Blog Feed

Posted in Uncategorized

Co-Author, Co-Conspiriter

A week off schedule, but very exciting stuff!

I mentioned one of the other writing projects I have been working on is having a chapter as a co-author of The Rising Sisterhood, book 3. We are hurtling toward publication, and the blog for my chapter was just released.

You can read it here: https://therisingsisterhoodbook.com/marjanna-barber-dubois-the-rising-sisterhood-author-book-3/

(And yes, being in book 3 implies that there are two earlier publications as well, and you should check those out too. Proceeds from 1 and 2 go to The Trevor Project and Girls, Inc.)

I will return to my regular schedule next week with another Queer Mama Rising post, but I wanted to share my excitement of collaborating with some other amazing women to create the next installment of The Rising Sisterhood. 

Now I just have to figure out all the other social media stuff that isn’t pasting a link into Facebook. 

Posted in Uncategorized

Buried in Your Bones, There’s an Ache You Can’t Ignore

I have been remiss in posting. The last time I did, I said I would take off November to focus on my first novel, and I did. I thought about jumping back in immediately in December, but instead continued the efforts toward the novel, and finished the first draft. I spent some time grinning about that, and with my writing group as cheerleaders, printed the thing. Now mind you, this is not some industrial printer; it was a gift, and intended primarily for the photographs Hawthorne was taking, mostly of flowers and birds. Ella, of course, was a favorite subject, and was happy to laze in a sunny spot while Hawthorne played with filters and settings. 

Still, it’s a printer, even if the paper comes out one slow page at a time, and there isn’t a large enough tray to hold a regular letter after it’s complete. I was giddy, watching words that I had written slowly emerge from the sleek black box. When I got too caught up, the page would flutter to the floor, only to be snatched up within seconds. The tray ran out of paper five times. I found a stack of paper dating back to at least when we got the printer, and kept feeding it in. I put the last half-inch stack in the tray, and bit my nails that it wouldn’t be enough. I had the Zoom company of friends laughing along with me. The printer stopped, about a quarter inch of paper left.

196 pages. I had written a book.

It is a wondrous feeling. I had felt similar at work before, or at school; finishing a large project, my capstone, my thesis. That had felt like validation and triumph – I was smart, I was competent, I could handle anything that was assigned to me.

This? This was entirely different. This incorrectly formatted half-ream of paper, it’s edges not quite aligned (as happens when you assemble a large deck, card by card, before you tap it out), was more than validation, more than triumph. This was pride, and wonder, and joy. Here in my hands was a cohesive story that I had pulled, part by disjointed part, out of my imagination. I had been living with some of these people in my head for months; there were a few newcomers, too, that hadn’t arrived until November. They were all here. Their stories, in sum and in part. 

Don’t ask if I cried, you know I did. Of course I did. I had accomplished something that, even six months before, had never thought I would do. I had written a novel. 

Now, it is nearing the end of March. I haven’t done a lot of writing so far since finishing the book. I did complete the drafts and edits for a chapter for The Rising Sisterhood (much more to come on this later). I have also been reading voraciously, constantly consuming other’s words: everything from Jane Eyre to queer smut to books on personal development skill building; and, for once, a novel. 

I’ve always classified the reading I do as either “books” or “romance.” I’m a huge Nora Roberts fan, and love to read anything queer and sexy I can get my hot little hands on. I don’t mean that it’s not good writing, but more than it’s almost like TV for me. It’s not super serious, I can get wrapped up in it but without stress, and I know how it will end. It’s like rewatching Parks and Rec or 30 Rock for the seventh time. Other than that, however, I don’t often reach for one of the glossy paperbacks from the best-sellers in fiction.

Some new friends loaned me The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I took it because I want to be reading more of anything, the way I used to. So when the time came to leave for my little trip, I grabbed it off my desk on my way out the door and tossed it on top of about eight other books. 

I had given myself an early birthday present – a short solo trip at the beginning of March, in a charming AirBnB in New Hampshire. I was leaving my daughter for the first time since she was in the NICU; my sister and her fiancé would stay with her until I came home three days later. I loaded up on provisions: a full cake, loaf of bread, lox and cream cheese, thirteen notebooks, all my crystals and tarot cards, computer, markers, and even the printer. I didn’t want to suddenly want to do something, and not have it with me, for what I was calling my writing retreat. I had a list of things I wanted to do – update my reading journal, cleanse my crystals, walk for miles. Mostly, though, what I needed was the space and the silence to figure out exactly what it is I want from all this writing. 

I’m currently involved in several projects – one as a coauthor on a research paper, a coauthor chapter for The Rising Sisterhood, the Patreon I wanted to launch, the novel I was working on, this blog; and any number of jotted ideas and quick lines of poetry. I hadn’t been writing a lot not only because I was in revision mode, but because I couldn’t determine where I wanted to focus all this creative energy. I had figured out by the winter solstice that I needed clarity on this, and scheduled this trip into the mountains. 

When I got there and settled in, I went into “town,” picked up a large pizza and two six-packs; far more than I expected to drink, but it would be great to take some home and savor for the spring. After that, other than long walks on mountain roads, I didn’t leave the house until I was checking out to go home. I texted a couple folks, but other than a co-author call, spoke to no one for the duration of my stay. 

I treasured the peace, and made the most out of my time away. At first, I wasn’t getting the answers I wanted; by my first sunrise there, I was wondering if I had made a mistake, if this had been a bad idea, or if I just wasn’t ready to treat myself like an actual writer. The trip hadn’t been the wrong step, but maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself to figure things out. So I talked out loud, filled page after page, and read like it was drawing breath. 

The first night, I read one of Cat Sebastian’s queer romances cover to cover; it was blatantly sexy and perfect for my mood, sitting by the fireplace in the wintering mountains, so cold the snow squeaked underfoot. The next morning, I picked up The Night Circus. I remember shrugging as I took it downstairs to settle in. 

I utterly devoured this book. I read it in three sittings, utterly entranced. I laughed out loud, startling myself in the cabin alone. I cried, tears dashed away so my eyes could keep clear enough to keep reading. 

Finally on my last evening there, after another writing reflection session that didn’t feel productive, I pushed back from the little table where I was set up. I grabbed the book and went to take a bath. I sank in – the tub was deep, and reminded me of a free-standing version of the one we had in Vermont. The book I couldn’t stop thinking about sat on the tray that had been made for the tub along with an ice cold beer, sweating in the small, steamy room. I don’t know if I’d even had my first sip of it yet when it dawned on me – the answer I had come to find was right in front of my face. Literally, as it turns out. 

It took two-and-a-half days of writing and reflection; over six thousand words of deep-diving into myself and questioning myself. I had to walk away and come back to it time and time again, peeling back the layers of years of feedback and feelings, of what I’ve been told I can and cannot do, if I’m using or wasting my potential. Onions are a good analogy for this sort of slogging discovery; tears burn in your eyes, the unpleasantness gets into your pores as you have to dig in to separate, and the stench lingers in your nostrils.

What do I want out of my writing? I want to write for me, and write for other people. I want this to be a career, not just a hobby. I want to share my writing as far and wide as I can get it, not because I think it’s that good (because we all know how that imposter syndrome gets sneaky), but because I have a lot of things to say and too much experience with peoples’ voices being silenced by death too early. I have stories inside of me, which is a magic all its own. I want a certain amount of success; I want people to recommend my words to their friends. I want the glossy cover, the capital NYT BESTSELLER emblazoned across the top. I don’t have to be a household name as an author, but I want my stories to be known well – most people have heard of Night Circus or The Time-Traveler’s Wife, but do you know the authors off the top of your head? Likely not (Erin Morgenstern and Audrey Niffenegger, respectively) And that sounds just about perfect. 

So from here, I am going to finish my work with The Rising Sisterhood. I’m going to pause my Patreon and some other smaller projects I’ve got in the works. I’m going to keep writing down things as they come to me, until they are ready. I’m going to focus my attention on the writing that I can share. 

The books, the novels I have inside me, I’m writing those because I need to get the stories out, and I’m writing them for other people. 

The blog is back, and staying. The value this has had for me has been incredible. I wonder if I would have had an easier winter if I’d kept it up. At the same time, however, stepping away from it gave me room to go out and explore different styles and ways and communities of writing. Coming back to writing this, on schedule, from the heart, feels like coming home. 

I write the blog because my soul needs to write, and for some things, to share. I’m not suggesting that this is someone else’s survival guide, but I know it’s read, and that’s enough for me. 

Thank you for reading, I hope you continue to. And if you need or want to step away for a while, well, the magic of the internet will make sure this is here when you want to come back. 

I am home, and ready to write with open arms. 

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s a Shame About the Weather

It’s a Shame About the Weather

I have not been shy about talking about the things I go through and experience – my mental health, stillbirth and pregnancy loss, losing my spouse, queer widowhood, sexuality and gender. These are often taboo to talk about, to write about; there’s a thin line between “enough” and “too much, I don’t want to hear this.” I try to stride down that line with my Docs on. I prefer to lead by example; if I think these topics should be destigmatized and not avoided, I’m going to write about it. The greatest reward would be to help someone else write or talk or explore what they need to.

There are also topics that are important to me that I don’t write about here. This isn’t from shame or remorse, stigma or embarrassment; some things are just private. A couple of times I’ve blurred that line, and asked the other person(s) involved if I could share the redacted story. This is, in part, in deference to the fact that I personally know many who follow this blog, and many of those are family. Oh, it still gets written; just not here. 

All that to say, my mental health has been junk lately. The early dark, the seemingly constant rain, the changing of seasons: none of these help. Depression has made its home in me again; uninvited, but not unexpected. 

I know the signs. The dwindling creativity, the defiance of self-care, the isolation all tell me I was right to be afraid of this season. I can function for about 14 hours a day; from the time I open my eyes before 5, unable to sleep longer, until Lucy is tucked into bed. After that, I shut down, as if programmed. I live in a state of exhaustion, one that is colored by that of having a toddler, grief, and depression itself. If you have never felt those last two flavors, I hope you never do; but those who have know the differences between. 

This is not a cry for help, or even a reason to worry. This is not the kind of depression where it is important to be able to ask, are you going to kill yourself? (The answer is no, anyway.) I have felt that depression before, and it is scary shit. 

This is an acknowledgment. I am depressed, and right now, that’s OK. This is a season I will get through. I’m not afraid; I don’t have scary thoughts, or thoughts I cannot control. I’m not in danger, Lucy’s not in danger. She may notice that I’m crankier and I cry a lot more, and she might watch a little more TV when my spoons are depleted before bedtime, but she still sees me laugh every day. She knows she is loved, she knows I will always pick her up when she runs to me. 

I have worked hard to gather my resources prior to the fall. My medications are stable; blessings on chemistry and SSRIs. I am on the waitlist for a counselor who seems to be an excellent match for what I need right now. I replaced my desk lamp with one used for seasonal affective disorder, and I love it. I have pulled back from social media, and I am allowing myself to only access the news of the world when I feel I can handle it. I have talked to my friends, to my family, to my doctor about it. I am open and frank about what I am experiencing. I buy little junk food and easy (I mean, easy; thank you, Wegmans) meals. I keep my routine and my bullet journal. I try to be strict about my bedtime. I have consistent plans to get me out of the house or allow people in, and I really enjoy my job. 

Someone asked me last week if they did something to upset me; another asked if something had happened. Both answers were no. This is just how it is, sometimes. And right now, sitting and writing with my sun lamp in the dawn of a new day, it’s easy for me to remember that this, too, will pass. This is a season, one I prepared for. 

I am depressed. I have chronic depression, and seasonal affective disorder. I have general anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD and agoraphobia at times. 

I am depressed, and I am OK.

For you creative types out there, I know you understand this next thing – when you start a new piece, in whatever your medium is, and it just takes off on you? You know what I’m talking about. That’s happening right now, real time. Front row seats for all.

I hadn’t intended to talk about mental health, mine in particular, like this. I had intended this post to be short and to-the-point. I wanted to tell my readership (and let’s be honest, anyone who will listen) that National Novel Writing Month begins on Monday, November 1st. I will not be keeping my schedule of biweekly posts to this blog for November, as I am concentrating my writing efforts elsewhere. I have a lofty goal to hit, and a lot to say. The blog will resume in December. Thanks for sticking around!

NOTE: if you are depressed and considering killing yourself, please check out these resources. It might not feel like it right now, but there are people out there who truly care. You will get through this. It gets better. 

(International) http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html

(US) https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s the Ghost of Love That’s Made You Such a Mess

We talk so cavalierly about love and death. Flip on the country station for a while and listen; for that matter, the pop station, or anywhere you’ll hear (usually) a man professing how he cannot or will not or does not want to live without the love of this woman (again, usually). There is no pause in the lyrics, nothing to actually address the mortality, and I fully understand that it is a turn of phrase. To profess that you would rather die than live without, that you don’t want to even breathe without, is to walk with a privilege forgotten by those who have lived with loss. To announce that there is no way, even in the romanticism of song lyrics, that life could possibly continue after the death of your beloved, is blind arrogance. 

When we married, Hawthorne carefully curated the list of approved songs to make sure there was no mention of death in the lyrics. We didn’t mention it in our vows; the closest we came was using an instrumental of “The Luckiest,” which has a verse about an old couple who passes away within days of each other. Even then, we both were too well acquainted with death; had felt that cold hand rest on ours as we tried to pump life back into a still heart, had lost enough of our own to not be intimately aware of our own mortality. We refused to invite death to our wedding. 

And yet, it found us in our marriage, time and time again. I think I’ve thought about the movies of the Final Destination series more in the past year than I have ever before. Logically, I know that death touches everyone; and in pandemic times, even more so. I get that. It doesn’t mean I’m OK with it, or that I can easily accept it, or that it changes the individual losses experienced by each person. 

I’ve been talking a lot about the difference between seeing patients and population health at work recently. I am privileged enough to work with a group of great providers and staff who care about their patients. In my position, however, it’s integral that I see both the forest and the trees. It’s harder for the folks who see patients to do that; they sit for a few minutes to an hour with individual people, learning about them and what they are feeling and experiencing. I’m grateful that I know what that is like from my paramedic days, that I have that background to draw from. 

But I am also trusted to remember the fact that we are serving both individuals, and a population. From that 30,000 foot view, it is not the individual that we are caring for: it’s the subset of people who have breast tissue and need mammograms, it’s those who have high blood pressure and diabetes, it’s kiddos under the age of two who need their vaccines. In that thinking, the individual is not the concern, it’s the group. I realize that sounds callous, but both views are absolutely necessary. 

The fact that I have lost so many in my time and in my family means nothing in the grand scheme of life and death in this world. How many people, lives, relatives, humans died in the past week due to disasters or the pandemic? Over 600,000 have died directly from Covid-19 or its immediate complications, to say nothing of those who have perished due to more ancillary complications: not being able to get a hospital bed for another condition, not having access to the social services that helped keep them alive. It is a heavy thing to know the weight of the forest as you watch individual trees be felled.

I am still standing. 

That’s not a brag, or even a point of pride here. It’s just fact. I have lost, our families have lost; we are all tired of watching Death come for our own. 

There are moments where I have absolutely wanted to give up and lay down, let my body be consumed by earth or fire or water, and join my son and my beloved in the stars. I have no shame in admitting that. 

And so the songs go:

I don’t want to live without you, I don’t want to even breathe.” 

How do I breathe without you, if you ever go.” 

I could never live without your love.” 

And here I am. Living, breathing, carrying on.

Grief has torn me to pieces so small that it’s a wonder there’s enough left to be stitched back together, and makes it hard to find the needle and thread. But I’m holding on, if (at times) for no other reason than my body isn’t done with me yet.

We talk about this love, this undying emotion that is so strong it would kill us to lose our partner. We hear the songs and stories about elderly folks who pass on within days or hours of each other. We read and watch The Notebook. We talk about dying in the same moment, so we are never without. 

It doesn’t usually work like that. 

In the movie Midsommer, (possible spoiler alert, but it came out in 2019, so catch up), the couple whose “time has come” is preparing to jump to their deaths. One has accepted this, the prescribed end of his life. His wife has not. She weeps and wails, not ready, even though her love is laying below, bloody and bludgeoned and gone. I can’t tell you if she is “assisted” over the edge, because I closed my eyes. I couldn’t watch. 

“How do I live without you?” It’s hard as shit. But you do. 

“I don’t want to even breathe.” Too bad. Your body just keeps breathing, your heart keeps beating. It requires far more action to stop those things than you have the energy for. Even if you just sit there, wishing to go gently into that good night, the time passes. People urge you to eat, drink, live, and at some point it becomes easier to give in to that than fight it. Grief demands the path of least resistance. You take the road that requires the least amount of energy and effort, because you have neither to give – but you are still on that road. 

I have lost, immeasurably. And while it’s hard, I still want to live. I want to continue. Some days more than others, some hours are spent just letting the time pass and my body breathe for me; but I want to live, even without Hawthorne, without Oscar. I know that I have their love, I just don’t have them with me here. 

Sometimes when these songs come on the radio, I get angry. There’s no choice, I scream out the open window on the highway. That’s not how it works. Sometimes I cry, tears slowly rolling out of my eyes. Sometimes I just shake my head at the audacity of the songwriters to think that life stops because the body that held your love died. 

Life doesn’t stop. Time doesn’t stop. 

I have likened both Oscar’s and Hawthorne’s deaths and the days that followed to being on a train, speeding through the land. Inside the train car, everything is still; everything is how they left it, nothing is touched. There’s some change from the sway, the outside pressures of acceleration and movement and disturbances, but it’s almost like you remembered it. 

Then you look out the window and see everything rushing by, and you realize, the stillness is false. Time hasn’t stopped out there, all around you. Life continues. And at some point, you have to get back outside the train car. 

It hurts my heart to think about how many people are going through this; hundreds of thousands of people who may not have had to face it right now, were it not for the pandemic. I see the struggles my friends are facing with their family and friends. I am primed for bad news at any moment, guarded constantly. This isn’t living in fear, it’s living with reality. The forest is vast, and each tree cut down is a fresh wound to it, no matter what view you are taking. 

One artist Hawthorne and I never got to see live was Jason Isbell. I’m getting to the point where I can listen to his song “If We Were Vampires,” again, without H, but rarely without crying. And while I’m not ready to see time running out as a gift, I can at least be grateful to a songwriter who understands both the depth of love we had, and the cold, hard truths of mortality. 

Posted in Uncategorized

Last Year Was a Son of a Bitch For Nearly Everyone We Know

On the morning of the anniversary, I awoke in the dark. I was sharing a room with both Lucy and a cousin; we had just had Stan’s funeral mass, and the family was spending the weekend together. 

I have always had a hard time with anniversaries. I’m good with dates; they stick out like pins in a map, destination points on the journey. If I can just make it to the next one, then I can think about what comes after. This mindset evolved after my father died fifteen years ago. His long battle with ALS seems more like limbo now, as if life was paused on this side of the veil. He wasn’t ready to be counted as one of the dead, and yet, it was hard to exactly see how he was still one of the living. This moratorium on mortality remains nebulous, a shadowy place on the map where the same paths have been trekked so often the lines themselves are blurred. 

October 12, 2006, I got a panicked call from my mother around 6:30 in the morning that “something is wrong with your father.” I was groggy with pain, having separated my shoulder in a rugby game 5 days prior. One of my roommates helped get me into a sweater and my sling, my boyfriend and his dad came to pick me up. My mom had been unable to say it, but my father had died, finally and peacefully. Eight years after symptoms started, six years after diagnosis, and two years after losing the ability to communicate, his body let go of its tether to the machines, and he crossed over. 

The date was burned into my brain. The twelfth of every month after that was hard; I don’t think I understood it as grief necessarily. I didn’t know why I grieved; he and I had said our goodbyes long before that day. I felt as if I had done my grieving (breaking news, I hadn’t). Years went by. I became an EMT, I graduated; I made an ill-advised decision to get married, bought a house, became a paramedic, suffered through the marriage until my breaking point. 

January 5, 2012, my mother died after a sudden episode of a silent heart attack, complications from the medication, and a Stage III cancer diagnosis. She was spared the years of suffering my father endured; just over a week passed between her hospital admittance to her death. We had never mended our fences, but she squeezed my hand and smiled at me as best she could. She died comfortably, surrounded by family and friends. 

September 20, 2016. My father-out-law, Clark, died under hospice care at home, after a series of strokes that spanned close to a decade.

July 19, 2018. Oscar, my starside wild child. 

September 19, 2020. Hawthorne, the love of my life. 

Grief is the compounding interest of daring to love. There is no formula to guide you through it, no way to quantify it; there is no forewarning before she appears. She knocks silently and lets herself in, making herself comfortable. She has permanent lodging in my heart and holds the master key. 

I spent the morning of the anniversary watching dawn break over our favorite beach. I wore one of their favorite dresses and walked barefoot in the cool sand, picking up shells to make the heart. I talked to them down the first side of the beach; it’s rare to have that conversation out loud, but I needed the wind and the sea to carry the message to where they might get it. I love you, endlessly; I miss you, I’m angry, and I’m surviving. 

I took the path into the dunes and visited Oscar’s tree. I sat in silence as I watched the early sunlight brighten the branches that now stood for both of them. The colors were so vibrant; the blue of the morning sky, the deep green needles of the pitch pine, the silver of the sticky sap that exuded from the cones turning brown. Not for the first time, I thought of just how bullshit it is that they have to miss this. 

I went down the dune path and over to the leeward side of the beach. There was more chop than I had seen over here before. It’s as if the wind knew I needed to feel her as surely as the sand beneath my feet, the water a breath away. 

I knelt in the sand, weighing the bag down with my sandals as I removed the shells and rocks and flotsam I had collected. My hands shook as I began placing the natural decorations into the heart. I made dozens of adjustments to create the outline just so.

I hadn’t found a stick, and didn’t want to leave before it was finished, so I traced their names out with my finger, patting down the sand moved away from the lines and curves of the letters. My heart ached without a trace of sweetness to temper it, and the wind blew the tears from my face to rejoin the sea. When I had finished, I took my pictures, the heart half in the sun now. I sat a few minutes, steeped in grief, before slowly making my way back down the curve of beach.

When I got back to the house, we packed up the cars, did the sweep for tiny toys and phone chargers left behind, and left the rental. We made our way across the Cape to the bay side and met up with some friends for breakfast before going our separate ways.

The one other thing I really wanted to do to mark the anniversary was to visit Walden Pond, where Hawthorne had asked me to marry them. They did the whole down-on-one-knee thing; I have the picture of their sandy jeans to prove it. That afternoon, I tucked a sleepy Lucy back into her carseat and headed out again.

I was more focused on being at Walden Pond and taking a walk around than I was with silly things like directions. Turns out, there is a small pond also named Walden a mere 20 miles away from the one I was trying to get to. It was 4:30 by this point, and all I wanted to do was cry and give up. I was tired and heartsick, and Lucy was awake by now and unhappy with being in the car. Still, I plugged in the real destination, and followed a typically convoluted path through Boston and out the other side to get there. 

We arrived at 5:30 to a full parking lot that still demanded payment. I took my ticket and hauled Lucy out. I was still in my dress, with the addition of hiking boots it had become clear I would not be using, since the park closed at 6:30. Lucy was in one of my favorite new fall outfits, sparkly shoes and all. 

We started towards the entrance and I realized that I had never been here when the park was “in season.” The tears welled up as I lost hope of a quiet moment with every step.

I knew, of course, this was a pond; it had never crossed my mind that where there is a pond, and a sandy crescent of beach, that there would be swimming. My heart sank as I gave up every notion of what I thought this trip would be. My steps fell heavy as I skirted the water’s edge; the spot where I had wanted to be, where Hawthorne had asked me to be their forever, was completely across the pond. We wouldn’t be getting there today.

I was holding Lucy’s hand as we navigated the narrow strip of shore between larger sections of the beach when she tugged her hand and broke away. No longer content with the dry slope, she had noticed we were right next to her favorite thing besides trucks and dinosaurs – water. 

She stepped, shoes sparkling in the sun as she splashed just in the surf. Tiny fish darted at the disturbance, and as I crouched to point them out to her, she ran into the water up to her knees. I could do nothing but laugh. The sheer joy on her face shone brighter than the sunlight, and her laughter rang out over the water. She danced and threw herself into the water as I stood at the edge. The water was still and very shallow and full of kids, and she strayed no further than six feet from the sand, splashing and stamping her feet. The droplets that flew from her glittered like diamonds until being swallowed by the growing shadows, and I heard the announcement over a loudspeaker that the park was closing soon. 

I watched her play a few more minutes, making sure she kept close, and she made sure she got every inch of herself soaking wet. The next time she was in grabbing distance from shore, I caught her and hauled her up, dripping and screaming. I caught several looks from other adults, both parents and not, and there was more judgment than there was sympathy. I missed Vermont keenly in that moment, homesick for the mountains, and the acceptance of the wildness of kids. Fuck ‘em, I thought, as I held my chattering Lucy close. We got back to the car, I pulled off most of her wet clothes and wrapped her up in a towel for the twenty-minute ride home. When we got there I put her immediately into the tub, which she made abundantly clear was not a substitute for the pond.

As I rocked her to sleep, I thought about the day. The morning at the beach had been what I expected, wanted, and needed; the afternoon hit one out of three. Walden Pond gave me neither what I expected or wanted, but it may have given me something else I needed.

One of the biggest surprises of the day was the emotion of pride I had felt; a little at the beach, but more so, at the pond. Watching our curly-haired ray of sunshine act just like her Papa in the water was a balm I hadn’t prepared for. I have been accustomed to sitting in the grief and pain on anniversaries. I understood the craggy emotions that coalesced into mountains, and I could isolate behind them until the date passed and they crumbled away to more manageable bits again. 

Lucy doesn’t let me do that. Lucy demands to be seen, to be experienced. There’s a line in Brandi Carlile’s song The Mother that comes to me in these moments: “the first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep.” I cannot be both selfish and present with her. What I can be, however, is proud. 

I’m proud that I’ve survived this year; I don’t mean in the life-or-death sense of survival, but mentally and emotionally. I have been active and present, and while I may have felt like it, I haven’t been consumed by grief.

I will never stop missing Hawthorne. My heart will never be complete without them; the wound heals, but the scar remains. And I still see them: in the crow presents I find in my path, in the exuberance of our daughter. There is nowhere we will go that I won’t know that some atom of them hasn’t touched. 

It feels like a new year, like the holiday now falls on September 20. Maybe that’s a good thing; it’s the equinox, when the season turns from summer to fall, that midway point between light and dark. It feels fitting that the calendar should reset here. I’m trying to hold less expectations of what this year will bring, and make sure that I am getting what we need to keep on living presently and actively, with a solid dose of what I want as well. 

And on it goes.

Posted in Uncategorized

This Grief Has Gravity, It Pulls Me Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still reach for them at night. 

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

I don’t listen to a lot of new music.

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

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

I don’t feel home.

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

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

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

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

Just one step at a time.

One foot

then the other

for this body is still in motion.

Posted in Uncategorized

Just Some Things That I Will Tell You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized

Add This to Your List of Simple Beauties

It is only the beginning of August, but a seasonal change is already in the air. We had one cool, rainy day this week, and the smell of fall was inescapable. At the nursery, the summer annuals are nearly gone; those that are left are tall and thick-stemmed, more than a little bedraggled. I picked up a 6-pack of bright orange marigolds, nearly twice the height that I’m used to. The few blooms were full and bright, however, and I didn’t mind their struggling appearance. 

Marigold is a bright flower, a happy one; in the celebration, it is used copiously on the altars, the scent believed to draw the departed souls to the ofrenda. In the language of flowers, it can be translated as both grief and jealousy. At first glance, one may think those two experiences are unaligned, yet in fact, they are intricately entangled. I call them experiences, because calling them ‘emotions’ is too light a sentence; whether they slowly reach out and twine sinuously around you, or they blanket and smother you, it becomes more than a feeling. It is a state of being.

I have wanted to plant marigolds for Oscar since the first Dia de los Angelitos after his birth. It’s something I want to say that I just never get around to; in truth, there is usually a combination of lack of spoons and poor timing that I allow to prevent me. I did get them into the planter outside our front door one year. It’s only writing this out that I fully realize that this is only the third summer after he was born. Sometimes, it feels like decades since we held our baby boy. 

I know I planted them in 2019, I remember tucking them into the wicker before my belly, pregnant with Lucy, was too big to crouch and fill the newspaper-lined cone. I remember the bees loved them, so I was forbidden from watering them on the porch; I could get them with the hose out in the yard, but from a distance that made me worry the heaviness of the mock rain would crush the delicate petals. Hawthorne took care to water them for me. 

This year, in this state of being that is at once growing with hope and grieving what is lost, I made it a priority to get them planted. I have started to see them pop up in gardens around me; every morning, I am greeting by bright clusters of their faces from across the street, where they flow between rosebushes and little firs in front of the neighbor’s house. So on Saturday, during our wandering adventures, Lucy and I stopped at a nursery in the next town over. She was getting pretty tired, so she took perch up on my shoulders. We wandered the stone paths for a while, through arches dripping with greenery and tidy rows of lush bushes and trees. We passed through everything twice before I settled and hemmed and hawed with myself. We picked up a cedar window box planter, the marigolds, and an 8” pot bursting with zinnias. One of my beloved friends refers to purchases like that, impulses that just feel good, as getting yourself some happies, and that is exactly what those zinnias were. They now sit on the back steps on the corner of the landing, further brightening my view every time I let the dog out. 

I didn’t fuss with the marigolds that day; I didn’t want it to feel like something I was checking off my to-do list, which is an odd thing for me, so I let it ride. I wanted to see where it would go. I didn’t have to wait long.

The next morning dawned hazy but dry, the temperature inside and outside exactly the same. There wasn’t even a breath of breeze while the morning slowly dropped her nighttime cloak. I sat by the window in the front room, doing my journal pages. I checked the time; six thirty. He had been born at 6:33. I allowed myself to move with the impulse; I let that wave of need and grief roll over, pull me across the room to grab the gardening supplies and open the front door. I took a moment to quietly thank each of the tools I had for my task – spade, windowbox, soil –  as this suddenly felt like a spiritual experience.

I laid a few inches of rich, dark soil down, feeling the grit with a hint of moisture sink into the grooves of my fingers. Even quick, simple gardening like this is more like dirt therapy; there is a visceral element to putting your hands into the earth with the intention of helping things grow. 

I squeezed each of the six wells in the flower pack, able to feel how rootbound the tall marigolds were inside. I murmured to them as I tried to temper gentle care with a firm grip to pull them apart where they had overgrown their wells and reached out to each other. You need more space to grow, I told the flowers. Your friends will be right here, you won’t be alone. With the notion of getting the unpleasantness over for the flowers as quickly as I could, I used my thumbs to break into the whorls of white roots where they had pushed against the confines of the pack. I tucked them, one by one, into little hollows in their new earth. I covered them, bringing soil over from the bag in handfuls now, patting them to even ground. 

And then they stood, pretty maids all in a row; half bright and cheerful, the rest more reserved. I held my hands over them, fingers spread to allow their stems through, palms flat against the earth. The grief ebbed as I grounded, leaving a sweet ache that twisted through me like a breeze. I smiled and tucked the windowbox against the house, brushed off my hands and spade, and put it all away. 

It had taken me only ten minutes, but I was surprised to see the ice still in my coffee, and hear the silence of Lucy still sleeping. I felt as if I had been outside much longer. I settled back on the couch as if my muscles had been warmed and stretched like taffy, every movement so easy, almost languid. I had not known the tension I’d been holding in my body. 

It’s been nearly two weeks since I wrote about the marigolds; they bloom, all six of them now, stems strong and petals thick. They still don’t really look like any in the gardens around me; that’s ok. They don’t need to. I see them, and smile reflexively; I see them and the tension slides out of my shoulders, even when I’m holding Lucy and it seems like all our worldly goods in my arms. Lucy has been gentle with them, as she is with flowers. She touches a fingertip to the petals, exclaiming something that I can only interpret as “Oooh, pretty!” She pats the dirt and looks at her hand, pats it again and gets distracted by wanting to open the mailbox. 

The days are still hot, the air thick with humidity. A hurricane is supposed to make landfall here tomorrow, the first since 1991. I will bring the marigolds and zinnias in and find space for them among the jade and spider plants, out of reach of the toddler who still has a penchant for a dirt snack if I’m not paying close enough attention. My child is sensitive to storms, so I expect some heightened emotions as the barometric pressure drops. It will be good to have that bright spot of contented color in the house for those moments. And if I’m a tiny bit jealous of the peace the flowers have, tucked safely in their cedar home, that’s OK too. The storm will pass, and we will all go outside again.

Posted in Uncategorized

Here Comes Your Ghost Again

I’m looking for my place in this town. We moved here during Covid, when everything was still locked down, and had been for ten months. 

For a minute, I think I’ve found it.

This place feels like walking into a sitcom. It sits on the corner of two of the major streets, full plate-glass front. There are 8 tables, all two-tops but for one, four of them sharing attached bench seating against the wall. The tabletops are mismatched, some finished with a gray sage covering, mostly hard wood stained light. The chairs are all black, paint and cushions, and are the only thing in here that match. The walls are a deep blue that edges toward navy, with a blue mural of a grizzly facing you as you walk in. The organizer in me is in awe of their storage system; shelves for coffee beans and pour-over kits mounted to the support beam, narrow shelf for cream and sugar and various accoutrements following the slight curve of the window. There is a cold fridge directly beneath the counter at the corner where the tiny screen that now serves as a cash register sits, still under a Plexiglass barrier. A small case for pastries sits on the other edge of the counter, flush against the section where the focus turns inward towards the barista. The equipment isn’t new, but gleams even three hours after opening. There is a great deal of foot traffic, no optical illusion even though a line of more than four people winds out the door. The barista is in her forties, with grays just beginning to scatter in her short cap of black hair. She calls every stranger honey or baby, and her regulars by name. She remembers their orders, giving them a hard time when they try something new. 

I took the last empty bench seat, sitting between two men also banging away at their laptops. To my right is a man in his fifties, comfortable in dark-wash jeans and a gray T-shirt. So far, I’ve learned that he has multiple children, enjoys tuna fishing, and didn’t want his wife to resign her job because he likes the money she makes.

To my left is a tall guy in his early twenties. His posture is ramrod straight and three inches away from the wall; his slim-fit, cinnamon-brown pants that are a perfect match to his large canvas backpack and leather “work” boots offset by a bright teal T-shirt. I know far less about him; he hasn’t said a word, has his Airpods in while he focuses on his computer. Occasionally he picks up his phone, but puts it back down after attending to whatever it was that notified him. I want to ask him the secret of his focus. 

The one other long-term occupant sits against the window, facing the back wall. She is also on her laptop, with a full headset and mic on. She’s taken three calls since I’ve been here. She is clad in pastel workout shorts and short-sleeve shirt, blue running shoes with the white of her ankle socks showing. She could have stepped out off the track if it weren’t for the Michael Kors bag with her own power strip and various chargers at her feet. She leans into her screen, readers perched on her nose, long red hair pulled back in a ponytail that was thrown up hours ago. 

There are a number of characters I’ve seen come in. One tall man in his fifties, navy polo tucked into his belted chinos, knew the generic picture of mediocre successful man sitting to my right. They chatted while his order was filled, the seated man never rising, the tall man never sitting. I could only laugh listening to their conversation; not eavesdropping, since it was the loudest thing in the café at the time. They couldn’t recognize the irony in their conversation about downsizing their sailboats, but bitching about their daughters’ tuition, wanting them to go to state schools and work part-time through their pre-med program, because “we told them, you know, you can’t just have everything. So anyway, where’s the little boat?” 

I haven’t met the mayor yet, but there have been several men in double-breasted suit coats and varying levels of white hair who have come in. Two young students come in and take a table, papers and notebooks and coffees all jousting for position on the small table between them. A mother in jogging clothes, stroller covered with a rain-cover, bright eyed baby quiet and staring. Construction workers pass the door to enter the convenience store for cheaper coffee and snacks. At no point in here is the radio ever drowned out. I don’t recognize a single song from the contemporary easy playlist. 

The coffee is strong, the muffins are soft and delicious. I’ll be coming back, but I don’t think it’s going to be a mainstay. 

Now, the library is another story.

My family didn’t go to the library often; it was across town and the parking was terrible. The sidewalks would be slick in the rain, and I feel like it was always raining when we went; perhaps we only did when we couldn’t be sent outside to play. I remember the stone had a softness to it, having been carved long ago enough that no sharp edges remained in the architecture. The stairs of the entrance were so well tucked under the building it was always dark. The double doors are giants in my memory, and probably only somewhat smaller in real life. It reminded me of an old church, but so much warmer, both in sentiment and temperature. It still held the reverent hush in its very walls. As you entered, the circulation desk would be directly in front of you, guarding the way to huge rooms with cathedral ceilings and stacks of books beyond it. The wing to the left was two stories, the wraparound balcony with its high wall and brass bar skirting around the edges of more stacks. Little desks were tucked here and there, lit by brass desk lamps with the green glass shade that I associated with colleges and professors; I had one on my desk at home, and I was immensely proud to see it there after visiting the library. 

The wing to the right was much more open and bright, at least, brighter gray; no shadows here, no towering stacks. Here there were individual cubicle desks, and a couple of old benches; shelves held VHS tapes in tattered plastic cases, and, if memory serves, the giant wooden card catalog. I thought those were fascinating; drawers upon drawers of little cards with secret codes that let you find whatever book you wanted. Now we have browser tabs, and all the code is hidden. 

I, somewhat desperately, want the library to be our place. It’s not walking distance; I imagine it will be biking distance at some painful point in the future. The architecture is highly reminiscent of my childhood, sandstone and pink granite with craggy bricks and soft curves. There’s no half-mile, uphill trek in, just a few steps on level sidewalk to small staircase. Once inside those magic doors, the stairs go down to the right, and up directly in front of you, welcoming you to ascend into the worlds of the printed page, or detour down into the open workspace of technology. At the top of the half-staircase is the circulation desk, now tucked behind Plexiglass. 

I had gone alone to the coffeeshop, but brought my daughter to the library. Lucy’s eyes were wide as she stood, taking it all in. I spoke with the librarian about the application I had started online, and within moments, was grinning ear to ear with library card in hand. I have a secondhand Kindle, which I have yet to use; but holding that card, I felt like I was given the keys to the castle from Beauty and the Beast. Any book I imagined I could conjure up and bring to me. The timing worked out well; just as I tucked the plastic card away, Lucy took off, thankfully to the children’s section. She stopped in her tracks and looked all around, trying to make it compute, before running over to the low table with its equally tiny chairs. She climbed up and spent a happy twenty minutes taking the crayons out of their basket and replacing them, occasionally moving a handful somewhere else nearby with seeming deliberation. I found myself, as I often do when I watch her play like this, wondering what spell she’s casting, what magic lives with her beautiful dark eyes. The moment breaks when she pulls down several books from a shelf. She’s found the books about trucks and other large operable machinery. I smile as she scatters a few of the books, and the pain slices me through like a scalpel, so sharp and neat, I don’t feel it right then. I don’t realize I’m crying until my hand comes away from my face, wet and streaked with running mascara. I don’t feel the ground beneath me until my knees start to buckle. I stay upright with a willpower borne of an audience, not willing to cause a scene, although we are almost the only patrons.

I want to find our place; I need to. I need to keep searching for this new dream, keep building this new life. As the one year anniversary closes in, the pain is swordsman, hiding around every corner, steel glinting only after it strikes. The missing of them is visceral; I feel it, deeply, in the fissures of my heart, in my empty arms. My chest wants to cave in upon itself, my body to bow as only the grief-stricken can. 

I stand straighter. 

A half-hour later, we finish our first tour of the library, making friends along the way. Lucy turns and waves, calling “bye!” to everyone and everything. She is entrancing; her  wide-eyed amazement over a painted flower pot, her desire to put everything she can pick up into her mouth. She keeps me going; she keeps me standing. 

We will find our spot. Maybe we already have, and I just don’t recognize it, because a world without Hawthorne still doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it never will. Maybe the best we can do is to find some middle ground, some worldly place between absence and nonsense. Maybe that will be enough of a place to call home without my original vagabond by my side. 

Posted in Uncategorized

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.