The Cicadas Are Singing

It’s mid-June in Baltimore. My father meets me at the Light Rail stop in his little white Yaris. The air is humming with the sound of insects, I’m dripping with sweat and off in the distance I hear the crack of thunder. I haven’t slept in over 24 hours but at this moment I don’t feel tired. At this moment, after more than a year of forced confinement and brittle isolation, I feel like I’ve just opened my lungs after holding my breath for as long as I possibly could.

Over the next ten days I read a lot, de-clutter my email inbox, and accompany my brother on a few local errands. I walk when the weather allows – it’s hot and humid or pouring rain for the most part – and enjoy being cooked for each evening. With the exception of one meal which my father allows me to fix, he insists on doing the cooking. I want to say “Let me do it,” to give him a break, but it is clearly something he enjoys doing, and I remind myself that loving someone isn’t expressed solely by taking care of them; it can be an act of love to allow them to take care of you, too. At night, after Dad goes to bed, I take the opportunity to catch up with my brother about anything that he hasn’t mentioned in our regular Skype chats. 

Mostly, though, I talk with my father. He looks exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him, right before the pandemic took hold of our nation. He’s 91 now and while he’s in excellent health both physically and mentally, with more stamina and range of activities than many people twenty years his junior, nobody needs to tell me how tenuous a hold any of us has on life. I am mindful, every minute of every hour of every day that I’m here, how precious this time is. How it could be the last I ever have with either one of these people who mean so much to me.

I rise earlier than usual each morning, and since my brother is a late sleeper, my father and I have the house to ourselves. As an introvert living alone, I’m used to talking to other people infrequently. Entire days pass by at home during which, if I talk at all, it’s to myself. I used to think that meant I was going crazy, especially in the immediate aftermath of Jackson’s death. Now I don’t think about it one way or another, or even care. 

We talk about many different things, past, present and future. In short bursts we share news, memories, plans and thoughts. Mostly thoughts. I used to hold back with him, afraid to disagree or stir up conflict. I have always avoided conflict, though I’m slowly learning that sometimes it should not be avoided. Sometimes it’s important to face it. I also used to be afraid of incurring his disapproval. Like most people, I grew up wanting and needing my parents’ approval and the times I didn’t get it, I blamed myself. Later in life I blamed them. Even later, I stopped seeking it. That, I think, is one of the most freeing feelings there is, to look inward rather than outward for assessment of what, why and how you are doing with your life. To be the decider of if it’s enough, if it’s healthy, focused, successful or right. My father and I seem comfortable with each other these days, accepting of who we each are and not trying to change the other, but it’s taken most of my life to get here. Perhaps as a result, I listen with a different ear now, trying to hold on to everything whether I agree or not, like it or not. I want to remember everything, because when he’s gone I will need these memories to sustain me. My well feels dangerously shallow of late.

At night I sleep with the windows open, though the house has central air conditioning that comes on when the temperature rises above 80 degrees. I like the smell and feel of the fresh air, but there’s another, even more primal reason I do this. Right now Baltimore is replete with cicadas. They fly through the air in singles, pairs and swarms, landing on any available surface. Birds and squirrels feast on them. People flick them off their shoulders and arms, step on them, swat them away or even run from them. In thickly wooded areas, their roar is all you can hear. I read of clever ways creative chefs have come up with to integrate them in recipes. I overhear some people bemoaning their existence, impatient for them to be gone. 

I lie in bed and think back to seventeen years ago when they last appeared, then to seventeen years before that, and finally to seventeen years before that. I remember what I was doing, where and with whom on each occasion for those few weeks, though the pictures get fainter with each leap backwards. I am overwhelmed with tenderness for the people I see there, then sorrow for those who are now gone forever: my mother, my grandparents, my son. But I’m filled with something else too. An army of insect nymphs lays hibernating in the earth for precisely seventeen years then bursts forth en masse into the atmosphere to pack as much living as possible into a few brief weeks before dying. Seventeen years later another generation does the same, and again and again and again this precise and complex wonder repeats itself. If this isn’t a reason for hope, I don’t know what is. 

Listening to them is like listening to a disorganized but passionate chorus, every voice competing to be heard, loud and sweet and discordant all at once. I lie there and take it all in, feel what I feel, know what I know and accept what I don’t, which is so very much more than what I do. Perhaps I’ll hear this familiar sound again seventeen years from now, or perhaps this is my last time. In either case, I won’t be here, with two of the people I love most in the world. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and bookmark this moment in my life.

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