The Tale of Penelope and the Leaf

It was something to be expected in autumn, but when it happened, my brain went all romantic.

I was running in a park with my 8-month-old daughter in the jogging stroller. Just past the halfway point in the run, a leaf fell from a tree and landed on my daughter’s chest. She began examining the leaf with magical infant eyes.

As a father, especially being a father for the first time in my life to one beautiful little human being who is new to this place, I feel happy and fulfilled when I get to witness my daughter learning something new about the world around her.

In this case, the small action of a leaf landing on her chest and her picking it up with both of her tiny hands to examine it created this chain reaction of wonderful, romantic thoughts.

The first element in the chain reaction was that the scene was incredible. It was one of those autumn days in which the sun was glistening off of everything and cascading through the quickly-emptying tree branches. Scattered grey clouds added to the scene, resulting in whispering shadows as the sun tucked itself behind a cloud every so often. It was about sixty degrees, which is just perfect, in my opinion. It was also that time in autumn when the trees have only lost about a quarter of their leaves, allowing for the reds, crimsons, golds, yellows, oranges, purples, and even the greens of the less realistic leaves to still hang thickly above you while a graceful coating of these hues passes beneath your feet. And the scent was of perfect autumn. It was that wet, woodsy scent, as though you could smell traces of a hundred campfires within a ten-mile radius. The breeze was light and intermittent, stirring autumn all around in a perfectly gentle, relaxing fashion. The leaves cascaded down slowly and gently, just regularly enough to be noticed, but not so often that you are distracted by them.

In other words, it was a goddamned beautiful day to enjoy, even without your child.

Sun shining through autumn trees
It was so beautiful you could vomit, I’m telling you.

But I was lucky enough to be running with my daughter on this day.

Which leads to the second element in the chain of events for this romantic scene: it was a fantastic run for me. I had never found joy in anything athletic in my life after little league, but when I found running, my trust in my body’s abilities was renewed. Most people despise running, but I find it thrilling, relaxing, mind-clearing, and enjoyable. It is still incredibly hard, but I think that’s another reason why I enjoy it. I hate all other exercise, and I have been, or have just felt (in retrospect) out of shape for my entire life.

I started running on and off (mostly off) about eight years ago. I love it, but as I have said, it is quite difficult, and if you stop running for any large amount of time, it feels near impossible to get started again. When you haven’t been running for months upon months, you gain a lot of weight. Starting running again is frustrating, awful, and stressful.

This is where I was in March of this year. The difference in starting all over again this time was that I was now a DAD, and I wanted to run to be healthy. I wanted to be healthy for me. I wanted to be healthy for my new daughter…for my family. I wanted to be a good example of healthy practices for my daughter. But, mostly I wanted to start again for me, and become a runner. For good, this time.

When I started in March, it was as difficult as I thought it would be. I was 234 pounds, and definitely out of shape. When I was last in my running prime, I was about 195 pounds and able to run a half marathon at a 10-minute/mile pace. Not bad for an obvious amateur.

I still remember that first run in March. I was even smoking then (I’ve been smoke-free for three years now, which I thought was impossible to accomplish when my daughter was born, yet here I am). That March run wasn’t so much a run as it was a terrible-feeling walk. I had this couch-to-5k app on my phone that prompted me to walk and run in different intervals. I remember how out of breath I felt at the end of each minute-long run. I remember going back home, thinking about my half-marathon days, and feeling a bit depressed.

That was until I held my daughter after that run. There is something to be said about spending time with and observing babies (especially your own, of course). Babies have so much work to do: growing, learning, feeling, thinking, exploring, and trying to find out what in the hell is going on. It has to be impossibly hard to be a baby. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), none of us remembers exactly how hard it was for ourselves at that time. But when I was feeling frustrated after trying to run again for the first time in several months, my frustration disappeared when I held my daughter. I thought about all of the extremely hard work she was doing to figure out life, and how integral I was in helping her through that. I thought about how beautiful she was. I thought about how many years I get to spend with her…and then I thought about how much it was in my hands (and feet) to determine how many years I get to spend with my daughter. Running suddenly felt less like a chore, and more like a wonderful obligation. I had to keep running.

Fast forward several months. I had gone from a 234-pound smoker in March who could walk/run 1.6 miles in 25 minutes to a 204-pound non-smoker in October who broke every single running record he had made previously…and even ran a half marathon alone around his neighborhood at the beginning of the month just to prove to himself that he could.

At the time of the leaf-catching incident, I had been running regularly with Penelope strapped into the jogging stroller in Rocky River Reservation nearby, and had just chosen a new route that was very hilly and difficult. At the moment when Penny caught the leaf, I was running on that particularly difficult portion of the trail for the first time, ever. It was a significant run. If I hadn’t started my training in March and kept with it, I never would have made it to that portion of the trail where Penelope caught the leaf. It was months of hard work that got myself and my daughter to that precise location.

The third element in the chain was the most obvious. Penelope had grown over eight months of life. I had seen her go from a tiny, wrinkly, confused newborn with a difficult-to-discern personality, to a plump, smooth-skinned infant with unstoppable personality. She laughs, she smiles, she reacts to her environment, and she is happy. She is definitely ready to learn. She seems to absorb information from her environment constantly. Her playtime is engaged, and she seems like a natural observer. She is amazing, incredible, and she has changed my world. I absolutely do not remember what life was like before I was a father. She has made me a better man. She had been through an immeasurable amount of growth up through the point at which she caught the leaf.

The final stop in this romantic train of thought is the leaf itself. I thought about everything I already described and then I thought about the leaf’s journey. (This is also why I enjoy long runs; they give you a lot of time alone with your own head. This particular run was eight miles long, and at the time when Penny caught the leaf, I had about 3.5 miles to go, or about 28-30 minutes.)

I thought about the spring. Penelope was born in February, just before spring began. I thought about what the tree was going through at the time of my daughter’s birth. I was also thinking about the fact that this tree was in a part of the reservation that could be seen from certain windows of the hospital where my daughter was born. I was thinking about how the little leaf must have gone through all sorts of development, just as my daughter had accomplished during the same period of time. This leaf, among the thousands upon thousands that surrounded it, started as a bud and slowly grew to the mature, deep green of maple leaves. It survived spring and summer, numerous high-wind storms and floods, and made it all the way to autumn, crossing the finish line in the short life of a maple leaf.

Sometime in October, this little leaf began changing. It began losing its deep green, exchanging it for a more light yellow. Sure, the leaf was dying, but it was changing, and life itself is change, no matter the form. It was now a golden yellow, and ready for that little bit of breeze to come along and set it free from the great maple tree branch it grew up on.

When that breeze finally came, it knocked several neighboring leaves down. All of these leaves slowly descended and created a scene that would happen only once. There was a father down below, running with his daughter in a stroller. She was studying the trees, as she always did.

The father was out on a run that he had never been on before, a run he had never imagined he could accomplish eight months earlier.

The daughter was observing the world around her, happy, relaxed, and experiencing things not possible if it weren’t for her birth eight months earlier.

Down fell this leaf, in a beautiful airborne dance that was set up at least eight months earlier.

In a few moments, the three would meet.

The father was running, pushing himself physically more than he had ever thought he could, proud to be showing his daughter the value of the outdoors and exercise.

The daughter was observing, freshly napped and watching the trees, sky, birds, squirrels, and the entire new, natural scene pass overhead, with occasional glances at her dad as if to say, “thanks dad, this is wonderful to experience together,” or something else more appropriate for a baby’s internal monologue.

The leaf was weaving, waving back and forth in the autumn breeze, its path to the ground dictated by the wind, the air, and the shape it developed over months of hard work.

Suddenly, the three met. The father’s running put the stroller in just the exact position to allow the leaf the come to rest on the baby’s chest. The child clutched the leaf with her left hand, transferred it to her right hand, and held the leaf to the sky with both of her new, tiny hands. The father could see those bright blue eyes reflecting in the autumn sunlight and scan the golden leaf with wonder and curiosity.

The father realized everything described above, and started getting lost in this romantic interpretation of a leaf falling into a stroller.

He felt fulfilled, as though God himself set this scene up decades ago when the maple tree first started to grow.

He was amazed at his journey, his daughter’s journey, the tree’s journey, and the leaf’s journey.

He was thankful for life itself.

It was a moment of power and grace.

It was a moment worthy of mediation while on this long run.

Then, slowly and carefully, the beautiful baby began, while the father was lost in the romantic thoughts described above, to shove the leaf ravenously into her mouth.

The romantic scene, as well as the run, screeched to a halt.

The father quickly and frantically retrieved the leaf from the mouth of the beautiful babe, and tried to suppress thoughts such as:

“Shit! Slugs and various creatures and things may have crawled all over the leaf, leaving trails of bacteria and crap and disgusting ooze on that leaf, and that horrible crap is all over the inside of my infant daughter’s mouth now, and she probably already digested it, and now she’s going to have some sort of awful infection that makes her puke and overflow diapers with poop for a month…Oh GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?!?”

Then the father took a deep breath, placed the leaf in the cup holder of the jogging stroller, released all horrible thoughts he had about the leaf, finished the run with the romantic thoughts back in his brain, and wore a smile for the rest of the day.

The leaf is still in my car. I did save it.

I am a romantic at heart, after all.

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