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This Grief Has Gravity, It Pulls Me Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still reach for them at night. 

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

I don’t listen to a lot of new music.

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

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

I don’t feel home.

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

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

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

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

Just one step at a time.

One foot

then the other

for this body is still in motion.

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Just Some Things That I Will Tell You

The tiles in the bathroom look like an optical illusion. They seem to move, a small and continuous wave, the solid floor undulating in front of me. I know there is a reason for the design, even though looking at it makes me both nauseated and irrationally angry. The corner the wave moves around acts as a barrier, guiding the water from the open shower back down towards the drain so the toilet doesn’t get flooded, so it doesn’t flow out underneath the door. 

I’m in the bathroom at in the pediatric ICU at the floating children’s hospital, exhausted and staring in the bathroom mirror while letting the water run. It’s 9 PM; I’ve been at a hospital with Lucy for fourteen hours. She’d had a cough recently; no fever, not acting different or anything. I have been having trouble with allergies, and since she sounded the same as I did, passed it off as the lovely effects of post-nasal drip. That morning, there was something in the way she was breathing that I didn’t like. She sort of slept in, and when she woke up, she was very cuddly and quiet while I changed her diaper. That’s not my girl, I thought. She seemed like she breathing hard after I’d laid her down to chang her; I lifted her, pressing my ear to her back. I thought I heard wheezing, and the rate of her breaths was too fast for my comfort. I tossed some clothes on her and sat her on the couch while I grabbed a couple diapers and refilled my coffee. We were out the door within five minutes of deciding to go. 

It has been years since I worked as a paramedic and teched a call; I feel like I remember enough to make me a parent than has a strange continuum of “Oh, shit,” to “Nah, you’re fine.” I certainly remember how long kids can compensate, and how quickly they can tank. Something just didn’t feel right about this; I had zero compunction about throwing her in the car for the 10 minutes to the hospital. She needed an ER, I felt, but it wasn’t so imminent that I was going to call an ambulance. 

The emergency room was empty; they had just a few patients overnight. Within an hour, the doctor had seen us and gave a likely diagnosis of bronchiolitis, but they were going to test for Covid, RSV, flu, and get a chest X-ray just to rule out the scarier things. The doctor said she had some concern about a small pneumonia she may have heard, or it may have been noise she was making, and they wanted to take a look. By this point, Lucy is laying quietly in the bed, far more still than I have ever seen her. I may have been hoping for bronchiolitis, but I was not convinced. She became much more animated when it came time to get swabbed; I held her tightly while they tickled her brain for the Covid test. 

They took my tiny kid on the full-size hospital bed to the X-ray. She looked just a little scared, but she charmed everyone who passed by; this brightly dressed, dark-eyed little kid just dwarfed in the white sheets on the big bed. When we got into the room, two techs came to help me try to hold Lucy upright against the hard surface of the X-ray plates. If you have ever tried to wrestle a cat into a costume, or perhaps a wolverine into a bathtub, that’s about how it went. I, the least sympathetic parent when my kid gets shots, came close to crying while holding my child’s arms up in the air, her face pressed against the hard plastic. She screamed throughout, and I tried to comfort myself knowing her lungs were working well enough for that.

Back in the room, a couple nurses came in. Lucy was exhausted from the Great Battle of X-rays, and was just resting in my lap. I hugged her tight and the nurses performed some sort of magic, getting an IV in her arm before she even figured out that she was being  held down again. It took a couple minutes to get her arm wrapped so she couldn’t pull it out, but then, all was quiet again. I pulled out my work computer, packed from the night before for work, and put Youtube videos of puppies on to keep her relaxed and happy. 

The doctor came in, her face showing care with a touch of concern. Lucy not only had pneumonia, but RSV as well. She was negative for both flu and Covid, thankfully, but it was serious enough that they were looking to transfer her to a children’s unit. RSV had been going around, oddly, a breakout in the summer months. Lucy actually happened to be in the ED the day the story was out on NPR. They staff were looking for a bed and we would be transported as soon as that happened. I nodded along; I felt better that she was going to be watched, because her breathing still wasn’t getting better, though it wasn’t getting worse.

Someone brought some graham crackers and milk for her, and she perked up a bit with those. She just never seemed herself; I couldn’t put my finger on it. Tension was slowly rising with every hour passing. Thanks to Covid, I knew visitors were out of the question, and being on my phone meant not paying as close attention as I wanted to her. 

About five hours after showing up at the ER, the ambulance arrived for transport. I was a bit taken aback that she had a full team: medic, EMT, and pediatric nurse. They tucked Lucy into the little adjustable harness used on the stretcher, and I grabbed the bag of stuff my sister had dropped off with triage. Lucy looked happier, but was not as excited as I had hoped to be going in the big truck. Everything about her was so subdued. 

We got to the hospital in Boston, and I realized that the only time Lucy had been in an elevator was when she had been in the NICU in Vermont. She was wide-eyed, watching the doors open and shut. Up on the floor, just as they had on the way to X-ray, the nurses and techs all exclaimed over the tiny cute kiddo on the big stretcher. My throat clutched when they wheeled her up to the doors of her room. 

If you’ve never seen what the hospitals use for beds for kids, there’s a few option, depending on their size. Lucy had been so tiny, she’d stayed in the bassinet style while in the NICU. For this, her bed reminded me of the narrow cribs that held too many kids in orphanages. The bars on the side could slide up and down, with little doors outside them, but with all the rails up it looks like a tiny baby jail, covered by tented, sterile plastic. 

We were right outside the nurses’ station and we had the last room in the inn; we were actually in the pediatric ICU, because that was the quickest available bed. The nurses and doctor were in quickly; I got her changed while they wrapped the pulse oximeter around her big toe, covered her foot a sock, and wrapped that up with tape so she couldn’t get it off. Stickers were changed out for different set for the new cardiac monitor, and we were given the plan: start antibiotics and monitor a bit, possibly the night. 

So that’s what we did. Lucy loved the delicious, medicinal taste of youth, amoxicillin; one day she will marvel at its odd nostalgia for a better time, when it meant that your parent was there making you feel better when you were sick, and maybe they’d make you chicken soup if you took your dose. 

In the chair next to the baby jail, my composure started to crack, very slowly. I felt both alone and watched; like everyone was waiting to see which way this kid would go, whether she’d bounce, or end up needing more significant intervention. And really, they were; she wasn’t able to verbally tell us anything, all we had to go on were what we could see and what the monitor told us, which depended on her stillness. I remember sitting in the NICU, the magnesium still working its way out of my body; the hormones pinging around wildly. I’d watch in terror as the numbers would drop when Lucy wasn’t sure how to eat and breathe at the same time, or sleep and breathe. The NICU experience was as good as such things can be; incredible attentive and compassionate staff, moments of stark fear with long stretches of awe at the “perpetual motion baby” in the bassinette. Hawthorne and I took turns feeding her impossibly small amounts of breastmilk. Hawthorne was there.

It came over me slowly, a rising tide rather than a single hard wave. I wasn’t scared so much as I was angry. Lucy was exactly where she needed to be, in excellent care; safe, with super-qualified people to help her, just like she was in the NICU. But unlike that, I was alone. Hawthorne had been by my side, often quite literally, for the four-week endeavor of bringing Lucy into this world and home. Hawthorne should be here for this. 

I had a moment where I thought, damn, how could I want them here to suffer through this? How selfish am I? 

But you know something? I don’t care if it is selfish. For once in my life, I’m OK with being selfish.

This solo mom thing is hard as shit. Sitting in a hospital with a sick kid as a solo mom, even more so. I didn’t want to be alone. If Hawthorne was still here, I’d have them – to hold on to, to admit when I was scared, to be able to take five minutes to break. I would have been able to run down and get coffee, or use the bathroom without calling a nurse over. I mean, I had help; my sister and her sweetie stepped in so I didn’t have to worry about my car, or the dog, or how to get a change of clothes. They took care of all that, and I’m grateful.

But dammit, Hawthorne should have been there. We had handled so much in our time together; so much death and loss and grief. Family, friends, strangers, patients, coworkers. Lucy was certainly far away from Death’s door, but what happened to “in sickness and in health?” Where the fuck are you for this, H? I couldn’t stop thinking. 

So there I stood, in the PICU patient/family bathroom, watching the tiles undulate in perfect stillness. My body hurt from sitting in uncomfortable chairs all day, usually with 23 lbs of sick cuddly kiddo on my lap. I’d be sleeping on the same chair, pulled out flat. Where are you for this?

Lucy slept poorly, but her oxygen never dipped low enough to alarm. I was awake every half hour or so, watching her breathe. Where were you to sit awake with me for hours, eyes trained on the minute rise and fall of our baby’s back?

By the time she woke up, Lucy was already on the mend. The night had been the peak, it seemed; by the time she eagerly took her third dose of antibiotics, she was much closer to herself. I got a video of her popping up in the crib, laughing, and looking over the bars. That’s what had been missing.; her laughter. I think it’s the only day I’ve known without it since she started. Where were you to offer me your handkerchief for the tears of relief that welled up? 

We were discharged a few hours later, after Lucy was literally running around the room, the cords for the heart monitor and pulse oximeter trailing behind her. 9 more days of the antibiotics, some extra rest this weekend and Monday off, and she’d be right as rain. 

By the time I post next, it will have been a full year since they died. Everything continues to change, both that which we expect and that we don’t. We have moved across state lines in a pandemic, starting a new job and daycare and meeting new people. We have a new political administration; there are vaccines and variants, new Olympians and catastrophic storms. Where were you for that?

Summer is loosening her grip as the scent of cinnamon begins to overtake the entrance to the grocery store. Grief is still my familiar; anger isn’t as distant as I had thought, but comes and goes without so much as an acknowledgment of their whereabouts. I watch the city skyline grow small in my sister’s rearview mirror as she takes us home. My eyes are closing against the overwhelming sun, and before I doze off, again I think, they should have been here.

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Add This to Your List of Simple Beauties

It is only the beginning of August, but a seasonal change is already in the air. We had one cool, rainy day this week, and the smell of fall was inescapable. At the nursery, the summer annuals are nearly gone; those that are left are tall and thick-stemmed, more than a little bedraggled. I picked up a 6-pack of bright orange marigolds, nearly twice the height that I’m used to. The few blooms were full and bright, however, and I didn’t mind their struggling appearance. 

Marigold is a bright flower, a happy one; in the celebration, it is used copiously on the altars, the scent believed to draw the departed souls to the ofrenda. In the language of flowers, it can be translated as both grief and jealousy. At first glance, one may think those two experiences are unaligned, yet in fact, they are intricately entangled. I call them experiences, because calling them ‘emotions’ is too light a sentence; whether they slowly reach out and twine sinuously around you, or they blanket and smother you, it becomes more than a feeling. It is a state of being.

I have wanted to plant marigolds for Oscar since the first Dia de los Angelitos after his birth. It’s something I want to say that I just never get around to; in truth, there is usually a combination of lack of spoons and poor timing that I allow to prevent me. I did get them into the planter outside our front door one year. It’s only writing this out that I fully realize that this is only the third summer after he was born. Sometimes, it feels like decades since we held our baby boy. 

I know I planted them in 2019, I remember tucking them into the wicker before my belly, pregnant with Lucy, was too big to crouch and fill the newspaper-lined cone. I remember the bees loved them, so I was forbidden from watering them on the porch; I could get them with the hose out in the yard, but from a distance that made me worry the heaviness of the mock rain would crush the delicate petals. Hawthorne took care to water them for me. 

This year, in this state of being that is at once growing with hope and grieving what is lost, I made it a priority to get them planted. I have started to see them pop up in gardens around me; every morning, I am greeting by bright clusters of their faces from across the street, where they flow between rosebushes and little firs in front of the neighbor’s house. So on Saturday, during our wandering adventures, Lucy and I stopped at a nursery in the next town over. She was getting pretty tired, so she took perch up on my shoulders. We wandered the stone paths for a while, through arches dripping with greenery and tidy rows of lush bushes and trees. We passed through everything twice before I settled and hemmed and hawed with myself. We picked up a cedar window box planter, the marigolds, and an 8” pot bursting with zinnias. One of my beloved friends refers to purchases like that, impulses that just feel good, as getting yourself some happies, and that is exactly what those zinnias were. They now sit on the back steps on the corner of the landing, further brightening my view every time I let the dog out. 

I didn’t fuss with the marigolds that day; I didn’t want it to feel like something I was checking off my to-do list, which is an odd thing for me, so I let it ride. I wanted to see where it would go. I didn’t have to wait long.

The next morning dawned hazy but dry, the temperature inside and outside exactly the same. There wasn’t even a breath of breeze while the morning slowly dropped her nighttime cloak. I sat by the window in the front room, doing my journal pages. I checked the time; six thirty. He had been born at 6:33. I allowed myself to move with the impulse; I let that wave of need and grief roll over, pull me across the room to grab the gardening supplies and open the front door. I took a moment to quietly thank each of the tools I had for my task – spade, windowbox, soil –  as this suddenly felt like a spiritual experience.

I laid a few inches of rich, dark soil down, feeling the grit with a hint of moisture sink into the grooves of my fingers. Even quick, simple gardening like this is more like dirt therapy; there is a visceral element to putting your hands into the earth with the intention of helping things grow. 

I squeezed each of the six wells in the flower pack, able to feel how rootbound the tall marigolds were inside. I murmured to them as I tried to temper gentle care with a firm grip to pull them apart where they had overgrown their wells and reached out to each other. You need more space to grow, I told the flowers. Your friends will be right here, you won’t be alone. With the notion of getting the unpleasantness over for the flowers as quickly as I could, I used my thumbs to break into the whorls of white roots where they had pushed against the confines of the pack. I tucked them, one by one, into little hollows in their new earth. I covered them, bringing soil over from the bag in handfuls now, patting them to even ground. 

And then they stood, pretty maids all in a row; half bright and cheerful, the rest more reserved. I held my hands over them, fingers spread to allow their stems through, palms flat against the earth. The grief ebbed as I grounded, leaving a sweet ache that twisted through me like a breeze. I smiled and tucked the windowbox against the house, brushed off my hands and spade, and put it all away. 

It had taken me only ten minutes, but I was surprised to see the ice still in my coffee, and hear the silence of Lucy still sleeping. I felt as if I had been outside much longer. I settled back on the couch as if my muscles had been warmed and stretched like taffy, every movement so easy, almost languid. I had not known the tension I’d been holding in my body. 

It’s been nearly two weeks since I wrote about the marigolds; they bloom, all six of them now, stems strong and petals thick. They still don’t really look like any in the gardens around me; that’s ok. They don’t need to. I see them, and smile reflexively; I see them and the tension slides out of my shoulders, even when I’m holding Lucy and it seems like all our worldly goods in my arms. Lucy has been gentle with them, as she is with flowers. She touches a fingertip to the petals, exclaiming something that I can only interpret as “Oooh, pretty!” She pats the dirt and looks at her hand, pats it again and gets distracted by wanting to open the mailbox. 

The days are still hot, the air thick with humidity. A hurricane is supposed to make landfall here tomorrow, the first since 1991. I will bring the marigolds and zinnias in and find space for them among the jade and spider plants, out of reach of the toddler who still has a penchant for a dirt snack if I’m not paying close enough attention. My child is sensitive to storms, so I expect some heightened emotions as the barometric pressure drops. It will be good to have that bright spot of contented color in the house for those moments. And if I’m a tiny bit jealous of the peace the flowers have, tucked safely in their cedar home, that’s OK too. The storm will pass, and we will all go outside again.

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Here Comes Your Ghost Again

I’m looking for my place in this town. We moved here during Covid, when everything was still locked down, and had been for ten months. 

For a minute, I think I’ve found it.

This place feels like walking into a sitcom. It sits on the corner of two of the major streets, full plate-glass front. There are 8 tables, all two-tops but for one, four of them sharing attached bench seating against the wall. The tabletops are mismatched, some finished with a gray sage covering, mostly hard wood stained light. The chairs are all black, paint and cushions, and are the only thing in here that match. The walls are a deep blue that edges toward navy, with a blue mural of a grizzly facing you as you walk in. The organizer in me is in awe of their storage system; shelves for coffee beans and pour-over kits mounted to the support beam, narrow shelf for cream and sugar and various accoutrements following the slight curve of the window. There is a cold fridge directly beneath the counter at the corner where the tiny screen that now serves as a cash register sits, still under a Plexiglass barrier. A small case for pastries sits on the other edge of the counter, flush against the section where the focus turns inward towards the barista. The equipment isn’t new, but gleams even three hours after opening. There is a great deal of foot traffic, no optical illusion even though a line of more than four people winds out the door. The barista is in her forties, with grays just beginning to scatter in her short cap of black hair. She calls every stranger honey or baby, and her regulars by name. She remembers their orders, giving them a hard time when they try something new. 

I took the last empty bench seat, sitting between two men also banging away at their laptops. To my right is a man in his fifties, comfortable in dark-wash jeans and a gray T-shirt. So far, I’ve learned that he has multiple children, enjoys tuna fishing, and didn’t want his wife to resign her job because he likes the money she makes.

To my left is a tall guy in his early twenties. His posture is ramrod straight and three inches away from the wall; his slim-fit, cinnamon-brown pants that are a perfect match to his large canvas backpack and leather “work” boots offset by a bright teal T-shirt. I know far less about him; he hasn’t said a word, has his Airpods in while he focuses on his computer. Occasionally he picks up his phone, but puts it back down after attending to whatever it was that notified him. I want to ask him the secret of his focus. 

The one other long-term occupant sits against the window, facing the back wall. She is also on her laptop, with a full headset and mic on. She’s taken three calls since I’ve been here. She is clad in pastel workout shorts and short-sleeve shirt, blue running shoes with the white of her ankle socks showing. She could have stepped out off the track if it weren’t for the Michael Kors bag with her own power strip and various chargers at her feet. She leans into her screen, readers perched on her nose, long red hair pulled back in a ponytail that was thrown up hours ago. 

There are a number of characters I’ve seen come in. One tall man in his fifties, navy polo tucked into his belted chinos, knew the generic picture of mediocre successful man sitting to my right. They chatted while his order was filled, the seated man never rising, the tall man never sitting. I could only laugh listening to their conversation; not eavesdropping, since it was the loudest thing in the café at the time. They couldn’t recognize the irony in their conversation about downsizing their sailboats, but bitching about their daughters’ tuition, wanting them to go to state schools and work part-time through their pre-med program, because “we told them, you know, you can’t just have everything. So anyway, where’s the little boat?” 

I haven’t met the mayor yet, but there have been several men in double-breasted suit coats and varying levels of white hair who have come in. Two young students come in and take a table, papers and notebooks and coffees all jousting for position on the small table between them. A mother in jogging clothes, stroller covered with a rain-cover, bright eyed baby quiet and staring. Construction workers pass the door to enter the convenience store for cheaper coffee and snacks. At no point in here is the radio ever drowned out. I don’t recognize a single song from the contemporary easy playlist. 

The coffee is strong, the muffins are soft and delicious. I’ll be coming back, but I don’t think it’s going to be a mainstay. 

Now, the library is another story.

My family didn’t go to the library often; it was across town and the parking was terrible. The sidewalks would be slick in the rain, and I feel like it was always raining when we went; perhaps we only did when we couldn’t be sent outside to play. I remember the stone had a softness to it, having been carved long ago enough that no sharp edges remained in the architecture. The stairs of the entrance were so well tucked under the building it was always dark. The double doors are giants in my memory, and probably only somewhat smaller in real life. It reminded me of an old church, but so much warmer, both in sentiment and temperature. It still held the reverent hush in its very walls. As you entered, the circulation desk would be directly in front of you, guarding the way to huge rooms with cathedral ceilings and stacks of books beyond it. The wing to the left was two stories, the wraparound balcony with its high wall and brass bar skirting around the edges of more stacks. Little desks were tucked here and there, lit by brass desk lamps with the green glass shade that I associated with colleges and professors; I had one on my desk at home, and I was immensely proud to see it there after visiting the library. 

The wing to the right was much more open and bright, at least, brighter gray; no shadows here, no towering stacks. Here there were individual cubicle desks, and a couple of old benches; shelves held VHS tapes in tattered plastic cases, and, if memory serves, the giant wooden card catalog. I thought those were fascinating; drawers upon drawers of little cards with secret codes that let you find whatever book you wanted. Now we have browser tabs, and all the code is hidden. 

I, somewhat desperately, want the library to be our place. It’s not walking distance; I imagine it will be biking distance at some painful point in the future. The architecture is highly reminiscent of my childhood, sandstone and pink granite with craggy bricks and soft curves. There’s no half-mile, uphill trek in, just a few steps on level sidewalk to small staircase. Once inside those magic doors, the stairs go down to the right, and up directly in front of you, welcoming you to ascend into the worlds of the printed page, or detour down into the open workspace of technology. At the top of the half-staircase is the circulation desk, now tucked behind Plexiglass. 

I had gone alone to the coffeeshop, but brought my daughter to the library. Lucy’s eyes were wide as she stood, taking it all in. I spoke with the librarian about the application I had started online, and within moments, was grinning ear to ear with library card in hand. I have a secondhand Kindle, which I have yet to use; but holding that card, I felt like I was given the keys to the castle from Beauty and the Beast. Any book I imagined I could conjure up and bring to me. The timing worked out well; just as I tucked the plastic card away, Lucy took off, thankfully to the children’s section. She stopped in her tracks and looked all around, trying to make it compute, before running over to the low table with its equally tiny chairs. She climbed up and spent a happy twenty minutes taking the crayons out of their basket and replacing them, occasionally moving a handful somewhere else nearby with seeming deliberation. I found myself, as I often do when I watch her play like this, wondering what spell she’s casting, what magic lives with her beautiful dark eyes. The moment breaks when she pulls down several books from a shelf. She’s found the books about trucks and other large operable machinery. I smile as she scatters a few of the books, and the pain slices me through like a scalpel, so sharp and neat, I don’t feel it right then. I don’t realize I’m crying until my hand comes away from my face, wet and streaked with running mascara. I don’t feel the ground beneath me until my knees start to buckle. I stay upright with a willpower borne of an audience, not willing to cause a scene, although we are almost the only patrons.

I want to find our place; I need to. I need to keep searching for this new dream, keep building this new life. As the one year anniversary closes in, the pain is swordsman, hiding around every corner, steel glinting only after it strikes. The missing of them is visceral; I feel it, deeply, in the fissures of my heart, in my empty arms. My chest wants to cave in upon itself, my body to bow as only the grief-stricken can. 

I stand straighter. 

A half-hour later, we finish our first tour of the library, making friends along the way. Lucy turns and waves, calling “bye!” to everyone and everything. She is entrancing; her  wide-eyed amazement over a painted flower pot, her desire to put everything she can pick up into her mouth. She keeps me going; she keeps me standing. 

We will find our spot. Maybe we already have, and I just don’t recognize it, because a world without Hawthorne still doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it never will. Maybe the best we can do is to find some middle ground, some worldly place between absence and nonsense. Maybe that will be enough of a place to call home without my original vagabond by my side. 

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By the Stars, On Our Own

I found a crow present today. 

I didn’t see it put down on the sidewalk; in fact I didn’t see any crows. But the single, white LEGO stood out on the gray cement. It was clean, other than few grains of sand that were lodged in the crevices that make it stick so sturdily to another LEGO and nothing else. It wasn’t the usual place for a LEGO to end up; but then, it wasn’t too unusual, either. It was right outside my daughter’s daycare, where I know for a fact they have LEGOs of multiple sizes. It may have been dropped from a toddler’s hand (cough Lucy cough) when they tried to shove it in their mouth, or maybe was smuggled in from home in a tiny pocket. However it got there, there it was.

It was such a Hawthorne thing to find. I would find so many random little things in their pockets or lodged in the washing machine. The normal things like paper clips and guitar picks, crumpled Post-Its; but also bits of glass, strange pieces of metal that looked like nothing at all, brightly colored plastic from some tossed-away toy. And the rocks, oh, the rocks. The countless rocks that they carried; smooth, jagged, sparkly, striped. All it had to do to be picked up and taken home was catch their eye, and be a rock. 

I was thinking of their fondness for rocks when we were in Vermont for Hawthorne’s memorial jamboree. The mountains that echoed with the voices they loved best would leave pieces behind that their daughter might (definitely) put in her mouth. They were talismans, imbued with strength; offerings for a strong soul that had carried those mountains with them. Hawthorne missed the wide expanses of sky in Buffalo, and the wide array of available food options in the city, but it was the mountains that called to them and the stream that carried them home.

The stones they pocketed somehow made the weight they carried lighter. Maybe it was a grounding touch-piece, or a reminder that no matter how much they hurt, the mountain would be there when they were ready to hike again. The river would be there to hold them and carry them over its smooth stones when their body healed. Hawthorne, friend to both mice and men, became known to those they loved as the collector of rocks and shiny things. So well was this known that one of the amazing kiddos in our lives brought a heartfelt offering of a special geode; and much to her parents’ chagrin, she also channeled Hawthorne and needed to bring a curated selection of her prized collection for the trip.

The mountains shone for the jamboree, sun pouring across the verdant hills that surrounded us. The Wild Fern stood empty but for Heather working her magic in the kitchen; picnic tables, salvaged chairs, and thick blankets held the nearly forty people who came to celebrate. The littlest kids sat on the blanket and at the tables, eating other people’s snacks and running to any arms that would hold them. The older kids climbed the steep foot of the mountain, sitting on an old fallen log, hanging by one hand off the slimmer trunks. They lost themselves among those trees, in sight of everything, and blind to any world beyond what they were creating. 

Lucy was captivated by the music, listening to her friends sing and play songs that she had heard since she touched down on this earth. She had slept through the eerie wail of the saw that Justine bowed, and been rocked to dreaming to Toby’s voice sailing over Aretha’s classics. She had been cradled tight to Heather’s heart, and engulfed by Rick’s giant, gentle hands as the two would trade instruments for holding her. Our littlest love had travelled through the hands of nearly everyone there, at one point or another, in Buffalo or right there at the Fern. The days when Hawthorne and I brought her there, I remember handing her over to one person when we came through the door and stomped off snowy boots, then picking her up at the other end of the building over an hour later. She watched, as enraptured then as she was now. 

The jam was fluid. Some people came, some went; most stayed, let the music wind its way around us and bring us together. Justine brought an antique scythe she had borrowed from her father, a man who was no stranger to pain that Hawthorne had befriended outside the little grocery store, not knowing the relation to their bandmate. It wasn’t his good one, so the danger was a little less imminent; that is, until Danger herself decided to walk under it a few times. Dana and a couple others talked about running back up the road a couple miles, to where the farm of staunch Trump supporters had a full pride of peacocks, and liberating a couple for the party (fun fact, a group of peacocks is also called an ostentation, because of course it is). There were homemade, handmade donuts, of which about a half-dozen I immediately lay claim to; and gourmet pizza galore. The parking lot across Route 100 was as full as I had ever seen it. There were a few people missing, folks who couldn’t get away, those who were already away, and those I knew had ran into a flood of problems trying to get there. The one missing most, of course, was Hawthorne. 

What a perfect celebration, I found myself thinking. How dare they miss this? How can the guest of honor be gone? Is that what it took to get all their people, scattered across the country, together? Buffalo finally met Montgomery, and got to hear the harp guitar that had been born right there on Elm Street. Washboard Honey sang their signature, setting people swaying more like honeybees than they could ever know. Heather gave us a song of both remembrance and hope, bringing fresh tears to my eyes. As the day edged toward evening and the sun-washed valley started going gold, everyone joined in a final rendition of Pink Floyd’s via the Milk Carton Kids Wish You Were Here.

After a quick jaunt back to the inn for diapers and repacking of snacks, we arrived at the river to find the party already flowing. People sat in the water in camping chairs, letting the current massage their legs. Some of the Vermonters in the bunch stood mid-stream, shoulders above the cold water. The river flowed fast, speed bestowed from the recent heavy rains. 

Without Hawthorne there to argue about it with, Justine efficiently built a fire in the same area that H had toiled over their own fire pit. If anyone mentioned the fire pit wars of 2020, I missed it; but those battles are long over now.  For the first time in my memory, someone came prepared with skewers for the sausages and marshmallows; the older kids ran around offering their toasting services. The goodbyes started slowly as the shadows crept further across the water, until the sun dropped behind the treeline. A few of us stayed until the first stars came out in the summer sky, laughing and talking, sharing memories and embarrassing stories. 

We made it back to the inn around ten-thirty; most everyone had already gone to bed. My friend Sarah had picked Lucy up from the river and taken her for the evening, giving me the night off. Everyone had been such a help with her; like the Fern, we were surrounded by our village, and any hands that held her took wonderful care. I had no worries about her being out of my sight, not with our village in full force. 

We had always known how lucky we were; we had a big love, and we knew that, down to the bone. From Boston to Buffalo to the green mountains majesty, we had forged unbreakable bonds and strong communities. We saw it in the times we had moved from one place to another, across city and state lines. We heard it in the music shared with us, felt it in the hard hugs that came at the beginning and end of every trip we took. We were overwhelmed by it when Oscar was born starside; we were fed, washed, and clothed in it. And now, the village had come together to lay one of us to rest. One gone far too soon, though I feel like I would say that no matter when they left. 

The magic of that day lingers, hanging in the air, a last note allowed to fade out. There can be no encore, no reprise. And that, my friends, is okay; sometimes, for no other reason than it simply must be. The rest of us are left to go on without them, but knowing that they live on, deep in the hearts of everyone our village encompasses; they are stardust, shining down. It’s up to us to let their stories and memories become legend and lore, rich with their soul, their pride, and the sound of their laughter. May we always remember that no matter how thick the clouds or devastating the storms, the stars shine on beyond our sight, and that those who have gone starside make the darkness just a tiny bit brighter. May we also never forget that the same atoms that make up stardust also make mountains, they just trade them back and forth over eons, and not a single one is ever lost forever.

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For You Are the Stars to Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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!”