September 5, 2013 at 8:38 PM
A cicada shell—
it sang itself
For weeks there was a percussive insect hum in the background of our lives, a reprise of that same old theme. All day long we suppressed it like an anxious memory. The sound crescendoed at dusk and continued into the night, always nibbling at the edge of our consciousness. Then one day late in August, the shrill chorus burst through the membrane of our thoughts: Summer is ending, winter is coming! All that is living will die!
It’s an old chestnut, to say that parents can’t wait to get their kids off to school in September. And while I suppose parents exist who feel this way, I haven’t met any. During the twelve weeks of summer, without the stress of homework or airtight schedules, our kids thrived. They slept late. They read, they fixed their own lunches, they baked cookies and sold them to passersby on the sidewalk for a tidy profit. They filled two backpacks with $300 in dollar bills, earned busking on the Avenue in front of Starbucks. They produced little movies and backyard plays. They spent whole afternoons in the treehouse, or swinging from ropes in the woods. They practiced their instruments for hours in the unhurried and thoughtful way their teachers wanted them to. They fell in love with The Magic Flute. They went off to chamber music camp and came back playing Prokofiev, and Dohnányi, and Haydn.
Then it was Labor Day and everything stopped. It was back to the frantic, depersonalizing, hamster-wheel of a routine. Four school schedules, four sets of violin lessons, too much to do to do anything well.
In early September I woke in a sweat in the middle of the night and stood by the open window listening to the clattering bugs outside. And the chirruping crickets, and the burping frogs: all doomed to silence with the coming frost. My heart howled. Whose wouldn't? This is the ordinary, throat-constricting grief, the intimation of loss that every parent feels in the dark hours.
Or maybe it was just the cicadas. Those bugs can make you crazy.
Listen, do you hear them singing? The sun's still warm but its angle is slant. And there’s the familiar crunch of leaves beneath the wheels as we pull into the violin teacher’s driveway for the first lesson of the semester. My ten-year-old unbuckles her seatbelt and fairly flies up the path to ring his doorbell. It’s been so long, and it’s so wonderful to be back that she can hardly stand it. She can’t wait to tell him about her life-altering experience at sleepover music camp: playing the first violin part in Haydn’s Quinten Quartet (she calls it “Thifths”, lisping through her braces, and he beams down at her from the doorway.) I follow them upstairs to the studio as she chatters excitedly. She wants to play in a string quartet at the music school this year. She wants to audition for the youth orchestra. She’s in thifth grade now, she tells him when he inquires. (“Get it? Thifth grade? Haydn’s Thifths?”)
Thifth grade. I realize, then, that I have seven more years of her childhood left, seven years before she’s gone from the house. It’s also seven years since she started violin lessons, and it dawns on me suddenly that I’m smack in the middle of this daughter’s journey—the part of her journey I’m privileged to share. Seven more summers together, seven cycles of the cicada. These next seven years stretch out before all of us, blank, ready to be filled, like a crisp new notebook. I can hear the bugs trilling through the open window. And then her teacher switches on his metronome to give her a loud, electronic A. My heart quickens with anticipation, as together they begin to tune.
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