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I Hope Your Broken Bluebird Heart Still Sings

I am not a spontaneous person. 

I have been searching for ground lately. I’ve tried buddhify, a meditation app that I’ve enjoyed in the past. I’ve tried breathing exercises, and sitting on the ground. I’ve gone outside and taught Lucy how to hug a tree; I’ve propagated some plant cuttings and put my gloveless hands in cool earth. I have returned to the nature of my youth, and found new trails. Still, I have not felt settled. I have been pacing, prowling the immovable cage of 24 set hours per day.  

My birthday just passed, a day I have dreaded for some weeks now. I don’t care about aging; it’s not the 6thanniversary of my 29th birthday. It’s the first without Hawthorne. Two years ago, when it was my first birthday after Oscar passed away, I wasn’t sure I would survive the day. I didn’t want to celebrate; I didn’t feel like I deserved a birthday, since he would never see one. I wasn’t suicidal, though I thought about death – mine, his – a lot at that time. I was overflowing with pain and grief and anguish. I had just started in a new department at work, and told no one of the day. I made it through work with few well-wishes and semi-dry eyes. I went home, and Hawthorne, their friend, and I all went out for dinner. It’s almost unthinkable now – going out not only to eat, but to spend over 2 hours huddled around a small table in a very busy restaurant, long pauses between courses and refills. 

Just a year prior, Hawthorne had felt Oscar kick for the very first time. 

I don’t remember what I did for my birthday last year; not much, I’m sure. We were quarantined; I was working from home most days, if not all. There was cake, or there would have been a revolt, and I feel like I would have remembered that. Beyond that I don’t know what we did to ring in my 34th year. 

And now, here we are. A second Covid-era birthday in a completely different world. The calls of owls are replaced by cars ignoring the posted speed limit. Artificial moonlight streams through the same spaces in the blinds, a constant wash of white. The walls have closed in, home now a single floor of a duplex; the bubbly stream that ran so low in summer has been replaced by that dirty water. The baby is no longer content with laying around and downing bottle after bottle, but runs through the house, babbling and yelling nonsense, fat crayons clutched in tiny fists. Every tree is in bud; the forsythia, bright blossoms once exploding ahead of the green, has gone patchwork. Springtime in Boston looks so different than in Vermont; it’s still mud season there.

I feel like I have watched myself come apart slowly over the past two weeks, unable to gather the energy to reach out and catch the trails of myself as they floated away. I fell off my diet and all my goal-oriented routines, which had been going so well. I could not drag myself to care. 

Anniversaries of anything have always struck me; it is an emotional thing to mark the time, year after year, cycle after cycle, based on a single event. The numbers crowd my head: 16 years since Dad died. 9 years since Mom. Oscar should be coming up on his third birthday; seven months since Hawthorne died, and almost exactly a month since Stan. Those I love on the other side of the veil grow their numbers while I stay here, growing older. 

I did not want to celebrate my birthday. Family and friends offered; a party for the mostly-vaccinated family, Zoom happy hour with wine and laughter, easy time to spend together. I wanted none of it. As it grew closer, I became more unnerved by the worry that someone would try some grand gesture; not out of disrespect or anything of the sort, but out of love, and their urge to care for me and shower me with that love (hashtag, you know who you are). 

I signed up for a birding event the morning of my birthday; pretty sure bet that it would be quiet, and no one would have to know the significance of the day or of my presence. My sister and her guy leapt to offer to babysit so I could have my time. I planned nothing else, and  turned down every offer made to me. The gift I wanted was their acceptance that this was truly what I wanted – to be alone (as alone as one can be with a curious and rambunctious toddler), to let the day pass by. That wish was granted.

I cried the nights leading up to it; I rose with a headache from the tears to a bright, Oscar-blue sky. Something settled, firmly, in my heart. I knew from the moment I saw the sky that this was NOT going to be a repeat of 2019; I didn’t have to question how I would make it through, if I deserved it, or if I could possibly bear it. I already had the answer to all those things, a current on the spring air. And with that realization – that I would be okay, today, of all days – I decided to let go of everything but the present moment.

I would do as I wanted – whatever that meant, whether it was housework, or writing, or neither. I would work and/or play at my whim. I would do what felt good in the moment, and I would place no other expectations on myself. This was – and I cannot stress this enough – not. the. plan. My gift to myself was to throw that plan out the window. When I realized that was what I was doing, I grabbed my phone – I had already started unloading the dishwasher and running the laundry (6:17 AM), and suddenly the lack of plan made me panic. I needed to put these things down on my list so I could cross them off and then that way – 

Instead, I made a couple notes. I turned off the screen, listened to the click as it went dark, and I put it in my pocket. I turned away and completed unloading and reloading the dishwasher. To look at me, one would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. I wasn’t outwardly frantic, not tapping my fingers or wringing my hands. But as the tumult inside me went quiet in a fingersnap, it felt momentous. In that moment of pause and self-interruption, I gave myself the gift of staying in the damn moment. 

I was brought coffee and my choice of pastries as I gathered my things quickly to go. I put my hair in braids to accommodate my hat, which I completely forgot. Armed with notebooks, my binocs, camera, water, and coffee, I followed the directions to the trail head. The guide was young, and most of my fellow twitchers were novices. I fell to the back, taking up the last spot in the single-file line. We weren’t 200 feet in when I felt the tension melt out of my shoulders and I breathed in deeper than I had in days. My headache was gone; my hip and shoulder weren’t talking to me as they had been. I let the cacophony of morning marsh birds surround me; the harsh skree of red-winged blackbirds, the squeaky calls of grackles, the sweet assorted notes from sparrows and chickadees. The chorus swelled around me, unabating, as I walked the packed ground. My footsteps fell silently, clad in well-worn hikers made to leave little trace. I listened to the absence of sound from myself and the symphony that rose to fill the silence, and felt nothing but peace and a contentedness I had not counted on. 

That peace allowed other memories to float back gently, without anger or even pain; Hawthorne calling out every dog and plane they saw as a “lesser known dogbird” or “silver skybird.” How they transposed the name to “black-wing red bird” to drive me up a wall. How they always kept their camera at the ready to get pictures of little birds as they flitted in and out of the bushes and reeds. How they always wanted me to have a special birthday with a big celebration, or at the very least, the day off. And holy shit, here I was, enjoying just that.

Somehow, this year of all years, I smiled more on my birthday than I could have ever thought possible. I saw a new life bird (palm warbler), watched one of my favorite movies with Lucy (Lilo and Stitch), took her to the park, and ate cake while re-reading one of my favorite romance novels. I answered the phone, but I didn’t talk to anyone I didn’t want to. I left the cards and packages to be opened soon, and made a late-night single-serving Wegmans prepared meal. I slid into bed nearly two hours later than usual and, remembering how Hawthorne held me every night, fell asleep nearly smiling.

What I needed for my birthday, how I chose to celebrate, was deeply personal and connected to those I love on both sides of the stars. I am grateful that my friends and family understand that, and grant me the space to do that. I’m lucky to wake up every morning to the sunshine singing out from her crib, and the weight of our sweet old dog coaxing me into cuddles to start the day. My heart still hurts, and many days there is just utter confusion at what all has happened. The tears aren’t gone for good; I’m not sure they ever will be. And, as I write out my list of what needs to be done today, I’m going to carry some of that warmth with me – the sound of birds, Oscar blue sky, sweet silly memories of my love. That is a present I can open again and again. 

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La de Dee, La de Dah

I don’t believe in fairness in this world. I’m not even 100% sure I believe in karma.

I do believe that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, that the net energy of the universe is static. It flares here, diminishes there, mountains to valleys and all that lies between. And I believe the physicist brings comfort to those left behind.  

And still, I am tired of writing obituaries. I am tired of losing family.

Two weeks ago, Stan Flynn slipped out of this world, his beloved wife of over fifty years by his side. It’s hard to describe who he was to me. It’s strange, isn’t it, how a family loses the same individual, but everyone has lost a different person. Technically, he was my father’s first cousin’s husband. I supposed he embodied more of an uncle/cousin role who, when he felt necessary, was known to impart his fatherly wisdom to someone who lost their own. Whatever branch of the family tree he sat on, he was Lucy’s grandpa, her Gumpy, through and through. 

Growing up I did not really know my cousins. They were older than everyone else’s cousins that I knew of. It wasn’t until I became a teenager and began to understand what a chosen family meant that I grew to know them. As a kid, I was a little afraid of Stan; I probably avoided him at family functions, not knowing how to interact with this large man who used a cane, whose face was obscured by a gray and trim Santa beard, stern blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. It would be years until I understood that it was not steel, but pain, that drew his brow together and made him appear disapproving. It’s funny to think now that I was ever intimidated by him. 

Stan was a master of sarcasm. I knew not to sit too close to him at Thanksgiving; I understood the impropriety of his sub-volume humor long before I understood the jokes, and I’ve never had much of a poker face. My mom was usually too busy talking with the others to hear many of his wisecracks, but I do remember some of her thin-lipped smiles when she heard but did not want to acknowledge whatever was just said. I knew I’d be the one in trouble if I laughed, so I stayed at the other end of the table. 

There’s no one experience I had with Stan that I can look back and say, yeah, that was the best day, or hey, that was the time when I knew I could show up and be welcomed with open arms. He was quiet in his ways of showing his love. He’d make sure that he picked up a case of what he remembered me liking to drink whenever I visited, whether it was ginger beer or the real stuff. He knew my mother’s long history of judging and commenting on my eating, and made sure I always had seconds of whatever I wanted; every time I cleared my plate was a thumbs-up from the head of the table. When Hawthorne and I were going to drive out to meet my birthfamily in Indiana, he made me put the number of one of his service buddies in my phone, in case anything happened to us out there. He worried about us travelling in that part of the country in Trump’s America.

Stan was in poor health for having such a good heart. The man endured; that can be a full sentence about him in itself. He underwent nine back surgeries which failed to bring any lasting pain relief; his legs bounced if he sat in his chair for any length of time, trying to find any moment of ease. In his seventies, he battled bladder cancer; when it recurred for a third time, they removed his bladder, giving him a permanent ostomy. Even without the organ, the cancer returned. More radiation cleared it up again, and he got clean results just weeks before his death. 

A lifelong smoker, I never knew how hard he was trying at any given time to hide his cigar habit. He always kept it out of sight, back turned to the glass in the door. I could smell it on him; his daily trips to the dump, grocery store runs for one or two items. Before they died, Hawthorne would pick up a handful of cigarellos to smoke in companionable silence. I kept the tradition going this past Christmas, knowing that H would have gotten a kick out of me sneaking away to hide the Cubans in the glovebox. 

The two of them shared something intangible that no one else in the family could understand; the experience of living in the uncompromising grip of pain. They were both beyond having tips and tricks to get by in the day to day. I think that knowing the other was there and got it made a world of difference to them both; I know it helped Hawthorne feel less alone in their suffering. I hope it did for Stan, too. The two of them would miss dinners and desserts, escaping to lie down in the middle of the day, trying to accomplish the dual mission impossible: get comfortable and don’t miss out on family time.

There’s still so much I don’t know about Stan; but I can feel his thin arms holding me so tight after Oscar’s birth, and Hawthorne’s death. He never could look at pictures of his first grandbaby, the one who never made it home. I don’t think he believed that the pictures could every bring anything but more pain. 

What I do know is how much we were loved, every one of us. The pride in his voice when he talked about his sons and their lives. The love and patience when he asked Annda if she’d taken her pills, the affable exasperation when she told him to move his coffee cup up if he was just going to fall asleep in that chair anyway. I don’t think there was a dessert she baked that he didn’t love, and say so.

When Hawthorne came to explain their gender journey and what transitioning meant to them, Stan was concerned. To him, somebody who couldn’t settle peacefully on either side of the binary must be sad to not have that space to call home. It took some conversation, and an agreed upon option for a name – “Ed,” for at least some of his worries around the subject to be eased. Throughout that, though, the acceptance and love never wavered. 

Lucy was just eight weeks old when we brought her over for Christmas. She didn’t quite take up the space of his two hands cradled in front of him. She wasn’t even six pounds yet, and had him wrapped around her tiny finger; he stayed right there through the day he died. He would bellow at her for putting her feet on table, and for getting handprints on the windows. He’d hang her whatever toys she threw out of her playpen, answering his cherished dog’s audible requests for more pets.

I have learned that I cannot talk about my losses without talking about love, and remember Stan is no exception. I don’t know how to finish writing about him, so I ramble on. I will be thinking of him when I find myself puttering about in the yard, and when Lucy leaves smears and sticky prints on the windows she can reach. I hope that as time goes on, I get to know more about him, so that Lucy can have all the stories she can about her Gumpy. I have seventeen pictures to show the love between them.

The family reunion in the stars keeps growing, brightening our someday sky of the beyond while hearts grow heavier down here. Stan brings them an extra twinkle, another smartass remark from under his breath. I should think he would enjoy being less orderly.

For now, that’s all I’ve got – so in the immortal wisdom of Stan Flynn, “If they don’t like it, fuck ‘em!”