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A Blaze of Glory and an Untold Song

On September 19th 2020 Hawthorne (Emily) Barber-Dubois joined their son Oscar in the stars. The fare for this unplanned voyage weighs heavy on the rest of us here on earth. They are survived by their brother, a man of considerable volume and clear blue eyes; their sister-in-law, a woman who has far less fear than she realizes; their niece, who never fails to lift the spirits of anyone around her; their mother, a woman who is generous to a fault and makes a hell of a casserole. They leave their daughter, the brightest light in this universe; cousins, aunts, uncles, chosen family and forever friends, and me. 

Hawthorne was born in the summertime of ’83, burning out at the rubber tree, a long-awaited first child to hard-working parents outside of Buffalo, NY. Intelligent and quick from the start, when their brother arrived three years later, they asked when he would be sent back for crying so much. Pictures of that time are scarce; the few that exist are tucked into a cardboard keepsake box adorned with sea life. They grew up creative and brilliant, only to be checked by poorly controlled asthma and the regimented nature of school and church. The markers for advancement weren’t their grade level, but the guitars they played and practiced on until their fingers bled. 

They left high school early and without graduating rather than fail another math class that didn’t make sense to them. High school had not been a place of youthful adventures and education as much as it had been the backdrop to bullying from peers and professionals alike. One teacher and her laminated promise to keeping kids like Hawthorne safe kept them coming back as long as they did. 

They traveled to Chicago and found themselves in a cult now made famous by Netflix. In six short months they experienced some of the highest and lowest moments of their queer life. They fell in love with a beautiful woman who touched their heart, holding hands in secret and away from the searching eyes of elders. They endured isolation and shunning for letting that love shine.

Hawthorne left Chicago, arriving back in Buffalo the morning the towers fell in New York City; they were one of the last trains to arrive anywhere that day. Conversations about America’s due for meddling in foreign affairs only hours before in the dining car rang true as their father picked them up at the station. They returned home to watch the first tower fall, Spot coffee and cigarettes in hand. 

They dated a boy they promised to marry, still believing their eventual destiny to be a pastor’s wife, still dedicated to being straight. It may shock some to know that this relationship did not work out. When they finally embraced their love of the feminine and the female, the scorned former fiancé moved out, and Hawthorne opened the Heartbreak Hotel with one of their closest friends. The pair charmed the pants off women, drank cheap whiskey on the roof, and sometimes cleaned on Sundays. Those golden days shined in memory over fifteen years later. 

Hawthorne went on to meet people and fall in and out of love, as your twenties are for. They formed a bicycle gang with their friends; the Spreadeagle Feminists made sure that George W. had as little chance as they could. They smoked, drank, wrote songs, and played every chance they had. They worked in group homes and coffeehouses; the jobs changed but the friendships developed within them blossomed. They settled down once or twice, ended up with a redhead in the banking world, and joined the Rural Metro EMT Academy and become certified in having a pulse and performing CPR, the two most skills the company demanded for the job.

It was unexpected when their love appeared on the scene.  Ella was a scraggly creature, more a blur of black and teeth than a dog when they first met at the SPCA. A one-year-old stray, wire-haired and just wired, the staff asked if Hawthorne was sure they wanted that one. Two days later after her spay surgery, Ella the Fitzgerald terrier took a nap on Hawthorne’s chest, and the two were bonded. If you asked Hawthorne what they wanted for a tattoo, it looked like this.

I had been lucky enough to meet Hawthorne in 2008 at work one night. They stood to the door of the trailer, smoking a cigarette as I stomped past, pissed and swearing about my partner on the ambulance. Hawthorne was coming off shift and I was coming on. I had noticed the hot butch in uniform but didn’t register more than that until the morning when I arrived for shift change to find them sitting on the donated couch with their feet propped up on a flimsy coffee table, reading the paper. They said good morning without moving, and watched me step over their extended legs to punch out. Their mischievous grin told me everything I needed to know. 

I can’t say a romance was born that morning, but I definitely had my eye on them. I was married but it was a rather open arrangement; Hawthorne was in a committed relationship. It would be years before the interest sparked again. Trying on pants in the women’s room, I complimented them the best way I knew how in that setting: a firm slap on the ass as I walked by, saucy smile tossed back over my shoulder. They were speechless – a rare occurrence. 

It was at least another year before they charmed me off my feet after driving me batty. Christmas 2010 they were partnered up with me, and like a little boy mistakenly pulling pigtails on the playground, unplugged the unreliable Toughbook computer I needed for my paperwork repeatedly. We ate chocolates their girlfriend had made and tried not to think about the other. We became lovers in a dangerous time; they helped me leave an abusive situation, and their own relationship ended with its fair share of drama. They left the ambulance company and started their college career intending to earn enough credits to apply to the police academy. The first day of orientation, they came home and asked me, “do you know what I can DO with a criminal justice degree?!” With their sights set on law school, they poured themselves into their studies. After one year they changed their major to sociology and pretty writing; they met some of their best friends and most influential people in their life. 

Hawthorne learned to hold a baby when their niece was born, a bright little girl with piercing blue eyes. The love emanated from them as they gingerly cradled her and the wonder filled their own ocean eyes. Two days later, with the sand on their knee to prove it, they proposed to me in the woods of Thoreau. We were married in June of 2014, on a beautiful summer day during the Allentown Art Festival. Their gray tux hangs in the closet next to my wedding dress and still carries the scent of whiskey. The honeymoon in the backwoods gave them a taste for country life that drove the city mouse to consider law schools in northern New England. 

They graduated cum laude in 2015 and earned the Conrad Vogler Promising Sociologist award. They were so proud to have been one of the small percentage of those who leave high school and go on to collegiate degrees. Within a few weeks, with no backup plan, no jobs, and no contacts, we packed up and moved to rural Vermont. Their dream of living in the middle of nowhere was realized, and they fulfilled a promise to Ella of having a yard big enough to run around in. They met the neighbor and discovered the local law school had a rugby team that was open to community members. Without hesitation and with zero experience on Hawthorne’s part, we signed up. Besides the whole fitness and running aspect, they had an absolute blast steering the scrum and chasing down the backs.  

That summer was spent in the river with a beer in hand by day and job hunting by night, with the daylight being much more successful. When they received the call back from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for a job, they were talking about selling platelets to make some meager income because I refused to consider them selling a guitar. There was no end to their generosity and devotion to care for their family. Thankfully they were hired into their addiction research department, and the qualitative sociologist began handling more quantitative data than they had ever hoped to see.

On December first, Hawthorne fell down a full flight of stairs. It would be four months before their pain was taken seriously enough to get an MRI, and an additional two months for surgery. To literally add insult, they were laid off just days after their surgery as their department was merged with Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. They then took a job at the local designated health agency as an emergency case manager, a job that recalled their time on the ambulance.  It was there that they met their adventure buddy, a friend who later helped give them a space to better define their gender fuckery. 

After that job was unable to work with them to aid their recovery after a second back injury and surgery, they worked at the local hardware store for the summer – another dream realized – and then at the local coffeeshop. Their barista skills from early-2000’s Starbucks served them well, and the tips were often returned to the same store for more books to line our shelves. 

In July of 2018, their wife gave birth to Oscar Prince, a beautiful boy who was stillborn. They held tight to the earthside body of their starside baby, knowing that this world was too fucked up for any firstborn son. They chose his only outfit, and drove him around the mountains when his ashes were released by the funeral home. They never forgot him, and never stopped loving him. 

Hawthorne returned to work just after what was supposed to be Oscar’s due date, and left the coffeeshop for a local residential crisis respite house. There they provided peer support to other Vermonters who were dealing with their shit, and found a beautiful community of folks that they connected with. They began playing guitar again, and in a few months Washboard Honey was born. 

In the summer of 2019, they came out as genderqueer and transmasculine; finally they were able to define themselves with words that rang true. They embraced their chosen name of Hawthorne, and began using they/them pronouns, since they often didn’t catch the message they were supposed to receive when referred to as “she.” They had top surgery at the end of the summer, or as they said, they Marie Kondo’d their breasts because they brought no joy. After that they pretty much refused to wear a shirt. They were finally starting to feel at home in their body; until then, they had thought of their body as a shell of pain that carried them around and didn’t match up with who they were. 

Their littlest love came into the world six weeks early, making them worry from the moment her mama started having preeclampsia. They wore their tweed coat and flat cap for three days, wanting to make a good first impression, and ended up having their fancy duds covered with an operating gown. They followed her to the NICU and held her first, keeping her skin-to-skin on their proud chest. In the pictures, Lucy Danger is already looking up at her papa with such wonder. They loved her fiercely, and it was returned the same. 

With the advent of 2020 also came a new wave of discovery and personal development. They began taking testosterone; nearly immediately their voice began to drop. Their soft alto voice deepened and richened into a smooth baritone; they picked up new harmonies and new skills to adjust for the transition. Their mustache and beard began to come in, their arms and legs became more muscular. Their thrill was a daily celebration. 

Hawthorne was injured at work just two months after Lucy was born. The medical system plodded along, finally recommending surgery in March, just as the novel coronavirus made landfall in New England. Ambulatory surgeries were cancelled, and Hawthorne waited, not patiently, for a date. It wouldn’t come until more than 5 months after the original injury. Unfortunately after that long wait, the “Hail Mary” surgery did not bring relief. 

Car rides were a particular hell for Hawthorne, but we travelled out to western New York for a cousin’s wedding over Labor Day weekend. We met up with close friends and danced at the wedding until we lost our breath. We met friends’ babies for the first time, and Hawthorne took Lucy down her first slides and on her first swings. They sang with their brother and their cousin, and smiled for dozens of pictures. 

In the dark hours of the morning of Saturday, September 19th, they woke up sick. After steadying out with an early morning bath, they took a nap. They fell asleep with their head on my chest, cuddled under their favorite blanket in our bed with Ella curled up behind their knees. Our son’s ashes sat under his golden crown across the room, guarded by his teddy bear as they always were. The sun poured through the windows in the early fall morning, throwing rainbows from a crystal prism on the windowsill. The frost melted to dew on the grass, and Hawthorne slept on. They never woke up.  

Hawthorne leaves behind a family devastated, a daughter too young to understand, and me. They leave a legacy of laughter and music. They leave a body filled with pain and burning, with lungs that didn’t like to work and a mind that outpaced us all. They leave a woodstove for me to curse over, a pandemic that continues to rage, and a political climate that is wrenching apart our democracy. They leave their dilapidated fishing hat and about a thousand flannel shirts. 

But the Universe must have balance; where there is leaving, there must also be joining. Hawthorne is reunited with their family who has gone before; their father and grandparents. They have finally met their father-in-law, and probably are avoiding my mother. They are able to take their son’s hand and hold him as close as they once held their daughter. The captain of misadventures is no longer held back by pain and trauma. 

They also leave us gifts – not just the crow presents of railroad spikes and shiny rocks, not just the memories. They leave us with their music, their words and harmonies. They leave us with the connections they made with us, between us. They have touched literally hundreds of lives. And they leave us with a reminder to live – to carpe the fuck out of that diem.

So when you are out in the world, finding your way from place to place, and you find a pen someone has dropped, or someone’s wallet in a snowbank, or an inhaler tucked into the crook of a resting tree, you will know that Hawthorne has stopped off for a little visit. When you hear someone say, “well I didn’t think that would happen!,” know that they just wanted to have a little fun. When you hear quiet music, play it loud; and when you see injustice, stand up and speak out. Everyone who knew them knows that Hawthorne was not a quiet soul; I don’t see any reason that should end. 

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Come at Me, Bro

The anger is closer, more accessible, than the reason for it or the details. I didn’t know anyone at Club Q. I’m learning the names slowly as the news quietly updates. It bothers me that the only updates I’m seeing are from Huff Post Queer Voices, and sites that lie inaccessible behind paywalls. 

Have we all become numb?

I felt it yesterday; I don’t know if it was the day, the news, or the season, but “numb” is a good descriptor for most of my Sunday. The way my bestie said it summed it up perfectly: “there’s so much to feel and so little space to feel it.” And so, blankness becomes survival. 

Today I woke up anxious and angry. Little things are frustrating; not the stomp-your-foot flavor of frustrating, but the take-a-match-to-it kind. It took me a while to realize why, to remember. It took until afternoon again for anything to cross my Facebook path. 

And this attack happened mere minutes before Trans Day of Remembrance. An annual day of mourning and remembering, scheduled and on a whole lot of calendars, because we know we are going to lose more of our community to violence and hatred. Not long before they died, my wife wondered if they’d make that list one day.

Today, I’m not numb; I am angry, and I am tired. 

I’m not even supposed to be writing this. I had a funny post planned, a nice short one with typos and mistakes I’ve made using talk-to-text, because it’s National Novel Writing Month. I’m about 6000 words off of my goal with just ten days to go. 

I couldn’t post that after I saw the news. And I couldn’t sit silently; not for long, at least.

There’s a tweet going around that says “If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or a club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.” And that hit me, hard.

I’ve never seen myself as a victim; not when I was in an abusive relationship, not when I’ve been actively discriminated against. No matter what has happened to me, no matter the dizzying amount of anxiety I have, I still consider myself a fighter. 

Because yeah, I’ve been worried about what it would mean to hold my wife’s hand in public. I’ve felt my protective instincts go up when I am with another woman in public. I’ve taken stickers that I’m proud as hell to display down off my car in order to be safer travelling. I’ve used the buddy system in out-of-state gas stations, leaving the dog in the (running) car, so that my partner would be safer – or have a witness, if they weren’t.

I’ve felt the stares, directed at me, directed at my wife, and before that, other partners. I realize that not everyone knows what it’s like to feel that hot punch of hate, to feel unwelcome because of who you are and who you love. Not everyone knows what it’s like when conversation stops when you walk in, and you know what that silence means.

When Hawthorne and I were first married, there were states where we would half-jokingly say “Oh, guess we’re not married! Ok, see ya!” When we were first talking about having kids, we had to look into the legality of names on a birth certificate before we even felt safe trying. When I was preeclamptic and Lucy’s arrival was imminent, we elected to go to the in-state hospital, which was twice as far away as the out-of-state one, just to protect those rights.

We were denied wedding services by vendors because we were not a union of a man and a woman. We were not-so-subtly called out during our niece’s dedication ceremony; not by name, but it sure was uncomfortable when the message of the sermon was that Jesus can even forgive homosexuals, those that are sexually impure. 

I have been present for a couple fights at bars and clubs, and during my time on the ambulance, responded to plenty. Only two were at known queer establishments, where intolerant people went to make a point – or whatever reason they gave. Still I have felt safer in bars and clubs than I have in most churches I’ve been to. And no, I don’t expect everyone to understand that. What I want people to understand is, my experience is just as true and valid as yours.

These days, I’d love to get a night off and find a gay bar in a major metropolitan city, have a couple drinks, dance, and Uber home. However I’m increasingly afraid of doing so; I’ve got a kid I want to come home to more than I want to unwind at a bar; and truly, Starbucks is no safer from assholes with guns than a bar.

Historically, bars have been safe gathering places for people who existed outside the confines of man-and-woman, binary, and proper. They have been burned down, smoked out, condemned, and shot up. They are flagships of survival. They’ve given their bricks and mortar just as we have shed our tears and blood for our right to exist in this world.

For every person who exists outside the boundaries of the binary, for every person who loves someone they’ve been told by someone – person, organization, religion, or society – for each of you, I am angry, and I am with you.

For every person who has had their life taken by these senseless acts of violence, especially in places when you were supposed to be safe, I am remembering, and I am with you.

For every person who has been harmed, abandoned, assaulted, evicted, disowned, denied your human and civil rights, I am hurting, and I am with you.

For every person who has shed their blood and their tears just to fucking exist, every person who has fought – with cops, with protesters, with religious figures and politicians – I am thanking you, and I am with you.

For every person who has been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public, piss in a public restroom, cut or grow their hair, wear a dress or pants, have stickers on their car, travel to specific places, go out by themselves to get gas, I am raising my hand in sorrow and solidarity, and I am with you.

I’m no victim, and neither am I invincible. I’m fully aware that being a woman, and being queer, make me a target for certain bigots. I’m something to abhor, to castigate and disparage. I’m something to dispose of, teach a lesson to; someone who doesn’t match their idea of what a woman should be, and as such, deserving of scorn and derision. And as I am all of those things, I am something to be feared.

So go ahead, fear me. If you see me as a target, be damn sure that I know it, and your hateful opinion does not change me. You have come for us, and we are still here, and we will continue to be.

I am angry: for me, for my daughter, my friends and family and community. And hell hath no wrath like a woman scorned.

Posted in Beliefs and Practices

Dia de los Angelitos

We kept the celebration small this year. The kitchen table was pulled out, the basket of condiments banished to the pantry for tonight. There were 6 place settings crowded around the square table. I pulled the three chairs I owned in around in and added the stepstool; the kiddo would get a kick out of that. Lucy had her high chair, and I was happy to stand. Truth be told I was too excited to sit. 

We set the table together, with silverware clattering on plates, as “Lucy Danger” and “gentle” don’t always go together. The sun had set already, and the sky was vaguely purple with the cloud cover and light pollution from the city refracted inside it. I fiddled with the vases of bright orange carnations, and bit my lip as I worried that they were not marigolds.

Suddenly, there was a rush of warmth and the voices of our beloved guests poured into the room. Lucy was startled and ran to grab my leg a moment, but found herself swept up in hugs.

Oh, but they looked wonderful. They’d all dressed up for the occasion. Stan, in his suit from the church picture that his wife had taken, shit, must be ten years ago now; Clark, a fresh flannel button down and pressed slacks, with his hat and walking stick and sunglasses. Hawthorne, dapper as could be in a lavender button down, jeans, vest, bow tie, and pocket chain. And Oscar, my sweet boy, in a checkered Oxford shirt and suspenders on his jeans.

He’s gotten so tall, a full head taller than his sister, who was looking at him with wide eyes from her perch up on Clark’s shoulders. He’d be four now; he sure seemed like it. Lucy kicked her legs and demanded “down, down please!” Clark lifted her off his shoulders and put her down, and I watched my children, my babies, run into the other room to play. Their grandfather went with them, a smile on his face that I could tell reached his eyes, even with the sunglasses.

I turned from hugging Stan, who followed in to watch his grandkids play, and found myself back in my spot, head under Hawthorne’s chin, their arms wrapped right around me. We fit perfectly together there, and always had. I breathed them in; sandalwood and calendula, and the smell of their skin that I remembered so well. I wanted to pause time, to feel those arms hold me like no one else could, to lay my head on their chest where it fit so naturally. The bossa nova station I had playing on my computer slid toward something slower, wrapping around us as if we needed help holding on to each other. We swayed in place a moment, then Hawthorne tugged my hand. I spun away and back in, laughing into their eyes. We danced in the kitchen like we had so many times before. 

The kids ran in, demanding food, followed by the men. Hawthorne gave me a last squeeze and let go, reaching to pick up Lucy as I turned to the stove. 

“Hey, baby. Remember me?” 

Lucy  nodded. “You Papa,” she said, pointing. My eyes stung, and I closed them against the wave of emotion. She was always to ask to look at pictures, and didn’t always recognize Hawthorne. “That my Mama,” she continued, the same way she told her friends at school every time I came to pick her up. “Who that?” 

“That’s your brother Oscar,” Hawthorne told her. 

She gasped. “My picture!” She strained to get away, and since neither of us knew what she was talking about, they set her down. She ran into her room. “Mama, my picture!”

We all followed her in, Oscar pushing through legs to get to the front to see. Hawthorne gripped my shoulder and tears filled my eyes.

She was pointing to a painting given to us by our beautiful and talented friends when we had been pregnant with Lucy. A branch of a birch tree against a truly Oscar blue sky – she had color matched it to pictures we posted of our Oscar sky. On the branch was a birds nest made of twigs. Inside the nest was a gold crown, and half of a perfect egg. Well, when it had been given to us, it was the shell of the egg, glued on like the twigs and the crown; the shell had been broken during the move. Lucy asked about it often, asked why it was broken. I always told her it was because she had hatched, and the crown was for her brother Oscar. He left it here when he went to the stars, I would tell her. 

Lucy climbed up on her bed, turned and gestured to Oscar. “C’mere,” she told him. “My picture. My egg broken, I hatch. You has a crown! My picture!”

Stan clapped his hand on my other shoulder. “Ya done good, kid,” he said as he turned and walked out. He wasn’t much one for displays of emotion, his own or that of others’. Clark echoed the sentiment and action. “Well done,” he nodded, before stepping out. The kids began chattering about the books on Lucy’s shelf, and we watched our babies play. 

The timer beeped, and I ran back to the kitchen. It wasn’t a traditional dinner in any sense of the word. We had chicken nachos with Chiavetta’s, shepherd’s pie, shrimp cocktail, cereal with milk, and ice cream. We sat and ate the smorgasbord happily, passing things around the packed little table, then one of the grandfathers would turn easily in their chair to place the dish on the counter. Oscar got a kick out of sitting on the top of the backwards stepstool. Wine flowed and beer foamed, raised in toast, and enjoyed without any negative anticipation. All were well here. 

After dinner was finished, I pulled out a cake I had hidden in my bedroom, away from little fingers, frosted with bright orange flowers. I lit the candle and brought it out carefully. Hawthorne, Clark, and Stan joined in singing Happy Birthday to Lucy, and she clapped along in her Papa’s lap. Between us all, we managed to eat half the cake, and polish off a tub of ice cream with it.

Despite the sugar rush, Lucy and Oscar were both beginning to droop after the meal. We moved to the living room, where there was just enough space to have Stan and Clark each take a comfy seat in a high-backed chair known for cradling its occupants. Hawthorne and I snuggled up on the couch with the kids. I took our son into my lap, and Hawthorne held our daughter. We sat and talked, sharing family stories we never had a chance to, as well as old favorites. I caught them up on the highlights of the year. They had felt some disturbance through the veil, more of the unpleasant things that I tried to lighten in the retelling. I didn’t want to dwell on the hardships and illnesses, the tears and sleepless nights. I wanted this bright, golden memory. 

We continued to talk as the candles burned low, and the grandfathers each drifted off to sleep. I held Hawthorne’s hand over the back of the couch, surrounding our sleeping babies. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open any longer, but I didn’t want to let go. Hawthorne laughed and my head came up; I’d fallen asleep and kept talking, nonsensical ramblings. I shrugged and smiled. It’s not like it was the first time that had happened. I laid my head in their hand as they murmured to me, all the little things we used to say in bed together, before they rolled over and I’d curl around them to finally fall asleep. A tear slipped from my eye – I knew they would be gone when I awoke, my lap back to being space for only Lucy, my couch and house otherwise empty. The dog would wander around, confused as to where her family went. I didn’t know how Lucy would respond. Another tear fell, and Hawthorne wiped it away with their thumb. 

The last thing I heard was them telling me they loved me, with the weight of Oscar back in my arms, before the candles faded out and I drifted off to sleep.

I hadn’t needed the marigolds after all.

Posted in Uncategorized

This May Not Make Me More Friends

In case you haven’t heard, I am queer as fuck. Relentlessly gay with a twist, flannel and skirts, Docs and eco-friendly glitter.

I have a kid. Her papa and I named her Lucy, it seems to fit. It might not always, and that’s ok. We call her “her,” and the same applies. I tend to stick to more neutral language but for pronouns with her; she’s my sweet baby, my smart kiddo, my helpful kid.

I never really thought much about teaching her the words for “man” and “woman” until she came home from daycare last spring and I realized she called men “daddy” and women “mommy.” It made for a few interesting interactions when she’d babble at some guy walking by with his girlfriend and Lucy would point and shout “Daddy! Daddy!” 

I’m not the only solo parent at her daycare; there’s at least one other mom who is also a widow. We’ve connected on a very superficial level and I made it a point to remember her name. Other than that, If the holiday cards are any indication, the percentage of two-parent, heteronormative nuclear family units is quite high. I may be the only openly queer parent, but maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. Or it didn’t, until Today.

Her daycare, now preschool, knows I’m queer and a widow. They know I wear some sort of crystal every day, that I’m a writer, and that I don’t live in town. I doubt they know I am witchy, and I’m certain they don’t know about my late wife’s evangelical upbringing and subsequent church-induced trauma. If they had the slightest idea of what my reaction would be, Tuesday would not have gone down the same way.

It was the first time a glossy invitation came home in Lucy’s lunchbox. I know this is how they distribute birthday party invitations to the parents, because all the kids’ lunchboxes goes home at the end of the day. The parents hand the stack to the teacher, and when the kids are napping or aren’t in the room, the teacher tucks one into each lunchbox. Boom, invitations sent, no stamps or even personal interaction with other parents necessary.

My first thought, “Aww, her first invitation!” was quickly replaced by a swift kick of guilt that I hadn’t gotten her birthday invitations out yet. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for time ahead of invitations for kids’ birthdays, but I figured around 3 weeks was sufficient. I added the task to my to-so list absently as I looked at the invitation. Something felt wrong; it took me a second to notice there was no information about a kid’s name, birthday, or anything. There was a picture of a kid, maybe 6 or 7, on a mechanical bull wearing a cowboy costume. That was my first warning bell. I flipped it over and saw some activities listed, encouraging kid-friendly Halloween costumes, games, and food options. It was a free community event, but it didn’t say who was throwing it, just that all were invited. 

Then, there it was, the mark of the beast. In the bottom right hand corner was a tiny logo for a church. The warning bells rang in triumph.

The tiny human that won’t stop growing suddenly ran in, distracting me for the moment from diving deeper. She didn’t care about the invitation at all. Seeing as she can’t read yet, it was just a picture on thick paper, and she wasn’t particularly impressed. 

We had a quiet evening; watched her favorite show, read some books, colored some pictures. It wasn’t until after I put her to bed that I remembered the invitation. The initial urge of wanting to say something to the teachers had passed. I didn’t want to create a scene, and I was sure there was no harm intended. Still, I was curious if I had been right in my initial thinking.

I looked up the church and saw familiar language and practices – dedication of infants, the distancing of baptism from salvation, the term “Christ-follower.” All the FAQ were answered carefully; too carefully, for my recovering Catholic brain. Ah, there it is: “proud members of the Covenant Church.” It wasn’t until I clicked on that link that the word “evangelical” finally came into view. It took just two more minutes for me to learn that the Covenant Church had voted to “involuntary remove” two churches from the denomination for continuing to perform and support same-sex marriages. The vote for removal had occurred in the last week. 

Four clicks. It had taken me just four clicks from the initial website to find the evidence I’d suspected; granted, I had the breadcrumbs, and I knew what I was looking for. I almost wished I hadn’t looked into it, because now, I definitely felt like I had to say something. 

This time, Lucy wasn’t affected. She is still learning her letters, and learning that they can be tumbled together into so many words; words that make stories and books and invitations – and messages. Messages that deny the full personhood of our family in multiple ways. 

What’s going to happen when she can read, and she sees this party she wants to go to? It looks like fun! There’s costumes and Halloween activities, food and friends. That will be the day she starts to figure out why we don’t eat at Chik-Fil-A, why we live in New England and always will, why calling her other parent ‘Papa’ draws quizzical looks. She will learn that the rainbow flag doesn’t hang in every house; that rainbows in general mean more than beauty; that the books on her shelf are not found in every kid’s room. She will learn that there is intolerance and hate in the world, and it directly affects her family. She will understand what she has heard many times before – the first Pride was a riot, love is love, and why when she calls other people “mommies and daddies” I correct her to “people.” 

That day is coming. As an inherently queer parent, I have to acknowledge and accept that, just as much as I do that the day will come when she no longer believes in Santa. As a single femme queer parent, she’s protected from much of what she may otherwise see, what I (and especially Hawthorne) have seen. I have a cloak of invisibility in my femininity and single womanhood. Gaydar aside, it’s very possible to look at me and see what is still taken as the norm – a tired single mom. The heteronormativity is implied and expected, which is in part why I try to live my life in a way that screams GAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYY. I say this with my politics and my paycheck. I say it with my signature on petitions, with my attendance or lack thereof at events, with memes and blogs and whenever I have the chance. I say it when I take my kiddo to Pride, when I buy her rainbow princess dresses and toddler boy’s pants, when we talk about her Papa. My queerness is absolutely integral to my identity, my life, and my parenting. I love my queerness, and I’m privileged enough to be safe in celebrating it every day. I have a very real fear that this will not always be the case, so I will be as loud as I can about it for as long as I can, and I will show my daughter those ways. 

I have asked my daughter’s preschool to refrain from sending home anything else from any faith-based organization. A blanket request; I don’t think a secular preschool should be handing out anything with religious affiliation at all. Plus, in my experience (and yes, more than this one), it is the evangelical denominations of Christianity that find it acceptable to recruit through children. There are those out there reading this who may be thinking, “You’re overreacting! It’s just a free community event, it’s not recruiting! It’s just a nice thing for the community!” To them, I say that, if that were true, why would an organization go to the trouble and expense of having quality paper invitations designed, printed in bulk, and given to members to be distributed? There has to be some return on investment expected.

The teachers were both wholly accommodating and surprised; as I suspected, they weren’t aware it was from a church. One of parents had asked if they could give out invitations to this free community event. Additionally, I don’t think the parents would necessarily recognize this as I do, but who knows? I certainly don’t know any of them. Since it seems there is at least one family that aligns with not recognizing mine, I’m in no particular hurry to get to know any of them any time soon. 

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My Apologies to Anne Shirley Cuthbert

October is unpacking her bags, filling up the dark corners of my mind. She is wily; she smiles with knowing eyes and bared teeth, as she knows she is right on time. She makes herself at home, walking over victories and bright memories and turning them to dust beneath her feet. She tucks sharp, intrusive thoughts into hidden nooks and settles words that bite like vicious rats into their daytime cages. She crowds the space with self-doubt and unhappy history until there is no room left for the light to wind through. Seratonin maintains its feeble protest at the edges, still present because it has no choice, but rightfully intimidated. 

I hate October.

I used to think it was because it marked the death of my father, now sixteen years gone. It bleeds into winter, and the death anniversaries of my grandmother and my great-uncle. Our family is small, and the loss of those 3 people in a two-year span felt like a cleaver. We didn’t do holidays together anymore. My mother held hard feelings about the other family members around her perception of how much they cared; she was wrong, but the bridges had already burnt. I maintained contact with everyone; certainly no one had asked or intended, but I felt the pressure as the only thing keeping our family together at all. Now, I am keenly aware of that feeling in its new form after the losses of my father-in-law, my son, and my wife. I have almost no contact with my in-laws, and none of the wherewithal to try to span that chasm. 

I remember being afraid last year of what the dark winter would bring. I had been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder at some point, but I’m not sure I recognized it as such until last year. I would tremble on the way home and cry in the driveway, the baby sleeping in the back, at the thought of facing another night. It was less that it was another night alone, and more the unrelenting darkness. 

The first winter after Hawthorne had been so full of things to do – pack, move, find an apartment and a job, transition our whole lives to a new chapter. Seasonal symptoms were masked or obliterated by raw grief. I didn’t have the time, mental space, or energy to even think about anything else. I was still in therapy, and trying to find a therapist in my new state to move to. I had no local friends yet, and the first Covid vaccines had just been released for those at the highest risk, so most of my family was still hibernating. October’s manifestation had been silenced that year. 

I was anticipating it to be rough last year; bad, but not as bad as it was. I functioned; I took care of Lucy, I went to work. I made plans with people, had standing dates for dinner, and tried. The exhaustion felt different; it felt false and unearned. I felt robotic, and after I had gotten Lucy to sleep, could feel myself power down. I would put the TV on and tell myself I was invested in the show, pull the blanket up to my chin, and sleep. Most nights I wanted to stay there, not having the energy to get myself to bed, but the fear of withdrawal from not taking my antidepressants eventually pushed me to my room. 

One night in February, I called a help line. I wasn’t thinking of hurting myself; I already hurt enough. I did not want to kill myself, but the intrusive thoughts of simply not wanting to be alive anymore terrified me. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way; the last time I had, I’d gone to a peer mental health respite house. So that’s who I called. 

Just that connection, to a landline phone hundreds of miles away, tethered me back. Two things had just happened: I had called out for help in my weakest moment, and the call had been answered with love and compassion. At 11 PM on a February night, the first flicker of dawn shone gray through the deep and the dark. 

For the holiday season, I had gifted myself a solo writing retreat in a cabin in New Hampshire. That trip came less than two weeks after that phone call, and those two actions are definitely in the top 5 best things I have ever done for myself. That was when the light began to come back. The skies didn’t fully clear for another month, but hope began to grow in the frost-hard ground. 

This past week was a harsh reminder of last winter. I’d had flickers of worry over the spring and summer that this was going to be bad again, but I felt bolstered by the work I had done. I had spent five months waitlisted and am now working with a therapist who is incredibly well-suited for my needs. I have a network of friends and family, local and not-so-local. I have lists upon lists – self-care ideas, people to call, things I’m looking forward to. I’m making a tangible toolbox with these handwritten lists, colorful stones, pretty happy stickers, and my action plan, updated and yes, colorful. 

I have the tools, the supports, the plans to get through this upcoming winter as healthy as possible. I know who I can call when I’m sad, when I’m scared. I will be OK; it’s just that getting there is going to suuuuuuuck.

I don’t want to hate October. I’m not generally a pumpkin spice latte fanatic, but if not for the darkness, I’m much more L.M. Montgomery – I’m so glad to live in a world where there are Octobers. I like football, and apple picking, and fall fests and leaf peeping and all the beautiful benefits of living in New England in autumn. I try to fill my days with them, soaking as much sun in as I can before the light changes to gold, before the evening arrives earlier and earlier. 

The clocks will change soon. I’ll reset the three in the kitchen, the last I have that don’t update themselves. I’ll change the batteries in the closet lights so I can see my clothes without waking the little one who occasionally stumbles in for 2 AM snuggles. I’ll turn the heat on, weed the garden one last time for winter, and trim back the branches that have started to block the way to the trash bins. I’ll get Lucy a new heavy coat and new boots, and pack up my sundresses. Garland of leaves will be hung, costumes finished, birthday plans made. I will stand outside and stretch my arms out and lift my face to the thinning light, trying to warm myself like the cormorants on the rocks.

Spring will come, with its tulips and its birdsong. October will last exactly thirty-one days, and the following months at their prescribed intervals. Even in winter, the sun rises. 

I would have made a terrible Alaskan. 

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Reluctant Time Travel

I’m back.

Back where I don’t want to belong, or at least, I don’t want to belong. Yet I find myself here, again and again. 

Back in that cool fall room, the morning mist still rising from the recently shaded lawn. Even as the leaves fell, the shadows deepened, and the buzz of insects was slower to chorus. 

Not from exertion, but from having it stolen, I stand out of breath at the doorway. My wife lays in bed, not noticing my approach. The scene glitches, and then they lay on the floor, pale and cool, wearing only red plaid boxers and top surgery scars. We had joked so often about the near-translucent whiteness of their pale skin; now it was the brightest color in the room. 

I don’t want to belong here. I don’t want to be here. 

I don’t want to find myself here, over and over, when I am running down the sidewalk, waking up from a dream, startled by an unexpected hand on my shoulder; this is where I wake. Thanks, I hate it. 

I hate that the vision I have of the love of my life is, most often, their death.

Sometimes, the doorway is as far as I get. I stand there, frozen in time, staring, unable to move.

Sometimes I feel the bones in their chest break under my hands. 

Sometimes I am pacing in another room, begging for someone to come while the first responders push breath and electricity into someone who doesn’t need those things anymore.

Sometimes I walk out the front door, dazed, and see the volunteer firefighters in a social distance half-circle around Lucy in her stroller, too small to be strapped in that way. 

I have never been in time. 

I have never had a do-over; never got there early enough, never yelled loudly enough for them to hear, never threatened – then followed through – on calling 911 if they didn’t answer. 

They never answered. 

Sometimes, in the bright sunrises over the duplex homes on our street, I’ll remember the last time I saw them alive. The soft moments just after dawn when I had tucked them in after a bath when they’d been unable to sleep, nuzzled the recently buzzed baby duck hair, and told them I loved them. Get some good sleepies, I said, and slipped out the door while they were still asleep.

What if I hadn’t? What if I had stayed while they’d slept?

For years, I have prized my early-rising morning time. My body has never liked sleeping in. And now, that morning especially, I wanted to write. I had just started really writing again – just the week before, I had posted for public accountability that this blog would be updated every two weeks. I figured the off-weekends would be the best time for actually writing, so I was at my desk with full-octane coffee. I was no longer pumping breastmilk for the baby, so when she woke up, I’d changed and fed her, and settled in her swing next to my desk for her first morning nap. I was tapping away at the keyboard – like mice tap-dancing, according to Hawthorne – when the sound of their snoring coming through the floorboards changed. I listened, and didn’t like how long it took the next one to sound out. 

Sometimes I go back to walking up the steps, and think I remember thinking about getting the phone, unlocking the door. But I didn’t then, and like I said, I haven’t had any do-overs. 

I remember the turn of the stairs, my thick socks cushioning my steps down the hall. I couldn’t hear the creak of the swing or the tinkly music, but knew I’d hear Lucy if she cried. Then I’m back at the doorway. 

I don’t know if it was grief or parenting that made me realize what a bullshit construct time really is. The two have been intertwined for me since July 19, 2018. Some days, I look at their picture and wonder where they’ve disappeared to, since the house isn’t that big. Some days their life seems like it was too long ago to count in anything but eons. 

It’s been two years since I first walked into our bedroom and found my wife, too pale and still for this world. It’s been nearly that long since I physically stood in that bedroom. It’s been about three hours since I was last there. 

This is not what I thought time travel would be like. I mean I suppose I should have expected some pain, what with the rearranging of atoms across the time-space continuum, but this keen slicing of paper-thin sheets of my heart is a little much. The wail of grief is well imprisoned, an iron mask that no one really wants to acknowledge; if they did, they’d have to face their own certain mortality, and so many people just aren’t ready to think about that. Who is? Only those who have been given no choice, their brush with it close enough to feel her breath. 

Have you felt it? 

I live with that breath inside me, entwined in me. It has the most intimate knowledge of my lungs, my arteries and veins. I have carried life in my womb, and in my arms. I have carried death in both as well. Sometimes I feel she walks alongside me, and the touch of her hand to my shoulder is the trigger that sends me back across time and land to arrive, again, at the open bedroom doorway. I am the time traveler, but it is at her whim. 

I want to belong at home, here at my desk, tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard like mice in the walls. I want to belong with the scent of farmer’s bouquets, pungent and spicy as the world turns toward autumn. I want to belong where the laughter of my daughter is, and her increasingly clear speech.

But I don’t; at least, not only there. 

Time passes when I’m in the bedroom doorway. It starts out bright, the early morning September sun streaming through the bathroom windows and onto the floor just where I stand. It moves; the beams of light grow shorter as the sun rises higher, changing the angles. I stand, staring, as the world continues to turn around me. I don’t want to belong here. 

But I do; at least it’s not only there. 

Grief is a trickster, for all her sad smiles and damp eyes. She’ll fool you without mercy. Death is the one who makes things happen, who pushes the buttons and programs the machine. Time is a construct, a scarecrow, a nonsense creation that falls apart and gets stuck back together at odd angles. These three sisters, hair falling down in mobius curls; they are muse and master. There is no one that they have not touched, not rock nor tree nor person, let alone a displaced people. We are at their mercy, of which they have none. Always a step ahead, up around a quiet corner, waiting; waiting until you are right where they want you. 

And what do we do? We fight back, because that’s what we’ve been told. On the ambulance, we raced to the scene, sirens screaming down side streets at all hours of the night, letting everyone in earshot know that we were the front line against death. We buy cards with platitudes, console people with thoughts of being in a better place and sanitized images of angels. We buy cream after lotion after facelift in order to turn back the clock. 

For all of that, though – the bravado, the Hallmark and Oil of Olay profits – we fight back with hope, and continued solidarity, intrinsic to our corporeal bodies. We rise, and breathe in, then out. Over and over and over again. 

Time passes, smoothly or in fits and starts. Grief waxes and wanes. Death eventually takes our breath for her own.

I am standing in the bedroom door, watching the chest of my wife fail to rise and fall. I breathe in, then out, over and over as I stand, immobilized, wishing for this not to be true. Eventually I awake, and I am back. I breathe in, then out. And I rise for another day.

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Another Walk, Another Beach

We spent Labor Day weekend with family. We went to the beach, the three of us. Three generations. Lucy, for particularly toddler reasons, didn’t want to be in the water. Instead she was fascinated that we could draw on the sand, and after some coaching from Nana, she drew circle after lopsided circle. I chased her around the beach, apologizing when she would disregard all sense of personal space and run between towels and occupied chairs. Folks laughed and commented on how adorable he was, then looked slightly confused and embarrassed when I’d call out “Lucy!” Since she has a whole floaty vest thing, it’s easiest to put her in swim trunks at the beach, which increases the confusion for people. I was going to say ‘misgendering’ but hell, Lucy doesn’t even know if she’s right- or left-handed yet. Just because I’m calling using ‘she/her’ doesn’t mean I’m not the one getting it wrong. 

I had waited too long to put on the sunscreen I pulled out of Lucy’s backpack, and neglected a couple spots completely. I don’t really have pictures from the weekend to redirect the conversation, so I’m resigned to hearing multiple iterations of “oh, looks like you’ve got some sun!”

The next morning I made the beach trip that I really came for. I’d been restless the day before on the sand, heart searching for something that even the sunny time filled with Lucy’s laughter couldn’t fill. The parking lot was closed; the last weekend of the season, and dawn was minutes away from breaking. The gate was opened by someone from the town to let the sandraker in, the beach version of the Zamboni. The long metal bar swung closed, so I pulled over to the side and parked behind the only other vehicle around. Above, I could hear the young osprey calling out. They would be on their own soon, flying back south, finding their own meals as they lost the last of the soft down of their heads.

I walked through the lot and onto the shore. This particular beach faced southwest, so that the sun was coming up behind both me and the dunes. The sweep of clouds overhead, white brush strokes against jewel blue. A passing gull was lit up pink and gold. I didn’t need to see the bright face of the sun to experience the glory of its rising. I took a moment, breathing it in, feeling the wind pull at the hem of my dress to extend it behind me, pressing the fabric against my body. I tried not to think about the silhouette I made, since there was no one else to witness but the sky and the sea, and they were certainly not unhappy or judgmental over it. I hoped they were as glad of my presence as I was of theirs. The wind swirled around me a moment, a soft embrace. I was going to smell like the sea all day.

Mine were not the only footprints in the surf. My walk was preceded by two other sets, soft indentations that would be carried away when the tide returned. I didn’t follow them with any intention, but rather wondered how many of these walks I had taken, parallel in time to one another. I took them with Hawthorne, with my babies, with family and friends. Most often now I take it alone, and talk to those who left. 

I brought a bucket this time, the small green pail from Lucy’s beach toy set. I stooped here and there to pick up a shell or a rock, some detritus of the knots of seaweed. I talked a little, to the waves that carry some of my loves, but I didn’t feel like I have much to say. I couldn’t shake the restlessness. I rolled out my shoulders again and again, but could not get them to relax. It’s an itch that can’t be reached, deep in the muscle and sinew. My bucket filled very slowly. There’s not much on the sand that called to me to pick up, to hold for a moment and smile at. It’s the busiest season for the beaches, and no recent storms have left many of the shells and rocks under the waves. 

I looked toward the dunes. They are roped off, protecting the nesting grounds of the terns and piping plovers. There would be no visit to the tree today, and I was prepared for that. However, on the other side of the thin, fluorescent cord strung between wooden stakes, the sands on the edges of the dunes has been disturbed. Temper rose in me swiftly, as if called by and rode on the wind. White rocks and shells spelled out two names, flanked by “BFF” and “summer 2022” in smaller font. More shells created flat replicas of fireworks, and a few steps later, spelled out GOD BLESS AMERICA that reached from the angle of the shore all the way up to the visible roots of the dune grasses. This was no memorial, no labor of love. This was for Instagram and selfies and Facebook memories. If you need to disturb the fragile edges of the dune to get attention, you’re doing it wrong, my mind snarled. Deliberately I turned back to the water and paused to breathe it in, to let the anger flow out with my breath and be carried away.

I reached the end of the southwest side of the beach and looked out along the rocks that formed the channel for the ferries. It was quiet here, the rumble and clicks of the sandraker too far to overcome the gentle rush of waves. Gulls picked through thick mats of seaweed, reluctant to leave as I approached. I turned away from the little jetty and followed the sand around the point as a ferry glided past, taking the riders out to the islands, cars and all. 

The water on the other side, facing northeast, was as calm as I had ever seen the ocean. From the shore you could not even see the bob of the buoys and boats that were anchored in the little harbor; they had already absorbed the disturbance from the passing ferry. I stayed close to the jetty, where the expanse of sand was still damp and smooth from the tide. One by one, I pulled the ocean’s offerings from my bucket and laid them down, adjusting the lines every few placements, until I was happy with the shape of the heart. It was not as big as when Hawthorne and I made it together, but it was big enough for my purposes. I took the sable brown feather dropped by an immature gull and wrote Oscar’s name and date, Hawthorne’s. The writing was finer than it was with Hawthorne, too, as they had preferred a stick. I took my single picture, and a video of the shoreline; not for social media and attention, but for a couple friends who I knew could use a moment or two of peace in their day.

I sat back and watched the cormorants come and go, and the occasional sandpiper. The gulls preferred the other side of the beach. A couple folks walked by; good New Englanders, they kept their distance and their mouths shut. Sometimes the best acknowledgement was being ignored completely. 

From there, I lost track of time. 

The tension in my shoulders finally eased, the gentle lap of the waves lulled me. If I looked closely, I could see the buoys rise and fall, maybe a couple inches up and down. The boats beyond them looked as still as a painting.

Eventually, I felt the lightest pressure against my boot, and looked down to see the shy little wave retreat. I smiled, and let my fingers down just above the sand, greeting the water when it rolled back in. 

I took my time walking this side of the beach, noticing the different shells that collected here than the other side of the dunes. There weren’t a lot, again a nod to the lack of rain and storms that would leave the beach littered with shells. I was about to turn toward the boardwalk when I noticed that someone had made a couple of piles – one of razor clams, one of thickly layered oyster shards, and one of horseshoe crab pieces. I appreciated the organization, so when I saw a couple of crab legs between the water and the boardwalk, I reached down to pick them up and add them to the pile. But they weren’t crab legs; they weren’t anything from a crab at all. 

Bones. 

The two halves of a full jawbone of some kind of fish, with a three-inch row of short, sharp teeth; the first bones I have ever found at this particular beach. With puzzled gratitude and a strong sense of satisfaction, I placed them gently in my empty pail, and walked back to the car.

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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. 

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Sway Like No One is Watching

It’s been over a year since I have experienced music live, more than three since I had a ticket to a performance in another city. I thought I knew how much I missed it; I thought I knew how much I associated live music with love. 

This week, a good friend took me to see one of her favorite musicians, Takenobu. They were playing at a club I had sworn I’d been to before, but after going, I don’t think I had. People were respectful of the masking rule, free masks were available at the door, and everyone had to show proof of vaccination. I felt comfortable in the space, as small as it was; we made quick friends with the woman on my right, a recent college graduate and new resident of the city. When the unassuming couple took the two steps up to the stage, silence swept the underground room. 

I had never heard of the musicians, at least, not knowingly. I didn’t know anything about them other than my friend was super excited to see them. I just missed the experience. 

It only took the first song to have me hooked. We were maybe ten feet away from the musicians, just the 3rd table from the tiny stage. Their movements flowed like water, bows sliding over cello and violin strings. It was beautiful, and appeared effortless. The music simply lifted from the fingers that played it. This was not music you listened to; this was music you breathed. I felt it with every inhalation, as I filled my lungs with the sound and let it go, let it surround me. The voices that rose were the perfect complement to the classic instruments. 

By the third song, I was actively swaying in my seat. I noted that my friend was as well; everyone else in my line of sight sat statue-still. I didn’t understand that, never had. Could they not feel it? Feel the way the music moved around them, electrifying the cells in their bodies, coaxing the movement from their limbs? I had an image of a ballet performance in my head, the dancers reaching forward as if their fingers were desperate to feel the music run through them, even as they were pulled backward by some other invisible force. I wished it was an open floor plan; I wished for the confidence and the grace to be able to get up and dance the way the music was insisting. I wished I’d worn a long skirt that would continue to flow with the movements of my hips after they changed direction. 

I absently noted the passage of time only because the clock was in my direct site. The brass hands made their slow sweep over black as the view out of the high windows went bright as the streetlights came on. The violin and cello continued to make their easy transitions, moving from smooth notes drawn out with the bow, to playful with quick plucks of the strings. I noticed a familiar hand pattern; yes, the cellist was finger picking the cello. I felt the excitement bloom in my chest and turned my head to tell Hawthorne. Oh, right.

As happens when I get really into something, I had lost track of where and when I was, swept away in the music. That surrender is how I had danced for our entire wedding with my shoes on the whole time; it was what made road trips fly by as fast as the highway outside. It had been a long time since I felt it. It was what happened when music and joy and love and wonder converged. 

The music swelled with meaning, not just from Takenobu. Bright memories of both my first and last loves washed over me in time-hazed pastels. Half-running from the train to get to the little club where we had ten-dollar tickets to see someone we had barely heard of, waiting to snuggle up and sway together in the sweaty crowd. Having a mountain of a man put me and my skinny boyfriend in front of him, protected from the pit forming behind us. Hawthorne dragging me closer to the stage so they could watch the hands of the musicians. Sitting on the grass and watching their eyes sparkle in the dusk. 

I pressed a fist to my heart to hold it, that joy, that sweet ache of beautiful memory. This is what live music is about, I thought. This has been missing from my world. 

The last time I’d heard it was at the jam at the Wild Fern where we had gathered to celebrate Hawthorne’s life, just over a year ago. I felt that sweet ache falter towards something more painful; applause rose around me and brought me back to the moment. 

We drank our craft beers and savored the rich mouthfuls of tres leches cake we split. I watched the young person in the corner write page after page in the notebook balanced on their knee, occasionally reference a book with a pink cover and long title that I couldn’t make out. I remember those days, where any moment I sat was a moment to study. I made notes on my phone, regretting the absence of my own notebook. I didn’t want to be rude, but I knew I needed the words that moved through me to be captured and not carried away on the music. 

Suddenly I heard bars I’d recognize anywhere rise to dance on the air. The instruments were different, but suddenly I was on a mountaintop in Vermont in midsummer, bonfire lit, chairs pulled up to the light, Hawthorne and friends picking up the key and melody. The melancholy rendition of Shady Grove transported me so that the woodsmoke obscured the young student, the café tables and fake candles. I could see the faces of friends, of my love, as if they were there to reach out and touch them. My heart squeezed. I pulled up a favorite picture of Hawthorne on my phone and set it on the table; for a moment, just for a beat, they were with me at the show. 

Takenobu finished their main set, then told the story of why they don’t actually leave the stage at Club Passim, and then immediately began their encore. We paid the bills that were handed out, heads bent toward bright phones and paid by QR code. I thought of when my first boyfriend and I went, the black X’s on our hands and cash carefully folded into his pocket. I looked around at our masked companions, and hoped he was still going to shows. 

The show ended at what, at thirty-six, was the perfectly reasonable time. Twenty years ago, my boyfriend and I would be wondering if another act was coming on. Instead, my friend and I joined the tiny merch line, where she got a T-shirt and the chance to tell them how much she loved them. I asked if he had actually been finger picking, and he said that he had. I felt a smugness that I know Hawthorne knew well, and was glad they had taught me what that style looked like. 

I had a blast at the show; we talked about how perfect it was on the way out of the city. The only thing that could have made it better, I told my friend, was a cup of Turkish coffee to go with the sweetness of the tres leches cake. She agreed. Neither of us could understand how the rest of the crowd was so still; I could already feel the motion of the night in my sides, those muscles rudely awakened. I smiled at the slight pain, willing to take that as my due. Whatever the price was from dancing in my seat, it didn’t matter. The music is back. 

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“Should” is a Bad Word

I should be planning a party. 

I should have sent invitations to the whole pre-K class. I should have bought a specially designed cake from the grocery store bakery. I should be filling colorful paper bags with candy and crayons and little activity books. I should be decorating the house with streamers and balloons and Paw Patrol party supplies.

I should be making plans with my wife for a special bottle of wine – let’s be honest, whiskey – for when the kids go to bed after the party. 

Instead, I’m sitting down with a cup of coffee. I’ve been up for more than two hours; my journals are completed for the day, the yard has been picked up for the landlord to mow, and the front gardens have been weeded and watered. The plans I’m making are for one kid and one adult – visiting the library, and maybe a splashpad, since it’s going to be ninety out today. 

Instead of wondering who will show up without having RSVP’ed, I’m wondering when it will stop hurting. When the milestones will stop the daydreams of what I should be doing, or would be doing, if Oscar had lived; if Hawthorne had lived. 

I should be in Vermont, making breakfast for my family of four. 

I’m in Boston, vaguely planning to get Lucy a donut on our way out and about. 

Facebook reminded me that four years ago, we were painting the nursery. Sweet Buttercup, the shade of yellow was named. It made the oddly shaped room seem happy as we rolled it over the terracotta walls and up to the ceiling. We got less than a wall done before we gave in to the heat, and my big-bellied exhaustion. We spent the rest of the day in the river. 

Just two days later, I felt Oscar move for what would be the last time. I remember it so clearly; sitting up on the edge of the bed after using the bathroom for the eleventy-millionth time that night. I knew he was big, and actually had my growth scan coming up to make sure I could deliver without a C-section. 

I woke up in the morning and something said to me, remember this date. Something big is going to happen today. 

I thought my son was going to be born a few weeks early, but breathing and healthy and here. 

I remember that whispered premonition as well as I do all the other stark moments that followed. The moment I realized it had been too long since he moved, and I ate a brownie and chugged some coffee. Calling Hawthorne. Leaving work. Hawthorne keeping steady while driving us to the hospital. And everything that happened from there. It makes this anniversary difficult because it spans nearly a full week, from the hope and the wonder, through the terror and the devastation. 

My body remains an active participant in this, even now. I get phantom contractions that my body tells me are an elbow, or a foot. I rub my hand over it and for a split second, I don’t understand the softness of my belly. I have been through physical therapy trying to repair the diastasis recti, the separation in the muscles of my abdomen that never knit back together. More recently I’ve developed a small hernia at the site. Add that to the list of things to handle at some point, should it ever cause me its own pain, not this psychosomatic bullshit kicks from a baby who is no longer there. 

This was one of the hardest days of 2019. 

In 2020, we also had Lucy, who at eight months had already been outside my body longer than she had been in. We were preparing for Hawthorne’s surgery from their back injury, delayed by Covid as it was somehow deemed “nonessential.”

And it 2021, it became even worse. 

Hawthorne’s birthday is July 9; Oscar’s July 19. Those ten days in between remind me of the time between Christmas and New Year’s, when no one knows what day it is, and are loathe to put on pants or have responsibilities. Except those two occasions are, at least, supposed to be joyous and celebratory.

This month I should be trying to figure out how to celebrate and mark the passage of another trip around the sun for half of my household family. Instead, I am desperately seeking solitude and space away from my own kiddo. Her muppet-ness and the light in her eyes are she causes trouble are 100% from her papa; the way she holds her hand up to her face some nights while falling asleep in my arms are a carbon copy of her brother. For these days, this space between, it can hurt to look at her; a fact that fills me with guilt about being a terrible mother.

(I am not a terrible mother, and I know this is grief. And still.)

The books don’t tell you how to handle this. What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t mention how to respond to your kid when they start asking, where’s daddy? The grief books prepared me for this incapacitating mental paralysis that prevents me from doing anything more to mark these birthdays, and I know it’s OK that I haven’t done much this year for either of them. Truth be told, other than trying to be alone, I don’t know what I did last year, either. This year, too, my body has decided I needed to sit down. I can’t run to turn off my brain and escape my thoughts. I can’t blow off work for a day and go for a hike and lose myself in the refuge of the forest. At least I’m able to think a little clearer now, and again able to focus enough to write for short amounts of time. I used to do a post like this in one go; I’m not sure what sitting I’m on now. 

One thing I remember from last year; July 20 felt like a new year. A new chapter, a fresh start. It would be another twelve months before I had to feel like this again. And, as with most things, there’s both truth and folly in that idea. 

It’s a good time to reset how I care for myself, to make sure I’m doing certain things every day that keep me level and healthy. I can set some intentions and resolutions, and I’ll know exactly when they are coming due. It’s also ridiculous to think I won’t feel this way, this squeeze of grief, at some point over the next year. Oscar and Hawthorne are just as gone from this world on any other day. I think it’s safe to say no one understands that better than I do. 

I should be planning a party. 

Instead, on July 19, I’m going to take lucy to daycare, go to therapy, and find some solitude. I’m going to pick up a single cupcake. When I pick up Lucy from daycare, we are going to go home, light the candle, and sing Happy Birthday to the brother she never met in this world. I won’t wish for him back when we blow out the candle. I’ll put Lucy to bed, and wonder what it would be like to have a four-year-old, and a papa of two. I know those three would cause so much trouble together. I’ll imagine the giggles of all three combined as they all hide from me to evade bedtime. 

I’ll look at the only pictures I have of my son, and turn out the light, and go to bed alone. 

And then a new year will start.