My boy ran his first cross country race this weekend. I arrived just in time to see him ready at the starting line, probably a full foot shorter than the kids crowded around him and jostling for space. I needed to reach him before the gun went off–“Mommy, will there REALLY be a gun there?” he’d asked me late the night before, too nervous to sleep easily—but my progress was impeded by how I kept inconveniently bursting into tears.

The tears are nothing new, as much a part of me as my freckles are now, but the propensity to them is always greater in September.

There’s a vulnerability that happens even to the most jaded of us when everything around you is as unabashedly gorgeous is as fall is in upstate NY, and this weekend was no exception. The leaves are starting to turn here but it’s still summer-warm and everything is tinted just a hint of yellow like we’re looking at each other through a gauze of gold spun to thin. The trees can get so beautiful here that seeing them is like being slapped in the face by nature and reminded of things bigger than yourself, your life, your seemingly constant inability to get any place on time ever.

My birthday is also in September, something that I hold my breath for less and less every year but that still tinges this season in a sugary coat of celebration-sense, a holdover from once being small and prone to great fits of excitement.

It’s also the time of year my mother died–two days after my birthday, to be exact–and while you would think that would cast its own gloom shadow across my path what it seems to do instead is rip me open, like I’ve gone outside without realizing that I’m naked and can’t understand why I can feel everything so much: the warmth of the sun, sure, but also the chill in the breeze.

It’s both beautiful and terrible at once, together, and I am always a little afraid to be in public in this state because people tend to frown upon both impromptu curling up in the fetal position and day drinking at high school sporting events and I ONLY HAVE SO MANY COPING MECHANISMS, PEOPLE.

But then I reached him, put my hand on his shoulder and leaned in to say into his ear what my father had always said to me before I raced: “run your ass off, kiddo.”

He smiled back at me. “That sounds like something they’d say in a movie,” he said, a high compliment, and the gun I’d promised delivered a loud crack above our heads, followed by the pounding of hundreds of adolescent feet as they carried my boy as fast as they could away from me.

I felt the tears warn and looked to the trees for solace as he ran into them and disappeared from view, watched the branches sway from the breeze created by a thousand exhales. I’d run this course before myself, could still remember my father’s breath in my own ear, those words, the gun, the freedom like no other that is letting yourself run as fast as you can, even if it hurts. 

I’d reached wrong for my husband’s razor that morning in the shower and cut my finger and it was still bleeding as I stood there and waited for my boy to come back around. The blood was even more red in the September sun and I remembered Maria asking me the night before why blood is red but looks blue when it is in your veins.

“It’s the light, I think,” I said, obtuse. “No. That’s not right. It’s the way the light is reflected to your eye. The blue light travels fastest, so the blood looks blue, but it’s red. It’s a trick of the light.”

“Like how the sky looks blue?” she said, remembering science class.

“Yes, and the oceans too.”

“God, it’s so cool how everything out there repeats itself, isn’t it?” she’d asked, a sage without knowing.

And isn’t it?

I looked at my own hands, the blue of the veins on the back like a roadmap strikingly similar to my mother’s, the veins themselves an echo of the branches of the trees. I watched my boy come back around the bed, finishing where he started, where I started and finished twenty years before. I gave into the impulse to weep just a little behind the dark lenses of my absurdly large sunglasses. It seemed appropriate.

When I found him afterward, I said “How was it?”

“Great,” he answered, still so out of breath that much more than single word answer would have been impossible.

“And how do you feel?”

He took a big breath in. I watched a single drop of sweat ride down the bridge of his nose and pool there. “Absolutely terrible.

I reached out then to embrace him but stopped short, remembering how his friends were there me how he had asked me to try to control myself a little when we were in public, for God’s sake. Instead I dabbed the bead of sweat with my finger, forgetting the cut until I felt the sting of his salt cut through it. It hurt but not enough to stop me from laughing right through all the dumb tears, because isn’t that it? Isn’t that running? Isn’t that all of the hard things, all of the things that matter and change us and make us better for having lived them? Aren’t they at once great and absolutely terrible?

Aren’t they just like September?

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4 thoughts to “A Trick of the September Light

  • dolores petrone

    So proud of Jack on his first race. So proud of you on another great post. xxoo

  • Gary Alan Chamberlain

    Your son is a lucky (blessed? who can tell the difference?) guy because he and you know at least a little of that same truth—”the freedom like no other that is letting yourself run as fast as you can, even if it hurts.” It is indeed like no other. There’s an odd and obscure novel from decades ago called “Once a Runner.” There’s an odd and obscure old black-and-white film (with Tom Courtney, no less) called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” I could cite a handful of others—but the point is this wonderful truth and joy of being willing to hurt in order to be fully alive, in order to know your own outer edges of possibility, in order to be you. You continue to astonish me.

  • DeBonis Karen

    I hope you won’t tire, Liz, of me saying again “what a beautiful post.”

  • LilyPoppins

    Reminded me of why I used to run and you did an amazing summary on September.


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