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This Grief Has Gravity, It Pulls Me Down

September. The morning dawns cool; there is a chill on the breeze that wasn’t carried there last week. The sky is still sleepy, reluctant to let go of her blanket of darkness and allow the light to cover her, soft as the pinks and oranges are. It is light enough to see when I first awake, but I sense that will not be the case by week’s end. 

It took years to be able to enjoy fall after my father died. I associated the change of seasons, the natural cycle of trees shedding their leaves with transformations for the worse, and the finality of death. Indeed my mother, incorrect as it was, had blamed the colorful foliage itself for my father’s disease. There was something wrong with the trees, she said; he must have gotten it from raking the leaves. Her logic for this was our dog had a bout of lockjaw, quickly remedied with antibiotics, some time after playing in the giant leaf piles gathered up in the yard. My father was finally damned with ALS that month, after years of incorrect differential diagnoses, including a short while where the doctor suspected tetanus. I judged her harshly for years for this ridiculous conclusion, though not to her face. Now that I’ve lost my own spouse, and son, I understand much more.

I have been raised to believe in science; I was raised Catholic, yes, but never at the expense of scientific reasoning (recovering Catholics, lift your glass [Response: we lift them up to the Lord]). There are scientific reasons, biologic and chemical and physical reasons for both Hawthorne’s and Oscar’s deaths, and my father’s, and literally everyone else’s. But when it is your loss, the science does little to comfort, and is not the answer you are looking for when you keep asking why. 

Why them? Why did I have to lose them? Why did they have to die? 

It has been a year since my wife suddenly and unexpectedly passed out of this world; coincidentally, this week we were finally able to gather and say goodbye to my cousin who died almost exactly six months later. The two shared a particular bond, one born of an understanding of pain the way many of us are fortunate enough not to experience. They traded stories of what they wished they could do, tips and tricks for getting through the harder moments when their bodies refused to answer directions or punish them for movements. They were more than in-laws; they were confidants and brothers in their struggles. Stan guided Hawthorne more than anyone else through the multiple surgeries and treatment options. When Hawthorne disclosed their gender journey, Stan had difficulty understanding but nonetheless accepted; deciding that Hawthorne was too long of a name, he rechristened them Ed, to Hawthorne’s delight. Even as I mourn them both, I am grateful. 

Hawthorne died of an accidental polysubstance overdose. The combination of medications they took, the amounts they were taken, and the addition of alcohol as a means of pain relief caused their breathing to slow, their autonomic nervous system to fail to pick up the pace. Without breath, there is no life, and my beloved slipped away. I had cuddled them and seen their ocean eyes smile after an early morning bath, kissed them and tucked them into bed, only an hour before. 

Night is coming quicker these days. Grief and anger take the dark as their cue to tango, a passionate dance punctuated with sudden strikes in the flow of the movement. I rocked Lucy to sleep, tears streaming and inwardly screaming while lullabies filled the silence. I spent my alone hours of the last evening crying until I finally slept, heart wrenching without pause. As time hurtles forward to the impending anniversary, I can feel depression gather, a kettle of vultures circling closer until the time comes to descend. It baits me, intrusive thoughts of violent death flashing uninvited through my mind. Things I have seen, things I’ve read, and a vivid imagination create horrific scenes that arrive unbidden, threatening to swallow me unless I can find a way out. 

The question why is a constant drumbeat in my blood. Why did they have to die? Why am I left behind, again? These aren’t welcome thoughts, but impertinent intruders. I look at Lucy and think, she needs me. On my worst days, when I can’t seem to function for myself, I can pull it together enough for her. Oscar never had the chance to need me on this side, but I can be here for her. Though it is Hawthorne’s anniversary approaching, one loss feeds the other, and I grieve for our lost son as well. 

People ask how I’m doing. What can I say? Most of the time, things are good. I love my job; it’s challenging and rewarding and an excellent fit; my coworkers are fantastic. Lucy is the brightest light in my life, and she’s thriving at daycare and at home. I have an interactive online social life, which fits, between the pandemic and solo mom life. I’m privileged enough to afford a good apartment, reliable car, food, utilities. I’m writing more than ever, slowly and intentionally losing weight, and reading again. All systems go. 

And yet my patience is thin, my tolerance for bullshit low; I am on edge constantly, primed to react. 

The anger I harbor snaps at her leash; grief drops in, unannounced. My soul is permanently disfigured from the deep wells that loss has carved; it’s these dark depths that part of me longs to curl up in, never to be left again. This is the call of the abyss, and must be met with resistance. 

Over the past year I have structured my new life very deliberately. I have nothing more to unpack; there is a place for everything, and most things are in their place. I don’t often have to search for something, unless Lucy hid it. I go to the pharmacy once a month; the grocery store once per week, buying 80% of the same things as the week before. Target is still my weakness. I try to read, write, and stitch daily, usually picking two of the three. I am learning how much reading goes into writing a novel, and I find it thrilling. 

So much has changed; but so much hasn’t.

I still post on their Facebook page, and tag them in memes. 

I still turn to my right to tell them about my thoughts. 

I still hold my hand out in the car to the passenger seat beside me to be held.

I still reach for them at night. 

I still think of making special breakfast or fancy coffee on weekends, because Hawthorne liked it. I think of making it, but I don’t. 

I don’t listen to a lot of new music.

I don’t watch TV consistently, or almost any movies (that aren’t for Lucy).

I don’t cook much, and some weeks, not at all. 

I don’t feel home.

After so many years where I had felt untethered from a place called home, Hawthorne had become my refuge. Now again, I am unmoored. I can’t settle the same way I once could; there’s a restlessness, a searching. I know I’m still looking for my place. What I don’t know is if I’m still looking for Hawthorne, somewhere in the wind. Where we are now is good, solid ground, and that is going to have to be enough for now. 

It’s said that, while dealing with the loss of a spouse or someone of significant importance, that you shouldn’t make major decisions for a period of time; sometimes six months, or twelve, or three years. Within three months of Hawthorne’s death I had moved states, found a new job, put my daughter in childcare, and changed essentially everything. Conventional, I haven’t been. 

When I step back and look at it, yes, things are going well. The daily routine, the job, the apartment, all the boxes are ticked. In the day to day of things is a different story. It’s still one foot in front of the other; sometimes one day at a time, sometimes an hour. All the good things that have happened, the successes, the reclamations: I’d trade them all to have them back, so we could work through our collective shit, persevere through the hard times, and come back at it together and strong. 

Instead, every day I crawl into bed, utterly exhausted and feeling deeply alone. There’s no one to hold at the dimming of the day, no one to ground me with cold bare feet, no arms to hold me while the tears flow. I know as steadily as I did when I said my vows that they were the only one who could fill that hollow, only the shining optimism is now bitter and tarnished. Year one a widow, in the books. It’s time for chapter next, knowing that I’ll never find a love like that again. Hawthorne broke the mold, reformed it to fit better, and broke it again. How I wish I could pick up the pieces, hold onto something that once held them, instead of walking slowly through this landscape of debris and broken dreams. 

Just one step at a time.

One foot

then the other

for this body is still in motion.

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Just Some Things That I Will Tell You

The tiles in the bathroom look like an optical illusion. They seem to move, a small and continuous wave, the solid floor undulating in front of me. I know there is a reason for the design, even though looking at it makes me both nauseated and irrationally angry. The corner the wave moves around acts as a barrier, guiding the water from the open shower back down towards the drain so the toilet doesn’t get flooded, so it doesn’t flow out underneath the door. 

I’m in the bathroom at in the pediatric ICU at the floating children’s hospital, exhausted and staring in the bathroom mirror while letting the water run. It’s 9 PM; I’ve been at a hospital with Lucy for fourteen hours. She’d had a cough recently; no fever, not acting different or anything. I have been having trouble with allergies, and since she sounded the same as I did, passed it off as the lovely effects of post-nasal drip. That morning, there was something in the way she was breathing that I didn’t like. She sort of slept in, and when she woke up, she was very cuddly and quiet while I changed her diaper. That’s not my girl, I thought. She seemed like she breathing hard after I’d laid her down to chang her; I lifted her, pressing my ear to her back. I thought I heard wheezing, and the rate of her breaths was too fast for my comfort. I tossed some clothes on her and sat her on the couch while I grabbed a couple diapers and refilled my coffee. We were out the door within five minutes of deciding to go. 

It has been years since I worked as a paramedic and teched a call; I feel like I remember enough to make me a parent than has a strange continuum of “Oh, shit,” to “Nah, you’re fine.” I certainly remember how long kids can compensate, and how quickly they can tank. Something just didn’t feel right about this; I had zero compunction about throwing her in the car for the 10 minutes to the hospital. She needed an ER, I felt, but it wasn’t so imminent that I was going to call an ambulance. 

The emergency room was empty; they had just a few patients overnight. Within an hour, the doctor had seen us and gave a likely diagnosis of bronchiolitis, but they were going to test for Covid, RSV, flu, and get a chest X-ray just to rule out the scarier things. The doctor said she had some concern about a small pneumonia she may have heard, or it may have been noise she was making, and they wanted to take a look. By this point, Lucy is laying quietly in the bed, far more still than I have ever seen her. I may have been hoping for bronchiolitis, but I was not convinced. She became much more animated when it came time to get swabbed; I held her tightly while they tickled her brain for the Covid test. 

They took my tiny kid on the full-size hospital bed to the X-ray. She looked just a little scared, but she charmed everyone who passed by; this brightly dressed, dark-eyed little kid just dwarfed in the white sheets on the big bed. When we got into the room, two techs came to help me try to hold Lucy upright against the hard surface of the X-ray plates. If you have ever tried to wrestle a cat into a costume, or perhaps a wolverine into a bathtub, that’s about how it went. I, the least sympathetic parent when my kid gets shots, came close to crying while holding my child’s arms up in the air, her face pressed against the hard plastic. She screamed throughout, and I tried to comfort myself knowing her lungs were working well enough for that.

Back in the room, a couple nurses came in. Lucy was exhausted from the Great Battle of X-rays, and was just resting in my lap. I hugged her tight and the nurses performed some sort of magic, getting an IV in her arm before she even figured out that she was being  held down again. It took a couple minutes to get her arm wrapped so she couldn’t pull it out, but then, all was quiet again. I pulled out my work computer, packed from the night before for work, and put Youtube videos of puppies on to keep her relaxed and happy. 

The doctor came in, her face showing care with a touch of concern. Lucy not only had pneumonia, but RSV as well. She was negative for both flu and Covid, thankfully, but it was serious enough that they were looking to transfer her to a children’s unit. RSV had been going around, oddly, a breakout in the summer months. Lucy actually happened to be in the ED the day the story was out on NPR. They staff were looking for a bed and we would be transported as soon as that happened. I nodded along; I felt better that she was going to be watched, because her breathing still wasn’t getting better, though it wasn’t getting worse.

Someone brought some graham crackers and milk for her, and she perked up a bit with those. She just never seemed herself; I couldn’t put my finger on it. Tension was slowly rising with every hour passing. Thanks to Covid, I knew visitors were out of the question, and being on my phone meant not paying as close attention as I wanted to her. 

About five hours after showing up at the ER, the ambulance arrived for transport. I was a bit taken aback that she had a full team: medic, EMT, and pediatric nurse. They tucked Lucy into the little adjustable harness used on the stretcher, and I grabbed the bag of stuff my sister had dropped off with triage. Lucy looked happier, but was not as excited as I had hoped to be going in the big truck. Everything about her was so subdued. 

We got to the hospital in Boston, and I realized that the only time Lucy had been in an elevator was when she had been in the NICU in Vermont. She was wide-eyed, watching the doors open and shut. Up on the floor, just as they had on the way to X-ray, the nurses and techs all exclaimed over the tiny cute kiddo on the big stretcher. My throat clutched when they wheeled her up to the doors of her room. 

If you’ve never seen what the hospitals use for beds for kids, there’s a few option, depending on their size. Lucy had been so tiny, she’d stayed in the bassinet style while in the NICU. For this, her bed reminded me of the narrow cribs that held too many kids in orphanages. The bars on the side could slide up and down, with little doors outside them, but with all the rails up it looks like a tiny baby jail, covered by tented, sterile plastic. 

We were right outside the nurses’ station and we had the last room in the inn; we were actually in the pediatric ICU, because that was the quickest available bed. The nurses and doctor were in quickly; I got her changed while they wrapped the pulse oximeter around her big toe, covered her foot a sock, and wrapped that up with tape so she couldn’t get it off. Stickers were changed out for different set for the new cardiac monitor, and we were given the plan: start antibiotics and monitor a bit, possibly the night. 

So that’s what we did. Lucy loved the delicious, medicinal taste of youth, amoxicillin; one day she will marvel at its odd nostalgia for a better time, when it meant that your parent was there making you feel better when you were sick, and maybe they’d make you chicken soup if you took your dose. 

In the chair next to the baby jail, my composure started to crack, very slowly. I felt both alone and watched; like everyone was waiting to see which way this kid would go, whether she’d bounce, or end up needing more significant intervention. And really, they were; she wasn’t able to verbally tell us anything, all we had to go on were what we could see and what the monitor told us, which depended on her stillness. I remember sitting in the NICU, the magnesium still working its way out of my body; the hormones pinging around wildly. I’d watch in terror as the numbers would drop when Lucy wasn’t sure how to eat and breathe at the same time, or sleep and breathe. The NICU experience was as good as such things can be; incredible attentive and compassionate staff, moments of stark fear with long stretches of awe at the “perpetual motion baby” in the bassinette. Hawthorne and I took turns feeding her impossibly small amounts of breastmilk. Hawthorne was there.

It came over me slowly, a rising tide rather than a single hard wave. I wasn’t scared so much as I was angry. Lucy was exactly where she needed to be, in excellent care; safe, with super-qualified people to help her, just like she was in the NICU. But unlike that, I was alone. Hawthorne had been by my side, often quite literally, for the four-week endeavor of bringing Lucy into this world and home. Hawthorne should be here for this. 

I had a moment where I thought, damn, how could I want them here to suffer through this? How selfish am I? 

But you know something? I don’t care if it is selfish. For once in my life, I’m OK with being selfish.

This solo mom thing is hard as shit. Sitting in a hospital with a sick kid as a solo mom, even more so. I didn’t want to be alone. If Hawthorne was still here, I’d have them – to hold on to, to admit when I was scared, to be able to take five minutes to break. I would have been able to run down and get coffee, or use the bathroom without calling a nurse over. I mean, I had help; my sister and her sweetie stepped in so I didn’t have to worry about my car, or the dog, or how to get a change of clothes. They took care of all that, and I’m grateful.

But dammit, Hawthorne should have been there. We had handled so much in our time together; so much death and loss and grief. Family, friends, strangers, patients, coworkers. Lucy was certainly far away from Death’s door, but what happened to “in sickness and in health?” Where the fuck are you for this, H? I couldn’t stop thinking. 

So there I stood, in the PICU patient/family bathroom, watching the tiles undulate in perfect stillness. My body hurt from sitting in uncomfortable chairs all day, usually with 23 lbs of sick cuddly kiddo on my lap. I’d be sleeping on the same chair, pulled out flat. Where are you for this?

Lucy slept poorly, but her oxygen never dipped low enough to alarm. I was awake every half hour or so, watching her breathe. Where were you to sit awake with me for hours, eyes trained on the minute rise and fall of our baby’s back?

By the time she woke up, Lucy was already on the mend. The night had been the peak, it seemed; by the time she eagerly took her third dose of antibiotics, she was much closer to herself. I got a video of her popping up in the crib, laughing, and looking over the bars. That’s what had been missing.; her laughter. I think it’s the only day I’ve known without it since she started. Where were you to offer me your handkerchief for the tears of relief that welled up? 

We were discharged a few hours later, after Lucy was literally running around the room, the cords for the heart monitor and pulse oximeter trailing behind her. 9 more days of the antibiotics, some extra rest this weekend and Monday off, and she’d be right as rain. 

By the time I post next, it will have been a full year since they died. Everything continues to change, both that which we expect and that we don’t. We have moved across state lines in a pandemic, starting a new job and daycare and meeting new people. We have a new political administration; there are vaccines and variants, new Olympians and catastrophic storms. Where were you for that?

Summer is loosening her grip as the scent of cinnamon begins to overtake the entrance to the grocery store. Grief is still my familiar; anger isn’t as distant as I had thought, but comes and goes without so much as an acknowledgment of their whereabouts. I watch the city skyline grow small in my sister’s rearview mirror as she takes us home. My eyes are closing against the overwhelming sun, and before I doze off, again I think, they should have been here.