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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am still standing. 

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

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

And so the songs go:

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

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

I could never live without your love.” 

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

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

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

It doesn’t usually work like that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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This Grief Has Gravity, It Pulls Me Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still reach for them at night. 

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

I don’t listen to a lot of new music.

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

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

I don’t feel home.

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

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

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

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

Just one step at a time.

One foot

then the other

for this body is still in motion.

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For You Are the Stars to Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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A Blaze of Glory and an Untold Song

On September 19th 2020 Hawthorne (Emily) Barber-Dubois joined their son Oscar in the stars. The fare for this unplanned voyage weighs heavy on the rest of us here on earth. They are survived by their brother, a man of considerable volume and clear blue eyes; their sister-in-law, a woman who has far less fear than she realizes; their niece, who never fails to lift the spirits of anyone around her; their mother, a woman who is generous to a fault and makes a hell of a casserole. They leave their daughter, the brightest light in this universe; cousins, aunts, uncles, chosen family and forever friends, and me. 

Hawthorne was born in the summertime of ’83, burning out at the rubber tree, a long-awaited first child to hard-working parents outside of Buffalo, NY. Intelligent and quick from the start, when their brother arrived three years later, they asked when he would be sent back for crying so much. Pictures of that time are scarce; the few that exist are tucked into a cardboard keepsake box adorned with sea life. They grew up creative and brilliant, only to be checked by poorly controlled asthma and the regimented nature of school and church. The markers for advancement weren’t their grade level, but the guitars they played and practiced on until their fingers bled. 

They left high school early and without graduating rather than fail another math class that didn’t make sense to them. High school had not been a place of youthful adventures and education as much as it had been the backdrop to bullying from peers and professionals alike. One teacher and her laminated promise to keeping kids like Hawthorne safe kept them coming back as long as they did. 

They traveled to Chicago and found themselves in a cult now made famous by Netflix. In six short months they experienced some of the highest and lowest moments of their queer life. They fell in love with a beautiful woman who touched their heart, holding hands in secret and away from the searching eyes of elders. They endured isolation and shunning for letting that love shine.

Hawthorne left Chicago, arriving back in Buffalo the morning the towers fell in New York City; they were one of the last trains to arrive anywhere that day. Conversations about America’s due for meddling in foreign affairs only hours before in the dining car rang true as their father picked them up at the station. They returned home to watch the first tower fall, Spot coffee and cigarettes in hand. 

They dated a boy they promised to marry, still believing their eventual destiny to be a pastor’s wife, still dedicated to being straight. It may shock some to know that this relationship did not work out. When they finally embraced their love of the feminine and the female, the scorned former fiancé moved out, and Hawthorne opened the Heartbreak Hotel with one of their closest friends. The pair charmed the pants off women, drank cheap whiskey on the roof, and sometimes cleaned on Sundays. Those golden days shined in memory over fifteen years later. 

Hawthorne went on to meet people and fall in and out of love, as your twenties are for. They formed a bicycle gang with their friends; the Spreadeagle Feminists made sure that George W. had as little chance as they could. They smoked, drank, wrote songs, and played every chance they had. They worked in group homes and coffeehouses; the jobs changed but the friendships developed within them blossomed. They settled down once or twice, ended up with a redhead in the banking world, and joined the Rural Metro EMT Academy and become certified in having a pulse and performing CPR, the two most skills the company demanded for the job.

It was unexpected when their love appeared on the scene.  Ella was a scraggly creature, more a blur of black and teeth than a dog when they first met at the SPCA. A one-year-old stray, wire-haired and just wired, the staff asked if Hawthorne was sure they wanted that one. Two days later after her spay surgery, Ella the Fitzgerald terrier took a nap on Hawthorne’s chest, and the two were bonded. If you asked Hawthorne what they wanted for a tattoo, it looked like this.

I had been lucky enough to meet Hawthorne in 2008 at work one night. They stood to the door of the trailer, smoking a cigarette as I stomped past, pissed and swearing about my partner on the ambulance. Hawthorne was coming off shift and I was coming on. I had noticed the hot butch in uniform but didn’t register more than that until the morning when I arrived for shift change to find them sitting on the donated couch with their feet propped up on a flimsy coffee table, reading the paper. They said good morning without moving, and watched me step over their extended legs to punch out. Their mischievous grin told me everything I needed to know. 

I can’t say a romance was born that morning, but I definitely had my eye on them. I was married but it was a rather open arrangement; Hawthorne was in a committed relationship. It would be years before the interest sparked again. Trying on pants in the women’s room, I complimented them the best way I knew how in that setting: a firm slap on the ass as I walked by, saucy smile tossed back over my shoulder. They were speechless – a rare occurrence. 

It was at least another year before they charmed me off my feet after driving me batty. Christmas 2010 they were partnered up with me, and like a little boy mistakenly pulling pigtails on the playground, unplugged the unreliable Toughbook computer I needed for my paperwork repeatedly. We ate chocolates their girlfriend had made and tried not to think about the other. We became lovers in a dangerous time; they helped me leave an abusive situation, and their own relationship ended with its fair share of drama. They left the ambulance company and started their college career intending to earn enough credits to apply to the police academy. The first day of orientation, they came home and asked me, “do you know what I can DO with a criminal justice degree?!” With their sights set on law school, they poured themselves into their studies. After one year they changed their major to sociology and pretty writing; they met some of their best friends and most influential people in their life. 

Hawthorne learned to hold a baby when their niece was born, a bright little girl with piercing blue eyes. The love emanated from them as they gingerly cradled her and the wonder filled their own ocean eyes. Two days later, with the sand on their knee to prove it, they proposed to me in the woods of Thoreau. We were married in June of 2014, on a beautiful summer day during the Allentown Art Festival. Their gray tux hangs in the closet next to my wedding dress and still carries the scent of whiskey. The honeymoon in the backwoods gave them a taste for country life that drove the city mouse to consider law schools in northern New England. 

They graduated cum laude in 2015 and earned the Conrad Vogler Promising Sociologist award. They were so proud to have been one of the small percentage of those who leave high school and go on to collegiate degrees. Within a few weeks, with no backup plan, no jobs, and no contacts, we packed up and moved to rural Vermont. Their dream of living in the middle of nowhere was realized, and they fulfilled a promise to Ella of having a yard big enough to run around in. They met the neighbor and discovered the local law school had a rugby team that was open to community members. Without hesitation and with zero experience on Hawthorne’s part, we signed up. Besides the whole fitness and running aspect, they had an absolute blast steering the scrum and chasing down the backs.  

That summer was spent in the river with a beer in hand by day and job hunting by night, with the daylight being much more successful. When they received the call back from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for a job, they were talking about selling platelets to make some meager income because I refused to consider them selling a guitar. There was no end to their generosity and devotion to care for their family. Thankfully they were hired into their addiction research department, and the qualitative sociologist began handling more quantitative data than they had ever hoped to see.

On December first, Hawthorne fell down a full flight of stairs. It would be four months before their pain was taken seriously enough to get an MRI, and an additional two months for surgery. To literally add insult, they were laid off just days after their surgery as their department was merged with Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. They then took a job at the local designated health agency as an emergency case manager, a job that recalled their time on the ambulance.  It was there that they met their adventure buddy, a friend who later helped give them a space to better define their gender fuckery. 

After that job was unable to work with them to aid their recovery after a second back injury and surgery, they worked at the local hardware store for the summer – another dream realized – and then at the local coffeeshop. Their barista skills from early-2000’s Starbucks served them well, and the tips were often returned to the same store for more books to line our shelves. 

In July of 2018, their wife gave birth to Oscar Prince, a beautiful boy who was stillborn. They held tight to the earthside body of their starside baby, knowing that this world was too fucked up for any firstborn son. They chose his only outfit, and drove him around the mountains when his ashes were released by the funeral home. They never forgot him, and never stopped loving him. 

Hawthorne returned to work just after what was supposed to be Oscar’s due date, and left the coffeeshop for a local residential crisis respite house. There they provided peer support to other Vermonters who were dealing with their shit, and found a beautiful community of folks that they connected with. They began playing guitar again, and in a few months Washboard Honey was born. 

In the summer of 2019, they came out as genderqueer and transmasculine; finally they were able to define themselves with words that rang true. They embraced their chosen name of Hawthorne, and began using they/them pronouns, since they often didn’t catch the message they were supposed to receive when referred to as “she.” They had top surgery at the end of the summer, or as they said, they Marie Kondo’d their breasts because they brought no joy. After that they pretty much refused to wear a shirt. They were finally starting to feel at home in their body; until then, they had thought of their body as a shell of pain that carried them around and didn’t match up with who they were. 

Their littlest love came into the world six weeks early, making them worry from the moment her mama started having preeclampsia. They wore their tweed coat and flat cap for three days, wanting to make a good first impression, and ended up having their fancy duds covered with an operating gown. They followed her to the NICU and held her first, keeping her skin-to-skin on their proud chest. In the pictures, Lucy Danger is already looking up at her papa with such wonder. They loved her fiercely, and it was returned the same. 

With the advent of 2020 also came a new wave of discovery and personal development. They began taking testosterone; nearly immediately their voice began to drop. Their soft alto voice deepened and richened into a smooth baritone; they picked up new harmonies and new skills to adjust for the transition. Their mustache and beard began to come in, their arms and legs became more muscular. Their thrill was a daily celebration. 

Hawthorne was injured at work just two months after Lucy was born. The medical system plodded along, finally recommending surgery in March, just as the novel coronavirus made landfall in New England. Ambulatory surgeries were cancelled, and Hawthorne waited, not patiently, for a date. It wouldn’t come until more than 5 months after the original injury. Unfortunately after that long wait, the “Hail Mary” surgery did not bring relief. 

Car rides were a particular hell for Hawthorne, but we travelled out to western New York for a cousin’s wedding over Labor Day weekend. We met up with close friends and danced at the wedding until we lost our breath. We met friends’ babies for the first time, and Hawthorne took Lucy down her first slides and on her first swings. They sang with their brother and their cousin, and smiled for dozens of pictures. 

In the dark hours of the morning of Saturday, September 19th, they woke up sick. After steadying out with an early morning bath, they took a nap. They fell asleep with their head on my chest, cuddled under their favorite blanket in our bed with Ella curled up behind their knees. Our son’s ashes sat under his golden crown across the room, guarded by his teddy bear as they always were. The sun poured through the windows in the early fall morning, throwing rainbows from a crystal prism on the windowsill. The frost melted to dew on the grass, and Hawthorne slept on. They never woke up.  

Hawthorne leaves behind a family devastated, a daughter too young to understand, and me. They leave a legacy of laughter and music. They leave a body filled with pain and burning, with lungs that didn’t like to work and a mind that outpaced us all. They leave a woodstove for me to curse over, a pandemic that continues to rage, and a political climate that is wrenching apart our democracy. They leave their dilapidated fishing hat and about a thousand flannel shirts. 

But the Universe must have balance; where there is leaving, there must also be joining. Hawthorne is reunited with their family who has gone before; their father and grandparents. They have finally met their father-in-law, and probably are avoiding my mother. They are able to take their son’s hand and hold him as close as they once held their daughter. The captain of misadventures is no longer held back by pain and trauma. 

They also leave us gifts – not just the crow presents of railroad spikes and shiny rocks, not just the memories. They leave us with their music, their words and harmonies. They leave us with the connections they made with us, between us. They have touched literally hundreds of lives. And they leave us with a reminder to live – to carpe the fuck out of that diem.

So when you are out in the world, finding your way from place to place, and you find a pen someone has dropped, or someone’s wallet in a snowbank, or an inhaler tucked into the crook of a resting tree, you will know that Hawthorne has stopped off for a little visit. When you hear someone say, “well I didn’t think that would happen!,” know that they just wanted to have a little fun. When you hear quiet music, play it loud; and when you see injustice, stand up and speak out. Everyone who knew them knows that Hawthorne was not a quiet soul; I don’t see any reason that should end. 

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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. 

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Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

It’s the second week of April, and it has snowed nearly every day this week. The heavy, wet flakes cling together in the shadows, blanketing the barely-awake grass in patches so the snow looked crocheted. It will melt as the sun encroaches, seeping into the cold ground. The brook has finally receded back to its springtime levels after rising a few feet during a day of torrential downpour. By the time we walk in it, it will be impossible to tell which storm or melt moved new boulders into our path. 

The air is no clearer, there are no changes in the traffic on our road. Stay-at-home looks almost no different than when the world is bustling and busy. We still hear a plane maybe once a week; logging trucks still thunder by. 

Our governor declared that Vermont has passed the peak of coronavirus infection. Watching the first signs of a plateau in cases, I am almost ready to be maybe cautiously optimistic. To paraphrase the meme I’ve seen regarding the northern New England states, staying six feet apart seems awfully close. Vermonters have been pretty good about staying, in local terms, one cow apart

We have not seen the influx of illness and death that had been projected just 4 weeks ago. Social distancing, “stay home, stay safe” orders, and the Vermont attitudes toward independence and resilience are working to reduce and prevent transmission of Covid-19. 

Working for the hospital as a non-clinical member of the infection prevention team and scrolling through my echo chamber on Facebook have validated this first tingle of hope that we have avoided catastrophe. 

Of course, one only has to blink to see outside that bubble.

I have decided that arguing with men on the internet is a form of self-care I am indulging in during this pandemic. I have not been one to wade in to internet arguments much before; I don’t enjoy feeding trolls. When I did engage, it was not necessarily to argue (ha!) but to correct something blatantly false that wasn’t also a conspiracy theory – I have my limits. But right now, there is a deadly pandemic; a gorgon at the door, its hot breath blowing in from New York and Massachusetts. 

When I worked in EMS, we had to prepare for blizzards and hurricanes, and in 2014, for the possibility of Ebola finding its way to us. My counterparts made the necessary arrangements and backup plans but teased my high level of concern in both situations. I was a newer member of management, relatively young in the field, and one of extremely few women at the table; I was not as jaded when it came to preparing for disasters that never seemed to materialize. I was better at keeping quiet then, too. I did not fool around during PPE training, but I wasn’t as vocal as I am now. 

Seeing the carelessness with which some people are conducting themselves during this pandemic enrages me on every level – personally, professionally, and academically. The misplaced bravado, the utter disdain for guidelines, the willful ignorance of science pumps up my blood pressure. I feel it build like some sort of apocalyptic katamari in my chest, jagged and off-kilter, heating and churning to boiling point when I can’t stop reading for incredulity. I need to release the valve, blow off some of that steam; scalding men on the internet who call me a sheep has been a fun little release (I am specifying men here because when I argue with women, they don’t often respond; and when they do, it lacks the utter condescension and vitriol).

Why is this affecting me so? Why can’t I just scroll past? I don’t like how much time I spend on social media anyway, why can’t I just put my phone down? I have asked myself this several times lately, and the answer comes from my idol, Leslie Knope:

I care too much because I understand the stakes, and I have seen enough suffering.

I have seen the panic in the eyes of the vented patient when the perfectly spaced breaths aren’t enough, when the air sacs in the lungs fail to inflate. I have locked eyes and delivered breaths through long, drawn-out minutes of a power outage, waiting for a generator to click on, and a machine to take over the squeezing of my hands. I have seen the terrified disbelief in the eyes of someone drowning by inches in a dry bed.

I am no stranger to Death. I have seen her come for the unfamiliar and family alike. I have felt the brush of her hair as she has reached past me to spirit away the hand that I hold. I have ignored her gentle admonishment to stop when pushing, pushing, pushing on old and broken ribs. I have seen her leave the memories, a trail of blood-red rose petals to the afterworld; and I have seen her snatch away breath with greedy hands. I have seen her wait patiently for my father, and smooth my mother’s hair away from her soft face. I have seen her cradling my son, tears in her eyes, an unspoken promise to care for him. No, Death and I are not strangers. 

Death has already come for tens of thousands around the world, invited to this grim party by the coronavirus in addition to her normal rounds. Already the numbers have reached those a degree or two away from me. Right now, thankfully, they seem to be plateauing. Our vigilance is working; alternate care sites and negative pressure rooms stand empty, boxes of supplies on the shelf. Staff is still ready, all hands on deck; the hallways echo without visitors. Work pushed aside so quickly in March is starting to pop up on to-do lists for some; furloughs and lay-offs have emptied the common areas. 

I am trying to be extremely deliberate when I say the measures are working – present tense, a current and ongoing action. It will be a long time until we can say it worked. As the internet says, ending quarantine now because it’s working is like stopping medication because you feel better. We just aren’t there yet. Projections show that the curve has been flattened absolutely, some places much more than others; but we have to keep looking down the line. This virus doesn’t magically disappear when we hit a certain date or temperature or season. There is much more work to do. We are not out of the woods yet. 

I understand the gravity of the economic situation. I know hundreds of thousands of people are scared of what the next days will bring, even if the lockdowns were to end immediately. I can see the havoc wreaked by the virus on sectors other than healthcare. I worry about the success of our small businesses, and the education of our students. I miss concerts and baseball and my family. I see the effect quarantines and lockdowns are having on people, and I sympathize – but without people, there won’t be an economy to fix. If we were to lift all the restrictions, the only things different would be that some places would be ready for a second wave of infections and fatalities, and some would continue to be devastated. 

There is no going back to life as we knew it. That is a switch that cannot be flipped, as most in the US were able to do after the Ebola outbreak in 2014. This time, we are heavily involved, whether people want to admit that or not. Going forward, life will be irreversibly changed. No one will be unscathed. If we continue to handle with caution and test tomorrow’s ground with every step, we can maintain this plateau. If we don’t, if we start going out and gathering together in the streets as we did before, we will rewind this tired clock and have to start again. 

And if you want to fight about it, get ready to step. I can keep up this argument as long as the willfully ignorant can.

Keep staying the fuck home, friends.