There's a ritual I observe every autumn.
I first think about it when I see the first sign of autumn.
My ancestors came from the far north. Our DNA reflects Slavic, Saami (Lapp) and Viking ancestry. Summer is always a challenge.
When I'm deep in the lap of summer, sweating and squinting and seeking unavailable shade, one day, when it seems, truly, I'm lost in an endless desert, I see it: red leaves in a green tree.
Usually it's a poison ivy vine snaking up a plump maple in a scarlet, serpentine pattern.
Then, one evening, I take it for granted that I can do something outside in full sun. It'll be seven or eight o'clock and I'll want to go birdwatching and I'll step out and hey! It's dark! Where did that endless summer evening go? Who turned out the lights?
I know autumn is on her way, the hem of her skirts sweeping in silver stars where lemon sunbeams had been.
And I know that that fall ritual is upon me.
I mostly gaze at Phil's photo, and I remember what I remember of him, and I cry. The tears always amaze me because the tears are fresh.
Storage. I'm a homebody, a hausfrau, and I think a lot about storage. I keep the high quality chocolate in the refrigerator. I look down on plastic. I never throw out glass jars because glass is nonreactive, airtight, and superior for storage.
Where are these tears kept?
In this sterile happenstance Darwinian universe, in this God-breathed creation, one truth all beliefs share: everything wears down; even stone melts under streams.
But tears. They never spoil. They never age.
And then I say, "Okay, that's it for this year." And I stop thinking about Phil, and bottle the tears up again till next year.
Phil was seven years older than I and a guy, and our family wasn't close anyway, so we really didn't have much one-on-one time.
I remember when I was younger than ten, and Phil was a young teen. We packed a bag with rags and he and I and some of his friends went down the woods. We wrapped the rags around Tommy so that he looked like the Mummy, the monster star of one of those Golden-Age, black-and-white, Hollywood movies we were always watching on TV. Tommy, dressed in rags to look like the Mummy, chased us around the woods, and we were genuinely scared. At least I was.
I ended up in the Wanaque River that day. I don't remember if I fell in or was thrown in. I remember that baptism as being a moment in my overcoming my fear of bugs and the woods in general. Like all little girls, I liked pink and shiny things, and princesses. Four older brothers and a house near woods and Bohunk parents changed that, and a woods-woman I became.
A darker memory. I was lying on the couch. Our house was small and there were a lot of us, so more than one person could be doing more than one thing in the same room. I was sleeping and Phil was listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" over and over and delivering a monologue. I don't remember who his audience was. Was he talking to a person who was in the room also? Was he talking on the phone? He was a great storyteller, a raconteur. I remember him. I don't remember his audience on this night.
When was this night? "Born to Run" was released on August 25, 1975, so this night had to have occurred after that date. "Born to Run" made the cover of TIME and Newsweek on October 27, 1975. But of course Phil never got to see that. So this night would be the last night I had the chance to hear him tell his stories.
After Phil started talking, I only pretended to be asleep. I wanted to hear everything he was saying.
Phil talked about the frustrations, brick walls and injustices he was hitting in life. We were Bohunks, working class. Our parents were peasant immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had had a very tough time of it in America and they had no idea how to train us to open doors of opportunity. Phil was driving a truck, something he was not at all suited to.
What should Phil have done?
He was an angel. What do angels do during their brief sojourns among us mortals on earth?
Phil spoke of me in his monologue. "Diane is so naïve. Diane has no idea." He was right of course.
I despise capital A Atheists who insist that there is no such thing as precognition. I grew up with it. My mother was psychic. My father was as well, but perhaps less so, or perhaps he just talked about it less.
My mother woke up exactly a week before. She saw her mother's face above her. Her mother was trying to tell her something hard. My mother didn't want to hear the message my grandmother was trying to convey to her. My mother said, "No, mama, no. No, mama, no." I can hear my mother now saying these words. "No," she said. She refused knowledge. She did not hear her mother's message.
On other occasions she had listened. One of my mother's deceased, Old Country ancestors once woke my mother up from a sound sleep and told her to get out of bed. My mother listened to this voice and got up to discover that Mike, who was a baby then, had climbed out of his crib and was crawling near a carpentry project of my father's, a large, unstable book case. Had my mother not found him, the bookcase might have fallen on him. So, yes, you listen to your departed loved ones when they came to warn you, especially when they speak with a Slavic accent.
This message my mother refused to hear. But she knew something bad was about to happen.
She told me. "Something bad, really bad, is about to happen. I don't know what it is. I didn't want to hear. I didn't want to know. Be prepared."
I can remember now the suspended horror I felt that week. I knew my mother's psychic abilities were reliable. I just didn't know what was going to happen. I felt, that whole week, as if something dark and sinister were right over my shoulder, right behind me, pursuing me and my family, and it was just a matter of time.
A week later, Phil was killed in a car accident. He was not the driver. It was my birthday.
And so I remember every year.
My brother Mike died young, as well. Phil was 23; Mike was 34. But Mike did not die on my birthday, so I don't have a ritual for him.
I was the last person in our family to see Phil alive. I was seated at the kitchen table. He came down the stairs. He went to the sink to get a glass of water from the faucet. His back was to me. He was wearing a fine shirt with a woman's face on the back. Those shirts were popular then. He turned and went out the back door.
In the dream I had over and over for the next five years, at the last minute, I rise from the kitchen table and rush to the back screen door. I put my hand on the door handle. I stop him.
Phil turns around. Phil was a beautiful guy. But in the dream, he is preternaturally radiant. He is smiling a smile of confidence that surpasses anything I can interpret. He refers to me by my nickname. He says, "I gotta go, Di."
I had that dream for five years before I realized that he wasn't referring to me by my nickname at all. He was, rather, telling me, "I gotta go die."
After I realized that, I never had the dream again.
If I am still around, I will probably post this same message some time next fall. I will tell you the same memories, all over again. Phil was seven years older than I, and a guy, and our family wasn't close, so I have a limited number of memories to go through.