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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am still standing. 

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

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

And so the songs go:

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

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

I could never live without your love.” 

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

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

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

It doesn’t usually work like that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last Year Was a Son of a Bitch For Nearly Everyone We Know

On the morning of the anniversary, I awoke in the dark. I was sharing a room with both Lucy and a cousin; we had just had Stan’s funeral mass, and the family was spending the weekend together. 

I have always had a hard time with anniversaries. I’m good with dates; they stick out like pins in a map, destination points on the journey. If I can just make it to the next one, then I can think about what comes after. This mindset evolved after my father died fifteen years ago. His long battle with ALS seems more like limbo now, as if life was paused on this side of the veil. He wasn’t ready to be counted as one of the dead, and yet, it was hard to exactly see how he was still one of the living. This moratorium on mortality remains nebulous, a shadowy place on the map where the same paths have been trekked so often the lines themselves are blurred. 

October 12, 2006, I got a panicked call from my mother around 6:30 in the morning that “something is wrong with your father.” I was groggy with pain, having separated my shoulder in a rugby game 5 days prior. One of my roommates helped get me into a sweater and my sling, my boyfriend and his dad came to pick me up. My mom had been unable to say it, but my father had died, finally and peacefully. Eight years after symptoms started, six years after diagnosis, and two years after losing the ability to communicate, his body let go of its tether to the machines, and he crossed over. 

The date was burned into my brain. The twelfth of every month after that was hard; I don’t think I understood it as grief necessarily. I didn’t know why I grieved; he and I had said our goodbyes long before that day. I felt as if I had done my grieving (breaking news, I hadn’t). Years went by. I became an EMT, I graduated; I made an ill-advised decision to get married, bought a house, became a paramedic, suffered through the marriage until my breaking point. 

January 5, 2012, my mother died after a sudden episode of a silent heart attack, complications from the medication, and a Stage III cancer diagnosis. She was spared the years of suffering my father endured; just over a week passed between her hospital admittance to her death. We had never mended our fences, but she squeezed my hand and smiled at me as best she could. She died comfortably, surrounded by family and friends. 

September 20, 2016. My father-out-law, Clark, died under hospice care at home, after a series of strokes that spanned close to a decade.

July 19, 2018. Oscar, my starside wild child. 

September 19, 2020. Hawthorne, the love of my life. 

Grief is the compounding interest of daring to love. There is no formula to guide you through it, no way to quantify it; there is no forewarning before she appears. She knocks silently and lets herself in, making herself comfortable. She has permanent lodging in my heart and holds the master key. 

I spent the morning of the anniversary watching dawn break over our favorite beach. I wore one of their favorite dresses and walked barefoot in the cool sand, picking up shells to make the heart. I talked to them down the first side of the beach; it’s rare to have that conversation out loud, but I needed the wind and the sea to carry the message to where they might get it. I love you, endlessly; I miss you, I’m angry, and I’m surviving. 

I took the path into the dunes and visited Oscar’s tree. I sat in silence as I watched the early sunlight brighten the branches that now stood for both of them. The colors were so vibrant; the blue of the morning sky, the deep green needles of the pitch pine, the silver of the sticky sap that exuded from the cones turning brown. Not for the first time, I thought of just how bullshit it is that they have to miss this. 

I went down the dune path and over to the leeward side of the beach. There was more chop than I had seen over here before. It’s as if the wind knew I needed to feel her as surely as the sand beneath my feet, the water a breath away. 

I knelt in the sand, weighing the bag down with my sandals as I removed the shells and rocks and flotsam I had collected. My hands shook as I began placing the natural decorations into the heart. I made dozens of adjustments to create the outline just so.

I hadn’t found a stick, and didn’t want to leave before it was finished, so I traced their names out with my finger, patting down the sand moved away from the lines and curves of the letters. My heart ached without a trace of sweetness to temper it, and the wind blew the tears from my face to rejoin the sea. When I had finished, I took my pictures, the heart half in the sun now. I sat a few minutes, steeped in grief, before slowly making my way back down the curve of beach.

When I got back to the house, we packed up the cars, did the sweep for tiny toys and phone chargers left behind, and left the rental. We made our way across the Cape to the bay side and met up with some friends for breakfast before going our separate ways.

The one other thing I really wanted to do to mark the anniversary was to visit Walden Pond, where Hawthorne had asked me to marry them. They did the whole down-on-one-knee thing; I have the picture of their sandy jeans to prove it. That afternoon, I tucked a sleepy Lucy back into her carseat and headed out again.

I was more focused on being at Walden Pond and taking a walk around than I was with silly things like directions. Turns out, there is a small pond also named Walden a mere 20 miles away from the one I was trying to get to. It was 4:30 by this point, and all I wanted to do was cry and give up. I was tired and heartsick, and Lucy was awake by now and unhappy with being in the car. Still, I plugged in the real destination, and followed a typically convoluted path through Boston and out the other side to get there. 

We arrived at 5:30 to a full parking lot that still demanded payment. I took my ticket and hauled Lucy out. I was still in my dress, with the addition of hiking boots it had become clear I would not be using, since the park closed at 6:30. Lucy was in one of my favorite new fall outfits, sparkly shoes and all. 

We started towards the entrance and I realized that I had never been here when the park was “in season.” The tears welled up as I lost hope of a quiet moment with every step.

I knew, of course, this was a pond; it had never crossed my mind that where there is a pond, and a sandy crescent of beach, that there would be swimming. My heart sank as I gave up every notion of what I thought this trip would be. My steps fell heavy as I skirted the water’s edge; the spot where I had wanted to be, where Hawthorne had asked me to be their forever, was completely across the pond. We wouldn’t be getting there today.

I was holding Lucy’s hand as we navigated the narrow strip of shore between larger sections of the beach when she tugged her hand and broke away. No longer content with the dry slope, she had noticed we were right next to her favorite thing besides trucks and dinosaurs – water. 

She stepped, shoes sparkling in the sun as she splashed just in the surf. Tiny fish darted at the disturbance, and as I crouched to point them out to her, she ran into the water up to her knees. I could do nothing but laugh. The sheer joy on her face shone brighter than the sunlight, and her laughter rang out over the water. She danced and threw herself into the water as I stood at the edge. The water was still and very shallow and full of kids, and she strayed no further than six feet from the sand, splashing and stamping her feet. The droplets that flew from her glittered like diamonds until being swallowed by the growing shadows, and I heard the announcement over a loudspeaker that the park was closing soon. 

I watched her play a few more minutes, making sure she kept close, and she made sure she got every inch of herself soaking wet. The next time she was in grabbing distance from shore, I caught her and hauled her up, dripping and screaming. I caught several looks from other adults, both parents and not, and there was more judgment than there was sympathy. I missed Vermont keenly in that moment, homesick for the mountains, and the acceptance of the wildness of kids. Fuck ‘em, I thought, as I held my chattering Lucy close. We got back to the car, I pulled off most of her wet clothes and wrapped her up in a towel for the twenty-minute ride home. When we got there I put her immediately into the tub, which she made abundantly clear was not a substitute for the pond.

As I rocked her to sleep, I thought about the day. The morning at the beach had been what I expected, wanted, and needed; the afternoon hit one out of three. Walden Pond gave me neither what I expected or wanted, but it may have given me something else I needed.

One of the biggest surprises of the day was the emotion of pride I had felt; a little at the beach, but more so, at the pond. Watching our curly-haired ray of sunshine act just like her Papa in the water was a balm I hadn’t prepared for. I have been accustomed to sitting in the grief and pain on anniversaries. I understood the craggy emotions that coalesced into mountains, and I could isolate behind them until the date passed and they crumbled away to more manageable bits again. 

Lucy doesn’t let me do that. Lucy demands to be seen, to be experienced. There’s a line in Brandi Carlile’s song The Mother that comes to me in these moments: “the first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep.” I cannot be both selfish and present with her. What I can be, however, is proud. 

I’m proud that I’ve survived this year; I don’t mean in the life-or-death sense of survival, but mentally and emotionally. I have been active and present, and while I may have felt like it, I haven’t been consumed by grief.

I will never stop missing Hawthorne. My heart will never be complete without them; the wound heals, but the scar remains. And I still see them: in the crow presents I find in my path, in the exuberance of our daughter. There is nowhere we will go that I won’t know that some atom of them hasn’t touched. 

It feels like a new year, like the holiday now falls on September 20. Maybe that’s a good thing; it’s the equinox, when the season turns from summer to fall, that midway point between light and dark. It feels fitting that the calendar should reset here. I’m trying to hold less expectations of what this year will bring, and make sure that I am getting what we need to keep on living presently and actively, with a solid dose of what I want as well. 

And on it goes.

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This Grief Has Gravity, It Pulls Me Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still reach for them at night. 

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

I don’t listen to a lot of new music.

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

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

I don’t feel home.

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

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

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

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

Just one step at a time.

One foot

then the other

for this body is still in motion.

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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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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.