Classes start on Monday, which means that I'm in my traditional period of beating myself up for not getting enough done this summer.
It's now become like an official holiday for me, showing up as faithfully as plump, breakable jack-o-lanterns lining the shelves of Walgreen's in July. They smile their chintzy, poorly-painted, resin smiles while sitting on the Made in China stickers on their $19.99 bottoms. They're hideous and every year, there they are. Some things you can just count on.
Same thing with Candy's Back-to-School Bludgeoning. While Walmart is cramming its aisles with stacks of the cheapest wire-bound notebooks ever made, the kind with paper you can literally see through, but no one cares because they're 5 for a dollar, the school year is taking shape at our house.
I sit at the computer working on a syllabus for class, when I hear my very judgmental brain approaching the little two-step staircase down to my office. It has important things to say to me, verbal javelins to shish-kabob me with, and needs to get down those steps. I'm not going to help it.
"You want to bitch a little?" I ask it. "Handle the stairs yourself."
It does this Slinky-meets-jellyfish movement, very disgusting with the squishy sounds, and I continue working.
There's no putting this off. I look down at it, pink and wrinkly, sitting on the carpet like a headless turtle.
"Alright, Walnut Meat. Let's hear it. No, let me do this for you. You're going to slather on the guilt because of all I didn't get done this summer. I didn't finish my book. I didn't de-clutter every room. I didn't lose enough weight. I barely left the house. I didn't make it to the dentist. I didn't read the books I stacked up on my bedside table. I didn't use my time wisely. I watched 'The Bachelorette' and 'Hoarders' and a stupid Lifetime movie with Heather Locklear. I'm a failure. I should be taken out and shot." I stop for breath. "Does that about cover it?"
I hear tiny little bumping sounds coming from the steps. As far as I know there's no one else in the house. Just Brainard and me. And then I see it. Carefully making its way down the two steps is my heart, on a tiny pair of crutches.
Brain looks at me with its non-eyes and then we both watch the heart work its way toward us.
I swivel my chair around so I can face them both. The brain has somehow dragged a wee little white Adirondack chair over for the heart to sit in, because even the heart's armpits get sore while pressing down on crutches too long.
"Walnut Meat here has decided to let me talk this year. This wasn't easy. You know it's hard for the brain to yield its 5 minutes to me." Brainard, without any face or shoulders, somehow manages a sheepish expression.
I wonder, at this moment, what other people are doing.
"You had your long list of things to do," Heart says. "Brain and I both saw it."
"It's right here...wanna see it again?" I ask. I pull the legal pad from the stack next to my computer and hold it in the air like an eviction notice.
"No. I know it by...heart," the pumper chuckles. "Sorry."
"You've been hanging around Brainard too much," I say.
"Which one of those things on your ever-present list do you think was most important?" Heart asks.
"Well, as you already know, the ones with the red stars next to them are important."
"The real answer. Think harder." The Brain shoots a glance at the heart leaning back in its chair.
"Sorry. Not trying to step on your toes, Walnut."
"The real answer? You know the real answer. The Heart knows all, right?" I say.
A sigh from the Heart.
"Why do you think I'm using these crutches?" it asks.
I lean back in my own chair and cover my eyes. "If I have to say this, I'm going to be sick. But here goes: because you're a broken heart?"
"True," it says. "Why are you so snarly?"
"I don't know. I don't know. I do know. I'm tired of you being broken. Tired of feeling broken."
"This will be hard for you. Very against-the-grain. But listen: that list isn't important. It especially wasn't important this summer."
I know where this is going.
"Please," the heart says, as only the heart can plead, "tell me what you did with your summer?"
My throat gets thick and I feel my heart aching from its Adirondack chair.
"I was grieving my dad."
"WHAT?!" What an ignorant heart.
"Just tell me."
The ropes in my throat give way and the tears fall again. How many times have I cried this summer? "Because I love him and he's gone and I can't tell him how much I miss him." I take a breath. "And I still can't believe he's gone!" I feel like an idiot.
"Yes. You held on until last semester was over and then you got a chance to swim into the waves of grief. The water had been rising, around your ankles, up to your knees, but you waded through the hallways at work, pushing through to May."
I can't look at the heart, but I listen.
"This was your work this summer. You had one real thing on your list, and that was to let me grieve."
"As useless as you felt, and as exhausted and discouraged, you were doing what you needed to do. Don't ignore it."
"It feels like all I did was lay around and cry," I say.
"That's part of the job of grief," Heart says. "So is the writing you did in your journal. Brain here tells me you wrote 19,000 words. So, you did do some writing."
"Not the right kind of writing," I say.
"It was exactly the right kind. You let it come from me. That's the only way to do it."
I consider this idea. And I think about the late nights I've sat up reading Dad's old letters to me. I have hundreds of them, from college, from when I was 38 and living (miserably) in France and he sent me photos and wrote "I hope this doesn't make you more homesick." Letters from every year since I left home at 18. I think about three nights ago when I missed him so much that I sat on the couch at 2 a.m., holding on tight to his old blue flannel shirt.
"And," Heart says, "all that struggling with Walnut Meat here, the forgetfulness, the fogginess, the sitting alongside the road in your car after you turned onto the wrong street the other day? That's the work, too. Even Brain has struggled through this."
Brain nods again.
"So why are you the only one using crutches," I ask.
Heart leans forward in its tiny chair. "Because I'm where the love resides."
I can't speak. I wonder what I can do to help it heal.
"Just keep going forward," it says. "I'll heal. You'll never stop missing him. You'll miss him fiercely. Some days you'll swear you can feel it all the way down to your bones. That's the love talking. That's how strong it is."
I sit quietly, soaking it all in.
I hear squishy sounds again. I look over to see that Brain is giving Heart a slow but determined piggy-back ride up the steps. Heart waves a crutch at me.