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Reluctant Time Travel

I’m back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have never been in time. 

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

They never answered. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you felt it? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Should” is a Bad Word

I should be planning a party. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was one of the hardest days of 2019. 

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

And it 2021, it became even worse. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should be planning a party. 

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

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

And then a new year will start. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on it goes.

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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.