It’s the time of year, green leaves to golden to red then falling down down down to the dry grasses below to be crunched and crumbled together back into the elements. Everything in a race to die or to become something new altogether. Changing a state of being. Loss of light, loss of time, loss. That’s the other definition of autumn.
I first saw the black squirrels when I stepped foot on Notre Dame’s campus one fall, the fall when I cut the cord from home, my attachment to my parents was what I assumed was a thin and tattered and barely-together string. When really it was a string of my decisions to flex my young adulthood and do too many tabs of LSD and smoke too many joints and drink too many mad dog 4040s and drive too freely at the same time.
A week into campus life, I realized – with the sheer might of a life force of ancestors and the great greats to the great to the grandparents to the parents to the child – that I did in fact love my parents. I needed them. And it was unnatural for me to be gone, so far away. In a different time zone no less.
The nun in my dorm, Sister Mary Ann, SMA for short, diagnosed me: homesick. I sat awake each night, on an empty stomach, silent tears running down my face, nostalgic, wanting to be in a time of blurred memories that brought warmth. Not wanting it to end. Wanting to be us and only us.
We weren’t a pride of lions, or pod of orcas or pack of wolves that to prove ourselves had to send the sub-adults off to fend for themselves. After all, I could already do my own laundry and make scrambled eggs.
Last week, as I sat at the hospital and mindlessly scrolled through my news feed, I landed on an article about attachment issues, one of those click-bait articles, an armchair psychologist musing on the matter of children and if they are normal and healthy or if they have big issues. As I read the symptoms of one of those quote “big issues,” I breathed in quickly and set down my coffee cup. Cannot bear to be out of your presence – check. Afraid of you dying – check. Diagnosis: Separation anxiety.
Every night, maybe from 1986 to 1988, my parents would facilitate the bedtime routine – picking out my clothes for the next day, brushing teeth and hair, saying our prayers and naming everyone we loved and could think of, and reading some bedtime books or Shel Silverstein poems. My parents took turns in the slog, smoothing over the fights on which knee socks to wear and keeping the number of books to read under five. Mom or Dad would turn the light out, walk downstairs, and find a moment of solace. Only a moment. Because ten seconds later, I would be trailing behind down the stairs, Strawberry Shortcake or She-Ra or Rainbow Bright nightgown on and my yellow honeycomb baby blanket in tow, announcing that I couldn’t sleep. Big sighs would follow. Some negotiation, maybe a few more tries up in my bed, an attempt at a magical combination of nightlights, and then finally, giving in by letting me crawl into bed between them. Some nights, in my creepier moments, I would stand at the foot of their bed and stare at them, waiting for them to notice, wishing for them to read my mind and startle awake. Then that way, I wouldn’t get an exasperated scolding for tugging on their shoulders and waking them up. They would have just woken up on their own. But mostly, I wanted them to wake up because I thought they were dead. I thought they were going to leave me. I knew that they would leave me.
Which is why fall is so hard for me. And this fall in particular. It’s the going back to school. It’s the transition from one grade to the next, one plane to the next, one treatment to the next. The minutes that turn into hours that turn into days that, we hope, turn to years, that things will never be the same. It feels like loss. The smell of it. The nostalgia swells, expanding my chest and coming up and out of my throat like something I can’t swallow but also cannot speak of. My stomach is empty. And the only sign of life I see from the hospital window are the black squirrels.