I remember my mother pulling her cardigan a little more tightly across her breasts, her gaze fixed on a faraway spot I could never see, and saying with a certain wistfulness, “Autumn is a sad time.” And it is, I guess. Leaves turn scarlet, gold, and orange, then wither and fall to the ground. We watch life changing before our eyes, there’s a sudden chill in the air, and we instinctively hold things closer, not wanting them to slip from our grasp. Some of the people I’ve loved most in the world have passed away in the autumn: my mother, my Papa, my sister.
But Fall is a time of renewal as well. Ferris wheels and cotton candy, the beginning of school with the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, the start of the holiday season, new leather boots and wooly sweaters.
Death and life, life and death. Grief and love, love and grief. Dancers all. And forever intertwined.
Enter Brianna. Eighteen years old, slight of build, black hair to her waist, cute quirky eyeglasses, a sweet manner. We sat down together in the University of Memphis Student Center last week. This is her story:
“When I was little, my mom used to bring boyfriends around and they’d try to get me to call them Daddy, but I never would. Not until Aaron came along. I was three then, and he was the only one I ever called Daddy. He was the one I picked. From then on, he pretty much took care of me, even though I wasn’t his biological child. He loved me just like I was his own kid. My mom could never clean up her act, so when I was twelve years old, he got legal custody of me and I moved to his house full-time. With my mom, I had lived in a really bad part of Memphis where there was a lot of substance abuse and it was dangerous to be outside even in the daytime, but with my dad I was safe.
“He was really proud of me. He always said it too. He was so proud that I graduated high school and so excited about me starting college. I’m the only one in my biological family to get even as far as eleventh grade. Without him, I probably would have ended up like all the other women in my family: out on the street, with five kids, living off the government. He gave me a reason to try. Because of him I got to participate in things at school like choir, color guard, and theater. He always put a roof over my head and food in my stomach. I never went hungry, and I’ve always had clothes. He taught me that a real dad doesn’t have to be your bio dad. A real dad is the person who takes care of you and loves you unconditionally.
“He was always single; he never married, and I was the only child he ever had, biologically or not. Of course I’m a girl, so he very much spoiled me, but he raised me to be strong and independent too. He always gave me good life lessons and instilled good values in me. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t get stuck on sad things. Move on.’ He instilled a really good work ethic in me too. He said, ‘Whatever you do, whether it’s school or a job, do your best.’ Basically, don’t be half-assed about it.
“This summer, my dad had a massive heart attack at work and passed away—he was only 45, which is really young for a person—so I’m kinda by myself now. That’s why I wanted to share this memory of him. He wasn’t just my dad. He was my everything. My best friend, my mentor, my rock. He was life itself. He gave my childhood back to me.
“I miss him a lot. We just had fall break and that made me think about how we used to go to the Smoky Mountains this time of year. Fall was his favorite season, when all the leaves were changing. We’d get away from the city and out into nature and just listen to the sounds of the woods and the water. It was wonderful.”
Brianna finished her story, and there were traces of tears in her eyes. But there was unmistakable joy as well. She had been held. She had been cherished. And nothing and no one could take that away from her.
Death and life. Grief and love. Dancers all. And forever intertwined. Tell me, is there ever one without the other?
Brianna with Dad before Junior Prom (image courtesy of Brianna)