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.
then the other
for this body is still in motion.