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Take A Walk With Me

I am falling asleep at my computer; the record validation I am working on is going smoothly enough, it’s just tedious and I’m tired. Lucy’s schedule does not change for September, yet I feel like she’s already trying to stretch both ends of the day in the anticipation of returning to school.

So, with no meetings on the calendar, I take myself for a walk and head across the street to the little beach. I step deliberately on the bright shards of glass, grinding them further into the rocks and sand under my thick-soled boots. The glass here is not a gift from the sea, but the recent litter of people, so I like to play a small part in smoothing their edges.

About ten feet out in still-shallow water is a worryingly large splash, with no bird near enough to associate it with. This cove is rather industrial, and my imagination runs wild with visions of mutated sea creatures that feed on the pollution, pulling down the occasional gull from the surface.

A white band circles the water’s edge, marking an earlier tide. The pale skin of dried seaweed chokes out the grasses in a narrow strip. I use this as my guide; above the line is dryer, the stones and shells paler, while below the line everything is covered with a thin veneer of still-wet sediment. 

When I walk the beach, I find no bones. Those are gifted to me, at odd moments and at odd places, and never where I think I will find them. Instead I find crab and clamshells, and rocks broken under human intervention. So many of the stones you expect to find at the beach – rounded corners, soft edges that lay smooth in your fingers – have been abruptly interrupted. Maybe they fell to just the right pressure in just the right spot as they were buffeted by construction to sheer off into a flat surface, or thrown against a sharp boulder to crack them open and reveal the darker true color of the sun-washed stone. I take my phone out and make a note: stone-crossed lovers searching for the other half to the one they hold, meeting on the beach and discovering each other. Yeah, I can work with that. 

Thunder echoes in from the direction of the wind, and I look up to thick gray clouds. There’s no rain yet, just the tease of it on the humid air. The cove is sheltered, so there really aren’t any waves to join the strengthening wind.

I approach a tide pool in direct defiance of the thunder as the gulls begin to sound their alarm. There’s no life in the pool that isn’t already strewn along the rocks; periwinkles and limpets that cling to broken shells, turning what was once the home of a single mollusk to a crowded apartment building. 

As I begin to walk back up to higher ground, I think of the starfish story, and remember Hawthorne throwing back shell after shell stacked with new inhabitants. There is nothing here that I throw back, nothing I need to save; even as I’m thinking this, a clam spits out a warning from beneath the surface. The stream just misses the toe of my boot, and I laugh. They have their own defenses that don’t include a flight from my hands. Sure, they are more likely to be caught and eaten out here on the drying shore, but they’ll survive the cyclical rise and fall of the sea. Any who do become stranded will be quickly dispatched by the gulls. Such is the natural cycle of life on the beach.

I stoop and pick up a stone; quartz, it is jagged and pocked. I am always on the lookout for hag and wishing stones. This is neither, but it is oddly warm when I pick it up – I don’t need to scan the beach to know it is empty of people, even as it teems with life below me. The skin prickles on the back of my neck, and the cracking sound in the roll of thunder demands my return to the damp cool of my basement office.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Sometimes I will pick up a stone in the forest, or a shell on the beach, and find it feeling like it has already been held, warmed by hand other than my own. I wonder who it is. I wonder who walks with me; I wonder if they bend more easily than I do, or if pain still resides in their spirit, the very atoms scarred. If so, what scars are we made of, what marks do we carry as we are conceived and borne and grow? What pock marks and holes and missing pieces are we made of? Which star bled for each of us? How can we continue to consume and consume from our world and not give back, when will the universe demand it’s due? The number of people who die in a day are replaced within minutes. What is that if not the road to catastrophe?

The first fat drops of rain hit my back at nearly a 45-degree angle. Already the rain is coming in, driving itself sideways, hurrying those like me who’ve tarried too long, breathing in the energy of the coming storm. I wonder how Lucy’s day is going; if she’s feeling it, and being a little shit. My poor dog, I’m sure, is huddling behind the front door, her recent safe spot. I wasn’t expecting a storm and neglected to put on her Thundershirt. I’ll come home to a puddle inside the house, away from all the windows, my poor old lady. She’ll get some extra cuddles tonight, which will be easy since she’ll become my shadow the moment we get home.

I don’t have pockets in this dress, so I carry the stone with me and put in on my desk. It joins a couple pieces of glass, my wind-up toys, and a curved piece of broken shell that spoke to me on the very same beach when I was first transferred to this office. It might stay right there, just north of my keyboard; or it might join the plants in the window, enjoying the turns of shade and sun. I wonder if it will be warm when I pick it up, and who will hold it in the meantime.

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The Least Competitive Person in the Room

There is nothing in the world quite like dirt therapy, I thought as I knelt, shifting every few minutes to ease the sting of grit on my knees. The drought-dry dirt lacks the soft landing of planting season, or even harvest. Shallow roots come up easily; even the tough knobby joints of the wild violets give up their stronghold, and dandelions dangle their long tubers from my grip. Still, it only take a couple breaths until my exhale is a contented sigh. Even when it’s 82 degrees at 7 am, I find refuge in the garden.

Ella wandered around the yard, sticking her nose in every nook and cranny she hadn’t seen in a while. When it’s just the two of us, I can let her wander in the quiet dawn, though it takes some coaxing to get her out of the house without it now. As I pull the invited plants from the garden, I watch her explore the spaces she cannot usually reach: the far corners of the yard where the mismatched fencing meets, the rotting wooden posts behind the tiger lilies, the dried stalks at a permanent-until-pulled lean. I worry a moment she’ll get her head stuck where the two fence slats are missing, but like her human sister, she figures it out without my assistance. 

This was reentry week. I have been out of work since the beginning of June, as I played gracious hostess to a lovely intestinal parasite that moved in and wreaked havoc on my body. I was supposed to go back to work on Monday, only somewhat eased in by a 4 day workweek. I felt ready as I could be; the only part I was dreading was opening my email. The rest, I felt normally nervous about. Figuring on that anxiety to only grow exponentially until Monday morning, I tucked these quiet moments in envelopes in my mind, labeled by light and scent, to pull out when I needed. 

About an hour later, not liking the cough Lucy had woken up with, I wrapped her in a thin blanket to  keep her some semblance of still and stuck a Q-tip up her nose. Covid positive. Well, shit.

On the first day Lucy was pretty much fine. She was vaccinated, and acting pretty normally; there was no need for immediate concern. At first I was, selfishly, more upset about the timing. My friends had been planning on coming in for months; I was all set to head up to Vermont, a place I will always consider home, and take the next step in my dream. I had a writers conference to attend, and an appointment to pitch to an agent who might be interested in my book. I was feeling ready to go back to work, hopeful, armed with my updated notebook and shiny new mindset.  But I shrugged, said c’est la fucking vie, and prepared to hunker down in quarantine with the kiddo. 

Within a day, my symptoms were starting. The sore throat came first, sharp and uncomfortable; less than twelve hours later, on my way to get tested myself, I felt my bones catch fire and my whole body begin to weep. I almost turned around to go home and curl into a ball. By day three, I had the cough and logged less than 600 steps. We were a sorry pair, for sure; we spent the weekdays in our pajamas til nine, the TV on almost constantly, and doing our best imitations of potatoes. I kept up on Lucy’s over-the-counter medication regimen better than mine, and she repaid me by spending the majority of the hottest days sprawled in my lap. The threatening storms had Ella practically attached to me as well, none of which helped the fever that pushed against the Tylenol. Lucy still seemed mostly herself, just subdued. She continued her moratorium on taking naps at home, even as I struggled to simultaneously rest and stay awake with her. 

My anxious and fevered brain began to ramp up when my eyes closed. I remembered being in the PICU last year, with RSV and pneumonia, looking at the uneven tiling in the bathroom by the locked doors. I remembered the 24 days she spent in the NICU before she could come home, this tiny human that didn’t even break 5 lbs until three days before she left. I remembered getting the steroid doses into my body with minutes to spare, to help fortify her underdeveloped lungs were born via emergent C-section at exactly 34 weeks. 

I dreamed of Oscar, gone before he could take an earthside breath. I wept for Hawthorne, who had lived their last months in fear of this new respiratory virus they were convinced would be their death. 

That’s when the guilt hit, taking full advantage of my weakened defenses. 

I hadn’t protected Lucy. I hadn’t stopped her from getting Covid. I had let this plague get to my preemie daughter – because no matter how old she gets, I’ll never fully get past those first 24 days.

But, I reminded myself, had protected her. She was vaccinated, as soon as she was eligible. I took her to one of the first available clinics for her age group, and she’d had the second dose not quite two weeks before. I had done everything I could, for the 870 days since the pandemic was announced as a public health emergency. She is one of the youngest kids I know of to be vaccinated. I don’t need the headlines to tell me that the uptake by toddler parents is frighteningly low; I can see it by our clinics. 

We are coming out of it now, definitely on the upswing. I’m still exhausted, but other than that one day, we’ve gotten outside to at least get some fresh air, and usually a walk around the block. The sunshine, as well as the rain that finally broke the heat, felt so good. I am so glad and grateful that we were vaccinated. I’m completely certain that without it, we both would have been much sicker. Even as it was, it’s nothing I’d want anyone else to get, so we stayed away from people all week, and practiced wearing a mask, too.

I go back to work next week, providing my testing is clear. I’m a tad anxious, which feels about right. I don’t want to think of this as the summer of sickness. I want to think of this as the summer I learned, the hard way maybe, that I need to take better care of myself (and sooner); I’ve got someone watching every move I make. And I’m done feeling guilty; I can acknowledge that I did, and be proud of reminding myself that I have no reason to. And if Hawthorne were to somehow take it up with me from beyond the grave, I’d bank on their competitive streak, and point out that in the grand scheme of the three of us, I went the longest without getting it – that is to say, (morbidly, I know), I win.