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Fright Gives Way to Memory, Having Coffee With My Love

For years, I have loved Moka pot coffee. Fancy coffee at home has been a deciding factor of decadence to me. Hawthorne had been a barista for a solid decade, and must have been a bartender in a past life, so we were always on the lookout for new and fun ways to make special drinks. When we had met, I was drinking far too much; it wasn’t uncommon for me to finish off at least two liters of coffee a day. I was working overnights in EMS, taking classes during the day, and trying to learn how to live with my new husband; I ran on about 4 hours of sleep a night. I needed all the help I could get from the magic beans.

After we had moved in together and things started to feel like they settled down a bit, Hawthorne staged a bit of an intervention. Basically, I needed to get more sleep and cut back on the caffeine. They pointed out that my migraines and general headaches had been largely uncontrolled and that my anxiety revved at a pretty high baseline. I put up a fight. No way I actually drink that much coffee, I said. But sure, I’ll go to bed earlier. 

Of course, going to bed early in a new and passionate relationship with a smokin’ hot partner didn’t result in more sleep. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that I admitted to my new doctor that my migraines were more frequent than they needed to be. She tried me on an anticonvulsant that I hadn’t tried before. After two days of feeling like Hawthorne existed solely to piss me off and some nice but confusing hallucinations of a pet cat that did not exist, I stopped taking the medication and agreed to maybe try some lifestyle changes. I’d drink more water, go to bed earlier, and yes, cut back on the caffeine.

By now I wasn’t working on the street anymore; I was working in quality improvement for the ambulance company, and though I was always on call, it was a 9-5 job. I wasn’t in school, I wasn’t trying to hold multiple jobs or devote 20 hours a day to being productive. I asked Hawthorne to help me cut back; they were in school, so anytime we were home, the coffeepot was on. I had finally met the one who could match my stubbornness; they kept on my ass about how much I was bringing to work, and since we couldn’t afford for me to get coffee out often, I ended up cutting my intake in half. My migraines didn’t improve overnight, but it was a major step towards controlling them again. 

Early on in their junior year of college, we drove out to Premier on Niagara Falls Boulevard. We splurged; Hawthorne picked out exactly the right coffee contraption; more importantly, I found two Le Creuset demitasse cups, blue and brown. The silver, angular hourglass  of the Moka pot was entirely new to me but promised something near espresso, and my barista beau was more than willing to be in charge of it. For a little while, Sunday mornings were for fancy coffee and homemade breakfasts.

I’m not sure why it stopped; maybe it was too much hassle to keep clean, or it got packed away for another move. Whatever the case, the Moka pot made only very rare appearances in Vermont. It remained a promise, this time set in nostalgia; when I was studying day and night for grad school, Hawthorne would mention making some that weekend. It didn’t happen, for one reason or another; finally I started asking Hawthorne to make it. They’d agree and kiss me on the head. “You love a Moka pot,” they’d say. I’m pretty sure my reaction would always be somewhere on the Catana spectrum of love and excitement.

As grad school wore on, the role of coffee in my life changed dramatically; I was brewing something much more magical than beans. I dreamed of graduation day, taking pictures in my cap and gown, Hawthorne at my side and our baby on my hip. The smell of coffee made me nauseated; I had gotten so sick while trying to cut down on caffeine before we were even pregnant, and hated every minute without that familiar jolt. I drank green tea to wean off, and then for the nausea. Since I was the morning person, I still saw to their coffee in the morning, but Hawthorne would be waiting with a hot mug ready for me as soon as I walked in the door from work. When I was five months pregnant, I remember driving down the mountain heading to work, and just needing something more than tea to wake me up. Newsflash, pregnancy is exhausting. I drove to Dunkin Donuts and bit my nails in the drive through; even the smell of the store was turning my stomach, how was I going to drink it? But I NEED it, I argued with myself. By the time I pulled around I’d come to the conclusion that I would try an iced coffee with no sweetener. 

I drove back the way I came, making the turn at the light for the hospital. I took my first sip passing a cemetery behind wrought-iron fencing; color began to seep back into the world. The gray of the stones picked up their luster; the oddly lush green of the not-quite-spring grass shone more verdant. Shining purple and butter-bright crocus emerged in dense patches on yellowed lawns, shaded areas holding on to shrinking piles of dingy snow left over from the long winter. My forehead and neck relaxed, my shoulders loosened. My mind felt clearer than it had in months. Oscar learned the caffeine jitterbug that day, and we would dance in the car on the way to work, listening to RuPaul while cradled safe in my belly. I miss those dance parties. 

Lucy didn’t miss a beat when it was her turn. She demanded her coffee strong and iced, with a healthy dose of cream. Occasionally, she would relent and allow me to throw back a quick-fire shot of espresso and cream, but would still revolt at the scent of sweet, hot coffee. I stuck to half-caf for a while. OK, well, I tried, alright? I intended to stick to half-caf until I realized that I was drinking double the coffee, completely negating my efforts. Oops. So, I just tried to be a little more intentional about it, drinking my normal amount but with a few scoops of decaf beans. Fast forward to now, when I’m not breastfeeding or pregnant, and it’s just a high-octane free-for-all. Sometimes I find myself staring at the leftover decaf beans from over a year ago, wondering what to do with them. Then Lucy will growl or Ella will whine and I’ll forget about it.

I’ve come to accept that grief is going to rear up and grab me unexpectedly. In the time between Hawthorne’s death and packing, I realized that they were never going to be there to make me Moka pot again. It began a cascade of similar thoughts; there was no one to buy me flowers, or additions to my fairy collection, or jewelry from the shop on Church Street. They were no longer there to tell me to treat myself, to make sure I got a donut or a coffee, or have that glass of wine at the end of the day. There was no one there to tell me I deserve it.

I don’t know what hit harder, the utter grief and loss I felt in that moment, or the hot wave of shame that crashed over me immediately after, salt water in already raw and bleeding wounds. How could I be so selfish? Hawthorne was dead, and I was feeling sorry for myself over coffee and presents? What the hell was wrong with me? 

Writing about it now brings the moment back so strongly. Sinking down to the floor of the kitchen, the floor cold and unforgiving, the darkness of the evening pressing against the windows. Flanked by guilt and self-loathing, I couldn’t even cry. Grief returned to her post in the presence of these bullies, quietly celebrating the break.

This is one of the experiences that makes it feel as if Hawthorne has been gone for so long. It’s taken time, and distance, and therapy to work through this episode. I still remind myself that it’s not selfish to wish they were here to make me something – chili, tea, their magical healing chicken curry soup. One of the ways they showed love was cooking, or acting as barista or bartender. They liked to put the time into those acts for people. Sometimes I wonder at what creations they would have dreamed up if they had been able to bake. 

One of the things I decided when I moved to this new place, this home without Hawthorne, was that I would make myself fancy coffee once a week. I’d buy myself flowers, and treat myself. And I have. Maybe I haven’t made my weekly coffee, but I know how to do it now. And yes, I may have gone overboard on the treats; I mean, I don’t need to be eating cupcakes for breakfast three days a week (a dozen cupcakes don’t last very long), scattering sprinkles in the car. It makes me laugh to see the bright colors littering the car seat, and to remember Hawthorne’s look of horror to find my stash of sprinkles in the console. They hated the crumbs and detritus that filled the cupholders and got lost down between the seats. I think they were mostly shocked not only at the fact that I essentially drank a few teaspoons of sprinkles at a time, but had been doing so for weeks without their noticing. It feels good to laugh.

I miss them every morning when I make my coffee. I stand in my bright kitchen with its black countertops, still learning to navigate around old furniture in a new place. I often make my go mug at the same time I make my first cup; I had nearly ten years where I made up two cups at a time, so it just feels natural. I often stand in the middle of the apartment, watching the light come in while I get that first hit in. I do my journal and set up for yoga, letting the day seep in, taking quick notes on the early thoughts running through my brain. 

I’m not missing the gifts they gave me that I no longer will receive; it’s not out of selfishness that I get upset at jewelry commercials and “treat the woman in your life,” advertisements. I’m not grieving their loss because they did things for me. I’m grieving the loss of someone who showed me love, and believed that I deserve nice things and special moments. Hawthorne wanted me to be kind to myself, to show myself love in ways that were meaningful to us both, to treat myself if they weren’t right there to do it for me. I miss how they made me feel as if I deserved those things, when I so often don’t think to. I miss being made to feel like I was the only girl in the world, the only one who got to see their eyes light up just so. 

It’s hard to show myself the love they would have when they aren’t here, and I don’t feel like I deserve it. But then I remember, I didn’t have do anything to earn or deserve their love; I was just myself, the girl from Boston with the pigtail braids stomping up the steps at work. I was just the Patriots fan undaunted by the barrage of Bills fans telling me that Brady sucks. I was the one who found their inhaler in a snowbank, the one who wouldn’t pronounce the R’s in their name; the one their rescue pup liked better than their girlfriend. I was the one, and they were mine. Now I’m the one left behind, the one who has felt all our shared dreams fade over six months of mornings without them. 

At least they made sure I had the proper equipment so I could be awake to make some new dreams. Turns out, a Moka pot can hold an awful lot more love than it can coffee. 

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Why Do I Care How Much it Storms

I was a paramedic for ten years. 

That’s not quite true – I became certified as an EMT in Massachusetts in October of 2006, earned my New York State paramedic card in 2010, and let that lapse in 2016 after moving to Vermont. Two states, two certifications – for those who don’t drive the band-aid bus, it’s simpler to say that I was a paramedic for ten years. 

Now, in the times of Covid, people react differently to that. “Thank you,” is heard a lot more often. Neutral acknowledgements of, “you must have seen a lot,” and “Bet you’re glad you’re not doing that now!” have become the common response, replacing the question every first responder hates.

“What was your craziest/best/worst call?”

I’m never sure what people are looking for when they ask. War stories? Blood and gore? The intro to an episode of Criminal Minds? 

Sure, I’ve seen those. I can tell you about the heartbeats I’ve watched slow, the last breaths I’ve exhaled alongside, the countless rounds of CPR. I could tell you about not knowing how to deescalate a person in a schizophrenic break, or knowing how to best restrain a violent patient before they injured you and your partner. I can give you the names of the friends I have lost, not in the line of duty, but duty still implicated in their deaths. 

I can take you to the ambulance bay, the acrid smell of stale urine and freshly crushed cigarettes, chew spit and diesel exhaust. Where every head turns when the bay doors slide open, triggered by errant garbage interfering with the sensor. Where hard plastic backboards, not yet washed clean from last night’s shootings, lean stacked haphazardly, waiting for bleach.

I can take you to where the discarded nitrile gloves are missing a finger (the better to find a vein with, my dear), where oxygen tubing holds closed wobbly cabinet doors, where the radios crackle on and on.

I can tell you about the smattering of good calls; the ones where we actually made a difference, when we were in time. The babies I’ve helped come into this world, the overdoses reversed. 

But that’s not the call I want to tell you about. 

Hawthorne and I picked up shifts together as often as we could. We stretched them out, offering to take a couple extra calls, hold hands a couple extra hours in the never-quite-dark of the city. We never ran out of things to talk about. 

One day, sometime in late winter/early spring, we got dispatched around morning rush hour for an interfacility transfer. A woman had given birth and her baby had been transported overnight to the children’s hospital NICU. These were easy calls to us back then. I took the chance to drive while Hawthorne took care of the patient. She didn’t need any care other than observation and conversation, something to help pass the worried minutes from door to door. Now that I’ve had kids and especially one in the NICU, I think about those calls often, the opportunity for empathy I didn’t notice as it passed. My own ambulance ride to bring Lucy earthside is hazed by the hypertensive headache and steady drip of magnesium sulfate; I remember that my medic that night was in the military, and he was kind. 

Since I was driving, the radios were mine – dispatch, 911, and AM/FM. I skipped over the country station in deference to the direct challenge in the bright blue eyes that caught mine in the rearview mirror. I settled on Top 40, whatever the station was. Traffic had cleared mostly by the time I called transporting. I sang along softly to the radio and made the trip into the city.

As we pulled into our destination, Bruno Mars came on, playing “Just the Way You Are.” I glanced back at this person who put stars in my eyes as if they had been born for that purpose. Those brilliant eyes smiled into mine, the melody making its way behind the dividing wall between the compartments. I remember straightening up in my seat a little, and pushing my voice out a little louder, a little more confident. I sang them every line of that song. I somehow navigated the ambulance into the parking space; I don’t remember ever looking away. 

I don’t think I had called Hawthorne beautiful before that day, when I borrowed those lyrics to give them. The magic of music is that it gives us the words we can’t say. I know my voice cracked a bit on those notes; mama sure as hell sang tenor, not whatever high-alto range Mars is famous for. I don’t know if I have ever sang truer.

The DJ broke in, the vocal equivalent of a record scratch, and not nearly as welcome as the real thing. The radio static almost obscured the response from dispatch after I called us on location. The moment over, Hawthorne turned back to the anxious woman on our stretcher. I jumped down from the ambulance, swinging the door hard to close it. I reached up for the handle; right door, left door swung open. I lifted my hand to my partner to steady themselves on the steep drop between the truck and the ground. They clasped it as if the world hadn’t shifted underneath us. I pushed the lever in, pulled the stretcher out; Hawthorne guided the wheels down, and through the sliding doors we went. 

We finished the transport and walked the stretcher back to the truck. I made it up, sheet precisely laid and tucked in, safety belts clasped and tightened, ends folded and arranged just so. Hawthorne wandered off with the rugged laptop to finish the paperwork and have a smoke. I jumped out of the rig, slammed the doors shut, and walked around to the driver’s side to move the truck out of the way of whoever would be coming in next; the driveways in and out were narrow, and call volume was high. Flip the switch, hop in, turn the key. It worked (always a question of whether it would or not), and I slid the truck out of the drive and into a spot, angled towards the old brick wall. I let it idle and pulled out my book, The Bridges of Madison County. My eyes were devouring Waller’s words; I was deep in the heat of Iowa summer when the door holding my feet in suddenly opened. Hawthorne leaned in, leaning over me, their boots steady on the corrugated running board, legs apart for stability as they held onto the frame. Eyes on mine, those clear-day ocean eyes, they kissed me until mine unfocused. My hands were trapped between us, holding the book, one finger stuck awkwardly between pages. Tenderness, a soft thunder I had not heard from Hawthorne, radiated out and around us, warming me far more efficiently than the questionable heat in the rig. 

I don’t know how long we stayed there, lost in that moment. It was like a dream; the kind that you wake up from in the middle of the night, not knowing why, then you fall right back into it; when you wake up in the morning, you can’t tell what was dream and what wasn’t. 

I can’t tell you a single other thing about that day; any other call, any post we made it to. I don’t know if we got out on time (probably not) or if we volunteered to work longer just to be near each other (probably). The only thing I knew was that Hawthorne had trembled my heart, so tired of hurting. They had reached in and given me a gift I didn’t know I wanted, didn’t know how desperately I needed. And I had given one to them, as well. From that day forward, until it became a word too imbued with femininity for them to find themselves in, I called them beautiful as often as I could. 

It’s going to be six months this week that they’ve been gone. Grief digs her nails in my softest parts, leaves bruises over bone and sinew. The hurt and anguish run deep; the anger has become a balm to the raw wound, a salve that deadens the pain for a little while. I’m exhausted from feeling so much, so consistently. I’m still working out how an absence can weigh so heavy, how a loss can leave so much behind. 

The wind is picking up, neighborhood chimes creating a chorus of sing-song clanging; not exactly a lullaby. Some undetermined piece of house shudders with the gusts, banging against the siding. The past couple days have seen temperatures in the fifties, but the wind has snuck in leaving a cold wake around doors and windows so recently open. Nights like this Hawthorne and I would curl into each other as best we could around 40 pounds of anxious old dog. Ella hates the wind. 

I’ve got the bed, the dog, and the blankets. All I’m missing is my love. 

So tonight, I’ll remember that call, wrapping myself in the tender and warm they filled me with that cold day a decade ago. I’ll cuddle Ella close and listen to the wind moan its way over the old boards, but it can’t get to me here; I’ve got my love to keep me warm