She was twenty-four when her father died. In the months leading up to his death she felt impossibly young. Tender. She knew, as if it was an inalienable truth, she wasn’t yet adult enough to live in a world her father didn’t live in. He’d died in August. She’d thought nothing of importance ever happened in August. It was a place-holder month. August was the month after she was born. It was the month school had always started. It was the sweltering, oppressive final month of the summer when even the weather wanted nothing more than to push through to fall. And then, just like that, it was the month he died.
She’s never looked at August quite the same since then. No matter how full her days or how exciting her nights August started to feel like the end of something to her. School would start but she couldn’t see it as anything other than the end of the break. Summer was winding down and she found herself sad at a time when during earlier years she had yearned for the crispness of autumn air. It was the end of a year. A year, and then another, then another, without her father. Then, in September, she could breathe again.
She started living for Septembers when, magically, her outlook would change. Her mind, quickstepping away from memories she wished she didn’t have, would become clearer. Her thoughts would be sharper. Somehow, she’d wake up remembering who she was rather than who she’d been. And later, as the years wore on, she’d wake up realizing who she wanted to be. She’d wonder, in those later Septembers, what her father would have thought about the woman she’d become.
Octobers made her think of him. When foggy gray mornings were the exact color of his eyes she’d sip her coffee and remember leaning against the railing of the racetrack. In October she always wonders if she should have followed in his footsteps; if she should have carried on his legacy. Because, as the years go by, she wonders if the only legacy she’ll ever be able to give him is her unwilling retention of his last name. Octobers turn chilly part-way through and that makes her think of him too. About the way he’d turn chilly when she’d done wrong. She’d light a fire in the fireplace and let it warm her the way his hugs had when he’d finally come around.
She wanted to love November. Her father always loved November. It was the month before foaling season would really begin and after the training sale. It was the month his days turned shorter. And then without him there she realized it was when her days turned shorter too. When the time of year came when it would be dark as she left her office, she’d think of him. In years past on November evenings he would have made dinner, they would have played cards, he would have drank his B&B and once he’d won, and only once he’d won, he send her off to bed with a kiss while he tuned the television to CNN. In the years after, though, she’d go to an empty apartment, a lifetime away from the farm she’d grown up on, microwave a frozen dinner and flick right past the CNN she couldn’t watch anymore.
She couldn’t help but think of him in December. He was born in December just days before Christmas back in the early forties. The first couple of years were hard. One year she tried remembering him the next she tried forgetting. She started traveling for the holidays, always leaving on what would have been his birthday. As the years wore on she’d remember him on that day but it wasn’t as sad. More years after that and “Merry Christmas” didn’t feel so bitter in her mouth. And, during those early years, while everyone was cheering “Happy New Year” she was sliding between cool cotton sheets weighted down by an afghan her father’s mother had crocheted.
In January everyone else would be starting a new year and she was feeling halfway through hers. Thing would get busy for her again. Busy in the way she liked them with the commitments she herself had made instead of Hallmark holidays and family commitments that just didn’t quite feel the same anymore. People would ask her what her New Year’s Resolutions were and she always made one up, just so she’d fit in. But she’d made her resolutions, months before surrounded by the humidity of one season rather than the humility of another: This year I’ll be more of what he would have wanted me to be.
Februarys were harder, somehow, than the holiday months that came before. He’d always bought her flowers and was the only one who ever had. In those first years after he was gone she’d cry on Valentine’s Day but not because she was alone. She’d cry because she was without him and that place on her desk that had waited for his bouquet never got cleared of its stack of paperwork. After those first few years she’d stopped crying over the flowers but she missed them. Then, in the years after that she bought them for herself. He’d have laughed at her about that. He would have teased her mercilessly but with love. Because, as they’d always told the poor girls her brother had brought home when they were growing up: Daddy only teases you if he likes you.
March was better. Babies were on the ground and she couldn’t pass a farm without thinking of long nights spent foaling down maiden mares with her father’s voice filtering in from the stall next-door or the sound of his whistling as he walked shedrows to lend a hand. And all those frolicky babies in the field had a way of rejuvenating her – even in that first awful year he was gone. If she spent October wondering if she should have followed in his footsteps she spent March grateful she hadn’t. Because March was when the real work would begin. As if he were standing right there next to her on the rail of the racetrack, she’d catch her own second wind in March and find herself working harder and reaching further than she had in months. And she’d think of him again. It took several years but eventually she was able to say, year after year: Yes, he’d be proud of who I’ve become.
The very first April she realized she’d started to forget him. She couldn’t quite hear his voice anymore when she thought of him and if it weren’t for the pictures on her mantle she was sure she’d have forgotten the details of his face. So one spring night in that first year she went home and watched old home movies. She did it the second year too as if it had become some sort of tradition. Then, on the third year she couldn’t. She’d held the tape in her hands, looked at, then slid it back into the sleeve instead of into the player. After that she realized in April she stopped thinking about him everyday. When she did think of him it was things that made her smile, not things that made her sad. He would have teased her about the videotape, too. Starting something, calling it a tradition, then just letting it go is something he would have done.
Sometime mid-May of every year she’d lived without him she’d realize he was still fading from her. She’d dig out new pictures. She’d call her brother just so she could hear someone else say the phrases her father used to say. She’d go to the racetrack just to smell the dirt and horses. She’d run into people who knew him, people who’d known him since before she was born. Some of them would know her name, most of them wouldn’t, but they all knew who she was. That first year anyway. The second and third too. But then new blood started showing up in the barns and she could walk around for half a day without running into a single person who would say her father’s name. After several years of that she started to feel free. She missed him. She always missed him. But she wasn’t him. And that would have made him very proud.
Come June she’d start feeling the restlessness other people felt in the late fall. Her year was in its last season. The summer before he’d died had been nearly as much hell for her as it had been for him and every summer she felt the residue of that like oil on her skin. Every year she’d be farther from it but it seemed to follow closely behind her. She wanted to run from it, so she would. She’d push herself to do more or to be more and then, all of a sudden she’d realize she’d done whatever it was she’d meant to that year. She’d fulfilled her resolution. And she’d think of the way he would have shaken his head at her in disbelief. And then he’d have winked.
She was born in July and she’d always been particularly attached to her birthday. The first one she’d had without him had been bittersweet. It always rained on her birthday. It had every year since she’d been born. And then, as if by cosmic interference, that first year without him was dry as a bone. It felt fitting, somehow, trading the one thing she’d hated about her birthday for the one person she’d loved always having there for it. After a couple of dry years things went back to normal and then after that she’d stopped celebrating her birthday altogether. But it didn’t have anything to do with him.
It took a lot of months of a lot of years to realize what her father had been trying to tell her every day they’d been together. He’d always been proud of her. She’d spent the better portion of her life trying to make him proud. She’d spent the years after his death rearranging her life in a way she thought would honor him but in the end became a way of dishonoring him by not living the way he’d have wanted her to.
Years later, when she clinked glasses with her friends on New Year’s Eve she realized things really had changed. Because that year, when they asked her what her New Year’s Resolution was she had an answer. It wasn’t something she’d resolved quietly to herself on a hot August night. It was something she thought of while she was standing underneath Christmas lights honoring her father’s legacy in a way she’d never really considered: by changing her last name to another man’s.
She was twenty-four when her father died. In the years following his death she felt impossibly young. But not tender. She knew, as if it was an inalienable truth, she was strong enough to live in a world her father didn’t live in. He’d died in August. She knew things of great importance happened in August.