All of 58 degrees today. Still, I wore shorts and flip-flops.
I don’t want this summer to end. Not because I feel nostalgic for these last three horrific months, but because if I agree to let this summer go, then it means we are marching forward, and HELL NO, I am not going on that hike.
I am staying right here. Spinning on this hamster wheel.
Keep on, summer. If you keep on, then I keep on. Deal? We can tread this hamster wheel together, and I will tell you something—I can spin this thing forever, even in my flip-flops.
Three months ago my sister died. One month ago my mom died. Summer, let me explain something to you, don’t mind if I catch you by the sunlight and yank you a few steps back, because you are not going anywhere.
What an action-packed season. Packed with crippling anxiety, full-blown panic attacks, medication and more medication, impulsive big decisions about my home and life and its mincing counterpart, indecision about even the smallest daily details (should I have toast? Should I have nothing? Should I waste a plate, or just shovel it into my mouth over the sink? Should I shower? Should I go to bed at 7:30? I think I can make it till 7:30). I can measure the summer days in quantities of tears shed and breakfast vomited up and miles walked and strings of snot and, best of all, the amount of alcohol it takes to fill up this empty shell. What a full life I’ve lived these last three months, which is more than my mom or sister got.
I talk to my dad every day, often two or three times. Last week, he caught me at the crest of one of my anxiety binges. I picked up the phone anyway, even though I knew I couldn’t hide the mess of me. If he calls and doesn’t get through, he spirals into a panic of his own, and doubling his panic and tears on top of my own is sure to drown us both.
“What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. “You sound horrible.”
I choked out something about feeling overwhelmed.
“What?” My father is 90 percent deaf.
“OVERWHELMED. BAD. I FEEL BAD.”
“I’ve never heard you sound like this in…in…how old are you?”
“My God, you’re old, I thought you were forty. Anyhow, never mind that, forty-seven years, my God, never heard you sound like this. What’s going on?”
I hid under a pillow and a blanket with the phone. “There’s something wrong with my mental health.”
“What? Blood test?”
“Blood test? No, I said my mental health.”
“MENTAL HEALTH, MENTAL HEALTH.”
“Go to your doctor,” he said. “Tell him you need a calming-down pill.”
“That’s not the medical name. Just say ‘calming-down pill,’ he’ll know what you mean.”
I promised I would ask about the calming-down pill even though I have a cupboard full.
“And call me later or I’ll worry, and you’ll give me a stomach ache.”
I hung up and screamed into the pillow for a while and then I walked my sister-in-law’s dog.
Together, my mom and my sister were the sun that the rest of the family, my dad and myself and my niece and my other sisters, revolved around. All the intergalactic mumbo-jumbo fits them. They kept us all turning nicely around the galaxy. Without them, we are planets spinning out of orbit, wildly clutching at one another as we break the bonds of gravity.
After each funeral this summer, my dwindling family and I sat outside on my sister Lisa’s deck, crying and drinking pitchers of margaritas. It was so close to being a perfect summer family party, except for the funerals.
“Nothing can happen to you.” I lurched drunkenly at Lisa, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Nothing can happen to you.”
She held on to my shoulders then, too. We were like two skydivers, the atmosphere threatening to force us apart. Then we slugged back another drink and stumbled through her neighborhood on a walk, where she was attacked by a poodle.
“Get away from her!” I screamed at the puffball.
It scampered away as its baffled owner called out, “Pretzel! Pretzel!”
My sister slumped against me on the way back home. “How embarrassing,” she murmured. “I can’t believe I was just attacked by a poodle.”
“I know! Are you bleeding?”
“No,” she said. “You saved me.”
My dad called me back that day last week when I fell to pieces over the phone. “I’ve been worried sick! You didn’t call! I don’t feel good.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. What’s wrong?”
“I have a stomach ache because of you, but never mind about that. Are you any better?”
“I guess,” I lied.
“Call me tomorrow morning,” he ordered, and then hung up.
Later, I got a text from Lisa.
Lisa: I’ve been talking to Dad…he wants me to make sure you are OK!
Me: I’m fine. He feels useful looking out for someone else.
Lisa: Go get a blood test.
Lisa: idk…Dad said that.
The next day I walked my sister-in-law’s dog again. I took him to a park and I told him about how my mother and my oldest sister both died this summer. He was like, I don’t even know where my parents and siblings ARE. We went into the woods, and he rolled in something stinky.
“Oh shit, I forgot to call my dad,” I said to the dog.
There’s surprisingly good reception in the woods.
“I called you and called you!” Dad shouted his greeting. “Where were you?”
“Did you try my cell?”
“I don’t know where all those phone numbers are! Bah! Do you feel any better today?”
I looked down at the dog. “A little.”
“Did you get the calming-down pills?”
“I did,” I said, “and they’re awesome.”
“I have them, too,” he confessed.
The dog and I finished our walk. He was staying with us while my sister-in-law and her family were out of town. “You’re on vacation,” I told him. “You haven’t been abandoned.”
He looked at me, so sly and knowing. He waggled his sad dog eyebrows. I know I was abandoned.
“You haven’t been abandoned,” I repeated.
I have. We all have.
Before bed, my cell rang.
“Dad said you’re not feeling well.” My other sister, Lori.
“I’m just depressed and having panic attacks and crying all the time, that’s all.”
“I hear you’re getting a blood test.”
“Christ almighty, I’m not—oh God, I don’t know, maybe I should just go get the goddamn blood test.”
She said, “I cleaned Dad’s apartment today, and his vacuum really sucks.” And we had a good, long, hollow laugh about that.
The dog went back to his rightful home on Sunday. “I won’t miss you. You didn’t belong to me,” I explained as we hopped in the car.
“You have a family. That’s where I’m taking you right now. And you were very congenial while you were here, I have no complaints, but that’s it. It’s over. We don’t belong together, and while I wish you well, it’s better if we just part now without too much fanfare.”
I will tell you something, though; he gave me a little bit of fanfare. But when I reached the agreed-upon halfway point and the other car pulled up, like two estranged parents in a custody battle, I couldn’t open the door. He panted, waiting for release.
“I really don’t like being touched,” I confided to him, “but here, just let me…I don’t know, maybe we could lean near each other or something, or have a warm handshake.” I took his paw. “There. That was nice. It was a pleasure having you. Best of luck.”
He bolted into the blue.
I drove forty-five minutes back home, blinded by rage and tears. “Fuck! Fuuuuck! Fuck this fucking life!” I hyperventilated into my sleeve and then pulled off the road near a farm stand. I slammed my sunglasses onto my swollen face and emerged from the car, trying to breathe.
“Goddamn it,” I said, striding up to the cashier sitting on a hay bale, flinging my wallet open like I was the Warren Buffett of Lake County, “I will take three pumpkins and a mum and I will take that hay bale, too.”
The fruits of fall, the harvest, crammed in the back of my Subaru. “Summer is over,” I wept into the steering wheel.
I made it home. I made it home. The sky above was gray and the air was thin and the grass was that peculiar shade of summer green dying into fall.
I called my dad. “This will never go away,” I cried.
“I know,” he said, “I know. It won’t. I don’t want it to. It’s all I have of her, of them both. Without it, I would be so lonesome.”
My family has a cemetery they can visit and each other and Lisa’s deck and Dad’s apartment and home, home, but I am 400 miles away and all I have are the woods where I walked a dog who wasn’t mine. I don’t even have the ghosts, only the ghost stories that I told the dog. But they still echo in the trees.