back my love of October, though. If anything, I seemed to become sadder and more sensitive each year. I felt like a giant bruise all month. Two years ago, after a friend I had not seen in months decided to sit with some other people at a session at the Southern Festival of Books, I left and cried all the way home. I knew my reaction was out of proportion to what happened, but I couldn’t help it. I was overwhelmed with sorrow.
By 2019 I was beginning to think that this was the way every October would be. I was melancholic and touchy and probably wouldn’t have gone to the Festival at all if a friend hadn’t been presenting. I sat through some sessions and bought my usual poetry books, but with little pleasure. Since it was a pretty day, I decided to go for a walk and take some photos.
I walked around the state Supreme Court Building, snapping pictures of Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson. At the front of the building, I didn’t recognize one of the statues, and as I tried to get closer to the plaque with his name, I tripped and fell. Hard. Dazed, I lay on the marble thinking that this could be something bad. My arm and knee had hit with full force. And it hurt. Really, really hurt. Little by little, I made my way to a standing position and tried out my limbs. They were working, but I could feel my knee already swelling against my jeans.
I made it to my car and drove to the closest doc-in-the-box. The staff there were kind and X-rayed my knee. Nothing was broken, it turned out, but the swelling was impressive. The doctor wrapped my knee and gave me a prescription of regular icing and Advil.
Given my general mood, I suppose I should have declared October officially dead to me and just decided to find another month to love. But as I lay on the sofa that night with my knee raised and iced, a different mood hit me, one that I had not experienced in six Octobers: gratitude.
I was grateful that I had not broken my knee or my arm. I was grateful that I had not banged my head on the marble and ended up with a concussion or worse. And I’ll admit I was grateful that no one witnessed that fall.
Something shifted in me that day. October was no longer just about my dad’s death. It was about his life. And the life that I had left, which he would have wanted me to enjoy. While I couldn’t bend my knee for a solid week, I made sure to hobble out into that October air a little every day to appreciate the light coming through the trees.
Jordan Baker was right: Life does start all over again in the fall, although sometimes the reawakening might need a little unexpected earthly help.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Faye Jones. All rights reserved. Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in 19th-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.