It’s been five days since I arrived at the Cape, and I am just now getting to the beach. It has been nearly 60 every day, with plenty of sun and some Oscar blue skies; now, it is storming. Gale force winds are tearing whitecaps from the waves as they break. The storm rolling in, shaking the trees in the yard inland, told me it was time. Now I stare at the sea and remember the mountains.
The days are passing; time marches on. I am in limbo. The house is packed and ready, waiting for my final arrival at the steps of the Estrogen Triangle. According to the landlady, men have not had luck in that corner of our winding country road; some tragedy or serious legal matter always befalls them. I’ve wondered, more than once, if that was part of Hawthorne’s bad luck there. They had said the house felt cursed before, when we lost our son before he was even born. I didn’t believe them – I might be starting to.
There is a wrenching deep in my chest, as if a giant, mechanized hand is trying to gently grip my heart and massage it back to life, but cannot determine the pressure of its own welded fingers and joints. It is a deep and bruising twisting that never unwinds.
It is not only anger anymore. Rage is the stalk that anguish winds around, sinuously reaching and spiraling around to join in a longtime lover’s embrace with grief. She holds me as a morning glory clings to a climbing fence, delicate tendrils coiled with surprising strength and no desire to release. The trumpeting blooms distract the eye, hiding secrets and stories themselves.
Several weeks after Oscar died, Hawthorne and I were down here on the Cape. My cousins were out of town and we were house sitting, taking space for our broken hearts in the salty air between the seagulls and the tourists. We joined them one evening and took a sunset whale watch. I insisted on having our Jack and Rose moment; after that, Hawthorne kept back from the rail, more than a little scared of heights and being tossed into the ocean by the waves and wake; that is, until distant plumes pulled them forward by their excitement.
I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember the colors of the evening slowly spreading, and the spray of the sea as the vessel sliced through the waves. It was sometime in that changing sky that my heart, defying its own weeping wounds, decided that it was not finished. Oscar had died before having a chance to do anything other than know love and joy and freeze pops; well, we would just live for him. Not exist, not go on, not let time pass by; I was going to live. I sent that promise to the sea and the stars as they began to sparkle in the deepening sky, and I’ve kept it. Mostly.
I had forgotten about that moment these last months. A good friend, adept at zeroing in with blunt words and a compassionate heart, reminded me. She asked if I was at that turning point yet, if I had decided that I was going to live. She wasn’t asking about suicidality or the extent of depression, or how close I felt to giving up. What she was asking was if I was ready to determine my path forward, both for myself, and for how to remember Hawthorne.
At that point, all I could do was shake my head; very effective method of communication over text message, I know. This loss was different; this one made a horrible kind of sense, like there was almost a shrug under the blanket of shock. Hawthorne had been in such pain, and all who knew them knew that. There was the relief that they were no longer suffering; no longer so anxious, no longer so hurt. With Oscar, there was none of that sense of ‘grelief,’ as it was coined by another friend’s therapist. Though it is baffling to say, Oscar’s death was a simpler affair, maybe from the sheer difference between the length of their two lives, though both were cut short far too soon.
With Hawthorne’s death, there is so much more to process, so many more memories to sift through. Photographs of them throughout their life; from professional family photos from the church and candids from Easter and Christmas to angsty black-and-white prints from disposable cameras that smelled like cigarette smoke. There are fights and unfinished arguments to work through, and I’m left standing the winner by default, rounds denied by a too-early TKO. There are moments they are missing now; Lucy’s screeching and hilarious antics, Ella getting stuck in the yard, so many memes. I mourn for each and every one.
With Oscar, it is as if I am allowed to simply miss him and love him, grieve for him and, in one all-encompassing package, the dreams that died with him. With Hawthorne… it’s a damn sight more work.
I’ve never shied away from work. I tend to overfill my plate and empty my cup before I realize that even I am mortal, and cannot harness every minute of every day. I am the person who, were I to ask for broader shoulders, I would expect an even heavier load to carry; so either I do not ask or I prepare myself. I’m not afraid of working hard.
I am reading Rachel Hollis’ new book, Didn’t See That Coming. The title was similar enough to Hawthorne’s catchphrase, “I didn’t think that was gonna happen,” that I grabbed it off the shelf without pausing and tossed it in my cart. I’m not always ready for the truth in the pages; her reminders that the past cannot be remembered correctly through rose-colored glasses are sometimes more gut-punch than love-tap. There is a story she tells about talking with gold star families of Navy SEALS, and a lesson she took from them: “If you’ve had something ripped away, if you’ve been knocked down, get back up. Every time. Wear the identity you earned with pride.”
The turning point has come.
It’s not exactly an exciting or joyous moment.
It is the deep breath you take as the roller coaster engages and starts to drag you upward, and you’ve never done this before.
It is getting up from a hard missed tackle, dusting the pitch off your face, and running for the next before you can tell which direction the ball is going.
It is the arch of the diver’s body as they hang suspended between the rise of the board and the precise position of the fall.
You’re not the first one to start again, come on now friend
There’s something to be said for tenacity
The rain is lashing against the car now, and night has fallen here at the beach. There is no relief in the blackness beyond the headlights, no star or lamp to distinguish between angry sea and raging sky. There is power in that, in the wind that whips through the sawgrass, the rain that falls in sheets across the sands. I feel it within me; the mecha-hand that gripped so hard has retreated for now, at least for long enough to allow the cool rain in to soothe. The storm brings clarity.
I am deciding to live. I need to find a new dream, one for me and Lucy and Ella. I don’t know what that looks like yet. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be comfortable, but I am nothing if not resilient. It is no honor to Hawthorne, a preemptive theft from Lucy, a broken promise to Oscar, and a utter disservice to myself if I continue to exist. Will I have those days still? Sure, and that’s OK. I’ll get back up.
I know what I can say about tenacity, and it will be my roar.
It’s been a jukebox week. One emotion fades out, the record changes, and a new one overtakes me. I lean, exhausted, against the smooth wood and neon glow of the machine, two fingers of whiskey cradled in one hand. My hands are empty of quarters, my eyes tired and swollen from crying. I scroll constantly through the menu, keeping up the perpetual motion, so they have something new to focus on. The past few days I’ve been playing whack-a-mole with the image of Hawthorne laying on our bedroom floor after the ambulance left.
When I first met Hawthorne, music was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to devour them; catcher’s legs in cheap uniform pants, curly hair just long enough to fist my hand in, that cheeky grin. They were hot; that first impression was indelible. I quickly learned how funny they were, how smart, and certainly, how charming. When I melted under their hands during our first kiss, heart pounding, I learned that they were talented. It wasn’t much longer until I knew just how good they were with their hands.
When they told me they played guitar, I said I couldn’t wait to hear them play. I meant it, even though I was expecting another rendition of Ani DiFranco’s Both Hands; Buffalo lesbians have a little bit of a theme. One thing I hadn’t learned about them yet was to hold a space of wonder; they were never what expected to be. They laid their guitar, one of several in the apartment, across their knee, and smooth notes I didn’t recognize slid out to hang in the living room air. The melody rang a distant bell but I knew I had never heard this song before. Not having had much exposure to Prince at that time (which was thereafter quickly rectified), I didn’t recognize Little Red Corvette until the chorus. This version was akin to the acoustic version of Layla, a stripped down slow burn. I was hooked.
Music was probably the most important thing in our relationship after communication. There was never a silent day in our house. At any hour of the night or day, some unheard refrain would slide out of the tiny speaker of Hawthorne’s iPhone. Often, it would play two or three or twelve times, depending on how much guitar they were playing that particular week. Any mad money we had went to on concert tickets. Hawthorne didn’t like to shell out more than 30 unless it was a select short list of acts; while we were thrilled for Brandi Carlile to start getting the recognition she and the band deserve, we were bummed that her prices slid out of reach. I would blatantly ignore their thoughts of fair pricing, however, when it came to birthdays and Christmas. I would make tickets out of construction paper, conveniently leaving the price off. I got a good deal, I’d say, a lie I was comfortable telling if it meant I could give them the chance for live music.
They stopped playing guitar for a long time; they enrolled in undergrad and really threw themselves into their studies. They’d pick up the Taylor or the Larrivee during semester breaks, always remarking how they couldn’t way til they had more time to play.
Early in their academic career, Hawthorne began to have strange symptoms. They developed neuropathy, and had trouble getting their hands and feet to do what they wanted. They were in pain constantly. The doctors would put them on prednisone while they told Hawthorne to lose weight and reduce their stress. The prednisone helped; it felt like the doctors didn’t. They went through years of intermittent flares of symptoms and pain, followed by intermittent testing. At one point, one neurologist said they were sure it was multiple sclerosis, only to call three days later and say it could not possibly be MS due to the lack of findings. Eventually a rheumatologist diagnosed them with seronegative spondyarthropathy; hey, we acknowledge all of these symptoms and believe it is rheumatologic, but we can’t prove exactly what it is with the tests we have. Hawthorne was told they probably had ankylosing spondylitis, but it would take ten years to develop the physiologic damage that was needed to diagnose.
It was a disheartening time. All of Hawthorne’s energy was conserved for school; they had structured an amazing network and courseload in the sociology department; they spent hours in the library writing, and were never without at least three of their books. The music still played, but the guitars lay quiet.
When we moved to Vermont, we hired movers for the load-in; we were old enough to barely afford them, but lacking the solid team of friends who had emptied our apartment into U-Hauls and F150s, we desperately needed them. I remember the two men moving things in; after the third trip for guitars, the question shortened from “Where do the guitars go?” to “More?” In total, Hawthorne had 13 guitars and electric basses.
It took time to find our place in Vermont, not our house but our community. We moved here and looked for our fellow queers, putting out the lesbian bird call; alas, the woods are dark and deep. One day we were driving around, getting to know our new corner of the world; we drove too fast for roads we didn’t know and ended up turning around a lot. We zipped past another antique store, front door just steps from the road. I banged a U-ey, and we pulled into the Wildwood Flower.
Cats made themselves immediately known to Hawthorne’s asthma; but one doesn’t worry about asbestos when entering Aladdin’s cave. They were drawn to the wall of guitars, a look of wonder on their face that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I could practically feel the itch in their fingers as they waited on someone to come tell them to go ahead and play one. Moments later, we met Jake, and Hawthorne spent the next 45 minutes playing different guitars and talking music while I wandered around the rest of the shop, listening to them chat and wheeze.
After that, we would stop in occasionally; there was always vague talk about plans to play or have guitars fixed. It wasn’t until our hearts were irreparably broken that any of would come to pass. We were searching for solace, for any balm on our wounded souls. While I started writing again, Hawthorne picked up their guitars for the first time in years. Their fingers found their way over the fretboards; tuning became the background music to my keyboard tapdance. Within months, Hawthorne joined the band that would become Washboard Honey.
Their playing music was the key to the golden city; suddenly we had plans to work other things around, nights reserved for practice, and weekly dates at the Wild Fern. We were introduced to Rick Redington and the Luv, Vermont-style bagels, and the People’s Jam. We grew closer to our neighbors there; they held us, fed us, and wrapped around us in music and in community. When Lucy Danger touched down, we asked Rick and Heather to be her Vermont godparents. We were family.
Sundays became our sabbath, our cathedral the valley in which the Wild Fern rests. The music rang out, reverberating off the mountains, calling all to witness. Guitars and ukuleles, fiddles and voices lifted, joined by harmonicas and flutes and whoever brought what instrument. The person who chose the song called out the chords; choruses gained strength with familiarity. The few there who listened and did not play would sway and dance and clap along. Lucy was rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the People’s Jam in the arms of whomever she landed in, her lullabies rockin’ blues and old country songs. Those Sunday hours were some of the happiest and most meaningful of our lives.
I sit here now in the dark of a November morning and listen to the silence. This early hour has always been my quiet time, but lately more often I’ve been turning on the music as soon as I sit to write. The house itself sounds different without them; the floorboards creak in new ways without their weight, the tiny taps of the heat kicking on sound off more frequently. The noise Hawthorne made is in stark negative; the bath doesn’t run every day, and there is no thud of their inhaler or phone hitting the floor from being pushed off the bed in their restless sleep. What used to be treasured time has changed, skewed. It is no longer a precious space for me to gather myself before the start of the day, but a clamoring crescendo of their absence.
The music did not die with them. It plays on; in Rick and Heather and everyone at the Fern, in the members of Washboard Honey, in the hands that will pick up some of Hawthorne’s guitars. The song lives on in Lucy Danger, in western New York, down to Mississippi and out to Seattle.
Hawthorne just has a new gig in the chorus of silence.
When Oscar died, our therapist offered up the idea that, through the clouds of pain of his death, we look for the light in the gifts he gave us. I remember thinking, is she fucking kidding me? Gifts? Is this some hippie Vermont thing, where everyone is so in tune with their chakras that it’s normal to find gifts in something as devastating as child loss?
What, me? Defensive? Nah.
I’m not a small person, nor am I gentle; I have never been a delicate flower. During labor and birth, I felt so powerful. I could feel the ancestral rhythm in the cycles of push and breathe. After he was born and the ancestors quieted back to their realm, I felt fragile, a bottle of glass so thin it would seem to break if you looked at it too sharply. I would shatter into slicing pieces that would never be puzzled back together, and anyone too close would be scorched from the intensity of my grief. I had never felt like this before; back then, I was still thinking that because I had lost my parents (and other beloved family members), I knew what to expect.
And so my defenses, as shaky as they were, stood ready to protect me in this foreign and fragile state. I could feel my back tense, pulling me upright, drawing up my shoulder and opening my chest. My ears went back, my left eyebrow raised. Dry jokes laced with warning gave brief cover to the vitriol that threatened to spew forth, should the offender continue their [completely inadvertent] assault. Any tears dried instantly from the searing heat coursing through me, preparing my body for the counterattack.
When your autonomic nervous systems gets activated like that, there is no off-switch. That is energy drawn up for your reserves and must be expelled, one way or another. Punch a wall, scream and beat your chest, run until you’re doubled over, breath heaving. The less physical the response, the longer it takes for that adrenaline to run its course.
I had no energy but this; I did not have the wherewithal to dispel it for weeks. I was in a constant flux of response and exhaustion. My body hurt; deconditioned from the pregnancy and its complications, I had to rebuild my muscles, it seemed, fiber by fiber. The emotional barrage made me feel so weak; another foreign concept to me.
It took time; days, maybe a week, I don’t remember, before I could think of our therapist’s suggestion without bristling. Eventually my defenses came down, and her gentle voice was waiting to offer it up again. With trepidation the creak of an old door slowly swinging open, I tried to let myself give space to the idea that maybe, somehow, Oscar was able to leave us gifts.
That door has remained open since. One of the first I was able to acknowledge was the introspection, of looking inward, and ignoring the knee-jerk response to myself.
My first instinct when I talk to myself is to a) address myself as dumbass, and b) take on responsibility for any negative feeling or situation. Neither of these do me any favors. It’s an interesting mix of being raised a woman in a society that expects apology from women for simply being, and an amalgamation of micro cultures in which weakness is not to be shown, bootstraps are made for pulling oneself up, and self-deprecating humor is the order of the day. Oscar gave me the gift of being able to let go of that first reaction and look beyond it for understanding. Now I try to use more positive self-talk, often in the form of sharing Sweatpants and Coffee memes, text message reminders of badassery to my friends, and Leslie Knope quotes.
One of the other major gifts that came through that door was becoming interested and willing to tap into my intuition and ancestry. I tried to learn what I could about my Cherokee and Mexican roots from extended family. I looked into Wicca and earth religions, and found comfort, balance, and many more ideas that simply made sense. I’ve identified myself as a witch, or at least witchy, for a couple years now. I celebrate the Sabbats quietly; I’m still a baby witch, learning what practices feel right to me.
After Oscar died, Hawthorne and I also began celebrating Dia de Muertos. We made an ofrenda, collecting pictures of loved ones passed from around the house and putting them on the altar together with candles, tokens, and natural signs of the season. We made some family recipes and set places for deceased parents and grandparents, and of course, Oscar. We ate and drank and shared memories.
This year, Samhain and Dia de Muertos looked irrevocably different than they were supposed to. We weren’t expecting a to throw a party and have lots of people over; Covid had put the kibosh on that already. But we were – everyone was – expecting us to be here for Halloween.
We were supposed to dress Lucy up as Popeye; Hawthorne would be Bluto, and I’d be Olive Oil. Hawthorne loved watching the old Popeye cartoons with Lucy on their lap, sending her into fits of giggles when they’d imitate his laugh. It was supposed to be happy, celebratory. We would party in our own way for Lucy, and remember Oscar.
That was a heavy mantle to pick up last weekend. I made no plans; I bought no candy, no costumes. I sent no invitations for Zoom. I had to celebrate Samhain alone; I had to add Hawthorne to the ofrenda, instead of setting it together. It was dissonant to see them there. My hands shook as I lit the candles, as I said the Samhain prayer. Lucy was asleep in her swing. I made myself a cup of hot orange tea with a shot of whiskey, offered some up to the goddess, toasted the ancestors. The candles burned while I took a bath by moonlight. I took advantage of the thinning of the veil, and spoke deeply and honestly to Hawthorne. I felt heard, and I took strength in that.
I have been struggling with what it means to move on to Chapter Next. I’ve heard from numerous people that one shouldn’t make big decisions for at least a year after a profound loss. Yet here I am, having worked my last day yesterday, about to move back to my home city, find a new job, and build a life for Lucy and I (and Ella). There’s a part of me that feels opportunistic; like I am taking advantage of the situation for my own benefit. In a way, that’s exactly what I am doing. I have made the decision that Vermont is no longer our home; this was our shared dream, and being confronted with that on a daily basis is not going to allow me the space to heal. Nothing can be what we had planned, if only in that their absence won’t allow it, not to mention the actual planning, logistics, and execution of actually homesteading in the country.
Talking with Hawthorne on Samhain brought me peace of mind; I explained my plans for the house, the move, the physical stuff, and felt only calmness in response. There was no anxiety, nor was there a whisper of air to make the candle flame tremble; no rattling chains or unearthly apparition. I made no apology, for none was needed. I didn’t call myself a dumbass; I called myself resilient and capable.
I’m not yet ready to unwrap the gifts Hawthorne has given me. I’m still sitting in the midst of Oscar’s. But it’s those that bring me peace in the wake of losing my beloved. Blessed Samhain and Dia de Muertos to all. May this season of transition and remembrance bring you peace.
I sit in her embroidery chair, legs tucked up underneath me. I turn the pages of a magazine I found when she was crying in the bathroom. I sip my coffee; while I neither sleep nor need the caffeine, I like the ritual and bitterness. I can hear her stirring upstairs in bed. Not wanting to rouse myself yet, I give her a small mental push to turn on the light. I want her to see the wreckage of the bedroom, the hastily shoved furniture, the scattered clothes. She hasn’t actually made the bed here, just thrown more blankets on top. It will be an archeological dig for her to get out.
As I hear her shuffle around and pause, I get myself ready for the day. I roll out my shoulders, lifting my arms and leaning back and forth from the waist. To myself, I am weightless.
She moves down the hall, footsteps soft so as not to wake the baby. That sweet faced child; there’s magic in her. She sees me, and doesn’t know me. I’m just another person to her, one who never holds her, and only passes a hand over her lightening hair once in a while when her mama cries. The little one knows that Papa isn’t here right now. Sometimes she looks for them. I watch her as she sleeps, but I let her be. She doesn’t need to know me yet.
I’m waiting for her when she comes downstairs. I put a comforting arm around her at the bottom; it lays heavy across her shoulders.
“How’d you sleep? Want some coffee? There’s so much to do today.” I hold her in place for a few moments before she moves to the sink. She fills her water bottle and drinks half while the coffee brews. She’d be jealous if she knew I never needed a refill, and that mine was always the perfect temperature. I stand with her in the kitchen, hands wrapped around our respective mugs. I remind her of the things that need to be done; sending off the death certificates, checking in with the lawyer and the medical examiner, figuring out what to do with all this damn stuff in the house. She has help, which I’m grateful for. I am always glad when the people I’ve been assigned have company other than me.
This is not my first time with her, not by a long shot. But, as she has come to realize, it’s different each time. Our relationship changes, deepens. I am her familiar now, a constant companion for months at a time, and only a flick of a thought away at any other.
“Let’s sit,” I say gently. I take her by the shoulders again and place her on the stairs; it’s not comfortable for more than a minute, but she’ll stay there as she scrolls mindlessly on her phone, trying to escape me. I sit behind her, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. I don’t have to talk much, this time, with this death. We know each other now.
There is no companion like grief, I think to her. “How’s that for a business card tag line,” I say, and she smiles wryly. She looks up, looks around, taking in the chaos. Empty boxes are jumbled against the back door, waiting to be filled with the mementos of a life that is no longer here. There are so many; the one who is gone was a Collector. Rocks, books, forgotten glass bottles dug out of the rotten still up the mountain; everything from wine corks and cookie fortunes to postcards and matchbooks. She’s going to have a hell of a time culling through everything, deciding what to keep, and what else she’s willing to never see again.
I let the dull red of anger pulsing in the corners, held back by the thick fog of despair, lighting up the gray like an ambulance racing through a cool morning. She isn’t aware of it, only of my presence, and that’s ok – she needn’t notice anything else right now. The baby stirs, kicks the side of the crib, and settles back down. She stares at the ceiling to determine how quickly her response is needed. As the little one falls quiet, she is content to rise and refill her coffee. She moves to her desk and opens her computer, every movement deliberate. Nothing is easy right now. I let her go to write about me, and stand to return to my corner chair. Something stops me; sometimes I’m not even sure why I do what I do, other than following instinct. I press my hand to her chest, hard; fingers spreading over her breastbone, my forehead pressed to hers as she begins to cry. It’s not a sob, it’s not a wail; it’s the creaking of the wreckage of her heart, the keening of the viscerally wounded. I support her as she leans forward in her chair, the pine desk no matter in my ethereality; I won’t let her fall as she breaks. It’s odd for this moment to come now. She prefers to save this for when she is truly alone, which is likely why I had so little notice. Nevertheless, I am here. Chest heaving, her voice echoes with the cries of those left behind and those gone before. She cries for her Hawthorne, for her Oscar, for all the promises broken and adventures abandoned. She cries for the relief and the guilt she feels; she cries for the loneliness and confusion she wades through. I hold her face, brush back her hair.
“I don’t understand,” she says. I know you don’t.
“I’m so mad at you,” she admits. I know you are.
“I don’t know how to do this alone,” she whispers. You’ll learn, little mama.
“I hate this.”
“What right did you have to check out?”
“How fucking dare you?”
“Oh god, I miss you.”
“My baby. My love. My heart.” She calls them again and again, and all she gets is my whisper in response.
“Lean in, lean in, lean in. Go through, mama, go through.” All but chanting, I rock her, soothing arms around her.
Her voice softens, her body relaxes. This storm is passing. Exhausted, I pull back as she reaches for her pen. I watch closely for a moment as she opens her journal, waiting for the aftershocks that occasionally strike, but none come today. She takes a deep breath; I let it out, shakily. She looks out the window.“Dawn is coming,” I offer. She doesn’t respond, just looks back at her journal. One more breath, and she begins her daily page. She is OK for now. I settle back into her embroidery chair; I have a project for her for when she’s ready, but she hasn’t tried yet. I pick up my magazine and let her try to leave me behind, a shadow she is trying not to trip over.
You have to watch your step with me around; us Griefs have a way with ground cover. We stay as close to our companions as their hearts hold their beloved. I turn the page and look up when she sighs; the short fall day stretches out endlessly in front of her. She looks up, almost as if she sees me. She doesn’t; she can’t. I’m her formless friend, her constant; I am her Grief, and I’ll hold her in the abyss as long as she needs.
Autumn has fallen a much gentler season than I anticipated. The skies have been Oscar blue for days, and the foliage is brilliant. I’m writing this in the mountains of Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest. A strong breeze shakes down the trees, sending shimmering waves of gold and fire-orange to the grass already blanketed. The branches weep, reaching for their leaves as they slip away, dancing in the wind on their inevitable descent.
My friend has been kicking me out of the house every day for some solo, baby-free time. I’ve gotten coffee, run errands, walked a lot, and written. It’s been really nice; as my return-to-Vermont date grows closer, the idea of learning to be a single parent and handling everything on my own becomes more daunting, so I appreciate these daily breaks right now.
On our first day here, my friends took me down the street to a local park on the James River. Trails run through it and connect some parks via the waterway as well. The river is home to some class 4 rapids, nearly unheard of within city limits. Signs posted state that with the river over five feet, life jackets are required for anyone entering the water in any manner; over nine feet and one must have a permit. The plan is to stay firmly on land, a plan endorsed by both our dog and theirs. The pups competed to see who could pee in more spots; I believe it ended in a tie.
One of my host friends is damn near a botanist, by knowledge if not by trade. He had been sharing an incredible (read: nerdy) amount of detail about the woods, pointing out the conservation efforts to encourage the old growth forest, the different native plants (Latin names included!) and the invasive species. About a half mile into the woods, he pointed out wild grapevine, nearly half a foot thick where it broke free of the ground. It rose and dove along the ground, its boughs and bends mimicking the motion of deep sea monsters, not so out of place with the muffled rush of the river behind us. Sinuous in its stillness, it wrapped around a giantess of a tree. The oak rose from its hidden roots, at least four feet across; the deep ridges of her bark were worn away in softened patches from the constant embrace of the grapevine. I laid my fingers in her grooves, feeling them sink toward the heart, and feeling mine beat in response. There are many trees I have felt a connection with; it’s never something I have questioned, but enjoyed. I felt the quiet excitement of discovering an old friend in a new neighborhood. We paused long enough to take some pictures of Lucy and I there, and I promised myself I’d return soon.
Two days later, when my friend kicked me out for the first time, I went nearly running down to the trail. I was almost immediately slowed by the reminder in the morning fog to enjoy the journey. My eyes sought to follow all the flitting of small wings across the road. The calls of crows and jays and the indistinguishable chirps were a backdrop to new and unfamiliar songs. I entered the park and picked up the beginning of the trail. Alone, my steps lengthened over what I had taken with the stroller and the dogs and my friends; they fell on the gravel, the crepitus dampened from the hundreds of feet that had fallen before mine. It took longer than I anticipated to reach the tree, but eventually my steps fell silent as in reverence as the crushed rocks gave way to smooth, dark earth.
I reintroduced myself, sinking my fingers into the creases in her bark again. I ran my hand over the exposed fibers of the grapevine, completing the circuit, my body as battery. I breathe in the energy and the peace. I disconnect and retreat to the bench across the path. I lose myself for an hour or more, pen in hand, words flowing like an extension of myself onto the pages of my notebook. I forget to move much at any point; by the time my stomach demands we leave, my feet are tucked up under me asleep and the muscles in my back feel tangled and tight. I roll everything out for a few minutes, pay my last minute respects to the tree and the vine, and start back down the path towards home and another cup of coffee.
I come across the fairy bower accidentally, as most do. I was on the main path, bag slung over my shoulder with its pens and pencils quietly clacking together with my steps. I glanced down the side paths that wandered off the main, quick jaunts down to the riverbank. One to the left caught my attention, calling me back from my automatic forward motion. I looked down the path with its slight winding, a grapevine twisted in an arch overhead, tall enough for most men to pass through without stooping. English ivy thickly banked both sides and climbed to intertwine with the wild grape. The boughs didn’t quite reach down to the other side, leaving the arch just incomplete. Beyond it a new tree, verdant in its youth and against the ivy, stood like the centerpiece to this wild garden. The tricks of the fey, was the first thought that came to mind, and didn’t for a second believe that because I was within the city limits they would not also be here among the old growth forest. I found I had taken a few steps down the path and turned back to the main road. I nearly bumped into someone who clearly did not understand the need for distancing.
He stood casually, leaning against an old hickory. His boots were clean and his clothes crisp; add a to-go cup of coffee or a slim briefcase, and he could be any local businessman just stepping out of the office for a bit. He carried nothing, wore no watch, no rings. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t notice that he didn’t belong there.
“Beautiful day,” he said, the barest hint of a smile playing around his lips.
“It is,” I replied. With a slight nod, I shifted my weight to continue forward. He came out of his lean to stand fully in the way between me and the main path.
“This is a gorgeous time of year to visit. You have made it just in time for the leaves to turn and fall.”
If there had been any doubt in my mind, his lyrical small talk would have put that to rest. I smiled but did not answer.
“What’s your name?” the fairy asked.
I nearly replied. I felt the warmth of the day as a gentle breeze stirred the leaves beside us.
“Not a lot of people out this morning, hm?” he mused, watching me. I had been hoping for some jogger or intrepid dog walker to interrupt with their passing. I realized that he had blocked the fairy path from sight. There would be no accidental intercession.
“Your name,” he said, voice a little stronger and with a slight ring of authority. The fey command respect, even with their antics.
“Hawthorne,” I replied. Knots inside me that I hadn’t been aware of loosened, and my body relaxed.
He looked surprised. “Hawthorne. That’s not a common name. Your given?”
“Chosen,” I said simply. He nodded, satisfied.
“A strong choice. A name like that carries magic in it. The owning of it, the speaking of it.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “I know.”
A companionable silence fell between us as a flock of swallows took to the clear morning sky above, trilling, their song falling through the canopy like a gentle summer rain.
“Have you no interest in continuing down this path for your travels?” he questioned me.
“No, but thank you,” I said, firmly, but with respect. He looked me up and down, and his eyes searched mine. I maintained my polite smile; as his gaze lengthened, I raised my eyebrow a fraction.
“Very well,” he said, letting go of the search. “May the rest of your day be as lovely.” He stepped back cordially to allow me to pass.
“Yours as well,” I replied, walking back towards the gravel of the main path. I didn’t dare look back until I made the turn; as I suspected, there was no trace of the man. The bower stood silent down its crooked path, still ensconced in shadow. The light beyond was dappled and no longer highlighted the young tree; in fact, it had become indistinguishable from those that surrounded it.
I left the woods feeling lighter. I had come here to heal. I needed to get out of where I was for my heart to stop seeing them at every turn. Here there was no history, no memories to dim new ones made. I need that space right now, in the immediate hereafter. We were never in this place together. And so I had come, seeking peace, and leaving with far more than I imagined.
I lied to the fairy I met, but with mischief and no malice. Giving the fey Hawthorne’s name lets me let go of a little bit of them; I can’t carry all of them, my heart is already so heavy. I know they wouldn’t mind; they had so many more (mis)adventures left. I can’t think of a better way to let them live them out than with those are not quite of this world, but not quite out of it either.
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.
Forgive me, reader, for I have slipped, it has been nearly two months since my last blog post. I find myself staring out the window, waiting for the darkness to fade rather than looking at my screen. I want to write; I love my Saturday mornings. I made my coffee hot in deference to the 47 degree morning. Sitting on my couch, I watch the thin line of the cursor blink on a blank page, waiting for my fingers to move. Inspiration did not strike, so I pulled up another screen and started to let my thoughts flow. My brain moves quicker when I journal; reading back, it sounds as if it is spoken, packed with silence-fillers like “so,” and “ugh.” I typed away until I felt like I could write, brain pan emptied of the mundane and clutter. I pulled up the blank screen. The cursor pulsed, a patient heartbeat, keeping time. I feel like there is so much I have thought to be writing about that I just cannot access right now. We recently went back to Buffalo; an 8 hour drive with the baby, dog, and avoidance of public rest stops. I had wished more than once on those drives for a device that would simply pull the “written” thoughts from my head and record them without me having to do anything. My mind wanders to the days of tape recorders and a montage from Twin Peaks of the agent recording notes to Diane before I snap back. The cursor blinks back at me.
2020 has been a year of upheaval for me, someone who thrives on structure and consistency. That is not to say I’m not agile or able to adapt; I worked in EMS for 10 years. You never knew what you could be faced with next. Now that I work in an office setting where I am not holding anyone’s life in my hands, I have not kept up that level of high alert, but I am still able to adapt to changing situations and environments. Outside of work is a different story. I don’t live on the balls of my feet anymore; I did that for years, living in dynamic and sometimes volatile situations. That state is far too exhausting and stressful for me to be comfortable now, especially with a baby who stills smells new sometimes. I am not a spontaneous person, a fact that drives Hawthorne’s free spirit up the wall. I have recognized and accepted this about myself for a long time.
When things are good, I can keep a lot of plates spinning. I have the balance; I can keep an eye on them, making small adjustments, knowing when the next plate needs a touch to keep on course. I can handle things; just let me be, don’t approach too quickly, and refill my coffee often. When emergencies arise, I can focus on the immediate needs: pack the hospital bag, make childcare arrangements, respond quickly and calmly. You only need to worry if I’m worried, do I look worried to you? No ma’am.
But when the bottom drops out and my whole world tilts, the plates begin to crash. I crash as I desperately try to not only catch them, but keep them spinning. I grasp wildly for those threads of control as they tangle and escape, slipping from clenched fists and burning on the way out. I stand shattered in the wreckage, not knowing where to begin.
There are few acts that show off such vulnerability more clearly than writing. By the time of Oscar’s brief life, I hadn’t written seriously in years. A few poems here and there when I fell in love, a couple articles for work, papers for school. While pregnant with Oscar, I read Like A Mother by Angela Garbes. I sat in the river, my swollen belly keeping the book out of the water, his kicks and rolls adding turbulence as I devoured her words. The call in my head grew louder to write my own story as a queer woman navigating the overwhelmingly straight world of impending motherhood. I distracted the call with freeze pops and let my dream languish for Someday.
Then Oscar’s heart stopped beating beneath mine. The plates all fell as my world was irrevocably changed. I wandered the debris field for months, barely able to put the biggest pieces back together. I read a lot about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. It was hard to focus on the striking beauty of reparative work when the hands piecing everything back together were also shattered. I spent a lot of time staring; looking, but not seeing. The blank space stretched on and on, the only thing left unbroken.
My soul had been wrenched out of my body to lay prostrate, soft underbelly vulnerable to a sharp word. My body recovered slowly, and I became pregnant with Lucy.
The first difference between pregnancies I noticed was the new and complete lack of serenity. Everything was jagged, the shards of our life Before now sharp with worry; panic pierced through worn skin and would be soothed temporarily by our team. I tried to keep healthy, but many times I wondered what the point was. I had done everything right with Oscar: kept the appointments, tried to lower my stress level. I did everything for him, and he was still gone.
When I stumbled upon the Pregnancy After Loss Support group, I admit, part of me wanted to look away. Yes, I had been lamenting the lack of resources for queer families; but there is something about isolation that can be comforting. Grief is an insular world that muffles the noise and dampens the senses. I wanted resources to be available, but I also wanted to stay wrapped in my heartbreak. I was scared to open up to other people’s losses. I was afraid to take on their sorrow, as if it would enhance my own.
As the weather grew warmer and his first birthday approached, I could feel the call again, louder, more insistent, an unrelenting drumbeat. I emailed the PALS link and wrote about attending Pride with empty arms. Within two weeks, I became a weekly contributor. And just like that, I was writing again.
It took some time after Lucy’s birth to be able to tell her story. My memory of the events is still hazy, and is not likely to ever become fully clear. Preeclampsia and the associated treatments will do that. I am content with the good things I do remember from that time, namely, hearing the first squeaks of my daughter in the operating room, and having her tiny burrito-wrapped body pressed to mine before she was whisked away to the NICU.
It wasn’t long after publishing her last update to PALS that I knew I couldn’t stop writing again. I had done it to help others and to help my soul heal; waking up halfway to dawn every night made me realize that I still needed that. I had spent my pregnancies doing everything I could for the life inside me. I had given up my autonomy and put myself solidly lower on the priority list. As a mother to a living child and as a wife, I continue to put others needs before my own. It’s something I have done my whole life; I’m a pleaser, and the worst feeling for me is that I have disappointed someone. I am good at doing what needs to get done. It has taken 10 years of Hawthorne telling me to take care of myself, and a new life depending on me for survival, to make me realize that I while I have been getting things done, I have been disappointing myself.
Once I had that tiny little revelation, I decided to become my own coach. Listening to podcasts and starting a daily writing practice, I have found myself in a season of self-discovery and development. I have started a daily writing practice, and I am starting to fill in the self-care and self-building boxes I’ve been making for years in my bullet journal. I’m reading the NY Times daily newsletters, following blogs, and have finally embraced the wonder of podcasts; I need to shoutout my two favorites, which have been instrumental to me these last few months. The Art of Speaking Up gets me to work in a mindset ready to show up for my career and my dreams and makes me look at myself through a critical yet supportive lens; EmpowerHER challenges me to get off my ass and own my shit. I’ve managed to read over 200 pages for pleasure (Stephen King’s The Shining – thank you, Hawthorne, for not making me read it in the winter) for the first time in years.
Oscar gave me another gift this year on his birthday. When I was driving and thinking about him, radio off for once, I had a future memory (I don’t like to call them visions). I watched as entered a small bedroom painted in a calm slate blue with a window facing the forest. Dark wooden furniture was brightened by large-leaf plants. I held my coffee, sat down at the desk in comfortable clean clothes with my hair pulled back, and I was at work. I was a writer.
That image has stuck with me, and I find myself returning to it. I don’t ever imagine myself giving up my day job; I love my work, its challenges and its impact. But why can’t I also write?
This blog has become extremely important to me, because writing has been a passion of mine since I was a child. I am extremely important to me. It’s taken me years, heartbreak, and immeasurable loss to get here. If I want to show up for my family – for my huswife, for my daughter, and for my starside son, I need to keep showing up for me.
I can’t say I’ll never falter, but I can promise I will continue to get up. I am no longer waiting for the right time, I’m not waiting until I’m ready. This is the time for messy action.
So I’m putting it out there, reader, universe, whoever is reading. Writing is important to me, because I am important to me. And I’m going to honor that.
Going forward, blog posts will be posted every other Saturday. They will cover a variety of topics, which will be categorized. Maybe I can even figure out how to color code them in WordPress. I will be migrating my PALS works here soon.
I am a writer, and I will be on the New York Times bestseller list. You read it here first, folks. Watch this space.
I can feel the distance growing. The saturated colors of July dim to deep shadows as the days pass. My arms and legs twitch, muscles hoarding both energy and emotion; motivation becomes a memory. The state and country continue to open in a so-called “post-Covid” world, but the burning in my chest to scream that there is no such thing has faded. As Closed signs are flipped over and people take their seats six feet from others dining at outdoor tables, I am pulling on the shutters and setting the hook to keep them shut. Oscar’s birthday is approaching, tumbling closer quickly now that Hawthorne’s has come to pass. I turn inward, closing off my body, mind, and heart, even my energy. It’s hard to recognize myself in these days.
My period has returned, with gusto. My body reminds me of the emptiness, an ache that my womb has no one to hold right now. The cramps sweep over me, more painful than I ever remember them, each one a clenching reminder that she stretched and grew and pushed, and gave our son a birth attended by empowerment and heartbreaking in its finality. Every crescendo echoes the contractions that brought Oscar into the world on that clear-blue day.
My tolerance for noise and motion has changed drastically in the silence that followed. I used to be able to at least try to harness whatever chaos surrounded me. Now the sheer amount of sensory input I am faced with is a bolt up my neck, paralyzing my hands and feet from moving and sharpening my tongue. I can’t think of what to do; I grab onto minutes of focus before my attention flits away or my eyes close again. I am tired constantly, regardless of sleep, but I have trouble finding any rest. The anger is back, jaws snapping and shredding my patience, and the words “I’m sorry,” take up residence behind my sarcasm. Hawthorne bears the brunt of it, both of us knowing they neither cause nor deserve it.
My grief for my dead child lives. I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I keep to myself at work; I let texts from friends go unanswered. Last year, on his first birthday, I had a breakdown – I was flailing, and I needed help with the rage, the intrusive thoughts, the devastating ownership of my failure to keep Oscar alive, even as I carried Lucy through her eighteenth week. I went to a healing place and found people who made space for me and my grief and surrounded me with compassion. It was that week we found out that the sex of the baby I carried was female. It helped to know that; it was an additional weight to the side of the scale that said no, this pregnancy was not to be a repeat of last time. The knowledge added evidence I needed so desperately to hold on to. Losing Oscar did not mean I would lose this baby. My guilt was a liar, and fear my constant companion.
The day Oscar was born was beautiful. A Japanese maple stood sentry in the courtyard outside my window at the birthing center. It became a focal point for my entire stay. On our way home a couple of days later, we picked a few of the merlot leaves. They wait on the bottom shelf of a dark bookcase my grandfather built nearly forty years ago, pressed in a book likely a decade older that we rescued from the pick-and-poke. Like our houseplants, most of our books are rescues, snatched back from the metal jaws of the incinerator. There is so much that is tossed away seemingly without thought – books and faux crystal candy dishes, dingy plastic children’s toys and threadbare table runners, dusty photo albums with a couple faded memories still tucked inside. They all meant something to someone once; maybe it was forgotten, or finally let go, or simply left behind. I think of the blue velvet box where my son’s ashes lay in a marble urn that nestles snugly into the palm of my hand. I hope that after I’m unable to take care of it, no one forgets the fierceness of the love inside. May that it never end up on a table at the tri-town dump, velvet worn away from corners and the clasp dangling from one tiny screw.
Friday, July 17
I don’t know how to do this. Last year I was consumed by my grief, unable to hold space for even Hawthorne. I keep hearing it gets better with time. I’m still waiting.
Last night I dreamed that I was burning in a hell I don’t believe in. My skin turned black with ash, shifting rivers of fire crackling underneath as if I were bathing in lava. A keening sound poured out as I writhed, a wail drawn up from deep, deep below, deeper than any human can hear. The pain was inescapable, every muscle and sinew and pore weeping. Every ounce of my heartbreak was on full display, weighing me down like so many chains. Here was the pain I had earned for not keeping Oscar alive; here was my due.
The ferryman met my gaze and snapped his bony fingers. I found myself immediately removed from the fires and surrounded by emptiness. The burning was gone; the pain was gone. In fact, all feeling was gone, purged. I can’t even say what position my body was in, or if I even had one – there was nothing. It felt like absolution after the flames. I stepped between those two worlds at the mercy of the ferryman until I woke to clear blue skies and birdsong, jarring me back into this pastoral landscape.
I remember waking that Tuesday morning, thinking that the date sounded important; I told myself to remember it. Maybe it was the day I’d go into labor. After all, I was massive, the baby had been tracking far ahead on all the growth scans. It would be several hours before I knew that it was over.
Sunday, July 19
Lucy whined me awake minutes before my alarm. I snuggle her close, breathing her in to reassure myself of her presence. The night of my dream we had caught Lucy sitting upright in her bassinet. Rather than give her a chance to figure out how to climb out, I had dragged in the pack-and-play, too terrified to let her be more than a foot away from me. I slept with my head at the foot of the bed, all the better to hear her with. We need to put her in the crib next week. We need to finish building the crib next week. We need to finish the decorations, the curtains, and a million other things. But first, we need to get through today.
There is nowhere to visit a stone, no name carved to trace. Wildflowers bend in the wind, summer’s bouquet for all occasions. The stream babbles on over stones slicked with green and brown algae. We have no cake, no celebratory plans. We have broken hearts that we try to keep from piercing Lucy in our sorrow. She is our bright and shining light, and I never want to see it dimmed by our grief.
It’s hard to reconcile the brightness of our living daughter with the idea that if we had not lost Oscar, we would not have her. I could never wish her away; her laugh and her little words keep the lamp lit when my ears roar with the silence that followed Oscar’s birth. The grip of her fingers as she pulls my hand to her mouth ease the memory of his tiny, still body as my heart beat around his. The breaths she takes move the air that he never got to.I don’t know where I would be today without her, without Hawthorne. I don’t know how to be without Oscar, still. I don’t know how to celebrate and mourn him while raising her. I don’t know how to keep stepping between these worlds of pain and joy. I only know the road I’ve been given will forever be guided by the love embodied in my starside child.
It is Saturday morning. I have given myself a treat, setting my alarm to sleep until the clock hands stand straight; this is sleeping in. I awake mid-symphony, birdsong ringing out. I had fallen back asleep to the opening notes, having cuddled the baby back to sleep after her bottle. She lays in her bassinet, one of her last sleeps by the edge of my bed. She has outgrown it; if I keep procrastinating on adding the last three screws to her crib, by next week she won’t be able to stretch out. She sleeps with her arms folded behind her head and legs out straight, the picture of relaxation. I lay my hand over her hummingbird heart for a moment before stretching myself beneath the blankets, sheets cool where my legs hadn’t lain.
Footsteps echo distinctly, coming from downstairs where the floors don’t creak so much. I pause a moment, hearing Hawthorne’s soft snoring, and the dog’s much louder. The footsteps stop as abruptly as they started, no fade out, no door opening or closing. I relax my shoulders, remembering our ceiling fans have been running for days, and the “footsteps” are the occasional off-balance whirr of the blades. But I don’t discount a visit from the other side as the solstice approaches.
Midsummer is a time that carries weight. Her own footsteps are heavy with grief and stalwart with tradition. The days in this most spiritual of times tick by, laden with memories and marked by anniversaries. The sunlight off the vibrant new leaves belies my heart’s gray disposition, the bright colors across gardens and lawns a painted masquerade to celebrate the longest days of the year. Such juxtaposition seems fitting; after all, people send flowers for sympathy, and June is the showstopping season of blooms.
My father-out-law’s birthday was June 9th, my father’s June 19th; Father’s Day falls on the 21st. This stretch of time, we fish for our fathers, spinners and spoons pulled by a seemingly invisible force through the clear water, hoping to catch the eye of a bounty of trout. Some years, it’s the first time we catch a fish. It was during this confluence of celebrations that I caught a near state-record walleye out of the Niagara River six years back. We always practiced catch and release – men aged 18-64 were supposed to consume no more than one fish per year out of these waters, and women, never, due to the mercury and other pollutants. This time, however, the roughly 13-pound fish went to a local family after they expressed their horror at our plan of letting it go. I think of that moment often, and how humbling it was, having my privilege pointed out with such genuine shock and lack of intention. Clark was still alive, and thrilled with our story.
Hawthorne and I married in the space between their birthdays, on the 14th. Our wedding was perfectly tailored for us; classy (not that we are, really, but for our biggest party, absolutely!) with plenty of whimsy, and even more food and drink. Clark and Hawthorne entered together and walked down the aisle; my cousin gave me away. There was no father-daughter dance, but the DJ played Prince and we danced all night long. The one cloud on the day was Clark’s seizure; he had multiple strokes before I met him, and occasionally would experience seizures as a result. He was well-cared for though, and considering the crowd, it was calm as far as scene go. More than half the guests hailed from emergency medical services and other professions in the medical field, so when the ambulance came and picked him up, the responding crews had to field reports from half a dozen medics in various states of inebriation. He stayed overnight in the hospital and, all things considered, was no worse for wear when he returned home the next day.
As they grow up, people learn that their parents were not perfect; it’s a harsh realization to come to about someone. You learn their fallibility, their faults and failures. When they die, however, it can be easy for some to gloss over their less-than-perfect traits and actions. We have been so conditioned to not speak ill of the dead that a sheen of sainthood often shrouds the mistakes they made, or excuses them as a product of their time. It takes work to see them as whole, flawed people, but it’s important to do so. Relationships are complex, and those between father and child no less so for its focus on creating and raising a life.
Father’s Day added new knots to this tangle of emotions the past couple years. Hawthorne had not grown up with the same bone-deep knowledge of one-day parenthood that I had, and was so excited to talk to my belly and make plans for us all to go fishing to celebrate. Of course, it did not turn out that way, and our little boy left us to grow up starside, holding the hands of our fathers instead of ours. I cannot say what last year was like; with Oscar gone and Lucy waiting in promise, I was so enveloped by my sorrow and rage that I do not remember what we did. The reminders are out there when I’m ready, but looking backwards is not something I do lightly, so those memories will wait.
And then, as the world feels like it is on fire and all I can see and breathe is the smoke, the beacon of hope that is Midsummer shines through. The universe holds us with gentle constancy and faces us toward the wonder of the sun for as long as she can. I am still a baby witch but I feel a deep connection to the solstice and the turning of the seasons. The veil thins and allows me to feel the push from the other side, a flow of strength and hope and tenacity from my ancestors, including my father. He would want me to be more physically active, eat better, drink less coffee. But he would also want me to fight on through the dark days and raise my little girl to be a fighter, too.
I know our fathers would be so in love with their granddaughter Lucy Danger, our brightest light. I look out at the sunshine and the Oscar blue sky, and know they grieved for us even as they accepted Oscar from the stars. I see Hawthorne holding Lucy, and know she is so lucky to have a papa who is not like other dads, but is strong and will teach her to be utter authentic in herself.
The day is long enough that there is space for grief in this sacred time, for missing those who are gone; especially as their birthdays come all stacked together. But there is also space for joy, as we share memories and tell each other stories of our fathers. There is light to play by, to learn by, to grow by. And even as the days grow shorter, we will remember the men who became our fathers, who taught us to fish and play guitar, the value of a strongly-worded letter or a well-placed phone call. We will remember their faults and their triumphs, what kind of parents they taught us to be, and not to be. I’m learning now that parenting is not just a lifelong journey on the part of the parent; the learning goes on long after they’re gone.
This one is for my father Paul, for Hawthorne’s father Clark, and for Oscar, who first made Hawthorne a papa. We miss you all. Stay wild out there.
This is the first time I have sat down to write in a while. These June days are long and tumultuous; the nights are broken into chapters of sleep, interrupted by pain. I have found myself startled awake by the cries of both my beloved and my baby only to find salt on my own cheeks. I look at this tiny, wondrous creature and despair at the world we have brought her into. I look at my beloved, with a strength and resilience I have yet to see matched, and my heart wrenches with silent sobs.
Today is our wedding anniversary. We married in Pride month, during an art festival under an administration elected on a platform of hope and change. We were married legally as two women, in a church, with 8 people fit into a limo, not a thought to sharing the close quarters with each other’s laughter and singing.
The then-and-now picture that emerges next to that happy day is in negative, a strip of film that had fluttered away when the photographs were last handled. The sun is shining still, but the golden light has never felt more temporary. June is still Pride month, and we are still married; but the rainbow that shone so brightly has wavered and dimmed.
The art festival, shared limousines, and singing in enclosed spaces have all been paused by the coronavirus. Infections are rising as restrictions lift across the country. Pride month has given way, rightly, to gay wrath month. We hold our platform steady and try to use our voices to amplify those of the black community, who have been disproportionally killed by the police. We remember who stood for their rights in 1969 so that we may stand together today. We have lost a son, and felt his spirit when our daughter touched down earthside on Dia de los Angelitos. And my partner-in-crime, by beloved, is no longer a woman.
Simone de Beauvoir said that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” To me it makes sense, then, that a woman can continue to become – even if it means that “woman” is not inclusive enough of a term, it can be a resting stop on a person’s journey of identity.
Hawthorne is the not the first first name of my love. She/her pronouns do not encompass the wonder that is this person. The love of my life transcends the binary, genderqueer and proud. They have never been one for conformity, so why should their gender be any different?
Two days ago, the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protections for trans* folks as defined by the Affordable Care Act. I was immediately incensed. It felt like a tipping point; I felt like the world was exploding around me as I stood, screaming, hands clamped over my ears so I could not hear the impacts of the shrapnel on the disenfranchised. How much more can I take, I wondered, rage pulsing through me. I can feel the echo of it in my blood still.
We had fought so hard for marriage equality, which was passed and the most prominent house in the land was lit with rainbows. We were acknowledged, we were validated as a community. Congratulations, you are people too! Enjoy it while you can! is what the cake should have read. Hawthorne saw that then; I foolishly held more hope.
Hawthorne is due to have surgery on their back in 9 days. This new injury occurred over 5 months ago; this is not their first tangle with the healthcare system, but it is the biggest one since they have advanced on their identity discovery journey. We live in a progressive state – at least one that is progressive in their practice, even if it takes some time for the laws to catch up. There seems to be an air of, “oh, we have to spell that out for people?” in our legislature. The majority of the time, it is an accepting place. And when it isn’t, people take action. I know that this move by the administration to redefine sex-based discrimination as based on biological sex (as well as decrease abortion access and decrease translation resources for non-English speakers) will not fly here, nor will it impact Hawthorne’s long and desperately-awaited surgery next week. But I worry.
Covid-19 put off one particularly important thing. Hawthorne was in the process of changing their name before non-essential work stopped and travel was restricted in March. Here, it’s not a terribly hard process, but it does require certain government offices to be open. We are now looking at how to relaunch that process; it’s difficult for people who operate outside the gender binary to constantly hear their former name in the already fraught setting of healthcare. Electronic medical records are also notoriously slow to update with changes to the capture of demographic data. All this coalesces with the injury itself and the excruciating nerve pain to make every healthcare appointment a daunting endeavor.
Right now, Hawthorne cannot carry our child easily or safely; walking is manageable, but stairs and sitting upright for any length of time is difficult. The nerve medication is a time-thief that steals the words and slows the speech of my favorite conversationalist. I miss seeing their ocean eyes unclouded by constant and debilitating pain. I wish I could alleviate that pain, even for a minute, and give them just a moment of sweet relief. I don’t know how they find the strength to carry it day after day.
The amount of pain they have been left to languish in is inhumane. To add the constant need to correct their name as others speak it adds emotional overtime; then, for this embroiled country to put such hard-won progress in reverse and reclaim the ability to deny rights to trans* people removes even the vestige of respect. And still they rise: they make the calls and complete the paperwork and attend the appointments. The definition of insanity is not repeating the same action and expecting the result to change; that is tenacity, that is perseverance in the face of the storm. Hawthorne stands against the winds that buffet them with inadequate pain relief, with judgments about weight, mental health, and addiction thinly disguised as medical concern, and tangles of red tape.
They are my Pride. And whenever need be, I’ll be their Wrath.
I thought I was going to write about anger today. Instead, the love came pouring out of me. If blog posts have dedications, then this one goes out to you, my love. I’ll be by your side through all that is to come, as I have all we have been through. You have stood by me, strong and indominatable, fluffy and dented, maybe bent but never broken. We have had ten years together, six married; two births, what feels like countless deaths; joy personified and vast rolling oceans of pain; a hundred storms, a thousand rains. Let’s get back to the garden, there are new greens to tend. Here’s to the next step in our forever.