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Last Call, Last Chance; Last Song, Last Dance

The storm has passed over for now, the sky breaking the soft blue of a summer evening behind it. It’s the second heatwave of our short summer already. I’m driving home from dinner with the family, chasing the lightning. My heart and soul feel twisted up, a python so tangled in itself it doesn’t realize the tail it’s biting is its own. Jagged thunderbolts arc above, throwing the premature darkness of the evening into fluorescent relief. To the south, deep anvils of clouds alight from within, casting a far more gentle glow over the world. The tree tops and slim branches whip in the wind that doesn’t seem to reach the ground, and the rain falls hard and straight. 

Hawthorne and I loved thunderstorms. Occasionally, February in Buffalo would bring thunder snow; a world lit purple, thunder muffled behind banks of snow clouds stretching out over the lakes. In Vermont, we’d race upstairs to the guest bed tucked in the pitched section of the second floor, listening to the rain drum on the metal roof. Ella became our shadow, panting, and not letting us out of her sight as the winds blew doors shut around the house. We answered the wild call of the storm with our own, the dog pouting at the foot of the bed, waiting to come up and be cuddled. 

One of the last memories of Hawthorne I have is a thunderstorm. Lucy was not quite ten months old; our friend came over for a movie night. I made dinner like I always did, and fed Lucy in the high chair in the kitchen. When the wind kicked up and the lightning broke over the mountain, Hawthorne and Tristan called us out. We sat on the porch, holding the wide-eyed baby. She stared at the sky and the cracks that lit it up; when the thunder roared around the valley, echoing off the surrounding mountains, we roared right back. There is such a visceral, grounding joy in communing with nature in all her power; I felt as if we all stood taller among the trees that night. Lucy was now baptized in that summer rain. I hold such joy from that evening in my heart. It’s wrapped up like a little parcel, tied off with string that goes taut as that joy expands with memory. 

Today was a different story. We had been driving home as the storm gathered, thunderheads eerily dark. She could feel the building energy of the storm. It roiled in her as it always does in me, but her fire is loud and angry, face red and tear-stained. She’s always been a very empathetic little creature; maybe tonight is no different. Maybe her calamity is able to be released where mine is tamped down, compartmentalized so that no individual piece is big enough to hurt right now; portion control for the emotionally oversaturated. 

The days have been long and divided by too little sleep. Suddenly it’s the second week of July, and Hawthorne’s birthday is close enough to spear into my thoughts every time I need to note the date. With their birthday, this year, comes their memorial. They are gone from this world, and unable to join the festivities, but they will still have a grand party. There will be hours of music and likely dancing, great food and craft beer. There will be swimming and a bonfire. Friends from across the country will gather and toast their memory under the new moon. A part of me wishes I was younger, or at least not so tired, that the fire could burn through the night and we could welcome the next day with glowing embers and campfire coffee. 

As the jamboree approaches, my anxiety is rising, another storm that I can feel building, heavy, brick by brick. It feels like an ending, like a “last time.” We never knew that September sunrise would be their last, that our dance at the cousin’s wedding would be the last time I spun in their arms. There’s a Brad Paisley song I haven’t been able to listen to since their passing about not really knowing the last time you get to do something. Now I feel this impending end, as if this was their actual death; it’s the approaching closure of that chapter. I knew this would happen; it was the only goodbye I could plan for. 

They hated goodbyes; they always needed to leave a door open that something could happen again. For ten years I didn’t see the series finale of single show we watched; at least, not together. I still haven’t seen the finale of Parks and Rec. There were a few that I waited until they went to bed to turn it back on with subtitles, because I needed that finish. I guess the Hawthorne show is one ending I don’t ever want to watch. 

I also know that in order to heal, we there must be closure. All their people coming together, in person and in their thoughts, are all stitches necessary to start to close this wound. It’s going to hurt; and still, it’s going to do my heart good to see people, some of whom I haven’t seen in years; some of whom Hawthorne never had a chance to hold. 

It’s not the Viking burial they had hoped for, half-jokingly. I kept the planning very simple and open; very unlike me, but a good fit for them. As time hurtles past and the day draws closer, I can’t help but think of things I should have arranged. 

Someone should bring a scythe. No black robe or anything, but just to have there, an homage. 

There should be peacocks, at least two males, screaming at each other from the roof of the Wild Fern, for Rick and Heather to write a song about.

There should be pictures. I don’t know what this could even look like, but we should be able to see Hawthorne smiling, guitar in hand.

There should be Ella, but the poor old girl is so miserable traveling. She’s getting a puppy slumber party instead. 

There should be a piñata; just not, you know, THAT one. 

I’m sure I could go on about all the things that I could have, maybe should have, done (especially the scythe and peacocks). I am proud of the things this memorial will not be, though. 

It won’t be just sad. I don’t know what that says about me, going to a celebration of life or memorial or whatever I don’t want to call it, to know just how much love and light and laughter there will be. ‘I’m looking forward to my wife’s funeral,’ are words that just don’t compute. 

It won’t be boring. It’s a goddamn jamboree, you know there will be a banjo, so how could it be? Actually, I’m tempted to refer to their memorial as another death, a little one; the climax of their passing on from this world. I think they would positively cackle at the thought of being compared to an orgasm as their last hurrah. Anyway.

It won’t be involved with the church or religion that hurt them so much.  

It won’t be co-opted for anything else than what it is – a come-as-you-are event with music and food, with the friends and family who Hawthorne brought together with their big, beautiful heart, all in their favorite place in the world.

Most importantly, it eases my heart to think about what it will be.

It will be a gathering for all those who loved them, and open to anyone else. 

It will be a fitting send off for my creative, unconventional, subversive love.

It will be a place of mischief, little visits from beyond the veil.

It will be disorganized in the best way; as they were in life, and as they are now, atoms in the stars and sea.

It will be more magickal and bright in that valley on that day than any other, at least for me. 

It will be the start of a different kind of healing, and it feels like it’s time for that.

Happy birthday, my love. Let the music play.

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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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When The Night Falls, My Lonely Heart Calls

There are some days where I don’t care about eating. I don’t drink water, I just drink enough coffee to get through the day. There are some nights, when I get home, I take care of Lucy, I take care of Ella; I don’t feel like taking care of myself.

Tonight I sit on the back steps, letting the tears roll slowly down my cheeks. I want to lay down in the cool grass like Lucy in her crib; face pressed down, knees tucked up tight underneath me. Child pose. I want to find comfort in the grounding of my body to the earth.

But some nights, there is no comfort to be found.

It’s not enough or correct to say I am lonely tonight. 

The open windows of passing cars send me snippets of songs, memories that fade in and out in rapid cadence; the traffic is my radio set to scan. The images it brings are washed out, color leaching away slowly. I can’t remember what we did to celebrate our last anniversary. Of course, we didn’t know it was going to be our last. What would we have done differently? 

We were married on Flag Day during Pride month. We had most of our closest friends and family around, and an art festival outside the walls. Music from our reception and from the festival comingled in the street, the soundtrack for the smokers in the group. It was an amazing day, worth every moment of stress in the planning, and every penny we spent. 

As I ignore the heartbreak hell of July bearing down on me, I take the time to slow down and appreciate June. I love Pride. I let myself enjoy the rainbows hanging from banks and businesses, even as they are crammed into logos and shared as swag to support this product, buy this commodity. Are corporations capitalizing on Pride to draw in more money? Absolutely. And still, a rainbow is a happy thing to see. 

I had a friend tell me that Pride me is their favorite season of me, not just this year, but always. And I can see that. Not that I’m a different person, but June just calls me to celebration the way Christmas does for some. This is definitely the most wonderful time of the year. The weather is better, especially here in New England. The Earth is in her summer glory, colors spilling over green like spilled pots of finger paint. I feel myself bloom; there is no point in the year where I feel the need to hide myself, but Pride is a call to indulge in being relentlessly gay. I’m the one yelling “Happy Pride!” first thing in the morning on June 1st, and from my porch at midnight on June 30th

It is aptly named. I feel a tremendous swell of pride when I think about the origins of the gay rights movement, fifty-two years ago on the streets of New York. The Stonewall Inn wasn’t the first bar, full of black and brown and white drag queens and queer folk, to be raided, and certainly wasn’t the last; but it was the night that the community decided that this would no longer be tolerated. When Storme DeLarverie fought back against the handcuffs and the cops and demanded to know if the onlookers, “Why don’t you guys do something?,” when Marsha P. Johnson made weapons out of bricks, it sparked a revolution. That inaugural blaze lit from within one of the few safe places (safe being a relative term) burned for three days, lighting the way forward. Pride itself was forged in fire; we carry that torch, lit fifty-two years ago, today. 

This pandemic wreaking havoc the world over has brought memories of the AIDS onslaught bubbling up from the traumatic mire. A conservative (and ill-equipped) government who blamed a specific classification of people out of one side of their mouth, and failed to take the threat seriously and maligned those who did out of the other. Fear and misinformation spreading like wildfire, suspicion and conspiracy theory planted like seeds in the ashes. Whole communities under siege for circumstances beyond their control, fighting off two enemies at once; the disease, and the hatred. One tiny light shines in this mirrored dark: Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Pride is a time not just for parades and floats, for glitter and club music. It’s a time to remember our roots, our history; like so many other movements, one borne from the blood shed by black bodies in the streets at the hands of police, “sworn to protect.” It’s a time to remember those who have died, simply for living their truth. Five years ago, more blood spilled; not by police this time, but terrorism. The massacre at Pulse took 49 lives, mostly Latinx and people of color. They were just living, just dancing and drinking and talking and flirting. 

For me, Pride is also a time to remember, and to celebrate, my own. My wife, my beloved, my Hawthorne. They kept the paper signs that were ziptied to the parking meters for the dyke marches in Buffalo, as far back as 2007. We joined the march ourselves as an integral part of our bachelor/bachelorette celebration. We had swag tucked everywhere; a pen, a tiny flag, a stress ball. Every time we moved, each would be rediscovered, memories revisited. We went to Pride in Boston, Buffalo, Northampton, and even the driving pride in Rutland during Covid. They were incredibly proud to be queer and butch and, later, queer and genderqueer and masculine presenting. They were growing a beard when they died; they couldn’t wait for it to come in thick like it did for the other men in the family – so they could glitter it. They couldn’t wait to smoke their pipe underneath a handlebar mustache. They had suffered so much intolerance, bullying, and ostracization because of who they were. I am grateful, every single day, that they had a chance to live as shirtlessly and authentically as they did in their last year. 

June was and is a time of unbridled celebration, of throwing glitter bombs in the face of all those who have wounded our community. The flowers we threw grew from sacred ground, soaked in blood, raised with hope. Pride was, and is, defiant in the name of injustice and intolerance. This year, by day, I see that rainbow, I spread that love, I live my truth. Come nightfall, I am weighed down by the collective grief – of a movement sparked at Stonewall, devastated by disease, attacked by terrorists, denigrated by neighbors – and my own personal heartbreak. 

I will never again get to dance at Pride with my wife; never again get to enjoy the ponies and the good pups together, the drag queens and kings in their finery, cry tears of joy with the sheer amount of young people who are living their lives out loud, gripping our hands together so tight they hurt. There will forever be an empty spot beside me on the sidewalk; but then, the crowd is full of ghosts. 

And as far as the corporate plot to make money off Pride, well, you can kiss my queer ass. 

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I Hope Your Broken Bluebird Heart Still Sings

I am not a spontaneous person. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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La de Dee, La de Dah

I don’t believe in fairness in this world. I’m not even 100% sure I believe in karma.

I do believe that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, that the net energy of the universe is static. It flares here, diminishes there, mountains to valleys and all that lies between. And I believe the physicist brings comfort to those left behind.  

And still, I am tired of writing obituaries. I am tired of losing family.

Two weeks ago, Stan Flynn slipped out of this world, his beloved wife of over fifty years by his side. It’s hard to describe who he was to me. It’s strange, isn’t it, how a family loses the same individual, but everyone has lost a different person. Technically, he was my father’s first cousin’s husband. I supposed he embodied more of an uncle/cousin role who, when he felt necessary, was known to impart his fatherly wisdom to someone who lost their own. Whatever branch of the family tree he sat on, he was Lucy’s grandpa, her Gumpy, through and through. 

Growing up I did not really know my cousins. They were older than everyone else’s cousins that I knew of. It wasn’t until I became a teenager and began to understand what a chosen family meant that I grew to know them. As a kid, I was a little afraid of Stan; I probably avoided him at family functions, not knowing how to interact with this large man who used a cane, whose face was obscured by a gray and trim Santa beard, stern blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. It would be years until I understood that it was not steel, but pain, that drew his brow together and made him appear disapproving. It’s funny to think now that I was ever intimidated by him. 

Stan was a master of sarcasm. I knew not to sit too close to him at Thanksgiving; I understood the impropriety of his sub-volume humor long before I understood the jokes, and I’ve never had much of a poker face. My mom was usually too busy talking with the others to hear many of his wisecracks, but I do remember some of her thin-lipped smiles when she heard but did not want to acknowledge whatever was just said. I knew I’d be the one in trouble if I laughed, so I stayed at the other end of the table. 

There’s no one experience I had with Stan that I can look back and say, yeah, that was the best day, or hey, that was the time when I knew I could show up and be welcomed with open arms. He was quiet in his ways of showing his love. He’d make sure that he picked up a case of what he remembered me liking to drink whenever I visited, whether it was ginger beer or the real stuff. He knew my mother’s long history of judging and commenting on my eating, and made sure I always had seconds of whatever I wanted; every time I cleared my plate was a thumbs-up from the head of the table. When Hawthorne and I were going to drive out to meet my birthfamily in Indiana, he made me put the number of one of his service buddies in my phone, in case anything happened to us out there. He worried about us travelling in that part of the country in Trump’s America.

Stan was in poor health for having such a good heart. The man endured; that can be a full sentence about him in itself. He underwent nine back surgeries which failed to bring any lasting pain relief; his legs bounced if he sat in his chair for any length of time, trying to find any moment of ease. In his seventies, he battled bladder cancer; when it recurred for a third time, they removed his bladder, giving him a permanent ostomy. Even without the organ, the cancer returned. More radiation cleared it up again, and he got clean results just weeks before his death. 

A lifelong smoker, I never knew how hard he was trying at any given time to hide his cigar habit. He always kept it out of sight, back turned to the glass in the door. I could smell it on him; his daily trips to the dump, grocery store runs for one or two items. Before they died, Hawthorne would pick up a handful of cigarellos to smoke in companionable silence. I kept the tradition going this past Christmas, knowing that H would have gotten a kick out of me sneaking away to hide the Cubans in the glovebox. 

The two of them shared something intangible that no one else in the family could understand; the experience of living in the uncompromising grip of pain. They were both beyond having tips and tricks to get by in the day to day. I think that knowing the other was there and got it made a world of difference to them both; I know it helped Hawthorne feel less alone in their suffering. I hope it did for Stan, too. The two of them would miss dinners and desserts, escaping to lie down in the middle of the day, trying to accomplish the dual mission impossible: get comfortable and don’t miss out on family time.

There’s still so much I don’t know about Stan; but I can feel his thin arms holding me so tight after Oscar’s birth, and Hawthorne’s death. He never could look at pictures of his first grandbaby, the one who never made it home. I don’t think he believed that the pictures could every bring anything but more pain. 

What I do know is how much we were loved, every one of us. The pride in his voice when he talked about his sons and their lives. The love and patience when he asked Annda if she’d taken her pills, the affable exasperation when she told him to move his coffee cup up if he was just going to fall asleep in that chair anyway. I don’t think there was a dessert she baked that he didn’t love, and say so.

When Hawthorne came to explain their gender journey and what transitioning meant to them, Stan was concerned. To him, somebody who couldn’t settle peacefully on either side of the binary must be sad to not have that space to call home. It took some conversation, and an agreed upon option for a name – “Ed,” for at least some of his worries around the subject to be eased. Throughout that, though, the acceptance and love never wavered. 

Lucy was just eight weeks old when we brought her over for Christmas. She didn’t quite take up the space of his two hands cradled in front of him. She wasn’t even six pounds yet, and had him wrapped around her tiny finger; he stayed right there through the day he died. He would bellow at her for putting her feet on table, and for getting handprints on the windows. He’d hang her whatever toys she threw out of her playpen, answering his cherished dog’s audible requests for more pets.

I have learned that I cannot talk about my losses without talking about love, and remember Stan is no exception. I don’t know how to finish writing about him, so I ramble on. I will be thinking of him when I find myself puttering about in the yard, and when Lucy leaves smears and sticky prints on the windows she can reach. I hope that as time goes on, I get to know more about him, so that Lucy can have all the stories she can about her Gumpy. I have seventeen pictures to show the love between them.

The family reunion in the stars keeps growing, brightening our someday sky of the beyond while hearts grow heavier down here. Stan brings them an extra twinkle, another smartass remark from under his breath. I should think he would enjoy being less orderly.

For now, that’s all I’ve got – so in the immortal wisdom of Stan Flynn, “If they don’t like it, fuck ‘em!”

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Fright Gives Way to Memory, Having Coffee With My Love

For years, I have loved Moka pot coffee. Fancy coffee at home has been a deciding factor of decadence to me. Hawthorne had been a barista for a solid decade, and must have been a bartender in a past life, so we were always on the lookout for new and fun ways to make special drinks. When we had met, I was drinking far too much; it wasn’t uncommon for me to finish off at least two liters of coffee a day. I was working overnights in EMS, taking classes during the day, and trying to learn how to live with my new husband; I ran on about 4 hours of sleep a night. I needed all the help I could get from the magic beans.

After we had moved in together and things started to feel like they settled down a bit, Hawthorne staged a bit of an intervention. Basically, I needed to get more sleep and cut back on the caffeine. They pointed out that my migraines and general headaches had been largely uncontrolled and that my anxiety revved at a pretty high baseline. I put up a fight. No way I actually drink that much coffee, I said. But sure, I’ll go to bed earlier. 

Of course, going to bed early in a new and passionate relationship with a smokin’ hot partner didn’t result in more sleep. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that I admitted to my new doctor that my migraines were more frequent than they needed to be. She tried me on an anticonvulsant that I hadn’t tried before. After two days of feeling like Hawthorne existed solely to piss me off and some nice but confusing hallucinations of a pet cat that did not exist, I stopped taking the medication and agreed to maybe try some lifestyle changes. I’d drink more water, go to bed earlier, and yes, cut back on the caffeine.

By now I wasn’t working on the street anymore; I was working in quality improvement for the ambulance company, and though I was always on call, it was a 9-5 job. I wasn’t in school, I wasn’t trying to hold multiple jobs or devote 20 hours a day to being productive. I asked Hawthorne to help me cut back; they were in school, so anytime we were home, the coffeepot was on. I had finally met the one who could match my stubbornness; they kept on my ass about how much I was bringing to work, and since we couldn’t afford for me to get coffee out often, I ended up cutting my intake in half. My migraines didn’t improve overnight, but it was a major step towards controlling them again. 

Early on in their junior year of college, we drove out to Premier on Niagara Falls Boulevard. We splurged; Hawthorne picked out exactly the right coffee contraption; more importantly, I found two Le Creuset demitasse cups, blue and brown. The silver, angular hourglass  of the Moka pot was entirely new to me but promised something near espresso, and my barista beau was more than willing to be in charge of it. For a little while, Sunday mornings were for fancy coffee and homemade breakfasts.

I’m not sure why it stopped; maybe it was too much hassle to keep clean, or it got packed away for another move. Whatever the case, the Moka pot made only very rare appearances in Vermont. It remained a promise, this time set in nostalgia; when I was studying day and night for grad school, Hawthorne would mention making some that weekend. It didn’t happen, for one reason or another; finally I started asking Hawthorne to make it. They’d agree and kiss me on the head. “You love a Moka pot,” they’d say. I’m pretty sure my reaction would always be somewhere on the Catana spectrum of love and excitement.

As grad school wore on, the role of coffee in my life changed dramatically; I was brewing something much more magical than beans. I dreamed of graduation day, taking pictures in my cap and gown, Hawthorne at my side and our baby on my hip. The smell of coffee made me nauseated; I had gotten so sick while trying to cut down on caffeine before we were even pregnant, and hated every minute without that familiar jolt. I drank green tea to wean off, and then for the nausea. Since I was the morning person, I still saw to their coffee in the morning, but Hawthorne would be waiting with a hot mug ready for me as soon as I walked in the door from work. When I was five months pregnant, I remember driving down the mountain heading to work, and just needing something more than tea to wake me up. Newsflash, pregnancy is exhausting. I drove to Dunkin Donuts and bit my nails in the drive through; even the smell of the store was turning my stomach, how was I going to drink it? But I NEED it, I argued with myself. By the time I pulled around I’d come to the conclusion that I would try an iced coffee with no sweetener. 

I drove back the way I came, making the turn at the light for the hospital. I took my first sip passing a cemetery behind wrought-iron fencing; color began to seep back into the world. The gray of the stones picked up their luster; the oddly lush green of the not-quite-spring grass shone more verdant. Shining purple and butter-bright crocus emerged in dense patches on yellowed lawns, shaded areas holding on to shrinking piles of dingy snow left over from the long winter. My forehead and neck relaxed, my shoulders loosened. My mind felt clearer than it had in months. Oscar learned the caffeine jitterbug that day, and we would dance in the car on the way to work, listening to RuPaul while cradled safe in my belly. I miss those dance parties. 

Lucy didn’t miss a beat when it was her turn. She demanded her coffee strong and iced, with a healthy dose of cream. Occasionally, she would relent and allow me to throw back a quick-fire shot of espresso and cream, but would still revolt at the scent of sweet, hot coffee. I stuck to half-caf for a while. OK, well, I tried, alright? I intended to stick to half-caf until I realized that I was drinking double the coffee, completely negating my efforts. Oops. So, I just tried to be a little more intentional about it, drinking my normal amount but with a few scoops of decaf beans. Fast forward to now, when I’m not breastfeeding or pregnant, and it’s just a high-octane free-for-all. Sometimes I find myself staring at the leftover decaf beans from over a year ago, wondering what to do with them. Then Lucy will growl or Ella will whine and I’ll forget about it.

I’ve come to accept that grief is going to rear up and grab me unexpectedly. In the time between Hawthorne’s death and packing, I realized that they were never going to be there to make me Moka pot again. It began a cascade of similar thoughts; there was no one to buy me flowers, or additions to my fairy collection, or jewelry from the shop on Church Street. They were no longer there to tell me to treat myself, to make sure I got a donut or a coffee, or have that glass of wine at the end of the day. There was no one there to tell me I deserve it.

I don’t know what hit harder, the utter grief and loss I felt in that moment, or the hot wave of shame that crashed over me immediately after, salt water in already raw and bleeding wounds. How could I be so selfish? Hawthorne was dead, and I was feeling sorry for myself over coffee and presents? What the hell was wrong with me? 

Writing about it now brings the moment back so strongly. Sinking down to the floor of the kitchen, the floor cold and unforgiving, the darkness of the evening pressing against the windows. Flanked by guilt and self-loathing, I couldn’t even cry. Grief returned to her post in the presence of these bullies, quietly celebrating the break.

This is one of the experiences that makes it feel as if Hawthorne has been gone for so long. It’s taken time, and distance, and therapy to work through this episode. I still remind myself that it’s not selfish to wish they were here to make me something – chili, tea, their magical healing chicken curry soup. One of the ways they showed love was cooking, or acting as barista or bartender. They liked to put the time into those acts for people. Sometimes I wonder at what creations they would have dreamed up if they had been able to bake. 

One of the things I decided when I moved to this new place, this home without Hawthorne, was that I would make myself fancy coffee once a week. I’d buy myself flowers, and treat myself. And I have. Maybe I haven’t made my weekly coffee, but I know how to do it now. And yes, I may have gone overboard on the treats; I mean, I don’t need to be eating cupcakes for breakfast three days a week (a dozen cupcakes don’t last very long), scattering sprinkles in the car. It makes me laugh to see the bright colors littering the car seat, and to remember Hawthorne’s look of horror to find my stash of sprinkles in the console. They hated the crumbs and detritus that filled the cupholders and got lost down between the seats. I think they were mostly shocked not only at the fact that I essentially drank a few teaspoons of sprinkles at a time, but had been doing so for weeks without their noticing. It feels good to laugh.

I miss them every morning when I make my coffee. I stand in my bright kitchen with its black countertops, still learning to navigate around old furniture in a new place. I often make my go mug at the same time I make my first cup; I had nearly ten years where I made up two cups at a time, so it just feels natural. I often stand in the middle of the apartment, watching the light come in while I get that first hit in. I do my journal and set up for yoga, letting the day seep in, taking quick notes on the early thoughts running through my brain. 

I’m not missing the gifts they gave me that I no longer will receive; it’s not out of selfishness that I get upset at jewelry commercials and “treat the woman in your life,” advertisements. I’m not grieving their loss because they did things for me. I’m grieving the loss of someone who showed me love, and believed that I deserve nice things and special moments. Hawthorne wanted me to be kind to myself, to show myself love in ways that were meaningful to us both, to treat myself if they weren’t right there to do it for me. I miss how they made me feel as if I deserved those things, when I so often don’t think to. I miss being made to feel like I was the only girl in the world, the only one who got to see their eyes light up just so. 

It’s hard to show myself the love they would have when they aren’t here, and I don’t feel like I deserve it. But then I remember, I didn’t have do anything to earn or deserve their love; I was just myself, the girl from Boston with the pigtail braids stomping up the steps at work. I was just the Patriots fan undaunted by the barrage of Bills fans telling me that Brady sucks. I was the one who found their inhaler in a snowbank, the one who wouldn’t pronounce the R’s in their name; the one their rescue pup liked better than their girlfriend. I was the one, and they were mine. Now I’m the one left behind, the one who has felt all our shared dreams fade over six months of mornings without them. 

At least they made sure I had the proper equipment so I could be awake to make some new dreams. Turns out, a Moka pot can hold an awful lot more love than it can coffee. 

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Why Do I Care How Much it Storms

I was a paramedic for ten years. 

That’s not quite true – I became certified as an EMT in Massachusetts in October of 2006, earned my New York State paramedic card in 2010, and let that lapse in 2016 after moving to Vermont. Two states, two certifications – for those who don’t drive the band-aid bus, it’s simpler to say that I was a paramedic for ten years. 

Now, in the times of Covid, people react differently to that. “Thank you,” is heard a lot more often. Neutral acknowledgements of, “you must have seen a lot,” and “Bet you’re glad you’re not doing that now!” have become the common response, replacing the question every first responder hates.

“What was your craziest/best/worst call?”

I’m never sure what people are looking for when they ask. War stories? Blood and gore? The intro to an episode of Criminal Minds? 

Sure, I’ve seen those. I can tell you about the heartbeats I’ve watched slow, the last breaths I’ve exhaled alongside, the countless rounds of CPR. I could tell you about not knowing how to deescalate a person in a schizophrenic break, or knowing how to best restrain a violent patient before they injured you and your partner. I can give you the names of the friends I have lost, not in the line of duty, but duty still implicated in their deaths. 

I can take you to the ambulance bay, the acrid smell of stale urine and freshly crushed cigarettes, chew spit and diesel exhaust. Where every head turns when the bay doors slide open, triggered by errant garbage interfering with the sensor. Where hard plastic backboards, not yet washed clean from last night’s shootings, lean stacked haphazardly, waiting for bleach.

I can take you to where the discarded nitrile gloves are missing a finger (the better to find a vein with, my dear), where oxygen tubing holds closed wobbly cabinet doors, where the radios crackle on and on.

I can tell you about the smattering of good calls; the ones where we actually made a difference, when we were in time. The babies I’ve helped come into this world, the overdoses reversed. 

But that’s not the call I want to tell you about. 

Hawthorne and I picked up shifts together as often as we could. We stretched them out, offering to take a couple extra calls, hold hands a couple extra hours in the never-quite-dark of the city. We never ran out of things to talk about. 

One day, sometime in late winter/early spring, we got dispatched around morning rush hour for an interfacility transfer. A woman had given birth and her baby had been transported overnight to the children’s hospital NICU. These were easy calls to us back then. I took the chance to drive while Hawthorne took care of the patient. She didn’t need any care other than observation and conversation, something to help pass the worried minutes from door to door. Now that I’ve had kids and especially one in the NICU, I think about those calls often, the opportunity for empathy I didn’t notice as it passed. My own ambulance ride to bring Lucy earthside is hazed by the hypertensive headache and steady drip of magnesium sulfate; I remember that my medic that night was in the military, and he was kind. 

Since I was driving, the radios were mine – dispatch, 911, and AM/FM. I skipped over the country station in deference to the direct challenge in the bright blue eyes that caught mine in the rearview mirror. I settled on Top 40, whatever the station was. Traffic had cleared mostly by the time I called transporting. I sang along softly to the radio and made the trip into the city.

As we pulled into our destination, Bruno Mars came on, playing “Just the Way You Are.” I glanced back at this person who put stars in my eyes as if they had been born for that purpose. Those brilliant eyes smiled into mine, the melody making its way behind the dividing wall between the compartments. I remember straightening up in my seat a little, and pushing my voice out a little louder, a little more confident. I sang them every line of that song. I somehow navigated the ambulance into the parking space; I don’t remember ever looking away. 

I don’t think I had called Hawthorne beautiful before that day, when I borrowed those lyrics to give them. The magic of music is that it gives us the words we can’t say. I know my voice cracked a bit on those notes; mama sure as hell sang tenor, not whatever high-alto range Mars is famous for. I don’t know if I have ever sang truer.

The DJ broke in, the vocal equivalent of a record scratch, and not nearly as welcome as the real thing. The radio static almost obscured the response from dispatch after I called us on location. The moment over, Hawthorne turned back to the anxious woman on our stretcher. I jumped down from the ambulance, swinging the door hard to close it. I reached up for the handle; right door, left door swung open. I lifted my hand to my partner to steady themselves on the steep drop between the truck and the ground. They clasped it as if the world hadn’t shifted underneath us. I pushed the lever in, pulled the stretcher out; Hawthorne guided the wheels down, and through the sliding doors we went. 

We finished the transport and walked the stretcher back to the truck. I made it up, sheet precisely laid and tucked in, safety belts clasped and tightened, ends folded and arranged just so. Hawthorne wandered off with the rugged laptop to finish the paperwork and have a smoke. I jumped out of the rig, slammed the doors shut, and walked around to the driver’s side to move the truck out of the way of whoever would be coming in next; the driveways in and out were narrow, and call volume was high. Flip the switch, hop in, turn the key. It worked (always a question of whether it would or not), and I slid the truck out of the drive and into a spot, angled towards the old brick wall. I let it idle and pulled out my book, The Bridges of Madison County. My eyes were devouring Waller’s words; I was deep in the heat of Iowa summer when the door holding my feet in suddenly opened. Hawthorne leaned in, leaning over me, their boots steady on the corrugated running board, legs apart for stability as they held onto the frame. Eyes on mine, those clear-day ocean eyes, they kissed me until mine unfocused. My hands were trapped between us, holding the book, one finger stuck awkwardly between pages. Tenderness, a soft thunder I had not heard from Hawthorne, radiated out and around us, warming me far more efficiently than the questionable heat in the rig. 

I don’t know how long we stayed there, lost in that moment. It was like a dream; the kind that you wake up from in the middle of the night, not knowing why, then you fall right back into it; when you wake up in the morning, you can’t tell what was dream and what wasn’t. 

I can’t tell you a single other thing about that day; any other call, any post we made it to. I don’t know if we got out on time (probably not) or if we volunteered to work longer just to be near each other (probably). The only thing I knew was that Hawthorne had trembled my heart, so tired of hurting. They had reached in and given me a gift I didn’t know I wanted, didn’t know how desperately I needed. And I had given one to them, as well. From that day forward, until it became a word too imbued with femininity for them to find themselves in, I called them beautiful as often as I could. 

It’s going to be six months this week that they’ve been gone. Grief digs her nails in my softest parts, leaves bruises over bone and sinew. The hurt and anguish run deep; the anger has become a balm to the raw wound, a salve that deadens the pain for a little while. I’m exhausted from feeling so much, so consistently. I’m still working out how an absence can weigh so heavy, how a loss can leave so much behind. 

The wind is picking up, neighborhood chimes creating a chorus of sing-song clanging; not exactly a lullaby. Some undetermined piece of house shudders with the gusts, banging against the siding. The past couple days have seen temperatures in the fifties, but the wind has snuck in leaving a cold wake around doors and windows so recently open. Nights like this Hawthorne and I would curl into each other as best we could around 40 pounds of anxious old dog. Ella hates the wind. 

I’ve got the bed, the dog, and the blankets. All I’m missing is my love. 

So tonight, I’ll remember that call, wrapping myself in the tender and warm they filled me with that cold day a decade ago. I’ll cuddle Ella close and listen to the wind moan its way over the old boards, but it can’t get to me here; I’ve got my love to keep me warm

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An Algebra of Lyricism Which I Am Still Deciphering

Every two weeks, I will write and publish a blog post, I said.

I’m announcing this for public accountability, I said. 

Six days later, the love of my life slipped wordlessly away from this world while I sat at my computer, tapping away. I had logged over two weeks of daily writing, more than I had accomplished in years. I heard Hawthorne’s snoring change, and left the cursor blinking on the screen as I tried to quietly run upstairs, so as not to wake Lucy, sleeping in her swing by my desk.

The next week I kept my promise, with the support of my friends, family, and therapist. 

Yet now, I sit here, watching that thin line blink, a silent metronome of progress unmade. 

I need to write, I tell myself.

I don’t want to. I watch myself in my mind’s eye, see my folded arms, childish pout on my face. Hawthorne said when my eyebrows came together like that, I looked like Sam the Eagle. It hurts too much. I hurt too much. 

It has been a difficult week. Work has been wonderful; I go, and throw myself into the data, the tracking, the registration of folks coming in for their first vaccine. It’s the closest thing to a party I’ve seen in nearly a year. Eyes crinkle up with smiles behind masks; the effort is made to stay six feet away, though difficult with this crowd, close talkers that they are. At times, there’s almost a waft of jubilation; we can meet our granddaughter, our nephew, our cousin/child/long lost friend, they say. I can see my parents, my older children, my students, they tell me. Soon, they smile. We will be back to normal soon. 

Some are frightened. Some have heard nothing but conspiracy theories, some have allergies and medical problems. So many have been isolated for so long they seem intimidated by the people around, the noise that builds at the busier times, even with detailed and careful scheduling. Many arrive, anxiety balled up in their pockets, worried to shreds by restless hands; but everyone looks lighter when they leave. The weight of “someday, maybe,” has been lifted, replaced by colorful kites of “soon.”

When the work day is done, the sun slips west. I pick Lucy up from her daycare and bask in her light, securing her. We sing on the way home; she interrupts herself with growls and little shrieks. The moon rises full, stark against the softening sky in the east. 

Within an hour of arriving home, Lucy is fed, changed, and asleep. Her single-nap days playing with her friends knock her out by 7pm. The hours lit by still mismatched incandescent bulbs stretch before me; what once felt like stolen time now drags by. I think Netflix has stopped asking if I’m still watching. Most evenings I wake up, disoriented, to the plot of episode something of NCIS, having no idea how they arrived at their conclusions, or even how many fifty-minute mysteries have been solved. 

All around me are projects, half-done or barely begun. Painted terracotta pots wait for their glaze; the plants droop, losing hope that I will soon re-pot them. A belated Christmas stitching lays over a bookshelf, and yards of fabric await their transformation into curtains. One room remains full of boxes to be unpacked; books and office supplies and blank greeting cards and candles. A roll of contact paper sits on the bar it is meant to revitalize. Corkboard monstera leaves sit in their stack next to a decorative photo box, on sale and misspelled, saying “kindess matters.” 

I don’t want to write. I don’t want to open that door; it’s too heavy, stained too dark, and I am weary. I lean against it, a passive act of resistance, feeling the creak in the boards and hinges. My heart already feels too raw, my soul still scraped from the last missive. 

But I know – whether I put pen to paper or not, or fingers to keys or not, the words will be there. They will build and build against the other side of that door, until, like a sinking ship, it bursts open. If I wait for that to happen, the waves come with splinters, arrowing in on old and unsuspecting wounds. My phone lights up to remind me to drink water; the little notepad icon taunts me. I carry how many notebooks, and still, my go-to place to record the lines and stories that cross my mind is my phone. Maybe I should call it Diane

A giant laid down their head the last time this week; one of the brightest city lights of San Francisco was swept away to the stars. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, my favorite of the beat poets, died at 101. I can honestly say that I have never really stopped to think about who my influences are in my writing, but without a doubt, he lead the pack. I have been infatuated with his poetry since high school. I had the opportunity to see him do a reading at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I arrived late and breathless with my boyfriend; the auditorium was full, and we sat on the wide, shallow steps on the side. Ferlinghetti’s deep voice hummed over the words as if the world had slowed, allowing each line to reverberate from his lips, past the ears of all in attendance, and out and down the hallowed halls. I still hear the echoes whenever I return, though it’s been fifteen years. 

I loved his unabashed appreciation for the beauty of the human body; he didn’t shy away from words like cock or breasts, a titillating and undeniable mark of maturity to my sixteen year old self, poring over his poems in study period at my Catholic high school. I was already queer and appreciating the female form myself, but he helped me discover my love for women went beyond wanting to get under their skirts. Burned into my memory is the image of a woman hanging laundry atop an apartment building, no shelter from the California sun; the wet sheets cling to her, and she laughs. It is a gif; more movement than a simple photograph can allow, yet there is no need for a story before or after, only the complete immersiveness of the moment. Even now, as I lean hard into this season of anguish and grief, I know that rooftop awash in sunlight is there. It is no oasis, but a pinprick star through the gloom.

So, before I say goodbye, Lawrence, Mr. Ferlinghetti sir, a favor if you will – if you see my love there among the stars, perhaps watching the sunset between the baobab trees, tell them that I ache for them. Tell them I miss the planes and curves of their body, the soft skin and all the changes; tell them I’d give anything to watch them hang out laundered linens on a rooftop. While you’re there, mapping the constellation of your next hundred and one years, tell my son a lullaby, a spoken word song that comes from a far rockaway of the heart. And if you can spare it, send a little of their starlight this way, so I may teach my daughter how to paint sunlight, and give me a wild dream of a new beginning.

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The Slow Honey Drip of Those Young Nights Long Gone

Ten years ago, I realized that I’d fallen in love with a beautiful person who was supposed to have been a one-night stand. They had done the same, and tried to end our budding romance, as we were both in other committed relationships at the time. I cried for three days; I remember the sun shining bright as I tried to hide my eyes from my partner on the ambulance, and gazed with aching sorrow down the street that would take me to their house. He bought me coffee that day, and was kind enough – or smart enough to save his skin – to not offer platitudes or advice. My marriage was in shambles; my husband had moved his boyfriend in months ago, and I could not relax in our house. I could only work, try to keep up with the housework and the animals we had, and avoid the two of them for my own safety and sanity. My lover was the sunshine that had disappeared from my life; I didn’t notice it was gone until they kissed me, hadn’t realized the dark around me until they made me burn. 

On the third day, lightheaded and resigned, I asked to stop by their apartment. I had a Valentine’s gift for them and their girlfriend; a poem I’d written for the two of them, every stroke of pen a denial that it was I who wanted those long looks, nights with old movies, and shared bottles of wine. I walked up the steps and waited on the porch with its painted floorboards starting to sag. They creaked underneath in the icy grip of February. My lover opened the door and looked at me; neither of us moved for a minute, maybe more. I don’t know who moved first. They pulled me in and we buried our faces in each other’s necks. Their soft voice echoed through my body. “Stay,” they said. “I can’t do this anymore. I won’t be without you.”

The following months were fraught with arguments on each of our homefronts as we each tried to detangle ourselves from relationships that had long since soured into “situations.” My husband’s boyfriend grew more abusive; after one night where he nearly broke my arm, I stayed at Hawthorne’s apartment they shared with their girlfriend for three nights. Hawthorne gave me both a safe place and the resolve to not return until the boyfriend was ousted. They took pictures of the bruising, and told me that I didn’t have to leave, even after the boyfriend left. I did, though; they walked me to my truck and kissed my forehead, telling me I’d always have a safe place with them. I went home and tried, again, to fix what was left of my marriage. My then-husband would never forgive me for evicting their lover, and crossed boundaries in our relationship that couldn’t be uncrossed. It took a couple months more for me to concede that I had done everything I could, but I could no longer stay. One night, laying as far away from me as they could in our bed, he asked again why I wouldn’t just leave if I was so unhappy. The summer air was cool on my skin as I tugged off my wedding ring and laid it on the nightstand. I dressed quickly and quietly in the dark, grabbed my get-out bags from the back of the closet as he lay silently. I didn’t think he had any reaction until I backed out of the drive, and he appeared in the headlights of the truck. He stood, softly calling me in the hideous pet name he had for me, his voice childlike; his eyes looked dead in the artificial lights. It took more than twenty minutes to talk him down and away from the truck. I drove down the street without looking back, calling Hawthorne on the way. I had texted them when I was first leaving, and they had left a couple frantic messages when I had been delayed. I arrived at the apartment in tears and exhausted. They ushered me in, undressed me gently, and tucked me in on the futon. They held me until I fell asleep. 

Hawthorne’s story of the spring of 2011 doesn’t feel like it’s mine to tell, at least not yet. 

We talked about this every year, about a week before Valentine’s Day. 

“Remember when you broke up with me?” I’d ask.

“I had to,” they’d reply. 

“Never again,” we’d say. We meant it.

We were married almost exactly three years from the night I left the house I owned with my ex-husband. The nights were comfortable; the day dawned gray and dry, and the light cloud cover gave way to skies the reflection of my lover’s eyes. 

We chose our vows carefully; Hawthorne personally curated the music for the day and the ceremony, and given the DJ a list of approved songs. We wanted no mention of ending or death; we wanted to be in the moment, to ride that wave of joy and jubilation that was bursting out of us. We brought the light out in each other. As I walked down the aisle to an instrumental version of “The Luckiest,” we were trembling with laughter, smiles so big they hurt our cheeks. 

We promised forever.

We never said “til death do us part.” 

It’s been nearly five months since they died. My body feels hollow, a cavern carved from sorrow, jutting protrusions left from where my heart was torn away. I didn’t know it was possible to feel such anguish before Oscar died, and my womb became that haunted, hollow place. The echoes of my own cries ring out, bouncing off the sharp edges, sounding foreign even to my own ears. 

It has only been recently that I’ve started to be able to talk to them, to let them in, to let them linger. It was easier to be angry. It was easier to refuse to talk to them than to acknowledge the emptiness of the space beside me. Now the soft material of the shoulder bag that Sherri gave them feels like their jeans when I reach over, my hand searching for theirs in the passenger seat. I grip the sturdy cotton and watch the dance of the tow truck lights in the bumper of the car barely in front of me in traffic; the ambers and reds refract in my tears, a kaleidoscope of blurred edges. I think about how they would never have let me let the car get this messy, the grief I would have gotten for the errant sprinkles from a week’s worth of cupcakes for breakfast.

They’ve come home, too; my friends and I have talked about all the apartments that fell through, leaving me in my new place, with all her creaks and moans. I don’t think its happenstance that this house reminds me of Buffalo with its wood-framed glass built-ins, it’s layered-painted white trim, and two-handed bolt on the back door. It has the wide entryways and narrow-planked hardwood floors I came to know so well in other 1920s-born apartments. I hear Hawthorne’s footsteps in the floorboards. I hear them checking on the baby in the night, I hear them unloading the dishwasher and the drip of the water off the hot, clean glasses. I hear our summer nights spent fishing in the sounds of the radiator, the forced air system earning its name.

Valentine’s Day was about the little things; great food, wine, chocolate, and just being together, silly and romantic. There was never pressure, there was never expectation; just love, that joyous expression of it we always seemed to be able to find, even in the cold and the dark. We would dance, wherever we could. We’d trade cards, proud of our finds or our creations. I’d keep the fancy box long after the chocolates were gone. They would kiss me until my head spun, and I’d smooth away the lipstick left behind as I caught my breath. 

I don’t know what to do with myself this year. I am not decorating; my heart aches too much to hang up the garlands of fish I made for our first real Valentine’s; I can’t bear to open the tote where they rest among the Easter chicks and foam pumpkins anyway. I’ll hang Lucy’s first piece of art, a heart made with her long little feet dipped in red paint. The rest can stay packed. 

I’ll buy myself the chocolate, and hell, I’ll take the heart-shaped boxes too. Let them burn; strike a match and watch the cellophane melt, red dye dripping into spreading pools. Let it seep into the frozen ground, branching out a root system, something to ground me in the cold winter nights when I’d give anything to feel their ice-cold feet sliding up my legs to warm up between my thighs. 

I will never forget that burgeoning joy, the sheer exuberance of our love for each other. It doesn’t matter if what ended up being the last months were the hardest; we had a lifetime of love crammed into our ten years together, jam-packed like a Pop Tart. Anger might be easier than the depths of this grieving, but there is solace to be found here, too. It’s just hiding in the shadows, waiting for that slight sliver of light to catch off the surface and set it glowing. 

So I’ll sing the bebop apocalypse to our baby, and I’ll leave an extra-thick pair of socks near the bed, when the cold feet looking for comfort in bed are mine; and baby, our love song will survive.

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It’s Knowing That This Can’t Go On Forever

One year. 

It’s been one year since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a worldwide health emergency.

At the time of this post, there have been over 102 million cases, over 2.2 million deaths globally. In the US alone, over 25 million cases, and over 436 thousand deaths.

You hear the numbers. They’ve climbed so high, they cease to make sense. Who can comprehend of hundreds of thousands of deaths? It’s as if Oakland were wiped off the map. All those people, gone.

You can see the effects. You look around; almost everyone knows, or knows someone who knows, someone who has contracted the disease. You see the businesses that have closed, the decrease in traffic, the increase of delivery trucks, and lack of big yellow school busses. I wonder, can you see the ghosts? The nursing home overnight environmental staff whose ’13 Honda doesn’t pass your house when you sit down to dinner. The schoolteacher who no longer needs her parking pass. The taciturn grandfather who used to pick up a 30-rack from the convenience store every few days. 

You taste your food, and you’re grateful in a way you never have been before. You have been home, cooking; all your ingredients are delivered, hand-picked. It’s easy to bitch when there’s been a substitution you weren’t expecting, and there’s no one there to explain or make it right. You make your sourdough, post it on Instagram. The tang of the warm bread, the melting butter seeping into all the nooks and crannies inside, are a comforting reminder that you have followed the rules, that you’ve kept yourself safe. Your hands taste like sanitizer, so you’ve stopped biting your nails while working from home. 

When you do go out, you smell your breath behind your mask, remind yourself to add mouthwash to your Instacart. Maybe it’s time to cut back on the garlic. You cough once, as the dry winter air reaches your lungs. All heads turn. Your eyes both apologize and deny that it’s the ‘rona, it’s allergies. Remember to wash your cloth masks; they’re telling people to double up, as new strains wind through communities, spreading through the mountains and the cities to raise the threat of contagion. 

You touch no one. You pay for your coffee from your phone, you do the still-awkward “I’d shake, but,” smile-and-shrug when you meet someone new. You watch people approach with the warning in your eyes, meeting the same in theirs as they watch you. You rub sanitizer on your hands when given the opportunity; you’ll scrub your hands at home, smooth and soothe the dry skin with a lotion made with oats or aloe. 

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you go out, like everything is okay. Maybe you do your shopping at a busy supermarket, 2:00 PM on a Saturday, grab a free sample. Maybe you go to church and shake hands with your neighbor. Your kids go to school, you go to karate and yoga and soccer. Maybe you somehow don’t think it’s a big deal, that it’s just politics, the China virus. Maybe you think your faith will save you, or maybe you’re just tired of the restrictions.

I’m tired. I don’t know about you, but my hands hurt from the emptiness. My arms ache to wrap around someone; my cheek yearns to be laid upon another’s. I’ve always been a hugger; physical affection wasn’t just reserved for my beloved, but was always available for anyone who needed or wanted. 

The way I talk has changed over the past year, not just since Hawthorne died. I tell my friends that I love them more often; I tell people I miss them. The words “be safe” leave my lips every day. I make much more of an effort to stay in contact with those distant from me. I RSVP to online events with every intention of logging in, I promise. I have a harder time staying organized, keeping track of the days, remembering things. Relegated to mere mortal status, Hawthorne would say. 

There is no resolution, no lesson in this. Yes, the vaccines are coming, and again I recognize the privilege I carry in having had my first dose already. But the preliminary numbers show that as of December 13thover 16,000 people in the US alone have died over the past year than was expected based on data from the past ten years. That doesn’t include the past 6 weeks which saw nearly 140,000 additional coronavirus-related deaths.

Not everyone has a chance to live through history, and know it as it is happening. As we enter year two of this global pandemic, I again think back to the Ebola epidemic in 2014. I remember how terrifying it was to watch the newscasts and see these tiny numbers in large text in the corner of the screen, vying for attention with the different ALERTs and BREAKING NEWS banners that scrolled by. 11 people had Ebola here in the US. Now the numbers grow so large the news is forced to either abbreviate them or minimize the font size; I’m sure marketing teams decided based on what was thought would retain the most viewers. 

I remember healthcare workers scoffing at having to learn and then practice regularly how to don and doff the significant personal protective equipment required to safely care for patients suspected to have Ebola. It won’t get here, they said. And then, they were right. Still, they also believed that Ebola was a real disease, and a threat to anyone close enough to it. Nobody wanted to be the one who died bleeding from their eyes. 

I wonder if that jaded response helped to lead to where we are now; where people don’t trust scientists, where literally an entire disease is thought to be propaganda by some. Where people don’t want to take the precautions necessary. After all, no one is bleeding out in the streets. Not here. Not this time. 

I do have hope that with the old regime gone, we may have greater faith in a leadership who puts their trust in science. Will that change again in 4 years? Maybe. 

Maybe by then, everyone will know how to keep their mask over their fucking nose. 

I love you. 

I miss you. 

Be safe.