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You Could Sing an Army of Angels to Sleep

It’s been a jukebox week. One emotion fades out, the record changes, and a new one overtakes me. I lean, exhausted, against the smooth wood and neon glow of the machine, two fingers of whiskey cradled in one hand. My hands are empty of quarters, my eyes tired and swollen from crying. I scroll constantly through the menu, keeping up the perpetual motion, so they have something new to focus on. The past few days I’ve been playing whack-a-mole with the image of Hawthorne laying on our bedroom floor after the ambulance left. 

When I first met Hawthorne, music was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to devour them; catcher’s legs in cheap uniform pants, curly hair just long enough to fist my hand in, that cheeky grin. They were hot; that first impression was indelible. I quickly learned how funny they were, how smart, and certainly, how charming. When I melted under their hands during our first kiss, heart pounding, I learned that they were talented.  It wasn’t much longer until I knew just how good they were with their hands. 

When they told me they played guitar, I said I couldn’t wait to hear them play. I meant it, even though I was expecting another rendition of Ani DiFranco’s Both Hands; Buffalo lesbians have a little bit of a theme. One thing I hadn’t learned about them yet was to hold a space of wonder; they were never what expected to be. They laid their guitar, one of several in the apartment, across their knee, and smooth notes I didn’t recognize slid out to hang in the living room air. The melody rang a distant bell but I knew I had never heard this song before. Not having had much exposure to Prince at that time (which was thereafter quickly rectified), I didn’t recognize Little Red Corvette until the chorus. This version was akin to the acoustic version of Layla, a stripped down slow burn. I was hooked. 

Music was probably the most important thing in our relationship after communication. There was never a silent day in our house. At any hour of the night or day, some unheard refrain would slide out of the tiny speaker of Hawthorne’s iPhone. Often, it would play two or three or twelve times, depending on how much guitar they were playing that particular week. Any mad money we had went to on concert tickets. Hawthorne didn’t like to shell out more than 30 unless it was a select short list of acts; while we were thrilled for Brandi Carlile to start getting the recognition she and the band deserve, we were bummed that her prices slid out of reach. I would blatantly ignore their thoughts of fair pricing, however, when it came to birthdays and Christmas. I would make tickets out of construction paper, conveniently leaving the price off. I got a good deal, I’d say, a lie I was comfortable telling if it meant I could give them the chance for live music. 

They stopped playing guitar for a long time; they enrolled in undergrad and really threw themselves into their studies. They’d pick up the Taylor or the Larrivee during semester breaks, always remarking how they couldn’t way til they had more time to play. 

Early in their academic career, Hawthorne began to have strange symptoms. They developed neuropathy, and had trouble getting their hands and feet to do what they wanted. They were in pain constantly. The doctors would put them on prednisone while they told Hawthorne to lose weight and reduce their stress. The prednisone helped; it felt like the doctors didn’t. They went through years of intermittent flares of symptoms and pain, followed by intermittent testing.  At one point, one neurologist said they were sure it was multiple sclerosis, only to call three days later and say it could not possibly be MS due to the lack of findings. Eventually a rheumatologist diagnosed them with seronegative spondyarthropathy; hey, we acknowledge all of these symptoms and believe it is rheumatologic, but we can’t prove exactly what it is with the tests we have. Hawthorne was told they probably had ankylosing spondylitis, but it would take ten years to develop the physiologic damage that was needed to diagnose. 

It was a disheartening time. All of Hawthorne’s energy was conserved for school; they had structured an amazing network and courseload in the sociology department; they spent hours in the library writing, and were never without at least three of their books. The music still played, but the guitars lay quiet. 

When we moved to Vermont, we hired movers for the load-in; we were old enough to barely afford them, but lacking the solid team of friends who had emptied our apartment into U-Hauls and F150s, we desperately needed them. I remember the two men moving things in; after the third trip for guitars, the question shortened from “Where do the guitars go?” to “More?” In total, Hawthorne had 13 guitars and electric basses.

It took time to find our place in Vermont, not our house but our community. We moved here and looked for our fellow queers, putting out the lesbian bird call; alas, the woods are dark and deep. One day we were driving around, getting to know our new corner of the world; we drove too fast for roads we didn’t know and ended up turning around a lot. We zipped past another antique store, front door just steps from the road. I banged a U-ey, and we pulled into the Wildwood Flower

Cats made themselves immediately known to Hawthorne’s asthma; but one doesn’t worry about asbestos when entering Aladdin’s cave. They were drawn to the wall of guitars, a look of wonder on their face that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I could practically feel the itch in their fingers as they waited on someone to come tell them to go ahead and play one. Moments later, we met Jake, and Hawthorne spent the next 45 minutes playing different guitars and talking music while I wandered around the rest of the shop, listening to them chat and wheeze.

After that, we would stop in occasionally; there was always vague talk about plans to play or have guitars fixed. It wasn’t until our hearts were irreparably broken that any of would come to pass. We were searching for solace, for any balm on our wounded souls. While I started writing again, Hawthorne picked up their guitars for the first time in years. Their fingers found their way over the fretboards; tuning became the background music to my keyboard tapdance. Within months, Hawthorne joined the band that would become Washboard Honey. 

Their playing music was the key to the golden city; suddenly we had plans to work other things around, nights reserved for practice, and weekly dates at the Wild Fern. We were introduced to Rick Redington and the Luv, Vermont-style bagels, and the People’s Jam. We grew closer to our neighbors there; they held us, fed us, and wrapped around us in music and in community. When Lucy Danger touched down, we asked Rick and Heather to be her Vermont godparents. We were family. 

Sundays became our sabbath, our cathedral the valley in which the Wild Fern rests. The music rang out, reverberating off the mountains, calling all to witness. Guitars and ukuleles, fiddles and voices lifted, joined by harmonicas and flutes and whoever brought what instrument. The person who chose the song called out the chords; choruses gained strength with familiarity. The few there who listened and did not play would sway and dance and clap along. Lucy was rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the People’s Jam in the arms of whomever she landed in, her lullabies rockin’ blues and old country songs. Those Sunday hours were some of the happiest and most meaningful of our lives.

I sit here now in the dark of a November morning and listen to the silence. This early hour has always been my quiet time, but lately more often I’ve been turning on the music as soon as I sit to write. The house itself sounds different without them; the floorboards creak in new ways without their weight, the tiny taps of the heat kicking on sound off more frequently. The noise Hawthorne made is in stark negative; the bath doesn’t run every day, and there is no thud of their inhaler or phone hitting the floor from being pushed off the bed in their restless sleep. What used to be treasured time has changed, skewed. It is no longer a precious space for me to gather myself before the start of the day, but a clamoring crescendo of their absence.  

The music did not die with them. It plays on; in Rick and Heather and everyone at the Fern, in the members of Washboard Honey, in the hands that will pick up some of Hawthorne’s guitars. The song lives on in Lucy Danger, in western New York, down to Mississippi and out to Seattle. 

Hawthorne just has a new gig in the chorus of silence. 

It’s oh so quiet

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When All You’ve Got to Keep is Strong, Move Along

When Oscar died, our therapist offered up the idea that, through the clouds of pain of his death, we look for the light in the gifts he gave us. I remember thinking, is she fucking kidding me? Gifts? Is this some hippie Vermont thing, where everyone is so in tune with their chakras that it’s normal to find gifts in something as devastating as child loss?

What, me? Defensive? Nah.

I’m not a small person, nor am I gentle; I have never been a delicate flower. During labor and birth, I felt so powerful. I could feel the ancestral rhythm in the cycles of push and breathe. After he was born and the ancestors quieted back to their realm, I felt fragile, a bottle of glass so thin it would seem to break if you looked at it too sharply. I would shatter into slicing pieces that would never be puzzled back together, and anyone too close would be scorched from the intensity of my grief. I had never felt like this before; back then, I was still thinking that because I had lost my parents (and other beloved family members), I knew what to expect. 

And so my defenses, as shaky as they were, stood ready to protect me in this foreign and fragile state. I could feel my back tense, pulling me upright, drawing up my shoulder and opening my chest. My ears went back, my left eyebrow raised. Dry jokes laced with warning gave brief cover to the vitriol that threatened to spew forth, should the offender continue their [completely inadvertent] assault. Any tears dried instantly from the searing heat coursing through me, preparing my body for the counterattack. 


When your autonomic nervous systems gets activated like that, there is no off-switch. That is energy drawn up for your reserves and must be expelled, one way or another. Punch a wall, scream and beat your chest, run until you’re doubled over, breath heaving. The less physical the response, the longer it takes for that adrenaline to run its course. 

I had no energy but this; I did not have the wherewithal to dispel it for weeks. I was in a constant flux of response and exhaustion. My body hurt; deconditioned from the pregnancy and its complications, I had to rebuild my muscles, it seemed, fiber by fiber. The emotional barrage made me feel so weak; another foreign concept to me. 

It took time; days, maybe a week, I don’t remember, before I could think of our therapist’s suggestion without bristling. Eventually my defenses came down, and her gentle voice was waiting to offer it up again. With trepidation the creak of an old door slowly swinging open, I tried to let myself give space to the idea that maybe, somehow, Oscar was able to leave us gifts.

That door has remained open since. One of the first I was able to acknowledge was the introspection, of looking inward, and ignoring the knee-jerk response to myself. 

My first instinct when I talk to myself is to a) address myself as dumbass, and b) take on responsibility for any negative feeling or situation. Neither of these do me any favors. It’s an interesting mix of being raised a woman in a society that expects apology from women for simply being, and an amalgamation of micro cultures in which weakness is not to be shown, bootstraps are made for pulling oneself up, and self-deprecating humor is the order of the day. Oscar gave me the gift of being able to let go of that first reaction and look beyond it for understanding. Now I try to use more positive self-talk, often in the form of sharing Sweatpants and Coffee memes, text message reminders of badassery to my friends, and Leslie Knope quotes.

One of the other major gifts that came through that door was becoming interested and willing to tap into my intuition and ancestry. I tried to learn what I could about my Cherokee and Mexican roots from extended family. I looked into Wicca and earth religions, and found comfort, balance, and many more ideas that simply made sense. I’ve identified myself as a witch, or at least witchy, for a couple years now. I celebrate the Sabbats quietly; I’m still a baby witch, learning what practices feel right to me. 

After Oscar died, Hawthorne and I also began celebrating Dia de Muertos. We made an ofrenda, collecting pictures of loved ones passed from around the house and putting them on the altar together with candles, tokens, and natural signs of the season. We made some family recipes and set places for deceased parents and grandparents, and of course, Oscar. We ate and drank and shared memories.

This year, Samhain and Dia de Muertos looked irrevocably different than they were supposed to. We weren’t expecting a to throw a party and have lots of people over; Covid had put the kibosh on that already. But we were – everyone was – expecting us to be here for Halloween. 

We were supposed to dress Lucy up as Popeye; Hawthorne would be Bluto, and I’d be Olive Oil. Hawthorne loved watching the old Popeye cartoons with Lucy on their lap, sending her into fits of giggles when they’d imitate his laugh. It was supposed to be happy, celebratory. We would party in our own way for Lucy, and remember Oscar. 

That was a heavy mantle to pick up last weekend. I made no plans; I bought no candy, no costumes. I sent no invitations for Zoom. I had to celebrate Samhain alone; I had to add Hawthorne to the ofrenda, instead of setting it together. It was dissonant to see them there. My hands shook as I lit the candles, as I said the Samhain prayer. Lucy was asleep in her swing. I made myself a cup of hot orange tea with a shot of whiskey, offered some up to the goddess, toasted the ancestors. The candles burned while I took a bath by moonlight. I took advantage of the thinning of the veil, and spoke deeply and honestly to Hawthorne. I felt heard, and I took strength in that. 

I have been struggling with what it means to move on to Chapter Next. I’ve heard from numerous people that one shouldn’t make big decisions for at least a year after a profound loss. Yet here I am, having worked my last day yesterday, about to move back to my home city, find a new job, and build a life for Lucy and I (and Ella). There’s a part of me that feels opportunistic; like I am taking advantage of the situation for my own benefit. In a way, that’s exactly what I am doing. I have made the decision that Vermont is no longer our home; this was our shared dream, and being confronted with that on a daily basis is not going to allow me the space to heal. Nothing can be what we had planned, if only in that their absence won’t allow it, not to mention the actual planning, logistics, and execution of actually homesteading in the country.

Talking with Hawthorne on Samhain brought me peace of mind; I explained my plans for the house, the move, the physical stuff, and felt only calmness in response. There was no anxiety, nor was there a whisper of air to make the candle flame tremble; no rattling chains or unearthly apparition. I made no apology, for none was needed. I didn’t call myself a dumbass; I called myself resilient and capable. 

I’m not yet ready to unwrap the gifts Hawthorne has given me. I’m still sitting in the midst of Oscar’s. But it’s those that bring me peace in the wake of losing my beloved. Blessed Samhain and Dia de Muertos to all. May this season of transition and remembrance bring you peace.