On the morning of the anniversary, I awoke in the dark. I was sharing a room with both Lucy and a cousin; we had just had Stan’s funeral mass, and the family was spending the weekend together.
I have always had a hard time with anniversaries. I’m good with dates; they stick out like pins in a map, destination points on the journey. If I can just make it to the next one, then I can think about what comes after. This mindset evolved after my father died fifteen years ago. His long battle with ALS seems more like limbo now, as if life was paused on this side of the veil. He wasn’t ready to be counted as one of the dead, and yet, it was hard to exactly see how he was still one of the living. This moratorium on mortality remains nebulous, a shadowy place on the map where the same paths have been trekked so often the lines themselves are blurred.
October 12, 2006, I got a panicked call from my mother around 6:30 in the morning that “something is wrong with your father.” I was groggy with pain, having separated my shoulder in a rugby game 5 days prior. One of my roommates helped get me into a sweater and my sling, my boyfriend and his dad came to pick me up. My mom had been unable to say it, but my father had died, finally and peacefully. Eight years after symptoms started, six years after diagnosis, and two years after losing the ability to communicate, his body let go of its tether to the machines, and he crossed over.
The date was burned into my brain. The twelfth of every month after that was hard; I don’t think I understood it as grief necessarily. I didn’t know why I grieved; he and I had said our goodbyes long before that day. I felt as if I had done my grieving (breaking news, I hadn’t). Years went by. I became an EMT, I graduated; I made an ill-advised decision to get married, bought a house, became a paramedic, suffered through the marriage until my breaking point.
January 5, 2012, my mother died after a sudden episode of a silent heart attack, complications from the medication, and a Stage III cancer diagnosis. She was spared the years of suffering my father endured; just over a week passed between her hospital admittance to her death. We had never mended our fences, but she squeezed my hand and smiled at me as best she could. She died comfortably, surrounded by family and friends.
September 20, 2016. My father-out-law, Clark, died under hospice care at home, after a series of strokes that spanned close to a decade.
July 19, 2018. Oscar, my starside wild child.
September 19, 2020. Hawthorne, the love of my life.
Grief is the compounding interest of daring to love. There is no formula to guide you through it, no way to quantify it; there is no forewarning before she appears. She knocks silently and lets herself in, making herself comfortable. She has permanent lodging in my heart and holds the master key.
I spent the morning of the anniversary watching dawn break over our favorite beach. I wore one of their favorite dresses and walked barefoot in the cool sand, picking up shells to make the heart. I talked to them down the first side of the beach; it’s rare to have that conversation out loud, but I needed the wind and the sea to carry the message to where they might get it. I love you, endlessly; I miss you, I’m angry, and I’m surviving.
I took the path into the dunes and visited Oscar’s tree. I sat in silence as I watched the early sunlight brighten the branches that now stood for both of them. The colors were so vibrant; the blue of the morning sky, the deep green needles of the pitch pine, the silver of the sticky sap that exuded from the cones turning brown. Not for the first time, I thought of just how bullshit it is that they have to miss this.
I went down the dune path and over to the leeward side of the beach. There was more chop than I had seen over here before. It’s as if the wind knew I needed to feel her as surely as the sand beneath my feet, the water a breath away.
I knelt in the sand, weighing the bag down with my sandals as I removed the shells and rocks and flotsam I had collected. My hands shook as I began placing the natural decorations into the heart. I made dozens of adjustments to create the outline just so.
I hadn’t found a stick, and didn’t want to leave before it was finished, so I traced their names out with my finger, patting down the sand moved away from the lines and curves of the letters. My heart ached without a trace of sweetness to temper it, and the wind blew the tears from my face to rejoin the sea. When I had finished, I took my pictures, the heart half in the sun now. I sat a few minutes, steeped in grief, before slowly making my way back down the curve of beach.
When I got back to the house, we packed up the cars, did the sweep for tiny toys and phone chargers left behind, and left the rental. We made our way across the Cape to the bay side and met up with some friends for breakfast before going our separate ways.
The one other thing I really wanted to do to mark the anniversary was to visit Walden Pond, where Hawthorne had asked me to marry them. They did the whole down-on-one-knee thing; I have the picture of their sandy jeans to prove it. That afternoon, I tucked a sleepy Lucy back into her carseat and headed out again.
I was more focused on being at Walden Pond and taking a walk around than I was with silly things like directions. Turns out, there is a small pond also named Walden a mere 20 miles away from the one I was trying to get to. It was 4:30 by this point, and all I wanted to do was cry and give up. I was tired and heartsick, and Lucy was awake by now and unhappy with being in the car. Still, I plugged in the real destination, and followed a typically convoluted path through Boston and out the other side to get there.
We arrived at 5:30 to a full parking lot that still demanded payment. I took my ticket and hauled Lucy out. I was still in my dress, with the addition of hiking boots it had become clear I would not be using, since the park closed at 6:30. Lucy was in one of my favorite new fall outfits, sparkly shoes and all.
We started towards the entrance and I realized that I had never been here when the park was “in season.” The tears welled up as I lost hope of a quiet moment with every step.
I knew, of course, this was a pond; it had never crossed my mind that where there is a pond, and a sandy crescent of beach, that there would be swimming. My heart sank as I gave up every notion of what I thought this trip would be. My steps fell heavy as I skirted the water’s edge; the spot where I had wanted to be, where Hawthorne had asked me to be their forever, was completely across the pond. We wouldn’t be getting there today.
I was holding Lucy’s hand as we navigated the narrow strip of shore between larger sections of the beach when she tugged her hand and broke away. No longer content with the dry slope, she had noticed we were right next to her favorite thing besides trucks and dinosaurs – water.
She stepped, shoes sparkling in the sun as she splashed just in the surf. Tiny fish darted at the disturbance, and as I crouched to point them out to her, she ran into the water up to her knees. I could do nothing but laugh. The sheer joy on her face shone brighter than the sunlight, and her laughter rang out over the water. She danced and threw herself into the water as I stood at the edge. The water was still and very shallow and full of kids, and she strayed no further than six feet from the sand, splashing and stamping her feet. The droplets that flew from her glittered like diamonds until being swallowed by the growing shadows, and I heard the announcement over a loudspeaker that the park was closing soon.
I watched her play a few more minutes, making sure she kept close, and she made sure she got every inch of herself soaking wet. The next time she was in grabbing distance from shore, I caught her and hauled her up, dripping and screaming. I caught several looks from other adults, both parents and not, and there was more judgment than there was sympathy. I missed Vermont keenly in that moment, homesick for the mountains, and the acceptance of the wildness of kids. Fuck ‘em, I thought, as I held my chattering Lucy close. We got back to the car, I pulled off most of her wet clothes and wrapped her up in a towel for the twenty-minute ride home. When we got there I put her immediately into the tub, which she made abundantly clear was not a substitute for the pond.
As I rocked her to sleep, I thought about the day. The morning at the beach had been what I expected, wanted, and needed; the afternoon hit one out of three. Walden Pond gave me neither what I expected or wanted, but it may have given me something else I needed.
One of the biggest surprises of the day was the emotion of pride I had felt; a little at the beach, but more so, at the pond. Watching our curly-haired ray of sunshine act just like her Papa in the water was a balm I hadn’t prepared for. I have been accustomed to sitting in the grief and pain on anniversaries. I understood the craggy emotions that coalesced into mountains, and I could isolate behind them until the date passed and they crumbled away to more manageable bits again.
Lucy doesn’t let me do that. Lucy demands to be seen, to be experienced. There’s a line in Brandi Carlile’s song The Mother that comes to me in these moments: “the first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep.” I cannot be both selfish and present with her. What I can be, however, is proud.
I’m proud that I’ve survived this year; I don’t mean in the life-or-death sense of survival, but mentally and emotionally. I have been active and present, and while I may have felt like it, I haven’t been consumed by grief.
I will never stop missing Hawthorne. My heart will never be complete without them; the wound heals, but the scar remains. And I still see them: in the crow presents I find in my path, in the exuberance of our daughter. There is nowhere we will go that I won’t know that some atom of them hasn’t touched.
It feels like a new year, like the holiday now falls on September 20. Maybe that’s a good thing; it’s the equinox, when the season turns from summer to fall, that midway point between light and dark. It feels fitting that the calendar should reset here. I’m trying to hold less expectations of what this year will bring, and make sure that I am getting what we need to keep on living presently and actively, with a solid dose of what I want as well.
And on it goes.