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August is the sweltering month. At least that’s how I used to remember it. Maybe because my family, when I was a boy, would take its week’s vacation in August, and since the purpose of vacation was to escape the heat by hiving off somewhere out of town, August must have been the month to escape.
Actually, since I’ve been spending a lot of the summer at the lake the last few years (that’s The Lake. The Big Lake. Lake Michigan, for those of you who dwell in states of ignorance, like New York and Ohio.), I know that August in its Michigan iteration is not the swelter king. Every year, around the 8th or 10th of the month, you step outside and catch a slight tang in the air, the scent fresh and cool that spells the very first harbinger of autumn. There may be lots of hot summer days yet, but those days are numbered.
Numbering days was a recurrent practice at our house. Every New Year’s Eve, my mom told us, her father would read Psalm 90 at supper—this prior to going off to the New Year’s Eve service that would be followed just twelve hours later by a New Year’s Day service. No “oncer’s” these: twice to church every Sunday, and twice for the big turn of the calendar.
The proper disposal of time was a theme of the proverbs my parents favored as well—at least the ones I remember. Waste not, want not (although that one also applied to money). If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well—meaning, don’t rush the job. There’s an easy way and a right way. (Think about it.) And most to the point: business before pleasure. Maybe that’s why we vacationed in August, swelter or not. You had to get all the summer jobs done before you were allowed to take a break. Number your days aright, and sneak in the off-week before school starts up again.
August 16 is a day I numbered aright last year, for thereupon I finished writing a book that had been in process, on and off, for a very long time—for more years than I could actually count. I marked the occasion by taking a bottle of Cana’s finest down to the beach, watching the sunset, then watching the stars come out until they were without number.
This August 16—yesterday—a very different story. My brother-in-law and good friend died, little more than a month after receiving a diagnosis of cancer. His melanoma was not metastatic but ballistic. A superb scholar, he had many books to his name and more in the works. He had planned on many more years, and rightly so, for you don’t get anywhere as a writer and a scholar without counting on a long run and parsing out projects in a sensible order.
This was not his first brush with cancer, so he had come to terms, he assured us, with his own mortality. Perhaps he had hit that impossible sweet spot where we all ought to live: taking each day in its own fullness as if it were your last on earth, while working and playing and planning as it there are years and years to come. Numbering days. Days without count, days that will not come again, days that might never come at all.
It rained hard up here at the lake yesterday. Grey, cold, and lashing as only a lake wind can make it. But the storm lifted by evening so I went again down to the beach to watch the sunset with a glass of Cana’s saddest. The sunset was not the summer’s most spectacular but another of its subtle ones. A low row of clouds lay all along the horizon, and as the sun disappeared behind it, the clouds higher in the sky bloomed with a back lighting of rose and pink against their purple gray.
The row on the horizon was trimmed on top with a sharp bright edge of pure light, and a tiny opening right at the waterline showed the orange disc plunging down over the horizon. I numbered the day by seizing a sunset while it was there to be savored. By lifting the cup in my own sacramental salute to a great person with whom I hoped to share such moments in the future.
A day, a moment, a life to number. So may we gain a heart of wisdom.
<In memory of Marvin W. Meyer, 16 April 1948 – 16 August 2012. Brother, scholar, friend.>