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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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By the Stars, On Our Own

I found a crow present today. 

I didn’t see it put down on the sidewalk; in fact I didn’t see any crows. But the single, white LEGO stood out on the gray cement. It was clean, other than few grains of sand that were lodged in the crevices that make it stick so sturdily to another LEGO and nothing else. It wasn’t the usual place for a LEGO to end up; but then, it wasn’t too unusual, either. It was right outside my daughter’s daycare, where I know for a fact they have LEGOs of multiple sizes. It may have been dropped from a toddler’s hand (cough Lucy cough) when they tried to shove it in their mouth, or maybe was smuggled in from home in a tiny pocket. However it got there, there it was.

It was such a Hawthorne thing to find. I would find so many random little things in their pockets or lodged in the washing machine. The normal things like paper clips and guitar picks, crumpled Post-Its; but also bits of glass, strange pieces of metal that looked like nothing at all, brightly colored plastic from some tossed-away toy. And the rocks, oh, the rocks. The countless rocks that they carried; smooth, jagged, sparkly, striped. All it had to do to be picked up and taken home was catch their eye, and be a rock. 

I was thinking of their fondness for rocks when we were in Vermont for Hawthorne’s memorial jamboree. The mountains that echoed with the voices they loved best would leave pieces behind that their daughter might (definitely) put in her mouth. They were talismans, imbued with strength; offerings for a strong soul that had carried those mountains with them. Hawthorne missed the wide expanses of sky in Buffalo, and the wide array of available food options in the city, but it was the mountains that called to them and the stream that carried them home.

The stones they pocketed somehow made the weight they carried lighter. Maybe it was a grounding touch-piece, or a reminder that no matter how much they hurt, the mountain would be there when they were ready to hike again. The river would be there to hold them and carry them over its smooth stones when their body healed. Hawthorne, friend to both mice and men, became known to those they loved as the collector of rocks and shiny things. So well was this known that one of the amazing kiddos in our lives brought a heartfelt offering of a special geode; and much to her parents’ chagrin, she also channeled Hawthorne and needed to bring a curated selection of her prized collection for the trip.

The mountains shone for the jamboree, sun pouring across the verdant hills that surrounded us. The Wild Fern stood empty but for Heather working her magic in the kitchen; picnic tables, salvaged chairs, and thick blankets held the nearly forty people who came to celebrate. The littlest kids sat on the blanket and at the tables, eating other people’s snacks and running to any arms that would hold them. The older kids climbed the steep foot of the mountain, sitting on an old fallen log, hanging by one hand off the slimmer trunks. They lost themselves among those trees, in sight of everything, and blind to any world beyond what they were creating. 

Lucy was captivated by the music, listening to her friends sing and play songs that she had heard since she touched down on this earth. She had slept through the eerie wail of the saw that Justine bowed, and been rocked to dreaming to Toby’s voice sailing over Aretha’s classics. She had been cradled tight to Heather’s heart, and engulfed by Rick’s giant, gentle hands as the two would trade instruments for holding her. Our littlest love had travelled through the hands of nearly everyone there, at one point or another, in Buffalo or right there at the Fern. The days when Hawthorne and I brought her there, I remember handing her over to one person when we came through the door and stomped off snowy boots, then picking her up at the other end of the building over an hour later. She watched, as enraptured then as she was now. 

The jam was fluid. Some people came, some went; most stayed, let the music wind its way around us and bring us together. Justine brought an antique scythe she had borrowed from her father, a man who was no stranger to pain that Hawthorne had befriended outside the little grocery store, not knowing the relation to their bandmate. It wasn’t his good one, so the danger was a little less imminent; that is, until Danger herself decided to walk under it a few times. Dana and a couple others talked about running back up the road a couple miles, to where the farm of staunch Trump supporters had a full pride of peacocks, and liberating a couple for the party (fun fact, a group of peacocks is also called an ostentation, because of course it is). There were homemade, handmade donuts, of which about a half-dozen I immediately lay claim to; and gourmet pizza galore. The parking lot across Route 100 was as full as I had ever seen it. There were a few people missing, folks who couldn’t get away, those who were already away, and those I knew had ran into a flood of problems trying to get there. The one missing most, of course, was Hawthorne. 

What a perfect celebration, I found myself thinking. How dare they miss this? How can the guest of honor be gone? Is that what it took to get all their people, scattered across the country, together? Buffalo finally met Montgomery, and got to hear the harp guitar that had been born right there on Elm Street. Washboard Honey sang their signature, setting people swaying more like honeybees than they could ever know. Heather gave us a song of both remembrance and hope, bringing fresh tears to my eyes. As the day edged toward evening and the sun-washed valley started going gold, everyone joined in a final rendition of Pink Floyd’s via the Milk Carton Kids Wish You Were Here.

After a quick jaunt back to the inn for diapers and repacking of snacks, we arrived at the river to find the party already flowing. People sat in the water in camping chairs, letting the current massage their legs. Some of the Vermonters in the bunch stood mid-stream, shoulders above the cold water. The river flowed fast, speed bestowed from the recent heavy rains. 

Without Hawthorne there to argue about it with, Justine efficiently built a fire in the same area that H had toiled over their own fire pit. If anyone mentioned the fire pit wars of 2020, I missed it; but those battles are long over now.  For the first time in my memory, someone came prepared with skewers for the sausages and marshmallows; the older kids ran around offering their toasting services. The goodbyes started slowly as the shadows crept further across the water, until the sun dropped behind the treeline. A few of us stayed until the first stars came out in the summer sky, laughing and talking, sharing memories and embarrassing stories. 

We made it back to the inn around ten-thirty; most everyone had already gone to bed. My friend Sarah had picked Lucy up from the river and taken her for the evening, giving me the night off. Everyone had been such a help with her; like the Fern, we were surrounded by our village, and any hands that held her took wonderful care. I had no worries about her being out of my sight, not with our village in full force. 

We had always known how lucky we were; we had a big love, and we knew that, down to the bone. From Boston to Buffalo to the green mountains majesty, we had forged unbreakable bonds and strong communities. We saw it in the times we had moved from one place to another, across city and state lines. We heard it in the music shared with us, felt it in the hard hugs that came at the beginning and end of every trip we took. We were overwhelmed by it when Oscar was born starside; we were fed, washed, and clothed in it. And now, the village had come together to lay one of us to rest. One gone far too soon, though I feel like I would say that no matter when they left. 

The magic of that day lingers, hanging in the air, a last note allowed to fade out. There can be no encore, no reprise. And that, my friends, is okay; sometimes, for no other reason than it simply must be. The rest of us are left to go on without them, but knowing that they live on, deep in the hearts of everyone our village encompasses; they are stardust, shining down. It’s up to us to let their stories and memories become legend and lore, rich with their soul, their pride, and the sound of their laughter. May we always remember that no matter how thick the clouds or devastating the storms, the stars shine on beyond our sight, and that those who have gone starside make the darkness just a tiny bit brighter. May we also never forget that the same atoms that make up stardust also make mountains, they just trade them back and forth over eons, and not a single one is ever lost forever.

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For You Are the Stars to Me

It is the peak of summer. Days are hot and humid; the nights bring thunderstorms that shake the houses, even here in the city. I long for my mountains, to hear the booming rolling around them, the echo lasting and lasting. It is the time of year I love the most; the trees are full and lush, wildflowers dressing the medians and shoulders of the highways. Dahlias and marigolds, gladiolas and hydrangea throw splashes of vibrant color over layers of green. The pollen is mostly gone, the black flies with them. The only nuisance left is the mosquitos, their incessant hum rising from birdbaths overgrown with backyard gardens, collecting rainwater and bringing more of the bloodsuckers to life. No matter where I’ve lived, it’s been black flies that bring in the summer, with the mosquitos taking the second act and curtain calls. 

I used to love July. July meant trips to Dairy Queen after scrounging for change, and fishing along the river as the sun reached into the cold waters of the Niagara river, bringing up the muskies and walleye. Black-capped night herons would perch on rotted posts from washed-away docks, and cicadas would serenade the rats that came out from the pocked stone walls. In Vermont, it meant standing in the river past nine o’clock at night, calling for last casts for an hour while the fish laughed at us, jumping out of reach of our hooks. It meant ham sandwiches and maple creemees on the tailgate, music on the porch, and naked mealtimes.

Hawthorne loved their birthday. They’d fuss every year about growing older, and I’d assuage them with pie. We would do grand things; concerts and trips, or more fishing and adventures.

Three years ago, we went to a drag show at an old castle in Vermont. I was hugely pregnant, with swollen ankles and what felt like no room to breathe. I loved it. One of the drag family members brought me a folding chair so I could enjoy the shows without desperately trying to find a place to sit. We danced and I flipped off my gestational diabetes with a slushie (or maybe two). Hawthorne was regaled with a very special rendition of happy birthday, and we danced much longer than I could have even hoped for. 

That was the last truly happy night we had together, before a piece of our heart was lost to the stars.

It’s Oscar’s birthday. He should be three years old. His papa should be reading him a bedtime story. Instead, I sit alone in a different state, his 19-month old sister asleep in her crib. It is both beautiful and terrifying how much the heart can break, again and again, and still somehow keep beating. It is a severe lesson in duality that I can rock my daughter to sleep, all 21 pounds of her, while feeling the weight of her brother still in my arms. 

I can’t remember what we did for his birthday last year. I’m not pushing to try to, either. I’m just trying to stay present. This has been an impossible day, where I’ve been unsure what the days after look like before. This year I know what they will look like; I will get up, function enough to take care of Lucy, and somehow make it through the day. Then I’ll do that again, and again. 

But this year, I have no one to turn to in the night. No one to hold me at 11, when the pangs of labor started. No one to cry with at 6:30, when Oscar was born in his own silence to the sound of my sobbing. So few people got a chance to hold him, to see him; now, the one who held him the most besides myself is gone. I look at the pictures of his birth, and they are full of the dead. 

I found a The Little Prince onesie in Lucy’s size the other day, so she will have a little piece of him with her. There will be Italian ice after dinner, and RuPaul on the radio. Me and my tiny partner in crime will celebrate him, and talk about him as we watch the glow stars on her ceiling fade as she falls asleep. 

And I’ll tell her again, tonight and every night, that even when she can’t see them, the stars and all those we love are there, shining on.

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Last Call, Last Chance; Last Song, Last Dance

The storm has passed over for now, the sky breaking the soft blue of a summer evening behind it. It’s the second heatwave of our short summer already. I’m driving home from dinner with the family, chasing the lightning. My heart and soul feel twisted up, a python so tangled in itself it doesn’t realize the tail it’s biting is its own. Jagged thunderbolts arc above, throwing the premature darkness of the evening into fluorescent relief. To the south, deep anvils of clouds alight from within, casting a far more gentle glow over the world. The tree tops and slim branches whip in the wind that doesn’t seem to reach the ground, and the rain falls hard and straight. 

Hawthorne and I loved thunderstorms. Occasionally, February in Buffalo would bring thunder snow; a world lit purple, thunder muffled behind banks of snow clouds stretching out over the lakes. In Vermont, we’d race upstairs to the guest bed tucked in the pitched section of the second floor, listening to the rain drum on the metal roof. Ella became our shadow, panting, and not letting us out of her sight as the winds blew doors shut around the house. We answered the wild call of the storm with our own, the dog pouting at the foot of the bed, waiting to come up and be cuddled. 

One of the last memories of Hawthorne I have is a thunderstorm. Lucy was not quite ten months old; our friend came over for a movie night. I made dinner like I always did, and fed Lucy in the high chair in the kitchen. When the wind kicked up and the lightning broke over the mountain, Hawthorne and Tristan called us out. We sat on the porch, holding the wide-eyed baby. She stared at the sky and the cracks that lit it up; when the thunder roared around the valley, echoing off the surrounding mountains, we roared right back. There is such a visceral, grounding joy in communing with nature in all her power; I felt as if we all stood taller among the trees that night. Lucy was now baptized in that summer rain. I hold such joy from that evening in my heart. It’s wrapped up like a little parcel, tied off with string that goes taut as that joy expands with memory. 

Today was a different story. We had been driving home as the storm gathered, thunderheads eerily dark. She could feel the building energy of the storm. It roiled in her as it always does in me, but her fire is loud and angry, face red and tear-stained. She’s always been a very empathetic little creature; maybe tonight is no different. Maybe her calamity is able to be released where mine is tamped down, compartmentalized so that no individual piece is big enough to hurt right now; portion control for the emotionally oversaturated. 

The days have been long and divided by too little sleep. Suddenly it’s the second week of July, and Hawthorne’s birthday is close enough to spear into my thoughts every time I need to note the date. With their birthday, this year, comes their memorial. They are gone from this world, and unable to join the festivities, but they will still have a grand party. There will be hours of music and likely dancing, great food and craft beer. There will be swimming and a bonfire. Friends from across the country will gather and toast their memory under the new moon. A part of me wishes I was younger, or at least not so tired, that the fire could burn through the night and we could welcome the next day with glowing embers and campfire coffee. 

As the jamboree approaches, my anxiety is rising, another storm that I can feel building, heavy, brick by brick. It feels like an ending, like a “last time.” We never knew that September sunrise would be their last, that our dance at the cousin’s wedding would be the last time I spun in their arms. There’s a Brad Paisley song I haven’t been able to listen to since their passing about not really knowing the last time you get to do something. Now I feel this impending end, as if this was their actual death; it’s the approaching closure of that chapter. I knew this would happen; it was the only goodbye I could plan for. 

They hated goodbyes; they always needed to leave a door open that something could happen again. For ten years I didn’t see the series finale of single show we watched; at least, not together. I still haven’t seen the finale of Parks and Rec. There were a few that I waited until they went to bed to turn it back on with subtitles, because I needed that finish. I guess the Hawthorne show is one ending I don’t ever want to watch. 

I also know that in order to heal, we there must be closure. All their people coming together, in person and in their thoughts, are all stitches necessary to start to close this wound. It’s going to hurt; and still, it’s going to do my heart good to see people, some of whom I haven’t seen in years; some of whom Hawthorne never had a chance to hold. 

It’s not the Viking burial they had hoped for, half-jokingly. I kept the planning very simple and open; very unlike me, but a good fit for them. As time hurtles past and the day draws closer, I can’t help but think of things I should have arranged. 

Someone should bring a scythe. No black robe or anything, but just to have there, an homage. 

There should be peacocks, at least two males, screaming at each other from the roof of the Wild Fern, for Rick and Heather to write a song about.

There should be pictures. I don’t know what this could even look like, but we should be able to see Hawthorne smiling, guitar in hand.

There should be Ella, but the poor old girl is so miserable traveling. She’s getting a puppy slumber party instead. 

There should be a piñata; just not, you know, THAT one. 

I’m sure I could go on about all the things that I could have, maybe should have, done (especially the scythe and peacocks). I am proud of the things this memorial will not be, though. 

It won’t be just sad. I don’t know what that says about me, going to a celebration of life or memorial or whatever I don’t want to call it, to know just how much love and light and laughter there will be. ‘I’m looking forward to my wife’s funeral,’ are words that just don’t compute. 

It won’t be boring. It’s a goddamn jamboree, you know there will be a banjo, so how could it be? Actually, I’m tempted to refer to their memorial as another death, a little one; the climax of their passing on from this world. I think they would positively cackle at the thought of being compared to an orgasm as their last hurrah. Anyway.

It won’t be involved with the church or religion that hurt them so much.  

It won’t be co-opted for anything else than what it is – a come-as-you-are event with music and food, with the friends and family who Hawthorne brought together with their big, beautiful heart, all in their favorite place in the world.

Most importantly, it eases my heart to think about what it will be.

It will be a gathering for all those who loved them, and open to anyone else. 

It will be a fitting send off for my creative, unconventional, subversive love.

It will be a place of mischief, little visits from beyond the veil.

It will be disorganized in the best way; as they were in life, and as they are now, atoms in the stars and sea.

It will be more magickal and bright in that valley on that day than any other, at least for me. 

It will be the start of a different kind of healing, and it feels like it’s time for that.

Happy birthday, my love. Let the music play.

Posted in Uncategorized

Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

The evening light is streaming golden through the windows in the kitchen and in the back hall. Past the washing machine and humming refrigerator, radiant through the leaves of the money tree, it lands on the hardwood floor, illuminating the polished boards with the warmest glow. I close the door to Lucy’s room quietly, the dying day washing over my bare feet. 
It’s been gray for three days, rainy for two, so the evening sunshine is a welcome surprise. My hair curls in the humidity, sticking to my skin as I try to brush it away from my eyes, then my neck. My body is aching and exhausted; my tired heart still weeps.
Our wedding anniversary has come and gone; check off another painful box in the Year of First Withouts. The day was bleak, but hot; the rain did nothing to soothe for once. Work was futile; I should have taken the day off. Instead, I hoard my PTO like a dragon with her gold, burned from years of workplaces with punitive attendance policies. 

It feels dramatic to say that I survived the day. I mean, of course I did; there was no danger of not waking up the next morning, that is to say, no more than for anyone on given day. But for a day like that; when the grief has claws that carve deep, when it hurts to draw the next breath, when every sob wracks you to the bone; yes, I survived it. It was one of the most difficult days that I have had in several months, but it was over. The first anniversary without them; in the books. 

The next day, just as my heart was starting to steady a little, I got a text that ripped the rug out and sent me tumbling again. 

“Hi! We are making Father’s Day presents with the kids, who should Lucy’s be addressed to?”

Innocuous enough. Gutting. I had compartmentalized the month so well, so focused on our anniversary, I forgot about Father’s Day. 

There is nothing that is not irrevocably changed. As if the little family we made were our own little world; Death came to cradle Oscar and just sheared off a third of it, before out sweet boy even got to see it. We tumbled along, sometimes rolling, sometimes clunking when that missing piece reminded us. Then our bright little light came around, and that hole felt a little smaller, and we felt a little less broken. And then. 

We had two days with Oscar to prepare for his birth after learning of his death. Forty-three hours where he was still, and still with us; where he was held, warm and perfect. When Death came for Hawthorne, though, she gave no warning, pulling the last breath from them in front of me. I was left with minutes to hold them, precious minutes spent trying to drag them back to me, to put breath back in their body and make their still heart beat, please, beat. Then there was nothing warm at all. 

And so our little broken world, again, split. Jagged and raw, I am left clinging to Lucy as another massive part of our world was wrenched away, cast back and returned to the depths of the universe. We’re left with memories that shower down like meteors as half of our home spin among the stars. 

There are some days, like today, where I can’t look ahead or behind. The tumbling yaw of our haphazard trajectory makes me dizzy. If look around, I wonder how things possibly worked out that I’m living back where I never intended, and with so much missing. Look back, and I’m searching for the turning point, where things maybe could have changed, and I feel sick with futility. Look forward, and there are still empty places where my baby and my beloved should be. There are some days where the calendar feels coiled up, compressing so many hard days into just seven weeks. 

First, Hawthorne’s late father’s birthday; ten days later, my own father’s. We were married directly in between. Then July, with its fireworks and festivities; I should be planning birthday parts for Hawthorne, and again, ten days later for Oscar. 

Instead this year I am planning a memorial. On a loop in the back of my mind I keep saying, this is bullshit. This shouldn’t be happening. 

At this strange point of what feels like middle distance – it has been over nine months, not yet a year – I almost feel more incredulous that they are gone. Even though I have moved, found a new job, and everything around me is different, I still feel like this can’t be happening. It does not compute. 

What do you mean, they didn’t see Biden elected, or sworn in? They didn’t call me at work, panicked about the Capitol riots? They haven’t met my new friends, or had post-pandemic dinner with the family? What do you mean, they weren’t able to see Stan again? They missed Christmas? And Easter? How is this possible?

By the time Hawthorne’s birthday comes, they will have been gone almost exactly half of Lucy’s life. I don’t know what to do with that. She won’t have any of her own memories with her Papa. She will have pictures and guitars, and tales from friends which seem too tall to be true; they will always be a legend to her. 

Last weekend, after the anniversary, we were visiting a couple of friends out in the country for a few days. I was getting Lucy ready for her nap, and had slid Hawthorne’s signet ring off to change her; depending on the weather, it gets loose sometimes. She picked it up and played with it, pretending to put it in her mouth and laughing at me when I pulled her hand away. As I was pulling her pants back up, she put it on her tiny finger and held it up, turning it in a princess wave. Clear as day, she says, “dada, dada!”

My heart was pounding, every beat bittersweet. I grabbed my phone and tried to get it on video, but she had moved on to her few other words. I held her tight to me for a minute, tighter and closer than the hot day allowed for. I put her down and snuck out, quickly, as she protested her nap before falling asleep. I ached, feeling the scars left on my heart from seeing Hawthorne hold our Oscar, so still, and the tender new muscle exposed from watching them hold Lucy, her tiny dark eyes already staring up at them in wonder.

Now I sit, facing the golden sun as she continues her descent. I have only to look behind me for the thunderclouds, slowly receding into the distance to blanket the sea. The veil of the evening begins to fall over me as the beer in my hand catches the last rays in the brown glass, shining. Tomorrow will be a new day, and my heart will be rested, if not eased. For now I give in to the night; let the tears wash away the makeup and the day. I turn their ring around on my finger and hold on to the sun, as warm and bright as their love, just a little while longer.

Posted in Uncategorized

When The Night Falls, My Lonely Heart Calls

There are some days where I don’t care about eating. I don’t drink water, I just drink enough coffee to get through the day. There are some nights, when I get home, I take care of Lucy, I take care of Ella; I don’t feel like taking care of myself.

Tonight I sit on the back steps, letting the tears roll slowly down my cheeks. I want to lay down in the cool grass like Lucy in her crib; face pressed down, knees tucked up tight underneath me. Child pose. I want to find comfort in the grounding of my body to the earth.

But some nights, there is no comfort to be found.

It’s not enough or correct to say I am lonely tonight. 

The open windows of passing cars send me snippets of songs, memories that fade in and out in rapid cadence; the traffic is my radio set to scan. The images it brings are washed out, color leaching away slowly. I can’t remember what we did to celebrate our last anniversary. Of course, we didn’t know it was going to be our last. What would we have done differently? 

We were married on Flag Day during Pride month. We had most of our closest friends and family around, and an art festival outside the walls. Music from our reception and from the festival comingled in the street, the soundtrack for the smokers in the group. It was an amazing day, worth every moment of stress in the planning, and every penny we spent. 

As I ignore the heartbreak hell of July bearing down on me, I take the time to slow down and appreciate June. I love Pride. I let myself enjoy the rainbows hanging from banks and businesses, even as they are crammed into logos and shared as swag to support this product, buy this commodity. Are corporations capitalizing on Pride to draw in more money? Absolutely. And still, a rainbow is a happy thing to see. 

I had a friend tell me that Pride me is their favorite season of me, not just this year, but always. And I can see that. Not that I’m a different person, but June just calls me to celebration the way Christmas does for some. This is definitely the most wonderful time of the year. The weather is better, especially here in New England. The Earth is in her summer glory, colors spilling over green like spilled pots of finger paint. I feel myself bloom; there is no point in the year where I feel the need to hide myself, but Pride is a call to indulge in being relentlessly gay. I’m the one yelling “Happy Pride!” first thing in the morning on June 1st, and from my porch at midnight on June 30th

It is aptly named. I feel a tremendous swell of pride when I think about the origins of the gay rights movement, fifty-two years ago on the streets of New York. The Stonewall Inn wasn’t the first bar, full of black and brown and white drag queens and queer folk, to be raided, and certainly wasn’t the last; but it was the night that the community decided that this would no longer be tolerated. When Storme DeLarverie fought back against the handcuffs and the cops and demanded to know if the onlookers, “Why don’t you guys do something?,” when Marsha P. Johnson made weapons out of bricks, it sparked a revolution. That inaugural blaze lit from within one of the few safe places (safe being a relative term) burned for three days, lighting the way forward. Pride itself was forged in fire; we carry that torch, lit fifty-two years ago, today. 

This pandemic wreaking havoc the world over has brought memories of the AIDS onslaught bubbling up from the traumatic mire. A conservative (and ill-equipped) government who blamed a specific classification of people out of one side of their mouth, and failed to take the threat seriously and maligned those who did out of the other. Fear and misinformation spreading like wildfire, suspicion and conspiracy theory planted like seeds in the ashes. Whole communities under siege for circumstances beyond their control, fighting off two enemies at once; the disease, and the hatred. One tiny light shines in this mirrored dark: Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Pride is a time not just for parades and floats, for glitter and club music. It’s a time to remember our roots, our history; like so many other movements, one borne from the blood shed by black bodies in the streets at the hands of police, “sworn to protect.” It’s a time to remember those who have died, simply for living their truth. Five years ago, more blood spilled; not by police this time, but terrorism. The massacre at Pulse took 49 lives, mostly Latinx and people of color. They were just living, just dancing and drinking and talking and flirting. 

For me, Pride is also a time to remember, and to celebrate, my own. My wife, my beloved, my Hawthorne. They kept the paper signs that were ziptied to the parking meters for the dyke marches in Buffalo, as far back as 2007. We joined the march ourselves as an integral part of our bachelor/bachelorette celebration. We had swag tucked everywhere; a pen, a tiny flag, a stress ball. Every time we moved, each would be rediscovered, memories revisited. We went to Pride in Boston, Buffalo, Northampton, and even the driving pride in Rutland during Covid. They were incredibly proud to be queer and butch and, later, queer and genderqueer and masculine presenting. They were growing a beard when they died; they couldn’t wait for it to come in thick like it did for the other men in the family – so they could glitter it. They couldn’t wait to smoke their pipe underneath a handlebar mustache. They had suffered so much intolerance, bullying, and ostracization because of who they were. I am grateful, every single day, that they had a chance to live as shirtlessly and authentically as they did in their last year. 

June was and is a time of unbridled celebration, of throwing glitter bombs in the face of all those who have wounded our community. The flowers we threw grew from sacred ground, soaked in blood, raised with hope. Pride was, and is, defiant in the name of injustice and intolerance. This year, by day, I see that rainbow, I spread that love, I live my truth. Come nightfall, I am weighed down by the collective grief – of a movement sparked at Stonewall, devastated by disease, attacked by terrorists, denigrated by neighbors – and my own personal heartbreak. 

I will never again get to dance at Pride with my wife; never again get to enjoy the ponies and the good pups together, the drag queens and kings in their finery, cry tears of joy with the sheer amount of young people who are living their lives out loud, gripping our hands together so tight they hurt. There will forever be an empty spot beside me on the sidewalk; but then, the crowd is full of ghosts. 

And as far as the corporate plot to make money off Pride, well, you can kiss my queer ass. 

Posted in Beliefs and Practices, On Writing

Girl, You’ve Got to Be What Tomorrow Needs

When I woke up this morning, two things came to mind: I remembered being extremely wary of mystical readings until just a few years ago; and I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve been told I have an “old soul.” My feet hit the floor with purpose, knowing I wanted to tap into that soul today. I readied for the day, getting Lucy fed and dressed, the dog out. I did the things that needed doing; took Lucy to daycare, picked up prescriptions, called to get a repair on the car.

The sky is Oscar blue, brilliant and deep in the spring air. The maple tree extends her shade, bright new leaves reaching for the sun, a blanket of her fallen flowers in her shade. My new plastic Adirondack chair was covered thickly with samaras, helicopters that never quite touched down. I feel insulated from most of the noise of the city around me, and the tension in my shoulders finally starts to slide away. 

Since my birthday, I have had ideas knocking around my head. Essay topics, snippets of poems, ideas for long-form and short-form stories; fiction, nonfiction, memoir, academic writing. I feel surrounded by words; if this were a Disney film, my hair would catch and lift on a breeze of prose, as the words wound themselves through my animated world and the townspeople joined in my song. Je m’appelle Marjanna, et j’ai quelque chose pour dire. 

I kept my birthday very low-key this year. I had a beautiful weekend where I was more focused on myself than I had allowed myself to be before. One of the gifts I gave myself was today. I am off work today. I took the day off, on purpose; I have no appointments, no reservations. I’m not sick, and neither is my kiddo. 

I took the day off so I could write. 

Those reading it may not gasp at this thought, but I certainly did. I practically heard the record scratch. What a crazy idea, I thought. Taking a day off to write. 

I texted some friends; want to hear a crazy idea? Sure, they said. I told them. 

“Cool. So what’s the crazy part?”

I do not take days off lightly. I don’t take days off without reason. To do so, and focus on writing, on me and my craft, feels over indulgent. Who am I to think that my writing is so important that I can skip my actual job in order to focus on it? I must have some ego to think I’m good enough to justify that. 

The audacity of me. 

Self-doubt began to slither in the door that sarcasm and negative self-talk left open. It climbed like smoke, scaling the walls, winding around my body, curling tendrils around my fingers. I tapped out my thoughts on the bright screen in front of me. 

No, it’s silly. I can’t. I’m not really a writer. I’m not published, how can I actually be a writer? This is stupid.

Three dots, blinking. 

“You write, don’t you? You’re a writer. Take the damn day.”

Sometimes we need reminders of what’s true in our lives. When the night closes in and the doubts follow, it’s easy to get trapped in the sticky, negative thought spirals that can drag you down. You start to follow that path down, down, a sickly pale the only light you can see, so you follow it. 

It leads nowhere; it takes you through caves and channels you didn’t know existed, paths you thought you left behind long ago. It is the upside down; you’re not sure if it’s real, but it’s all so familiar, almost comforting. It’s easy to stay, in this dark world you know; you’re tired of fighting, tired of trying. The effort to get back is too much, why not just sink in? The darkness gets its hooks into you, a thousand tiny daggers; it feeds on you, draining you of your energy, your will. 

It is so insidious, so quick to come when you slip. It is opportunistic and cagey, using your own thoughts and words against you, twisting and distorting everything you have worked for, dismantling the structures you so carefully built. 

And it lies. 

The smoke shrank back as I pondered that answer. I write, yes, this is true; doesn’t that make me a writer? I cook, but I’m not a chef; I stitch, but I am no seamstress. What makes writing different? 

I cook to feed myself and my family, to show love and to share with them. I stitch to relax my mind and keep my hands busy, to show love and to share with friends and family. 

And I write for me. 

Me, first. I write for Oscar, and I write for Hawthorne; I write for my father, my mother. I write for all those beyond the veil, whose stories are left in limbo; and I write for those here as well. I write for my friends who can’t find the words; I write for those who hurt, for those who question. For those who wish, and want, and dream. I write for Lucy, that she may know who I have known. 

And.

I write for me. First. Foremost. Finally.

I recently was a guest on a podcast where I talked about confidence (among other things). I felt like I rambled, and the final version hasn’t hit the air yet, so I am not sure how it all worked. I enjoyed the experience so much; I loved talking to the host, and getting to dig into my interpretation and experience with confidence. A lot of my readers thus far have been friends and family; if you’ve been around some years, you know that confidence has not been something that came naturally. If you haven’t known me long, it may or may not surprise you. 

Confidence, to me, is an energy. It’s a force and a flow, something that can be harnessed or let loose. It shifts; it waxes and wanes. As with any energy, there can be disruptions, and you need to reset. On the podcast I mention those friends who help make that happen.  

No one can shake my confidence like I can, when I follow that path, when I let myself be carried by that thick gray smoke. I am a master at getting in my own way, at talking myself out of things. I flip to feeling guilty and self-indulgent very easily. It’s hard for me to see that it is an act of love to do things for myself, too, not just for others. I am learning every day how to love myself. 

I had a tarot pull for my birthday, a full-year spread to welcome 35. It’s been on my mind, daily; I’m not so skilled at reading the cards yet. My mind plays with them like Lucy with a Rubiks cube; futz around with it, shake it, chew on it a little. This is the first time I’ve had such a major pull. I have an app (which feels a bit like cheating, but I like it) for a daily card. I believe that you bring as much to the cards as they give to you. Some days it’s a BOLO, sometimes a new perspective. Some days, it’s the piece that completes the picture.

My card this morning was the Four of Wands, and the key words given were Home, Backbone, and Foundation. Not a bad omen for my first day off to pursue being a writer. 

Posted in Uncategorized

Every Regret I Have I Will Go Set it Free

It’s been another jukebox week, here in middle spring. The air is thick with pollen, a thin veneer of yellow fairy dust over every car and mailbox. The leaves are unfurling at a boisterous pace from their casings. The trees aren’t aflame the way they are in October, but still burn with vibrancy and color. Buds of burnt orange, lavender, and wine-red laden their thin branches with excitement; the winter-weary trees assume their green mantles and welcome home the songbirds. 

I awoke this morning feeling clearer in my head than I have all week, with one singular thought: I needed to go to the woods. 

We arrived at the trailhead to find it empty. It was still shy of 7:00 AM, but I was surprised to see the bare pavement. There has been someone parked there every time I drive by. There is only room for 4, maybe 5, cars before the pavement gives way to hard-packed dirt, fitting several more vehicles in. Thin gray clouds still blanketed the sky, reluctant to wake on a Saturday morning. We checked out the board, Lucy fascinated by the dead bugs behind the protective plastic. I put her down, and we set a toddler’s pace onto the trail.

I don’t know why, but for some reason, I assumed that Lucy would understand the concept of a trail. Nothing more than an, “oh, flat. I walk here,” mind you, but nonetheless I learned that’s a hell of an assumption to make of an 18-month old. She immediately chased a stick off the path and into the leaves and young green plants. After a couple of redirects, I hauled her up and dropped her on my shoulders. She bounced, babbling with excitement, stick in hand. 

I kept my steps quiet on the trail and as we made our way onto the boardwalk. The spring morning never silent, the raucous calls of red-winged black birds (black-winged red birds) rose from the marsh around us. Their bright epaulettes came into view as we turned a corner; boards pulled from the boardwalk were scattered in a discarded swath slowly sinking into the roots and reeds. We watched them pinball around the marsh, grabbing hold of a reed here, then zinging off to a dead tree branch there. Grackles joined the fun, their iridescent blue heads glinting in the rising sun. Two yellow warblers gave chase to each other, performing a speedy aerobatic routine just a few feet away from us. The ubiquitous sparrows were impossible for me to identify as they clung to the reeds halfway up the stalks. 

Lucy, however, sang them a song of her own. Throwing tranquility to the wind, she called out to the lightening sky as she bounced, and raised her stick like it was a wand. The birdsong never faltered. I was unused to a birding partner who was noisier than those we were there to visit, and I was utterly charmed. 

I had been on a roller coaster of emotion for a few days leading up to the second Sunday in May. Mother’s Day has been historically difficult for many years now. My own mother and I had a tense relationship, which had entered a tenuous ceasefire in our last conversation before her death. She had finally spit out “significant other,” referring to the woman I didn’t yet know I would marry, replacing the previous moniker, “that person.” It’s ironic to look back and think that my mother was so far ahead of us, unwittingly already on board with gender neutrality. 

Oscar, of course, took the day to a new level. I was thrilled. I had made it to 24 weeks without issue, and was thrilled to be truly celebrating my first Mother’s Day. Almost everyone I knew wished me a happy one; I had a full hand of cards to open. Strangely, there was one missing. I wouldn’t find out until later that my bio mom did not send one for the very reason I came to understand too well. 

Last year, in quarantine, we celebrated in our quiet way. I wanted Lucy and Hawthorne to be dressed up, and oh, they were. They wore their matching Oxford shirts, and Lucy had on her little suspenders and salmon colored pants. I have pages of pictures of them in my phone; the bright as the sun baby, and my beloved. I made brunch, and we went for a Sunday drive. It was one of the last holidays we celebrated. 

Unsurprisingly, I was not looking forward to this year. I am becoming acutely aware of how close the first year without Hawthorne is drawing. I have realized that, by Hawthorne’s birthday, they will have already been gone for half of Lucy’s tiny life. I don’t know what to do with that. But that was for another day. 

Lucy has some unbelievable fairy godparents out there in the world. I received a deep blue hydrangea, and a bouquet of white hydrangea and pink peonies, both delivered to my door. Cards came in the mail tucked in pink envelopes, and white roses awaited me on Sunday. I am grateful to everyone Lucy enlisted to make such offerings. 

Lucy has given me another gift, one that I am still unwrapping and discovering, bit by bit. She’s given me an understanding of presence. I have practiced mindfulness before, and felt like I was “in the moment;” but I don’t think I truly understood it until Lucy showed me. There is no pretense in her; she is ignoring nothing when she becomes involved in something. She doesn’t care about the laundry that’s not getting folded, or that the floors haven’t been swept. She is wholly, body and soul, in whatever moment she is in. Turning the pages of her upside-down board book, picking out the carrots from her dinner smeared across her tray, eating the crayon she knows damn well isn’t supposed to be in her mouth. 

It is never more evident than it is here, outdoors, in the air and the wild. She sits up so straight on my shoulders; I know by the shifting of her little weight that her face is turned up toward the sky as far as she can. Her arms reach out to the sides, her heels tight against my collarbone. I hold onto her feet so she doesn’t fall when she bounces in her excitement. She babbles on, softly, communing with something beyond my ken.

This is a holy moment; there is something I cannot put my finger on, but the air feels different. I can still hear the highway, nearly drowned out by the birds; I smell the Sulphur rising from the black mud in the marsh. The boardwalk stays in sight, ahead, behind, and under my feet. But there is something else. Lucy recognizes it. Her little song continues, softly, almost a whisper. My steps on the planks make almost no sound. We finish crossing, and I place her on the ground. She looks at me a moment, directly in my eyes. It’s like she recognizes me from long ago; there is a depth to her that is echoed in me. I am not sure what our souls said to each other in that moment, only that it happened. We walked quietly for a minute, no longer, her hand in mine, my body tilted down to reach hers. The path widened and she let go of my hand. That intense peace was snapped, and the air shifted back to normal. Lucy yelled as she toddled down the path ahead of me, and I watched her come up to a section of roots. She stopped and reached down as if trying to pick them up, like sticks. I explained that they wouldn’t come up, they were still growing in the ground to help the trees hold still and drink their water. She patted them for a minute, stood, stepped carefully to the next, and repeated. She started trying to run, but very slowly, as if she thought it would hurt the roots she ran over. About ten yards away, the roots gave way to smooth hard pack again. She turned and ran, faster this time, towards me. Back and forth over the tangle, shouting and stomping. She would stop, reach for a twig; I’d say no baby, that one’s still growing, and she would grab another until it came away in her hand. She brought me stick after stick, like a bird building her nest. When I had my hands full, she grabbed the sticks, ran halfway across the rooted path, and threw them. I don’t know what magic she was conjuring, but she picked up a few of them again and threw the down. Apparently satisfied, she turned and ran back to me. She bumped up against my legs and continued to go past, back to the boardwalk. Clearly, she had finished.

I put her back on my shoulders, and felt her shift as she laid her head on mine. We walked back together in silence, listening to the sparrows and the blackbirds. We left the trail and got into the car; her pacifier went in her mouth, her hands behind her head. She was asleep before we pulled out of the parking lot.

There is more magic in this world than we can see. There are more lessons to be learned from the children and from the wild than we, as adults, may be ready to admit. I hope Lucy doesn’t lose patience with me, and we can continue to explore the world together. 

Posted in Uncategorized

I Hope Your Broken Bluebird Heart Still Sings

I am not a spontaneous person. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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La de Dee, La de Dah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fright Gives Way to Memory, Having Coffee With My Love

For years, I have loved Moka pot coffee. Fancy coffee at home has been a deciding factor of decadence to me. Hawthorne had been a barista for a solid decade, and must have been a bartender in a past life, so we were always on the lookout for new and fun ways to make special drinks. When we had met, I was drinking far too much; it wasn’t uncommon for me to finish off at least two liters of coffee a day. I was working overnights in EMS, taking classes during the day, and trying to learn how to live with my new husband; I ran on about 4 hours of sleep a night. I needed all the help I could get from the magic beans.

After we had moved in together and things started to feel like they settled down a bit, Hawthorne staged a bit of an intervention. Basically, I needed to get more sleep and cut back on the caffeine. They pointed out that my migraines and general headaches had been largely uncontrolled and that my anxiety revved at a pretty high baseline. I put up a fight. No way I actually drink that much coffee, I said. But sure, I’ll go to bed earlier. 

Of course, going to bed early in a new and passionate relationship with a smokin’ hot partner didn’t result in more sleep. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that I admitted to my new doctor that my migraines were more frequent than they needed to be. She tried me on an anticonvulsant that I hadn’t tried before. After two days of feeling like Hawthorne existed solely to piss me off and some nice but confusing hallucinations of a pet cat that did not exist, I stopped taking the medication and agreed to maybe try some lifestyle changes. I’d drink more water, go to bed earlier, and yes, cut back on the caffeine.

By now I wasn’t working on the street anymore; I was working in quality improvement for the ambulance company, and though I was always on call, it was a 9-5 job. I wasn’t in school, I wasn’t trying to hold multiple jobs or devote 20 hours a day to being productive. I asked Hawthorne to help me cut back; they were in school, so anytime we were home, the coffeepot was on. I had finally met the one who could match my stubbornness; they kept on my ass about how much I was bringing to work, and since we couldn’t afford for me to get coffee out often, I ended up cutting my intake in half. My migraines didn’t improve overnight, but it was a major step towards controlling them again. 

Early on in their junior year of college, we drove out to Premier on Niagara Falls Boulevard. We splurged; Hawthorne picked out exactly the right coffee contraption; more importantly, I found two Le Creuset demitasse cups, blue and brown. The silver, angular hourglass  of the Moka pot was entirely new to me but promised something near espresso, and my barista beau was more than willing to be in charge of it. For a little while, Sunday mornings were for fancy coffee and homemade breakfasts.

I’m not sure why it stopped; maybe it was too much hassle to keep clean, or it got packed away for another move. Whatever the case, the Moka pot made only very rare appearances in Vermont. It remained a promise, this time set in nostalgia; when I was studying day and night for grad school, Hawthorne would mention making some that weekend. It didn’t happen, for one reason or another; finally I started asking Hawthorne to make it. They’d agree and kiss me on the head. “You love a Moka pot,” they’d say. I’m pretty sure my reaction would always be somewhere on the Catana spectrum of love and excitement.

As grad school wore on, the role of coffee in my life changed dramatically; I was brewing something much more magical than beans. I dreamed of graduation day, taking pictures in my cap and gown, Hawthorne at my side and our baby on my hip. The smell of coffee made me nauseated; I had gotten so sick while trying to cut down on caffeine before we were even pregnant, and hated every minute without that familiar jolt. I drank green tea to wean off, and then for the nausea. Since I was the morning person, I still saw to their coffee in the morning, but Hawthorne would be waiting with a hot mug ready for me as soon as I walked in the door from work. When I was five months pregnant, I remember driving down the mountain heading to work, and just needing something more than tea to wake me up. Newsflash, pregnancy is exhausting. I drove to Dunkin Donuts and bit my nails in the drive through; even the smell of the store was turning my stomach, how was I going to drink it? But I NEED it, I argued with myself. By the time I pulled around I’d come to the conclusion that I would try an iced coffee with no sweetener. 

I drove back the way I came, making the turn at the light for the hospital. I took my first sip passing a cemetery behind wrought-iron fencing; color began to seep back into the world. The gray of the stones picked up their luster; the oddly lush green of the not-quite-spring grass shone more verdant. Shining purple and butter-bright crocus emerged in dense patches on yellowed lawns, shaded areas holding on to shrinking piles of dingy snow left over from the long winter. My forehead and neck relaxed, my shoulders loosened. My mind felt clearer than it had in months. Oscar learned the caffeine jitterbug that day, and we would dance in the car on the way to work, listening to RuPaul while cradled safe in my belly. I miss those dance parties. 

Lucy didn’t miss a beat when it was her turn. She demanded her coffee strong and iced, with a healthy dose of cream. Occasionally, she would relent and allow me to throw back a quick-fire shot of espresso and cream, but would still revolt at the scent of sweet, hot coffee. I stuck to half-caf for a while. OK, well, I tried, alright? I intended to stick to half-caf until I realized that I was drinking double the coffee, completely negating my efforts. Oops. So, I just tried to be a little more intentional about it, drinking my normal amount but with a few scoops of decaf beans. Fast forward to now, when I’m not breastfeeding or pregnant, and it’s just a high-octane free-for-all. Sometimes I find myself staring at the leftover decaf beans from over a year ago, wondering what to do with them. Then Lucy will growl or Ella will whine and I’ll forget about it.

I’ve come to accept that grief is going to rear up and grab me unexpectedly. In the time between Hawthorne’s death and packing, I realized that they were never going to be there to make me Moka pot again. It began a cascade of similar thoughts; there was no one to buy me flowers, or additions to my fairy collection, or jewelry from the shop on Church Street. They were no longer there to tell me to treat myself, to make sure I got a donut or a coffee, or have that glass of wine at the end of the day. There was no one there to tell me I deserve it.

I don’t know what hit harder, the utter grief and loss I felt in that moment, or the hot wave of shame that crashed over me immediately after, salt water in already raw and bleeding wounds. How could I be so selfish? Hawthorne was dead, and I was feeling sorry for myself over coffee and presents? What the hell was wrong with me? 

Writing about it now brings the moment back so strongly. Sinking down to the floor of the kitchen, the floor cold and unforgiving, the darkness of the evening pressing against the windows. Flanked by guilt and self-loathing, I couldn’t even cry. Grief returned to her post in the presence of these bullies, quietly celebrating the break.

This is one of the experiences that makes it feel as if Hawthorne has been gone for so long. It’s taken time, and distance, and therapy to work through this episode. I still remind myself that it’s not selfish to wish they were here to make me something – chili, tea, their magical healing chicken curry soup. One of the ways they showed love was cooking, or acting as barista or bartender. They liked to put the time into those acts for people. Sometimes I wonder at what creations they would have dreamed up if they had been able to bake. 

One of the things I decided when I moved to this new place, this home without Hawthorne, was that I would make myself fancy coffee once a week. I’d buy myself flowers, and treat myself. And I have. Maybe I haven’t made my weekly coffee, but I know how to do it now. And yes, I may have gone overboard on the treats; I mean, I don’t need to be eating cupcakes for breakfast three days a week (a dozen cupcakes don’t last very long), scattering sprinkles in the car. It makes me laugh to see the bright colors littering the car seat, and to remember Hawthorne’s look of horror to find my stash of sprinkles in the console. They hated the crumbs and detritus that filled the cupholders and got lost down between the seats. I think they were mostly shocked not only at the fact that I essentially drank a few teaspoons of sprinkles at a time, but had been doing so for weeks without their noticing. It feels good to laugh.

I miss them every morning when I make my coffee. I stand in my bright kitchen with its black countertops, still learning to navigate around old furniture in a new place. I often make my go mug at the same time I make my first cup; I had nearly ten years where I made up two cups at a time, so it just feels natural. I often stand in the middle of the apartment, watching the light come in while I get that first hit in. I do my journal and set up for yoga, letting the day seep in, taking quick notes on the early thoughts running through my brain. 

I’m not missing the gifts they gave me that I no longer will receive; it’s not out of selfishness that I get upset at jewelry commercials and “treat the woman in your life,” advertisements. I’m not grieving their loss because they did things for me. I’m grieving the loss of someone who showed me love, and believed that I deserve nice things and special moments. Hawthorne wanted me to be kind to myself, to show myself love in ways that were meaningful to us both, to treat myself if they weren’t right there to do it for me. I miss how they made me feel as if I deserved those things, when I so often don’t think to. I miss being made to feel like I was the only girl in the world, the only one who got to see their eyes light up just so. 

It’s hard to show myself the love they would have when they aren’t here, and I don’t feel like I deserve it. But then I remember, I didn’t have do anything to earn or deserve their love; I was just myself, the girl from Boston with the pigtail braids stomping up the steps at work. I was just the Patriots fan undaunted by the barrage of Bills fans telling me that Brady sucks. I was the one who found their inhaler in a snowbank, the one who wouldn’t pronounce the R’s in their name; the one their rescue pup liked better than their girlfriend. I was the one, and they were mine. Now I’m the one left behind, the one who has felt all our shared dreams fade over six months of mornings without them. 

At least they made sure I had the proper equipment so I could be awake to make some new dreams. Turns out, a Moka pot can hold an awful lot more love than it can coffee.