Modern Family Seasons of Love

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I’ve never put much stock in New Year’s resolutions; January doesn’t inspire me as a time for new beginnings. It’s always been the fall, with all those brand new composition notebooks waiting to be filled and the rubbery tang of pristine pencil erasers, that has felt most ripe for reinvention. You could return to school each year with a completely blank slate, creating a new persona to go with your gleaming Trapper Keeper and Holly Hobbie lunchbox.

It’s been 25 years since I last registered anywhere as a student. And even though that means I’ve been out of school far longer than I ever was in it, my internal calendar is still intrinsically calibrated to the school year. Whenever fall rolls around, I feel the urge to take stock and start fresh, to tackle new projects and reorient myself. And summer still feels almost holy: a time of unfettered days of riding bikes to nowhere amidst the droning hum of cicadas and the unrelenting rays of morning sun. Nights chasing fireflies and eating Popsicles, whispering secrets at sleepovers. No homework. No agenda. Rules and bedtimes gone temporarily slack.

The need for a relaxing summer felt especially pressing this year. Last spring we unexpectedly found ourselves needing to leave the school our two boys had called home for four years. We were relieved and thrilled to find them both ideal new placements, but I was impatient for the school year to end so we could officially pull up stakes and move on. I counted down the days till summer began. And once it did, I vowed to let it unfold slowly. I didn’t want to wake up in September and wonder where the time had gone. Instead,  I wanted to be intensely present, to drink in all that good summer zen.

That vow took on an unintended poignancy when, across a three-week period in June, the blissful bubble of summer was pierced by the news that three people close to me had each suffered the tragic loss of a young family member. Ever since my father passed away suddenly in 2012, I’ve been extremely uncomfortable with death. An unfamiliar and unwelcome undercurrent of anxiety had crept into my life as I became hyper-aware of just how fragile we are. It was as if whatever filter had previously allowed me to function in a world where things sometimes went horribly wrong was suddenly stripped away. I became convinced that such an outcome was not just a possibility but a certainty, a rule rather than the exception. I was beset with irrational worry about the terrible fates I was certain would befall the people I cared most about. How was it conceivable that you could love something so much that could one day be taken away? Would it be better to hold back somehow?

But rather than forcing me farther down the rabbit hole of anxiety, that unnerving trio of tragedies pushed me, surprisingly, in the opposite direction. They made clear that there is simply no way to protect against the myriad terrible possibilities that can cross your path, many of them ghastly and heartbreaking. The only answer was to love even harder, to celebrate and appreciate the myriad possibilities that aren’t ghastly and heartbreaking. Sometimes that means being more mindful of the simplest of joys. The wonder of a just-picked backyard tomato.  A hot shower after a day at the beach. The chance to watch your kids ride their bikes down your childhood street.

Just as I was grappling with all of this, I came across a blog post about the death of my friend Sarah’s brother, who was killed in a car accident on his way to pick up his children at camp. In trying to come to grips with the loss, Elizabeth McGuire quoted a passage from Louise Erdrich’s “The Painted Drum” that stopped me in my tracks.

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on Earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

“I guess the lesson is that we aren’t here to protect ourselves,” McGuire wrote in a comment. “We are here to be vulnerable.”

I found myself thinking of those words all summer long, as I savored gorgeous berries, lingered over impromptu beers with neighbors and cheered with my family at Camden Yards. I thought of those words as I spent the umpteenth night eating takeout pizza at our neighborhood pool, watching my carefree boys pretzel themselves off the diving board. The pool is now long closed, the beach boardwalk shuttered for another year. But I’m still trying to remember those words, to embrace my utter vulnerability instead of constantly trying to hedge against it.

I want to be sure I can tell myself I tasted as many apples as I could.

Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend.

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