and roses die..."
We busted out of Hanover, NH at the stroke of 9 a.m., a tank full of gas and a car full of four kids, fresh off a weekend with the in-laws. Gotta beat the Labor Day traffic, I swore to anyone who'd asked about the early departure time, and, preemptively, to anyone who didn't, and though I knew the argument had some merit, I didn't really give a shit who bought it or didn't: I wanted to get back home in time to catch at least some of the last day of the horse-racing meet at Saratoga Springs, NY, and nothing but bad traffic would stop me.
Technically, summer doesn't end until the autumnal equinox takes place on September 22nd, but for all intents and purposes, in this house, it ends on Labor Day. Yeah, I got tomorrow off, I always take the day after Labor Day off in order to alleviate the end-of-summer blues; the kids don't start school until Wednesday. But Labor Day is it. The life goes out of summer on the first Monday of September no matter what various calendars and meteorological occurrences take place.
I scorched it down 91 South for a few miles and then caught Vermont's 4 West. A white bus-type vehicle with the words "The Bus" painted in a vaguely psychedelic manner across the top of the emergency door in the back pulled out just in front of me and my heart sank, knowing the trip had just gotten longer. Though a sign on the mid-left of the back side promised that the bus made frequent stops, the vehicle haunted me and taunted me for countless miles, sometimes approaching the various posted speed limits and at other times not even coming close, but never even fucking hinting at a stop for well over an hour, until I finally managed, somewhere near Killington, to pull out and blow past it.
The morning fog had finally lifted and revealed a clear blue sky, and I suppose the Green Mountains looked beautiful in the perfect morning light, but with a wife maybe-sleeping next to me in some sort of mysterious and silent place of sadness and anger and the aggravating cries of kids behind me arguing, pinching, slapping, screeching, crying, and hinting they might blow chunks across the third row of the van if I didn't stop at a gas station soon, the ride dragged on interminably and unpleasantly. The sun beat down relentlessly on my left arm and I could feel the temperature between my armpits rising steadily, but every time I tried to turn up the AC for relief the supposedly sleeping wife would instantly, miraculously reach over and crank the temperature gauge back up to oppressive levels and then throw her shirt over her torso defensively, as if to say, you beast, I am freezing over here.
The ride dragged on; we mercifully reached the two lane on each side stretch of 4 West after an hour and a half or so, and I blew through that portion of the drive in land speed record time, and then we hit a one lane on each side stretch of 4 that crosses into New York and eventually turns into NY-149, and for awhile, as she still kinda-slept, the kids mercifully quieted down, staring out at the desolate small towns along the way.
Eventually, after three hours and twenty minutes that felt at least twice that, we pulled into the drive way. I cleared out the luggage from the back of the van, started the laundry, washed the dishes we'd left behind on our way out two days before, and went out to get a gallon of milk and today's Racing Form.
Labor Day isn't just the end of summer to me; it's a little more loaded than that.
Riley, the last of three children I had with Lauren, was born on August 28th, 2006; he came out five and half weeks early and with the umbilical cord caught around his neck, a blue baby as they say, and he spent a week in the NICU, at 8 pounds 4 ounces one of the bigger NICU babies according to those nurses, but he turned out alright. According to various pre-school teachers he's very bright and very social, one of them once described him as "the Pied Piper of his class."
His birthday hit me hard this year; maybe because he's starting school in a few days. We had a big birthday party for him the Sunday before his birthday, and on his actual birthday, I had to take him up to school for an orientation and a practice bus ride, which he loved. On our way back home, a detour brought us relatively close to the cemetery where his mother is buried; he asked to stop by to see his "old mom."
We went up and stood on the ground that covers her casket and while Evie got quiet, he seemed non-plussed, which of course only reminded more of his mother, who had the uncanny ability to remain calm under the worst of circumstances.
Dad, he said.
What, I asked.
You know there's a woman who lived to be a hundred sixteen?
I thought he was going to ask why his own mother died well short of that mark, in the prime of her life.
Yeah. I read it on the computer with mom.
You know why she lived so long, Dad?
His eyes squinted tight and his face broke out into a mammoth smile, oh, but he is the one who reminds me the most of his mother, he smiles just like her, where the whole face just lights up with joy, and he smiled that smile and cackled, 'CAUSE SHE ATE CANDY EVERY DAY DAD!!!!
The clock hit two, Closing Day slipping away. Bailey wanted to go up just me and him, Sheila looked exhausted, Evie laid in her bed playing with her dolls and Riley laid on the couch watching a Flinstones episode. I paced. I had to get up there, to the races. I didn't care about betting, winning money, or whatever. I just needed to be there, to see another summer slip from my grasp.
I think back to another Closing Day, ten years ago to the day, Lauren and I had just moved into what we thought the house of our dreams, Bailey, our only child at the time, two and a half years old, in my mid-thirties with seemingly everything laid out before me, the sight of it leaving me drenched in gratitude, and I went up to the races that day and lost a bunch of money on ill-advised bets and then came home and, under a full moon or something very much like it, drank myself to sleep in shame and anger on the couch in the living room of our new home.
Five years ago to the day, living where I live now, temporarily I thought, just waiting to find the next dream home, now with three children rather than one, and I took Bailey, the oldest, seven and a half now, up to Closing Day with me. I sat chilly all day, waited until near the end, and then pounced and scored out, crushed a race for over a grand, a day like today, sunny and warm and bright, and after the last race, we waited outside the jockey's quarters for the riders to throw whips and googles out at the kids, and as we waited, a song came over the PA system, Sinatra's "Summer Wind," and I got choked up, I thought of a night fifteen years prior, when I had brought his mother up to this same town and we had walked into a bar and heard this song and I had sung it to her and within hours of my singing, our fates were sealed.
I got choked up because I'm sentimental, and because just three days before, we had found out that Lauren had a brain tumor. They said she'd live through it, but as Sinatra rang out over the PA that day in September of 2007, as I sat on a bench at the oldest track in the country with the sun setting behind us, I wondered who would live, who would die, and how soon.
The next day, not long after I woke up, the phone rang. My dad on the other line.
John's dead, he said.
Overdose, I asked.
No. Some sort of accident. Not sure. I'll call you later.
Less than four months later my father was making other phone calls, telling people Lauren was dead.
I had to get up to Closing Day. It's about way more than horse-racing at this point. And with four kids, two working parents, and not much spare cash, believe me, horse-racing is not at the top of my agenda at the moment.
Sheila said she didn't want to go and she thought the baby needed a nap.
You can go with Bailey, she said. Evie and Riley will play outside, it'll be fine.
By then they were both in the living room, looking beat, after a long weekend and that long drive home earlier in the day.
You guys wanna go see some horsie-races, I asked.
They both sat up and yelled, yeah!
So we got into the car and headed on up.
There's no gambling miracle to pass on here. I bet one race, came close, but lost.
But they never noticed that.
Bailey had a chili dog. Evie and Riley got ice cream from Ben and Jerry's. We sat in our seats and watched horses go by, either in post parades or in actual races, for the better part of the afternoon. We chatted with my friend Jerry, who they adore. We saw some people who sit in the same seats year after year, people who knew me, and the kids back when. Evie and Riley asked questions, and if they didn't like my answers, they gave each other answers adults could never understand. Eventually the sun disappeared behind a bank of thickening clouds and the temperature dipped and it got chilly and they asked to go home, and we did.
And it's already Tuesday, sort of. Sheila just started a job so shes got work tomorrow. The baby will go to the sitter. Bailey, Evie, Riley, and I will sit around, waiting for school to start the next day, finishing up a few last-minute items. We'll lie around a lot, and I'll dread putting Riley on the bus the next day, and I'll think about the past, and hope, knowing too well there's no guarantees, that we'll all have some sort of bearable, or better, future together.
For me, summer's the only season that ends with sadness. Fall ends with fear and wonder at what winter might bring. Winter ends with the hopefulness of spring. Spring ends with excitement of summer, of days at the beach, of vacations, of days at the horse-races.
In a few hours, I'll wake up and know, before my eyes open, that summer is over.