The Longest Summer

Our sidewalk was long and meandered in curves as it reached from our porch to the street. It was narrow, as sidewalks were back then when everything seemed to be smaller and much simpler. Our whole yard was hemmed in by berms that could hold back a foot of water. We lived in the old part of Phoenix, where 100-year-old citrus trees could still be found and yards were irrigated once a month by an ancient water system that gave birth to my town.

Irrigation was always such an exciting day. It meant a day of play and splashing, and if we were lucky, a day of surfing on an old piece of plywood. The trick was running bent over, pushing as fast as you could, and then jumping on it for the few meager feet it would glide. More often though, the angle would be wrong or the wood incompatible with water sports, so we’d turn our attention to the standard irrigation activities.

I favored kicking the water as hard as I could and watching the rooster tail, while absorbing the small pains of pine needles and other debris cutting across the top of a fast-moving foot. Sometimes we would get right down in it on our bellies and slither through the shallow water like alligators. A great way to pass the time was to grab a stick and sit on the sidewalk, pretending to fish. If the fish weren’t biting that day, and they seldom were, the fishing pole would transform into a cigarette. Either way, life lived on a sidewalk was filled with sunshine, imagination, and lots and lots of thinking.

When I remember those days, I can still feel the desert heat of summer pounding down. Burning our feet was just as natural as the occasional scrape or cut from endless outdoor play. A person might think getting your feet wet would assuage the searing heat, but wet feet on a scalding sidewalk is a special kind of trial, and we all accepted the toughening with reckless abandon. Never mind the ever-present cockroach or earwig clinging to wet legs, which were addressed by a controlled flick of a finger to insure they were removed, but not injured. Who, after all, could live with themselves after killing a single creature? That was just how our house handled living things, great and small.

Even spiders were allowed residence inside the house and were seen as natural pest control for their help in keeping down the unwanted insect guests. Even in this highly compassionate environment, I must confess that houseflies and black widows were killed without much regret. Well, unless the black widow had a sack of babies in her web; then, this was done with an aching heart.

There were a few other things that could cause an aching heart in those young years. Maybe there were many amongst the kids who gathered for play (and sometimes just a little trouble). All houses seem to have their own, but that is not something kids in our neighborhood wasted time talking about. Childhood can be like that I think, or at least it was for me.

Outside the home was sunshine and raucous freedom; inside the home was more complicated.

I wonder if my dad ever watched my sidewalk world from his hospital bed set up in our living room, right in front of the big picture window overlooking the front yard.

The longest summer was forever marked by the longest day—summer solstice. This was my dad’s favorite day of the year, not because of the cultural homage paid to this day, but because light held its sway and kept night waiting for its turn. He had been holding his ground this summer, but night was closing in. It was 1980, and he was in the final stages of vicious colon cancer. Pain-filled groaning had become as familiar as the smells from the kitchen and the softness of clean sheets.

On June 21, 1980, the sun rose, brightening the early morning of his last breath. The first kind mercy I had seen him given in such a long time. I know what deathly quiet sounds like, for it filled our home. I watched the grown ups with their strange faces. I watched out the picture window while they wheeled his tired body, draped in white, to the hearse. I searched for my voice, but it was stuck way down under my sternum. It felt like the dreams where I need to scream or run, but nothing would work—I was mute and paralyzed.

Real life can be like this too, like a dream. I wanted to follow him, to call out just in case this was just a dream, but he kept going and disappeared into the back of the vehicle. It was such a sickening feeling, to be drowning in the empty space he left behind. It was the next morning when I started to understand never-ever. Never ever again, no matter how desperate or scared or imploring I was, he would never ever be here again. The dragons would still come, but I would have to slay them myself. I knew that I was on my own.

Polly Avery is a native of Arizona and a true desert-dweller, though she is currently having a Rocky Mountain life while raising children. She loves listening to people tell their stories and has always been lucky to hear so many. She never feels more clear-thinking and at peace than when she’s writing and pouring out all the pictures in her thoughts.