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Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Hope Your Broken Bluebird Heart Still Sings

I am not a spontaneous person. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Haven’t Seen My Father in Some Time

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. 

This year, we navigate the grief we carry of our own fathers along with the loss of our son and the joy of our daughter, all against a backdrop of transition and testosterone, and the sudden theft of hope for Hawthorne’s long-awaited surgery. Zoom out further and the volatile terrain snaps into focus: the assault on black bodies by those who are sworn to protect and serve, the disregard for scientific process and recommendations in an ongoing pandemic, and an administration that is intent on keeping queer folk (among others) second-class citizens. There are moments when I feel as if we are stuck inside a thunderstorm inside a hurricane and oh yeah, the planet is warming and the oceans are rising. The way forward is bleak and dark. 

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.