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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. 

Gifts. 

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.

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