The temperature dropped 20 or 30 degrees in an instant. It wasn’t gradual or subtle. A single, prolonged gust brought the north wind down upon us and everything changed. Now the windows are caked in confused moisture and the leaves racing down the pitched roof sound like thunderous rain.
Earlier in the day was like springtime, slowly sunny and moist air from last night’s showers lingered into the afternoon. I did my best dad routine and went outside in a pair of weekend jeans and t-shirt to move boxes around the storage shed and rake up months’ worth of live oak limbs and leaves. By the time I paused for the first time to grab the neck of a Topo Chico through work gloves I was sweating profusely. It must have been 80 in the shade.
This evening, before the drop, I bundled Orla up, gathered some water and a flashlight, and pushed her down the hill toward Zilker and the annual Christmas light show. She’d been sick all day but I’d been promising all week, and by then she seemed on the mend and the night was hazy and warm. There were people everywhere, including fathers stinking of fresh weed stepping away from the family car with their sons and daughters, and mothers clutching 22s of Bud with one hand while another clung to a stroller handle. Whatever. It was beautiful.
The foot traffic buoyed our spirits over the forgotten sickness and added to the scene of Christmas lights haphazardly strung above Chuy’s. By the time we crossed Robert E. Lee the street was closed and we were free to walk down the middle of the road, even though the rest of the families still curiously huddled together in the shadows of the congested sidewalks. Orla and I, though, rolled slowly toward the lights as distinct wafts of wood smoke passed by the breeze.
It was then that I was taken back to some holiday prior, walking along and outside the colonial red brick walls of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, imagining the warmth of the fires just inside: fires in pits, fires in barrels, fires in hearths, fires roasting meat, heating chestnuts, and bringing strangers (some in period dress) together. I’d been there in a foot of snow and on balmy nights. I’d been there with my parents primarily, and yet the vision brought on by the smell made me long for my parents as if the memory was mine alone and I had to somehow share it with them.
At the entrance we sat on the median looking up at the pecan trees that lined the way. For weeks prior we’d seen people with plastic bags at dawn picking up fallen nuts on our way to school, first hers and then mine. Despite the warmth into December the leaves were brown, although completely intact on their branches, like an autumn pin oak back home. To pass the time I played a game with Orla, showing her how we could look into the trees and catch sight of a shimmering crescent leaf floating toward us out of the darkness and catch it (sometimes) at the last minute. We were both surprised if any accidentally found their way into my palm. Orla wanted to keep them like prizes.
And again here I was in some distant thought, generic yet distinct: a warm autumn night with trees taller than legends shedding their seasonal burdens. Notre Dame, in the courtyards lit only by crowned streetlamps between Dillon and Alumni Halls. The same courtyard that I threw up in the morning after I got drunk for the first time. I was in high school. It was autumn, I remember leftover Halloween candy discarded on the floor of the stranger boys’ dorm room. Far from secular, ND told us that I couldn’t stay with my sister, and so instead I bunked with her boyfriend, being introduced to posters on plaster, Bud Ice, and those courtyards, lit in an October darkness that was mysterious and full of promise.
But maybe it was spring. I remember later that day on a river’s shore as the bare trees were sprouting, not dropping. We walked across a misty field on campus and I found a lacrosse ball on the ground. She told me I could keep it. We watched the football team practice off-season. They were huge. Was it in fact Valentine’s Day candy? I think so. But that courtyard. That wasn’t a spring courtyard. I come back to that vision, that memory, and it’s never March or April. It’s October. Always October.
That’s when the trees exploded.
Immediately and without warning hundreds of leaves pelted us and blew bikes, strollers, and small children across the avenue. Hours later I was still wiping dirt out of my ears and Orla’s eyes. The wind was so loud it momentarily drowned out the cries of excitement and fear from the hundreds of people still walking to the display. We had to turn away from the trees, away from the wind. It seemed to go on forever, attacking us personally.
Minutes before I had held Orla’s legs and looked into her eyes to tell her how happy I was to be spending this time together with her. Like she always does in moments like these she looked away and frantically tried to find something else to point out and talk gibberish about. Nothing’s as sad as a sentimental daddy. And daddy’s sentimental a lot. But now she clutched me as I tried to smile through the roar and nearly shout into her face, “Don’t worry! It’s just wind! You’re OK!” She never took her eyes off of me.
One day I’ll remember this. Maybe as it was, or maybe in some misconstrued fiction. If nothing else I’m writing it here not because it’s significant, but because it’s insignificant, just like all of the other memories that recursively return to me at opportune times.
When I die it will remind me of sometime earlier in life. Not of birth or some significant moment; there will be no clean bookend or poignant deja vu. No. When I die I’ll think of how calm the Detroit River can be at 6 a.m., in May’s first light it looks like glass, or a mirror. I’ll smell the musty lobby of Margaret Jacks Hall at Stanford, the first building I stepped into and how it filled me with awe and dread and a sense of not belonging during my entire existence there. I’ll feel the hardness of the ground as I lay uncomfortably in Yosemite, under my desk, or next to my crying daughters’ cribs.
Will the temperature drop suddenly then like it did tonight? Will the trees explode while people run selfishly away? Will the house breathe warm air in the face of the cold darkness outside?
I certainly hope so. Because I’ve seen it, and I faced it, and I held my daughter’s frightened body in its fury and told her first that I loved her and second that it would be OK. I believed it in the moment even as I was already thinking of other moments gone by.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been listening to this song for nearly a year now. On one hand it feels like it’s been with me for years, its earworm refrain burrowing into me since birth. On the other it feels like ground I still haven’t fully explored. In either case, this song remains one of my favorites. Basia likewise remains one of my favorite acts to see in person, so humble and beautiful in her ethereal talent. I always recall meeting her, after a short set at a venue in San Francisco carved out of an old church practically in the middle of the city. But then I remind myself that, no, I never met her. Yes, I saw here, but we never met. Perhaps the music is just that intimate, the memory just that transcendent.