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A Blaze of Glory and an Untold Song

On September 19th 2020 Hawthorne (Emily) Barber-Dubois joined their son Oscar in the stars. The fare for this unplanned voyage weighs heavy on the rest of us here on earth. They are survived by their brother, a man of considerable volume and clear blue eyes; their sister-in-law, a woman who has far less fear than she realizes; their niece, who never fails to lift the spirits of anyone around her; their mother, a woman who is generous to a fault and makes a hell of a casserole. They leave their daughter, the brightest light in this universe; cousins, aunts, uncles, chosen family and forever friends, and me. 

Hawthorne was born in the summertime of ’83, burning out at the rubber tree, a long-awaited first child to hard-working parents outside of Buffalo, NY. Intelligent and quick from the start, when their brother arrived three years later, they asked when he would be sent back for crying so much. Pictures of that time are scarce; the few that exist are tucked into a cardboard keepsake box adorned with sea life. They grew up creative and brilliant, only to be checked by poorly controlled asthma and the regimented nature of school and church. The markers for advancement weren’t their grade level, but the guitars they played and practiced on until their fingers bled. 

They left high school early and without graduating rather than fail another math class that didn’t make sense to them. High school had not been a place of youthful adventures and education as much as it had been the backdrop to bullying from peers and professionals alike. One teacher and her laminated promise to keeping kids like Hawthorne safe kept them coming back as long as they did. 

They traveled to Chicago and found themselves in a cult now made famous by Netflix. In six short months they experienced some of the highest and lowest moments of their queer life. They fell in love with a beautiful woman who touched their heart, holding hands in secret and away from the searching eyes of elders. They endured isolation and shunning for letting that love shine.

Hawthorne left Chicago, arriving back in Buffalo the morning the towers fell in New York City; they were one of the last trains to arrive anywhere that day. Conversations about America’s due for meddling in foreign affairs only hours before in the dining car rang true as their father picked them up at the station. They returned home to watch the first tower fall, Spot coffee and cigarettes in hand. 

They dated a boy they promised to marry, still believing their eventual destiny to be a pastor’s wife, still dedicated to being straight. It may shock some to know that this relationship did not work out. When they finally embraced their love of the feminine and the female, the scorned former fiancé moved out, and Hawthorne opened the Heartbreak Hotel with one of their closest friends. The pair charmed the pants off women, drank cheap whiskey on the roof, and sometimes cleaned on Sundays. Those golden days shined in memory over fifteen years later. 

Hawthorne went on to meet people and fall in and out of love, as your twenties are for. They formed a bicycle gang with their friends; the Spreadeagle Feminists made sure that George W. had as little chance as they could. They smoked, drank, wrote songs, and played every chance they had. They worked in group homes and coffeehouses; the jobs changed but the friendships developed within them blossomed. They settled down once or twice, ended up with a redhead in the banking world, and joined the Rural Metro EMT Academy and become certified in having a pulse and performing CPR, the two most skills the company demanded for the job.

It was unexpected when their love appeared on the scene.  Ella was a scraggly creature, more a blur of black and teeth than a dog when they first met at the SPCA. A one-year-old stray, wire-haired and just wired, the staff asked if Hawthorne was sure they wanted that one. Two days later after her spay surgery, Ella the Fitzgerald terrier took a nap on Hawthorne’s chest, and the two were bonded. If you asked Hawthorne what they wanted for a tattoo, it looked like this.

I had been lucky enough to meet Hawthorne in 2008 at work one night. They stood to the door of the trailer, smoking a cigarette as I stomped past, pissed and swearing about my partner on the ambulance. Hawthorne was coming off shift and I was coming on. I had noticed the hot butch in uniform but didn’t register more than that until the morning when I arrived for shift change to find them sitting on the donated couch with their feet propped up on a flimsy coffee table, reading the paper. They said good morning without moving, and watched me step over their extended legs to punch out. Their mischievous grin told me everything I needed to know. 

I can’t say a romance was born that morning, but I definitely had my eye on them. I was married but it was a rather open arrangement; Hawthorne was in a committed relationship. It would be years before the interest sparked again. Trying on pants in the women’s room, I complimented them the best way I knew how in that setting: a firm slap on the ass as I walked by, saucy smile tossed back over my shoulder. They were speechless – a rare occurrence. 

It was at least another year before they charmed me off my feet after driving me batty. Christmas 2010 they were partnered up with me, and like a little boy mistakenly pulling pigtails on the playground, unplugged the unreliable Toughbook computer I needed for my paperwork repeatedly. We ate chocolates their girlfriend had made and tried not to think about the other. We became lovers in a dangerous time; they helped me leave an abusive situation, and their own relationship ended with its fair share of drama. They left the ambulance company and started their college career intending to earn enough credits to apply to the police academy. The first day of orientation, they came home and asked me, “do you know what I can DO with a criminal justice degree?!” With their sights set on law school, they poured themselves into their studies. After one year they changed their major to sociology and pretty writing; they met some of their best friends and most influential people in their life. 

Hawthorne learned to hold a baby when their niece was born, a bright little girl with piercing blue eyes. The love emanated from them as they gingerly cradled her and the wonder filled their own ocean eyes. Two days later, with the sand on their knee to prove it, they proposed to me in the woods of Thoreau. We were married in June of 2014, on a beautiful summer day during the Allentown Art Festival. Their gray tux hangs in the closet next to my wedding dress and still carries the scent of whiskey. The honeymoon in the backwoods gave them a taste for country life that drove the city mouse to consider law schools in northern New England. 

They graduated cum laude in 2015 and earned the Conrad Vogler Promising Sociologist award. They were so proud to have been one of the small percentage of those who leave high school and go on to collegiate degrees. Within a few weeks, with no backup plan, no jobs, and no contacts, we packed up and moved to rural Vermont. Their dream of living in the middle of nowhere was realized, and they fulfilled a promise to Ella of having a yard big enough to run around in. They met the neighbor and discovered the local law school had a rugby team that was open to community members. Without hesitation and with zero experience on Hawthorne’s part, we signed up. Besides the whole fitness and running aspect, they had an absolute blast steering the scrum and chasing down the backs.  

That summer was spent in the river with a beer in hand by day and job hunting by night, with the daylight being much more successful. When they received the call back from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for a job, they were talking about selling platelets to make some meager income because I refused to consider them selling a guitar. There was no end to their generosity and devotion to care for their family. Thankfully they were hired into their addiction research department, and the qualitative sociologist began handling more quantitative data than they had ever hoped to see.

On December first, Hawthorne fell down a full flight of stairs. It would be four months before their pain was taken seriously enough to get an MRI, and an additional two months for surgery. To literally add insult, they were laid off just days after their surgery as their department was merged with Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. They then took a job at the local designated health agency as an emergency case manager, a job that recalled their time on the ambulance.  It was there that they met their adventure buddy, a friend who later helped give them a space to better define their gender fuckery. 

After that job was unable to work with them to aid their recovery after a second back injury and surgery, they worked at the local hardware store for the summer – another dream realized – and then at the local coffeeshop. Their barista skills from early-2000’s Starbucks served them well, and the tips were often returned to the same store for more books to line our shelves. 

In July of 2018, their wife gave birth to Oscar Prince, a beautiful boy who was stillborn. They held tight to the earthside body of their starside baby, knowing that this world was too fucked up for any firstborn son. They chose his only outfit, and drove him around the mountains when his ashes were released by the funeral home. They never forgot him, and never stopped loving him. 

Hawthorne returned to work just after what was supposed to be Oscar’s due date, and left the coffeeshop for a local residential crisis respite house. There they provided peer support to other Vermonters who were dealing with their shit, and found a beautiful community of folks that they connected with. They began playing guitar again, and in a few months Washboard Honey was born. 

In the summer of 2019, they came out as genderqueer and transmasculine; finally they were able to define themselves with words that rang true. They embraced their chosen name of Hawthorne, and began using they/them pronouns, since they often didn’t catch the message they were supposed to receive when referred to as “she.” They had top surgery at the end of the summer, or as they said, they Marie Kondo’d their breasts because they brought no joy. After that they pretty much refused to wear a shirt. They were finally starting to feel at home in their body; until then, they had thought of their body as a shell of pain that carried them around and didn’t match up with who they were. 

Their littlest love came into the world six weeks early, making them worry from the moment her mama started having preeclampsia. They wore their tweed coat and flat cap for three days, wanting to make a good first impression, and ended up having their fancy duds covered with an operating gown. They followed her to the NICU and held her first, keeping her skin-to-skin on their proud chest. In the pictures, Lucy Danger is already looking up at her papa with such wonder. They loved her fiercely, and it was returned the same. 

With the advent of 2020 also came a new wave of discovery and personal development. They began taking testosterone; nearly immediately their voice began to drop. Their soft alto voice deepened and richened into a smooth baritone; they picked up new harmonies and new skills to adjust for the transition. Their mustache and beard began to come in, their arms and legs became more muscular. Their thrill was a daily celebration. 

Hawthorne was injured at work just two months after Lucy was born. The medical system plodded along, finally recommending surgery in March, just as the novel coronavirus made landfall in New England. Ambulatory surgeries were cancelled, and Hawthorne waited, not patiently, for a date. It wouldn’t come until more than 5 months after the original injury. Unfortunately after that long wait, the “Hail Mary” surgery did not bring relief. 

Car rides were a particular hell for Hawthorne, but we travelled out to western New York for a cousin’s wedding over Labor Day weekend. We met up with close friends and danced at the wedding until we lost our breath. We met friends’ babies for the first time, and Hawthorne took Lucy down her first slides and on her first swings. They sang with their brother and their cousin, and smiled for dozens of pictures. 

In the dark hours of the morning of Saturday, September 19th, they woke up sick. After steadying out with an early morning bath, they took a nap. They fell asleep with their head on my chest, cuddled under their favorite blanket in our bed with Ella curled up behind their knees. Our son’s ashes sat under his golden crown across the room, guarded by his teddy bear as they always were. The sun poured through the windows in the early fall morning, throwing rainbows from a crystal prism on the windowsill. The frost melted to dew on the grass, and Hawthorne slept on. They never woke up.  

Hawthorne leaves behind a family devastated, a daughter too young to understand, and me. They leave a legacy of laughter and music. They leave a body filled with pain and burning, with lungs that didn’t like to work and a mind that outpaced us all. They leave a woodstove for me to curse over, a pandemic that continues to rage, and a political climate that is wrenching apart our democracy. They leave their dilapidated fishing hat and about a thousand flannel shirts. 

But the Universe must have balance; where there is leaving, there must also be joining. Hawthorne is reunited with their family who has gone before; their father and grandparents. They have finally met their father-in-law, and probably are avoiding my mother. They are able to take their son’s hand and hold him as close as they once held their daughter. The captain of misadventures is no longer held back by pain and trauma. 

They also leave us gifts – not just the crow presents of railroad spikes and shiny rocks, not just the memories. They leave us with their music, their words and harmonies. They leave us with the connections they made with us, between us. They have touched literally hundreds of lives. And they leave us with a reminder to live – to carpe the fuck out of that diem.

So when you are out in the world, finding your way from place to place, and you find a pen someone has dropped, or someone’s wallet in a snowbank, or an inhaler tucked into the crook of a resting tree, you will know that Hawthorne has stopped off for a little visit. When you hear someone say, “well I didn’t think that would happen!,” know that they just wanted to have a little fun. When you hear quiet music, play it loud; and when you see injustice, stand up and speak out. Everyone who knew them knows that Hawthorne was not a quiet soul; I don’t see any reason that should end. 

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Time Crawls On While You’re Waiting for the Song to Start

Forgive me, reader, for I have slipped, it has been nearly two months since my last blog post. I find myself staring out the window, waiting for the darkness to fade rather than looking at my screen. I want to write; I love my Saturday mornings. I made my coffee hot in deference to the 47 degree morning. Sitting on my couch, I watch the thin line of the cursor blink on a blank page, waiting for my fingers to move. Inspiration did not strike, so I pulled up another screen and started to let my thoughts flow. My brain moves quicker when I journal; reading back, it sounds as if it is spoken, packed with silence-fillers like “so,” and “ugh.” I typed away until I felt like I could write, brain pan emptied of the mundane and clutter. I pulled up the blank screen. The cursor pulsed, a patient heartbeat, keeping time. I feel like there is so much I have thought to be writing about that I just cannot access right now. We recently went back to Buffalo; an 8 hour drive with the baby, dog, and avoidance of public rest stops. I had wished more than once on those drives for a device that would simply pull the “written” thoughts from my head and record them without me having to do anything. My mind wanders to the days of tape recorders and a montage from Twin Peaks of the agent recording notes to Diane before I snap back. The cursor blinks back at me.

2020 has been a year of upheaval for me, someone who thrives on structure and consistency. That is not to say I’m not agile or able to adapt; I worked in EMS for 10 years. You never knew what you could be faced with next. Now that I work in an office setting where I am not holding anyone’s life in my hands, I have not kept up that level of high alert, but I am still able to adapt to changing situations and environments. Outside of work is a different story. I don’t live on the balls of my feet anymore; I did that for years, living in dynamic and sometimes volatile situations. That state is far too exhausting and stressful for me to be comfortable now, especially with a baby who stills smells new sometimes. I am not a spontaneous person, a fact that drives Hawthorne’s free spirit up the wall. I have recognized and accepted this about myself for a long time.

When things are good, I can keep a lot of plates spinning. I have the balance; I can keep an eye on them, making small adjustments, knowing when the next plate needs a touch to keep on course. I can handle things; just let me be, don’t approach too quickly, and refill my coffee often. When emergencies arise, I can focus on the immediate needs: pack the hospital bag, make childcare arrangements, respond quickly and calmly. You only need to worry if I’m worried, do I look worried to you? No ma’am. 

But when the bottom drops out and my whole world tilts, the plates begin to crash. I crash as I desperately try to not only catch them, but keep them spinning. I grasp wildly for those threads of control as they tangle and escape, slipping from clenched fists and burning on the way out. I stand shattered in the wreckage, not knowing where to begin. 

There are few acts that show off such vulnerability more clearly than writing. By the time of Oscar’s brief life, I hadn’t written seriously in years. A few poems here and there when I fell in love, a couple articles for work, papers for school. While pregnant with Oscar, I read Like A Mother by Angela Garbes. I sat in the river, my swollen belly keeping the book out of the water, his kicks and rolls adding turbulence as I devoured her words. The call in my head grew louder to write my own story as a queer woman navigating the overwhelmingly straight world of impending motherhood. I distracted the call with freeze pops and let my dream languish for Someday.

Then Oscar’s heart stopped beating beneath mine. The plates all fell as my world was irrevocably changed. I wandered the debris field for months, barely able to put the biggest pieces back together. I read a lot about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. It was hard to focus on the striking beauty of reparative work when the hands piecing everything back together were also shattered. I spent a lot of time staring; looking, but not seeing. The blank space stretched on and on, the only thing left unbroken. 

My soul had been wrenched out of my body to lay prostrate, soft underbelly vulnerable to a sharp word. My body recovered slowly, and I became pregnant with Lucy. 

The first difference between pregnancies I noticed was the new and complete lack of serenity. Everything was jagged, the shards of our life Before now sharp with worry; panic pierced through worn skin and would be soothed temporarily by our team. I tried to keep healthy, but many times I wondered what the point was. I had done everything right with Oscar: kept the appointments, tried to lower my stress level. I did everything for him, and he was still gone. 

When I stumbled upon the Pregnancy After Loss Support group, I admit, part of me wanted to look away. Yes, I had been lamenting the lack of resources for queer families; but there is something about isolation that can be comforting. Grief is an insular world that muffles the noise and dampens the senses. I wanted resources to be available, but I also wanted to stay wrapped in my heartbreak. I was scared to open up to other people’s losses. I was afraid to take on their sorrow, as if it would enhance my own.

As the weather grew warmer and his first birthday approached, I could feel the call again, louder, more insistent, an unrelenting drumbeat. I emailed the PALS link and wrote about attending Pride with empty arms. Within two weeks, I became a weekly contributor. And just like that, I was writing again. 

It took some time after Lucy’s birth to be able to tell her story. My memory of the events is still hazy, and is not likely to ever become fully clear. Preeclampsia and the associated treatments will do that. I am content with the good things I do remember from that time, namely, hearing the first squeaks of my daughter in the operating room, and having her tiny burrito-wrapped body pressed to mine before she was whisked away to the NICU. 

It wasn’t long after publishing her last update to PALS that I knew I couldn’t stop writing again. I had done it to help others and to help my soul heal; waking up halfway to dawn every night made me realize that I still needed that. I had spent my pregnancies doing everything I could for the life inside me. I had given up my autonomy and put myself solidly lower on the priority list. As a mother to a living child and as a wife, I continue to put others needs before my own. It’s something I have done my whole life; I’m a pleaser, and the worst feeling for me is that I have disappointed someone. I am good at doing what needs to get done. It has taken 10 years of Hawthorne telling me to take care of myself, and a new life depending on me for survival, to make me realize that I while I have been getting things done, I have been disappointing myself.

Once I had that tiny little revelation, I decided to become my own coach. Listening to podcasts and starting a daily writing practice, I have found myself in a season of self-discovery and development. I have started a daily writing practice, and I am starting to fill in the self-care and self-building boxes I’ve been making for years in my bullet journal. I’m reading the NY Times daily newsletters, following blogs, and have finally embraced the wonder of podcasts; I need to shoutout my two favorites, which have been instrumental to me these last few months. The Art of Speaking Up gets me to work in a mindset ready to show up for my career and my dreams and makes me look at myself through a critical yet supportive lens; EmpowerHER challenges me to get off my ass and own my shit. I’ve managed to read over 200 pages for pleasure (Stephen King’s The Shining – thank you, Hawthorne, for not making me read it in the winter) for the first time in years.

Oscar gave me another gift this year on his birthday. When I was driving and thinking about him, radio off for once, I had a future memory (I don’t like to call them visions). I watched as entered a small bedroom painted in a calm slate blue with a window facing the forest. Dark wooden furniture was brightened by large-leaf plants. I held my coffee, sat down at the desk in comfortable clean clothes with my hair pulled back, and I was at work. I was a writer.

That image has stuck with me, and I find myself returning to it. I don’t ever imagine myself giving up my day job; I love my work, its challenges and its impact. But why can’t I also write?

This blog has become extremely important to me, because writing has been a passion of mine since I was a child. I am extremely important to me. It’s taken me years, heartbreak, and immeasurable loss to get here. If I want to show up for my family – for my huswife, for my daughter, and for my starside son, I need to keep showing up for me. 

I can’t say I’ll never falter, but I can promise I will continue to get up. I am no longer waiting for the right time, I’m not waiting until I’m ready. This is the time for messy action. 

So I’m putting it out there, reader, universe, whoever is reading. Writing is important to me, because I am important to me. And I’m going to honor that. 

Going forward, blog posts will be posted every other Saturday. They will cover a variety of topics, which will be categorized. Maybe I can even figure out how to color code them in WordPress. I will be migrating my PALS works here soon. 

I am a writer, and I will be on the New York Times bestseller list. You read it here first, folks. Watch this space.