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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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Another Walk, Another Beach

We spent Labor Day weekend with family. We went to the beach, the three of us. Three generations. Lucy, for particularly toddler reasons, didn’t want to be in the water. Instead she was fascinated that we could draw on the sand, and after some coaching from Nana, she drew circle after lopsided circle. I chased her around the beach, apologizing when she would disregard all sense of personal space and run between towels and occupied chairs. Folks laughed and commented on how adorable he was, then looked slightly confused and embarrassed when I’d call out “Lucy!” Since she has a whole floaty vest thing, it’s easiest to put her in swim trunks at the beach, which increases the confusion for people. I was going to say ‘misgendering’ but hell, Lucy doesn’t even know if she’s right- or left-handed yet. Just because I’m calling using ‘she/her’ doesn’t mean I’m not the one getting it wrong. 

I had waited too long to put on the sunscreen I pulled out of Lucy’s backpack, and neglected a couple spots completely. I don’t really have pictures from the weekend to redirect the conversation, so I’m resigned to hearing multiple iterations of “oh, looks like you’ve got some sun!”

The next morning I made the beach trip that I really came for. I’d been restless the day before on the sand, heart searching for something that even the sunny time filled with Lucy’s laughter couldn’t fill. The parking lot was closed; the last weekend of the season, and dawn was minutes away from breaking. The gate was opened by someone from the town to let the sandraker in, the beach version of the Zamboni. The long metal bar swung closed, so I pulled over to the side and parked behind the only other vehicle around. Above, I could hear the young osprey calling out. They would be on their own soon, flying back south, finding their own meals as they lost the last of the soft down of their heads.

I walked through the lot and onto the shore. This particular beach faced southwest, so that the sun was coming up behind both me and the dunes. The sweep of clouds overhead, white brush strokes against jewel blue. A passing gull was lit up pink and gold. I didn’t need to see the bright face of the sun to experience the glory of its rising. I took a moment, breathing it in, feeling the wind pull at the hem of my dress to extend it behind me, pressing the fabric against my body. I tried not to think about the silhouette I made, since there was no one else to witness but the sky and the sea, and they were certainly not unhappy or judgmental over it. I hoped they were as glad of my presence as I was of theirs. The wind swirled around me a moment, a soft embrace. I was going to smell like the sea all day.

Mine were not the only footprints in the surf. My walk was preceded by two other sets, soft indentations that would be carried away when the tide returned. I didn’t follow them with any intention, but rather wondered how many of these walks I had taken, parallel in time to one another. I took them with Hawthorne, with my babies, with family and friends. Most often now I take it alone, and talk to those who left. 

I brought a bucket this time, the small green pail from Lucy’s beach toy set. I stooped here and there to pick up a shell or a rock, some detritus of the knots of seaweed. I talked a little, to the waves that carry some of my loves, but I didn’t feel like I have much to say. I couldn’t shake the restlessness. I rolled out my shoulders again and again, but could not get them to relax. It’s an itch that can’t be reached, deep in the muscle and sinew. My bucket filled very slowly. There’s not much on the sand that called to me to pick up, to hold for a moment and smile at. It’s the busiest season for the beaches, and no recent storms have left many of the shells and rocks under the waves. 

I looked toward the dunes. They are roped off, protecting the nesting grounds of the terns and piping plovers. There would be no visit to the tree today, and I was prepared for that. However, on the other side of the thin, fluorescent cord strung between wooden stakes, the sands on the edges of the dunes has been disturbed. Temper rose in me swiftly, as if called by and rode on the wind. White rocks and shells spelled out two names, flanked by “BFF” and “summer 2022” in smaller font. More shells created flat replicas of fireworks, and a few steps later, spelled out GOD BLESS AMERICA that reached from the angle of the shore all the way up to the visible roots of the dune grasses. This was no memorial, no labor of love. This was for Instagram and selfies and Facebook memories. If you need to disturb the fragile edges of the dune to get attention, you’re doing it wrong, my mind snarled. Deliberately I turned back to the water and paused to breathe it in, to let the anger flow out with my breath and be carried away.

I reached the end of the southwest side of the beach and looked out along the rocks that formed the channel for the ferries. It was quiet here, the rumble and clicks of the sandraker too far to overcome the gentle rush of waves. Gulls picked through thick mats of seaweed, reluctant to leave as I approached. I turned away from the little jetty and followed the sand around the point as a ferry glided past, taking the riders out to the islands, cars and all. 

The water on the other side, facing northeast, was as calm as I had ever seen the ocean. From the shore you could not even see the bob of the buoys and boats that were anchored in the little harbor; they had already absorbed the disturbance from the passing ferry. I stayed close to the jetty, where the expanse of sand was still damp and smooth from the tide. One by one, I pulled the ocean’s offerings from my bucket and laid them down, adjusting the lines every few placements, until I was happy with the shape of the heart. It was not as big as when Hawthorne and I made it together, but it was big enough for my purposes. I took the sable brown feather dropped by an immature gull and wrote Oscar’s name and date, Hawthorne’s. The writing was finer than it was with Hawthorne, too, as they had preferred a stick. I took my single picture, and a video of the shoreline; not for social media and attention, but for a couple friends who I knew could use a moment or two of peace in their day.

I sat back and watched the cormorants come and go, and the occasional sandpiper. The gulls preferred the other side of the beach. A couple folks walked by; good New Englanders, they kept their distance and their mouths shut. Sometimes the best acknowledgement was being ignored completely. 

From there, I lost track of time. 

The tension in my shoulders finally eased, the gentle lap of the waves lulled me. If I looked closely, I could see the buoys rise and fall, maybe a couple inches up and down. The boats beyond them looked as still as a painting.

Eventually, I felt the lightest pressure against my boot, and looked down to see the shy little wave retreat. I smiled, and let my fingers down just above the sand, greeting the water when it rolled back in. 

I took my time walking this side of the beach, noticing the different shells that collected here than the other side of the dunes. There weren’t a lot, again a nod to the lack of rain and storms that would leave the beach littered with shells. I was about to turn toward the boardwalk when I noticed that someone had made a couple of piles – one of razor clams, one of thickly layered oyster shards, and one of horseshoe crab pieces. I appreciated the organization, so when I saw a couple of crab legs between the water and the boardwalk, I reached down to pick them up and add them to the pile. But they weren’t crab legs; they weren’t anything from a crab at all. 

Bones. 

The two halves of a full jawbone of some kind of fish, with a three-inch row of short, sharp teeth; the first bones I have ever found at this particular beach. With puzzled gratitude and a strong sense of satisfaction, I placed them gently in my empty pail, and walked back to the car.

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Take A Walk With Me

I am falling asleep at my computer; the record validation I am working on is going smoothly enough, it’s just tedious and I’m tired. Lucy’s schedule does not change for September, yet I feel like she’s already trying to stretch both ends of the day in the anticipation of returning to school.

So, with no meetings on the calendar, I take myself for a walk and head across the street to the little beach. I step deliberately on the bright shards of glass, grinding them further into the rocks and sand under my thick-soled boots. The glass here is not a gift from the sea, but the recent litter of people, so I like to play a small part in smoothing their edges.

About ten feet out in still-shallow water is a worryingly large splash, with no bird near enough to associate it with. This cove is rather industrial, and my imagination runs wild with visions of mutated sea creatures that feed on the pollution, pulling down the occasional gull from the surface.

A white band circles the water’s edge, marking an earlier tide. The pale skin of dried seaweed chokes out the grasses in a narrow strip. I use this as my guide; above the line is dryer, the stones and shells paler, while below the line everything is covered with a thin veneer of still-wet sediment. 

When I walk the beach, I find no bones. Those are gifted to me, at odd moments and at odd places, and never where I think I will find them. Instead I find crab and clamshells, and rocks broken under human intervention. So many of the stones you expect to find at the beach – rounded corners, soft edges that lay smooth in your fingers – have been abruptly interrupted. Maybe they fell to just the right pressure in just the right spot as they were buffeted by construction to sheer off into a flat surface, or thrown against a sharp boulder to crack them open and reveal the darker true color of the sun-washed stone. I take my phone out and make a note: stone-crossed lovers searching for the other half to the one they hold, meeting on the beach and discovering each other. Yeah, I can work with that. 

Thunder echoes in from the direction of the wind, and I look up to thick gray clouds. There’s no rain yet, just the tease of it on the humid air. The cove is sheltered, so there really aren’t any waves to join the strengthening wind.

I approach a tide pool in direct defiance of the thunder as the gulls begin to sound their alarm. There’s no life in the pool that isn’t already strewn along the rocks; periwinkles and limpets that cling to broken shells, turning what was once the home of a single mollusk to a crowded apartment building. 

As I begin to walk back up to higher ground, I think of the starfish story, and remember Hawthorne throwing back shell after shell stacked with new inhabitants. There is nothing here that I throw back, nothing I need to save; even as I’m thinking this, a clam spits out a warning from beneath the surface. The stream just misses the toe of my boot, and I laugh. They have their own defenses that don’t include a flight from my hands. Sure, they are more likely to be caught and eaten out here on the drying shore, but they’ll survive the cyclical rise and fall of the sea. Any who do become stranded will be quickly dispatched by the gulls. Such is the natural cycle of life on the beach.

I stoop and pick up a stone; quartz, it is jagged and pocked. I am always on the lookout for hag and wishing stones. This is neither, but it is oddly warm when I pick it up – I don’t need to scan the beach to know it is empty of people, even as it teems with life below me. The skin prickles on the back of my neck, and the cracking sound in the roll of thunder demands my return to the damp cool of my basement office.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Sometimes I will pick up a stone in the forest, or a shell on the beach, and find it feeling like it has already been held, warmed by hand other than my own. I wonder who it is. I wonder who walks with me; I wonder if they bend more easily than I do, or if pain still resides in their spirit, the very atoms scarred. If so, what scars are we made of, what marks do we carry as we are conceived and borne and grow? What pock marks and holes and missing pieces are we made of? Which star bled for each of us? How can we continue to consume and consume from our world and not give back, when will the universe demand it’s due? The number of people who die in a day are replaced within minutes. What is that if not the road to catastrophe?

The first fat drops of rain hit my back at nearly a 45-degree angle. Already the rain is coming in, driving itself sideways, hurrying those like me who’ve tarried too long, breathing in the energy of the coming storm. I wonder how Lucy’s day is going; if she’s feeling it, and being a little shit. My poor dog, I’m sure, is huddling behind the front door, her recent safe spot. I wasn’t expecting a storm and neglected to put on her Thundershirt. I’ll come home to a puddle inside the house, away from all the windows, my poor old lady. She’ll get some extra cuddles tonight, which will be easy since she’ll become my shadow the moment we get home.

I don’t have pockets in this dress, so I carry the stone with me and put in on my desk. It joins a couple pieces of glass, my wind-up toys, and a curved piece of broken shell that spoke to me on the very same beach when I was first transferred to this office. It might stay right there, just north of my keyboard; or it might join the plants in the window, enjoying the turns of shade and sun. I wonder if it will be warm when I pick it up, and who will hold it in the meantime.

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Sway Like No One is Watching

It’s been over a year since I have experienced music live, more than three since I had a ticket to a performance in another city. I thought I knew how much I missed it; I thought I knew how much I associated live music with love. 

This week, a good friend took me to see one of her favorite musicians, Takenobu. They were playing at a club I had sworn I’d been to before, but after going, I don’t think I had. People were respectful of the masking rule, free masks were available at the door, and everyone had to show proof of vaccination. I felt comfortable in the space, as small as it was; we made quick friends with the woman on my right, a recent college graduate and new resident of the city. When the unassuming couple took the two steps up to the stage, silence swept the underground room. 

I had never heard of the musicians, at least, not knowingly. I didn’t know anything about them other than my friend was super excited to see them. I just missed the experience. 

It only took the first song to have me hooked. We were maybe ten feet away from the musicians, just the 3rd table from the tiny stage. Their movements flowed like water, bows sliding over cello and violin strings. It was beautiful, and appeared effortless. The music simply lifted from the fingers that played it. This was not music you listened to; this was music you breathed. I felt it with every inhalation, as I filled my lungs with the sound and let it go, let it surround me. The voices that rose were the perfect complement to the classic instruments. 

By the third song, I was actively swaying in my seat. I noted that my friend was as well; everyone else in my line of sight sat statue-still. I didn’t understand that, never had. Could they not feel it? Feel the way the music moved around them, electrifying the cells in their bodies, coaxing the movement from their limbs? I had an image of a ballet performance in my head, the dancers reaching forward as if their fingers were desperate to feel the music run through them, even as they were pulled backward by some other invisible force. I wished it was an open floor plan; I wished for the confidence and the grace to be able to get up and dance the way the music was insisting. I wished I’d worn a long skirt that would continue to flow with the movements of my hips after they changed direction. 

I absently noted the passage of time only because the clock was in my direct site. The brass hands made their slow sweep over black as the view out of the high windows went bright as the streetlights came on. The violin and cello continued to make their easy transitions, moving from smooth notes drawn out with the bow, to playful with quick plucks of the strings. I noticed a familiar hand pattern; yes, the cellist was finger picking the cello. I felt the excitement bloom in my chest and turned my head to tell Hawthorne. Oh, right.

As happens when I get really into something, I had lost track of where and when I was, swept away in the music. That surrender is how I had danced for our entire wedding with my shoes on the whole time; it was what made road trips fly by as fast as the highway outside. It had been a long time since I felt it. It was what happened when music and joy and love and wonder converged. 

The music swelled with meaning, not just from Takenobu. Bright memories of both my first and last loves washed over me in time-hazed pastels. Half-running from the train to get to the little club where we had ten-dollar tickets to see someone we had barely heard of, waiting to snuggle up and sway together in the sweaty crowd. Having a mountain of a man put me and my skinny boyfriend in front of him, protected from the pit forming behind us. Hawthorne dragging me closer to the stage so they could watch the hands of the musicians. Sitting on the grass and watching their eyes sparkle in the dusk. 

I pressed a fist to my heart to hold it, that joy, that sweet ache of beautiful memory. This is what live music is about, I thought. This has been missing from my world. 

The last time I’d heard it was at the jam at the Wild Fern where we had gathered to celebrate Hawthorne’s life, just over a year ago. I felt that sweet ache falter towards something more painful; applause rose around me and brought me back to the moment. 

We drank our craft beers and savored the rich mouthfuls of tres leches cake we split. I watched the young person in the corner write page after page in the notebook balanced on their knee, occasionally reference a book with a pink cover and long title that I couldn’t make out. I remember those days, where any moment I sat was a moment to study. I made notes on my phone, regretting the absence of my own notebook. I didn’t want to be rude, but I knew I needed the words that moved through me to be captured and not carried away on the music. 

Suddenly I heard bars I’d recognize anywhere rise to dance on the air. The instruments were different, but suddenly I was on a mountaintop in Vermont in midsummer, bonfire lit, chairs pulled up to the light, Hawthorne and friends picking up the key and melody. The melancholy rendition of Shady Grove transported me so that the woodsmoke obscured the young student, the café tables and fake candles. I could see the faces of friends, of my love, as if they were there to reach out and touch them. My heart squeezed. I pulled up a favorite picture of Hawthorne on my phone and set it on the table; for a moment, just for a beat, they were with me at the show. 

Takenobu finished their main set, then told the story of why they don’t actually leave the stage at Club Passim, and then immediately began their encore. We paid the bills that were handed out, heads bent toward bright phones and paid by QR code. I thought of when my first boyfriend and I went, the black X’s on our hands and cash carefully folded into his pocket. I looked around at our masked companions, and hoped he was still going to shows. 

The show ended at what, at thirty-six, was the perfectly reasonable time. Twenty years ago, my boyfriend and I would be wondering if another act was coming on. Instead, my friend and I joined the tiny merch line, where she got a T-shirt and the chance to tell them how much she loved them. I asked if he had actually been finger picking, and he said that he had. I felt a smugness that I know Hawthorne knew well, and was glad they had taught me what that style looked like. 

I had a blast at the show; we talked about how perfect it was on the way out of the city. The only thing that could have made it better, I told my friend, was a cup of Turkish coffee to go with the sweetness of the tres leches cake. She agreed. Neither of us could understand how the rest of the crowd was so still; I could already feel the motion of the night in my sides, those muscles rudely awakened. I smiled at the slight pain, willing to take that as my due. Whatever the price was from dancing in my seat, it didn’t matter. The music is back. 

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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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What is There to Say

CONTENT WARNING: This post deals with the horrific events this week in Texas and Buffalo. It’s raw and does contain significant imagery that I imagine others will also find disturbing; I certainly do. Even if you are a fan of this blog, please, everyone, feel free to *not* continue to read this.

I didn’t think I’d be writing that night. I’d had a migraine, bad enough that I had to leave work before I was unable to drive. I was feeling better, if a little off from the medicine, when I happened to check the news section on Facebook after getting home from picking Lucy up. 

Fourteen kids, one teacher, at elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. That number would only increase until nineteen children and two teachers were known to lay dead in a classroom. 

Last week, it was eleven people, grocery shopping, Buffalo, NY; because by a shooter who hated black people. Then four more, church parishioners in Laguna Woods, California, because by a shooter who hated Taiwanese people. Hatred or not, I cannot fathom that violent of a response.

Who could hate young kids so much? 

I have a memory of talking to Clark (on one of his good days) and Hawthorne; Clark had made this point before, I knew. He was talking about terrorism, you know, your general light dinner table discussion. He said that the enemy would never win with the large scale attacks like 9/11; America was more unified than ever on 9/12/2001, after all. No, he said, it would be small attacks; “soft targets,” he called them. Supermarkets and movie theaters, malls and sporting events. And this was back in 2011. He was saying this before Sandy Hook, before the Boston Marathon, before Charlestown and West Webster and El Paso and Las Vegas and Orlando and the rest of the mind- and heart-numbing list. Attacking innocent people here, there, who were just going about their daily lives would sow fear into the social fabric of America. Not for the first time, today those sentiments haunt me. 

I wonder if he would be surprised at how many more mass shootings there have been since he died. Or how little has been done to prevent them. Or how Americans have responded to the pandemic. Probably not, I figure; he had his health problems, but never was afflicted by optimism much.

Clark didn’t live to feel Oscar kick, or see Hawthorne discover and settle into themself, or hear Lucy’s ridiculous giggle. He missed those joys. Yet I find myself grateful that, as with my own parents, he also missed the entire Trump presidency, the pandemic, and the death of his firstborn. He didn’t have to know that pain. 

Hawthorne had been so immediately and deeply affected by the death of RBG, mere hours before their own. It broke my heart that we spent our last night together with that tension between us. Three and a half months later, I was grateful that they did not know of the attack on the Capitol; they would have been terrified. They already lived with so much fear – of violence, of death, of losing their rights. We used to laugh about their “prepper” ways, the supply of canned goods and campstoves, the tote filled with space blankets and lighters, gallons of potable and non-potable water and container of bleach, “8 drops/gal” scribbled on the white bottle. They weren’t jokes so much as a dark-humor attempt to bring levity to Hawthorne’s real, deep-seated fear that we would one day have to suddenly fend for ourselves.

It was this mentality that had Hawthorne demanding that, if we were to have a gun in the house, I needed to know how to use it. Clark had recommended a particular rifle, and that’s what Hawthorne wanted. A couple days after filling out the paperwork, we stood in the yard of the local instructor. I cried as I loaded, racked, and shot twice. I hated the cold, heavy feel in my hands, weighing on my heart. It didn’t matter that I had managed to hit the broad side of the hill that served as the target. My soul hurt worse than my shoulder as I left Hawthorne and the instructor to their apparent enjoyment of handling this weapon. I told Hawthorne on the way home that, even knowing how to use it as intended, I was far more likely to swing to hit someone with it. I didn’t think I could ever pull that trigger.

I do not understand the appeal of guns, for any reason – for hunting or sport or protection. I have seen firsthand the damage they do to the human body; I’ve staunched the blood and bandaged the wounds on the living, and closed the glassy eyes of the dead. The headlines in Uvalde, the closeness of the community where I lived for seven years in Buffalo; all the details I try to avoid haunt me. They needed DNA samples to identify some of the children. I’ve seen the wreckage bullets leave in the flesh of grown men; I can’t stop thinking about what they would do to a child. I look at my own child, and she does not understand why I am silently weeping, but pats the tears on my face anyway. My two-and-a-half year old tells me, “Mama, it’s okay, it’s okay, Mama, good Mama.” She’s far too young to understand that some things won’t ever be OK.

I don’t want to send her to school in a few years. I barely want to send her to daycare now. It’s not like I feel like she’s any safer with me, these days; I definitely thought twice about grocery shopping this week. How quickly could I get out? Where are the other exits? Maybe I should just do Instacart. Is that putting someone else in danger, someone else’s kid or parent that could be taken away? Am I willing to put my life on the line to assuage this theoretical guilt in what should be an impossible scenario? 

Is your belief in the Second Amendment, that you have the right to bear arms and fancy yourself a vital member of a “well regulated militia,” stronger than any other single person’s right to buy their fucking groceries? Sit in a goddamn classroom? If your answer is “but my freedom!” then you go take your hard-earned “IN GOD WE TRUST” freedom and just buy yourself a bigger dick at the local Amazing and wave that around instead. Bet they’ve got bullets, too. 

No disrespect to Brian Bilston, America is not a gun. It is the blood-stained money that passes over glass counters into the hands of men, men who profit in the wakes of innocents, who mumble “thoughts and prayers” like it’s their get-out-of-hell-free card. 

If admitting that I am scared means “the enemy has won,” whichever enemy that happens to be today, so be it. Just stop killing our kids, our families, our elders, our lovers. I, like so many, really believed that things would change after Sandy Hook. And instead of those twenty kids getting ready for junior prom, and those teachers getting ready to wrap up another pandemic school year, they are nearly ten years gone, and we are again in mourning. This time, the rage feels helpless. There is no unity, no banding together of what felt like the whole country the day after the towers fell. I have more faith that once again, the gun rights activists – especially now, in what I wish we could call a post-Trump era – will make sure to line the pockets of enough of those government influencers, the politicians, so that nothing changes; I am more certain of that than I am of my own relative safety while running errands anymore. 

There’s no silver lining; there’s no coming back from this. The incidents in Buffalo and Uvalde blend in my mind until they are nearly indistinguishable in the well of collective grief. This is not the world I want to raise my daughter in. If she chooses to go into battle, I want her to be old enough to make that decision logically, and be aware of the consequences; not when she’s learning what a goddamn preposition is. If she’s going to face death, I want her to have lived more than a scant few years. Instead, I’m going to send her into a brick building that may have a door left unlocked, to be protected by someone who is vastly underpaid and undervalued, and never asked for this shit. I’m not okay with this; but this is the world we live in now, where hope is school child, playing dead among the bodies, still in the line of fire. 

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It’s a Shame About the Weather

It’s a Shame About the Weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am depressed, and I am OK.

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

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

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

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

(US) https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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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.