My First Autumn
“Stop!” Kathleen yelled.
I didn’t listen. My car went airborne as it entered the intersection, soaring straight through the bright red stoplight. Time was of the essence.
“This isn’t timed!” she screamed, her hands squeezing desperately to the sides of her seat.
“What?” I slammed both feet down onto the brake pedal and we skidded to a halt. The car rocked back and forth a few times as a tense quietness settled in. “This is a driving test,” I said. “How can it not be timed?”
Her body was shaking. “The test is over!” she said, fumbling around with the door handle. She managed it open and jumped outside. The door slammed shut and I watched Kathleen stride powerfully away from me – toward the administration building.
I leaned my elbow on the button beside me and lowered the passenger side window. “How do I find out the results?!”
She ignored me and persisted in her escape.
I nudged the gas pedal, turned the car around, and followed the driving course’s main road toward the exit. I passed by a few cars that were headed in the opposite direction, and I could see each of the cars’ occupants staring at me with bewilderment written onto their faces. I nodded politely and continued on, steering my car around the orange cones that were blocking the way out.
“Dr. Dan’s office,” I enunciated into my phone. The navigation app loaded and spun through a few scenarios while I worked my way through the parking lot. The optimal route flashed across the screen and I jabbed at the start button. When I looked up I saw traffic on the frontage road breezing past me in both directions, so I eased off the gas and allowed the car to drift itself toward the stop sign.
Gurgling inside my stomach caught my attention. My eyes scanned across the dashboard until they landed on the clock. It was nearly one. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Where had the day gone? My gaze shot upward. The sun was already past its apex, though still hovering significantly above the horizon. Days were becoming imperceptibly shorter, secretly throwing off my circadian rhythm. I’d better grab food before I spoiled dinner.
I pulled out onto the now empty road and sped up. Up ahead, a billboard for a new pizza place was speaking my language. My route would take me right past its location. I dialed the number and listened while it rang a few times.
A youngish sounding boy answered. “Pickup or delivery?” he asked, lifting his voice above a noisy background.
An awkward pause erupted.
“We don’t have a drive thru sir,” he replied.
“Don’t have a drive thru? It doesn’t say that on your advertisement.”
I could hear the young employee’s confusion stiffen. “I can bring it out to your car if you want. When it’s ready.”
“How long will it take?” I asked.
“To cook your pizza?”
“No, to walk it outside.”
I swear I could hear the kid smiling before he spoke again. “Just a few seconds sir. Once it’s ready.”
“Oh, no problem then. I can just come in,” I said. “I can help you carry it out.”
The kid chuckled. “Sounds good.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “See you in a few.” I hung up the phone and returned my attention to what lie ahead of me. The colors were beautiful. The orange and yellow leaves that painted the edges of the road, visually offset by the deep blue distant sky, reminded me of my youth. Autumn was the beauty before the beautiful. The coming of fall meant hockey season was right around the corner. I hadn’t actually played in a few years, but I still felt the tickle of anxiety stir through my stomach whenever the leaves began to change. The feeling was instinctual. For most of my life, hockey was my identity. Now, it was my shadow. Maybe I was its shadow. Either way, I still felt the connection through the arms of the season’s transition.
“My pizza!” I blurted out, realizing I’d forgotten to actually order. Before I could react, my phone was already vibrating against the dashboard. I didn’t recognize the number. Maybe it was the pizza shop, calling me back.
“This is Dr. Dan,” I answered.
“Good afternoon Dr. Dan. It’s Eugene calling.”
“Dr. Hancock,” I laughed. “I didn’t even recognize the number.”
“How are you doing today Dan?”
“Not too bad. Failed my driver’s test.”
Gene offered a nervous chuckle. “Why were you taking a driver’s test?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Just thought I’d mess with Kathleen a little.”
Gene couldn’t hold back a more robust outburst of laughter. “Your daughter’s friend?”
“Yeah. She works part time at the DMV.”
Hearing Eugene continue with his uncontrollable giggling made me smile. I loved it when people smiled. Anything I could do to ignite a burst of laughter was well worth the effort. I had just spent half the morning trying to make myself laugh, but it was better with other people. I didn’t have to work anymore, so that’s how I’d spend part of every single day – pranking people, joking with people, and just trying to bring a shot of adrenaline into people’s lives. That and helping people were my life’s priorities at the moment.
“You headed into the office Dan?” Gene joked.
“Yeah. Long day ahead of me.” He knew I referred to my home as my 'office’. He and my dad were best friends. I’d known Gene since as long as I could remember.
“Let’s meet for lunch instead,” he said.
I shook my head and snickered. “I can’t man. I’m finally framing my honorary doctorate degree today.” I wasn’t a real doctor either. Not technically, anyway. My alma mater thanked me for my recurring donations by offering me a fake diploma along with an awkward appreciatory commencement ceremony. It was their way of branding my name to the arena walls to help with recruiting. I didn’t mind. I did like to joke about it though.
“Come on… I’ll buy,” Gene persisted.
I just didn’t feel like meeting for lunch. “Can we meet next week instead?” I asked.
“The MRI and cranial scan results came in,” Eugene said, going right where I didn’t want him to.
“Maybe we should meet for lunch,” I suggested. I pulled over quickly and parked my car along the shoulder. “I knew you sounded a little too serious today.”
Dr. Hancock nodded a few times. I could hear it. I could see his comforting facial expression in my mind’s eye. I could even hear the thoughts inside his head. Those weren’t very comforting.
“Gene?” I asked.
“Dan, you have Alzheimer’s.”
A tingling sensation spread through my chest and I felt my lip quiver. I don’t know why it quivered. Somewhere, deep down, I already knew. The finality of it was tough to hear though.
“I’m only 44,” I said, directing the confirmation of my denial more toward the heavens than toward Gene. I had taken the tests over a month prior and thought maybe I’d passed. No news is good news, right? I’d forgotten to take into account that Gene was an old family friend. He couldn’t get himself to spill the beans I imagine.
He knew the drill though. Many patients had tried bargaining away his diagnoses before. Still… this was different. The somberness of his tone told me he was gutted too. “I don’t know what to say Dan.”
I wiped my hand across my face, hiding myself from the brightness in front of me. “Is it from hockey?”
“I’m not completely sure. But my guess is… yes, it’s probably from hockey. This is a pretty early onset. You don’t have a family history.”
I wasn’t sure what to say either. I felt myself suddenly wanting to cheer him up for some reason. “Wait, what did you just say there Gene, like a second ago?” That was the only way I knew how to feel better myself.
This time, Gene forced his chuckle. “Let’s talk for a while Dan.”
“Ok… Osseo Pizza?” I asked.
“Sure Dan. I’ll be there in ten or fifteen.”
Neither of us said a word for a few seconds so I hung up. I still didn’t care to meet. Nothing he’d tell me would change anything.
“So, this is the autumn of my life, isn’t it?” I asked the emptiness around me. I knew the scene in front of my eyes would be burned into my memory for as long as memories existed inside me: the colorful trees, the perfect sky, the breeze running effortlessly through the blades of grass. And I couldn’t think of anything else except how bittersweet it all was to look at. Everything in front of me seemed more real than ever, and I knew nothing would ever be as beautiful as I saw it at that moment. The colors were already fading away, right in front of my eyes.
My phone rang again. I picked up the call without speaking.
“Kathleen thinks you’re crazy.”
“Why is that good?”
“She’s studying psychology, right? Trying to be a therapist?”
“So, I’m her first patient. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to fix me.”
“Dad, stop messing around. Kathleen had a tough upbringing. She has like no confidence.”
“Why do you think I went there today?”
“Because you’re weird and you think you’re this funny, wise old shaman man.”
“She needs to believe in herself Alexandra. Just tell her I’m a narcissist or something. Tell her I refuse to see a therapist. Maybe sprinkle in a little OCD too.”
“You want to act insane behind her back so she can fix you behind your back?”
I smiled. “Sounds like me and your mom. How is your mother anyway?”
I heard Alexandra laugh a shot of air through her nose. “I think she’s ok. Did you get your test results yet dad?”
“Oh, no… not yet. I completely forgot all about that.”
“That’s not funny dad.”
“I know. I’m sure it’s fine.”
I could hear the tension in her breathing. I think maybe she could sense mine too. It wasn’t the right time for me to say anything.
“Dad, I wrote you a poem. Do you wanna hear it?”
“Sure,” I said, pinching my eyes to trap the tears in. “What’s it called?”
“Hope,” she replied.
I felt the tingling hit at my chest again. “Ok. Let’s hear it.”
I heard her take a deep breath. I knew she wasn’t embarrassed or worried about me liking it. She was just nervous.
“To my dad…” she began. “Hope with all your heart. Maybe everything will be just fine. Hope with the irrational part of your soul. Hoping is actually a really good sign. It means you won’t give in. It means there’s always a chance. It means you’ll never lose your sweet grin. Tomorrow will bring at least one more dance. Some things are bigger than us. Miracles happen every single day. I’m scared, I admit it, but one thing’s for certain. God will answer you, whenever you pray. If you lose hope, you lose your will. You lose the essence of what makes you fight. You know I’m right. Your future’s bright. Your future, to me, is a beautiful sight. So be the fighter I know you are. I’ve never known you to shy away. Dream the most marvelous dream you can think of. Because I need you to stay dad… I need you to stay.”
My lungs were empty. I couldn’t inhale for a few seconds. I hung up and burst out crying. The news still hadn’t even sunk in properly yet and already I couldn’t function. When I saw my phone start ringing again, I swallowed hard a few times and cleared my throat. “Hi sweetheart.”
“Did you hang up dad?”
“No. I just went through the tunnel. I heard the whole poem though before it cut out. That was so beautiful.”
“Thanks dad. You’re still holding out hope, right?”
“Will you call me right when you hear back from Dr. Hancock?”
“I’ll try to remember.”
“Dad. Promise me.”
“Alex. We’ll find out soon enough. You have your own life to live. Don’t ever let anything get in the way of that, ok?”
“Yeah, sure,” Alexandra replied, sounding only slightly convinced. “You wanna hear a secret dad?” she asked, more excitable.
I smiled. “I would love to.”
I already knew. Liam called to ask my permission a few weeks prior. “Who is Liam again?”
“Did you say yes?”
“I assume his parents are paying?”
The carefree sound of Alexandra’s light laughter perked me up. I couldn’t help but smirk. The leaves suddenly looked immaculate again. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the beauty in front of me would never truly diminish.