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La de Dee, La de Dah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fright Gives Way to Memory, Having Coffee With My Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Algebra of Lyricism Which I Am Still Deciphering

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

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

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

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

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

I need to write, I tell myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Slow Honey Drip of Those Young Nights Long Gone

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had to,” they’d reply. 

“Never again,” we’d say. We meant it.

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

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

We promised forever.

We never said “til death do us part.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maybe It’s the Fire in My Little Girl’s Eyes

I was going to write about resolutions; it’s the time for it, after all. New Year’s resolutions; we make them, or say we do, when I don’t think that’s exactly what we mean. There’s a difference between goals, resolutions, and intentions. From Dictionary.com

Resolutionthe act of determining upon an action, course of action, method, procedure, etc.

Goal: the result or achievement toward which effort is directed 

Intention: an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result; purpose or attitude toward the effect of one’s actions or conduct

It feels imperative to understand this difference, especially this year. When we talk about setting resolutions, I think we most often mean intentions and/or goals. I don’t know how much planning the course of action factors in to peoples’ resolutions; I have never set a course of action when naming a resolution, and I’m a planner. Looking back, I realize that I have set goals and intentions. For example, for 2020 I said I want to lose 15 pounds, I want to read 25 books, try 50 new recipes, get back into yoga. I wrote it all into my bullet journal, pretty sketches and colorful checklists.

What were my results? For all I intended, for all the goals I set, I would say I accomplished about 25%. I did not lose 15 pounds. I finished 2 books. I tried about 30 new recipes, and in November, started doing yoga again. Not what I would generally call a success, but hey, 2020, amirite? 

I had no plans to go along with these intentions, no route to get me to the goal line. All of my planning went into other things: making childcare happen for Lucy, and somehow being OK with leaving her all day. Making sure Hawthorne felt supported in their music and creative expression. Splitting up the chore list with both of us back to work, and a tiny baby to work around. 

All those plans went to hell on January 14th

The pandemic was barely acknowledged then; it was still some strange outbreak in Wuhan. I had just returned to the office after maternity leave, and was looking forward to getting into the work after spending the first day just going through emails and things I had missed. I wasn’t quite at the office when Hawthorne called, saying they had gotten hurt at work. It was their back, and they weren’t sure they could drive. I remember being both pissed and worried as I stopped into the office to let them know and then headed back up the mountain to get them. I called a friend to blow off the steam; this was a major wrench in all the plans I had so carefully constructed. I hadn’t planned for wrenches. 

2020 continued to unravel, as we all know. We took a trip to Buffalo in early March and made it back to Vermont just before the first restrictions on travel were handed down. We ended up in isolation, as Hawthorne had picked up some bug; they were tested for Covid in the parking lot by a nurse in full isolation precautions, and we were sent home. We tried to get Hawthorne set up to have the upstairs to themselves, and Lucy and I would remain downstairs, so as not to cause any transmission. I divided out silverware and plates for them to use, designated linens and loaded toiletries and snacks into a canvas bag that hung from a rope on the stairs; they could pull it up from the aperture in the upstairs hall without any contact. We vowed to Facetime a lot, and agreed that this was the best thing to keep the family safe.

We made it about 3 hours. 

We just couldn’t make it work in any feasible way, not with a 5 month old baby in a non-partitioned house. They kept their silverware and plates and cups separate, washed their own dishes, and used their designated bathroom and linens; but I couldn’t handle the baby, the dog, the house, and take care of them more. They were still injured, still in a great deal of pain; we were holding out for hope, waiting for the surgical consult. 

The emergency room called us at 10:00 PM two days after the test, Hawthorne had tested negative for the novel coronavirus. We took that as our warning to take the virus seriously. The grassroots crafter’s movement of mask making hadn’t taken off yet, and our plans changed; we would just hunker down and go out as little as possible. 

Hawthorne spent lockdown in immense pain. The consult got pushed off; no elective surgeries were being performed, and all related appointments were being cancelled. They eventually had a virtual consult and were scheduled for surgery at the end of June. The day came slowly; the surgery was uncomplicated, and we went home. The pain continued without abating; I encouraged them to keep. Hoping it would change, maybe it was just swelling, but I think we both knew better. The pain and loss of feeling in their leg would remain nearly unchanged until their death. 

I don’t mean to gloss over any of their experience, it’s just not my focus. The summer was one long, difficult day after another, punctuated with appointments and bad news and a couple of bright spots. We made another trip to Buffalo, knowing we would have to quarantine upon return until we tested negative. It was worth it to attend the small, beautiful wedding for one of Hawthorne’s cousins. We danced; they were in so much pain, but we danced. Someone got a picture of us; Hawthorne had put their hat on my head, and we were pressed as close as we could be. We never missed an opportunity to dance. We just didn’t know it would be the last time. 

In so many ways, we are all ready to put 2020 in the rearview. Think of the jokes history professors will make about what we learned this year, in hindsight. I know I have a few tucked away; I might be her mama, but Lucy’s still going to get all the dad jokes. 

2021 dawns darkly for so many. I see the memes, the products advertised. “I survived 2020!” My reaction is vehement and immediate; hundreds of thousands of people didn’t. Nearly 350,000 families have lost loved ones to the pandemic. 24,000 babies were born still, never having taken their first breath. Black lives continue to be taken by police at disproportionate rates. More than 350 trans* and gender nonconformingpeople have been murdered this year alone. The pandemic situation is too dynamic for reliable data on suicides yet, though we know suicide has been the 10th leading cause of death in the US.

Hawthorne didn’t survive 2020.  This New Year’s marks the first they will never see. 

It’s so strange to think about. Here is this person, this complicated, beautiful soul with whom I laughed and fought and grieved and danced with – just gone, in a fingersnap. Most days, it just feels like they’re missing; they’re on assignment, a trip, deployed, something that keeps them away. The wedding in Buffalo was the last celebration they’d be a part of. They missed Samhain, and Dia de los Muertos. They missed Lucy’s birthday, her first steps. They missed Thanksgiving and Christmas and the solstice. 

But they’re not just missing; they’re not going to walk in the door for some emotional reunion moment that gets broadcast on Tiktok. They aren’t anywhere in this world to see the sun rise on 2021; they are nowhere to be found.

And that means that we aren’t tucked in our woodstove-warmed house in Vermont, wondering if we can make it to midnight, or if we should set an alarm to kiss and fall back asleep. They’re not going to creep out of bed to visit the crib, and I don’t have to beg them not to wake the baby at midnight to celebrate with us. I don’t have to worry about hearing gun shots or fireworks set off up the road, scaring the dog as neighbors bid adieu to this shitty year, and hear Hawthorne grumble about it and threaten to message the constable – in the morning. 

2021 dawns with the weak light of January, cold and unforgiving. Hope has never felt more tempered with reality. The wan sun shines through branches frozen in wintry relief; the wind bites, her teeth leaving marks of red on my cheeks, the only part of my face exposed between my hat, sunglasses, and mask. 

I have set intentions and goals again; I want to lose 15 pounds, I want to read 12 books; try 30 recipes, stick with my yoga practice. Rather than resolutions, this year, I have resolve.

I am one of the lucky ones; I survived 2020. So did my daughter, my friends. Though it feels like it, all is not lost. The sun rises and sets with more time in between, and I have already made the choice to live each of the days I have, as hard as it is. Some of these days, survival is enough. The difference is now I go into each day with that resolve, and with the intention of finding the good, the laughter, the progress; to at least acknowledge that these things exist alongside the grief and the hardship. There is no way to focus solely on the positive; such a narrow view serves no one. Whatever plans I make, I do so with the understanding that they can be ripped to shreds in a moment. I am learning the hard way to not become attached to my plans. My dreams have been shattered more times than it feels like I can carry; I continue to rebuild them, as strong as I can, but with that same awful caveat in the blueprints. 

I’m starting the year with strong coffee, great music, and an open Word document. I have my intentions and goals set, and this time, I’ve left room for wrenches. I do have hope; it ebbs and flows without pattern or consistency, crashing against unforgiving reality. I have a new job to start, a new apartment to move into, and a 14-month-old daughter who is the brightest light in this dark world. I have no idea what 2021 will bring, but I have the resolve to see it through. 

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When All You’ve Got to Keep is Strong, Move Along

When Oscar died, our therapist offered up the idea that, through the clouds of pain of his death, we look for the light in the gifts he gave us. I remember thinking, is she fucking kidding me? Gifts? Is this some hippie Vermont thing, where everyone is so in tune with their chakras that it’s normal to find gifts in something as devastating as child loss?

What, me? Defensive? Nah.

I’m not a small person, nor am I gentle; I have never been a delicate flower. During labor and birth, I felt so powerful. I could feel the ancestral rhythm in the cycles of push and breathe. After he was born and the ancestors quieted back to their realm, I felt fragile, a bottle of glass so thin it would seem to break if you looked at it too sharply. I would shatter into slicing pieces that would never be puzzled back together, and anyone too close would be scorched from the intensity of my grief. I had never felt like this before; back then, I was still thinking that because I had lost my parents (and other beloved family members), I knew what to expect. 

And so my defenses, as shaky as they were, stood ready to protect me in this foreign and fragile state. I could feel my back tense, pulling me upright, drawing up my shoulder and opening my chest. My ears went back, my left eyebrow raised. Dry jokes laced with warning gave brief cover to the vitriol that threatened to spew forth, should the offender continue their [completely inadvertent] assault. Any tears dried instantly from the searing heat coursing through me, preparing my body for the counterattack. 

Gifts. 

When your autonomic nervous systems gets activated like that, there is no off-switch. That is energy drawn up for your reserves and must be expelled, one way or another. Punch a wall, scream and beat your chest, run until you’re doubled over, breath heaving. The less physical the response, the longer it takes for that adrenaline to run its course. 

I had no energy but this; I did not have the wherewithal to dispel it for weeks. I was in a constant flux of response and exhaustion. My body hurt; deconditioned from the pregnancy and its complications, I had to rebuild my muscles, it seemed, fiber by fiber. The emotional barrage made me feel so weak; another foreign concept to me. 

It took time; days, maybe a week, I don’t remember, before I could think of our therapist’s suggestion without bristling. Eventually my defenses came down, and her gentle voice was waiting to offer it up again. With trepidation the creak of an old door slowly swinging open, I tried to let myself give space to the idea that maybe, somehow, Oscar was able to leave us gifts.

That door has remained open since. One of the first I was able to acknowledge was the introspection, of looking inward, and ignoring the knee-jerk response to myself. 

My first instinct when I talk to myself is to a) address myself as dumbass, and b) take on responsibility for any negative feeling or situation. Neither of these do me any favors. It’s an interesting mix of being raised a woman in a society that expects apology from women for simply being, and an amalgamation of micro cultures in which weakness is not to be shown, bootstraps are made for pulling oneself up, and self-deprecating humor is the order of the day. Oscar gave me the gift of being able to let go of that first reaction and look beyond it for understanding. Now I try to use more positive self-talk, often in the form of sharing Sweatpants and Coffee memes, text message reminders of badassery to my friends, and Leslie Knope quotes.

One of the other major gifts that came through that door was becoming interested and willing to tap into my intuition and ancestry. I tried to learn what I could about my Cherokee and Mexican roots from extended family. I looked into Wicca and earth religions, and found comfort, balance, and many more ideas that simply made sense. I’ve identified myself as a witch, or at least witchy, for a couple years now. I celebrate the Sabbats quietly; I’m still a baby witch, learning what practices feel right to me. 

After Oscar died, Hawthorne and I also began celebrating Dia de Muertos. We made an ofrenda, collecting pictures of loved ones passed from around the house and putting them on the altar together with candles, tokens, and natural signs of the season. We made some family recipes and set places for deceased parents and grandparents, and of course, Oscar. We ate and drank and shared memories.

This year, Samhain and Dia de Muertos looked irrevocably different than they were supposed to. We weren’t expecting a to throw a party and have lots of people over; Covid had put the kibosh on that already. But we were – everyone was – expecting us to be here for Halloween. 

We were supposed to dress Lucy up as Popeye; Hawthorne would be Bluto, and I’d be Olive Oil. Hawthorne loved watching the old Popeye cartoons with Lucy on their lap, sending her into fits of giggles when they’d imitate his laugh. It was supposed to be happy, celebratory. We would party in our own way for Lucy, and remember Oscar. 

That was a heavy mantle to pick up last weekend. I made no plans; I bought no candy, no costumes. I sent no invitations for Zoom. I had to celebrate Samhain alone; I had to add Hawthorne to the ofrenda, instead of setting it together. It was dissonant to see them there. My hands shook as I lit the candles, as I said the Samhain prayer. Lucy was asleep in her swing. I made myself a cup of hot orange tea with a shot of whiskey, offered some up to the goddess, toasted the ancestors. The candles burned while I took a bath by moonlight. I took advantage of the thinning of the veil, and spoke deeply and honestly to Hawthorne. I felt heard, and I took strength in that. 

I have been struggling with what it means to move on to Chapter Next. I’ve heard from numerous people that one shouldn’t make big decisions for at least a year after a profound loss. Yet here I am, having worked my last day yesterday, about to move back to my home city, find a new job, and build a life for Lucy and I (and Ella). There’s a part of me that feels opportunistic; like I am taking advantage of the situation for my own benefit. In a way, that’s exactly what I am doing. I have made the decision that Vermont is no longer our home; this was our shared dream, and being confronted with that on a daily basis is not going to allow me the space to heal. Nothing can be what we had planned, if only in that their absence won’t allow it, not to mention the actual planning, logistics, and execution of actually homesteading in the country.

Talking with Hawthorne on Samhain brought me peace of mind; I explained my plans for the house, the move, the physical stuff, and felt only calmness in response. There was no anxiety, nor was there a whisper of air to make the candle flame tremble; no rattling chains or unearthly apparition. I made no apology, for none was needed. I didn’t call myself a dumbass; I called myself resilient and capable. 

I’m not yet ready to unwrap the gifts Hawthorne has given me. I’m still sitting in the midst of Oscar’s. But it’s those that bring me peace in the wake of losing my beloved. Blessed Samhain and Dia de Muertos to all. May this season of transition and remembrance bring you peace.

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When All My Will Is Gone You Hold Me Sway

I sit in her embroidery chair, legs tucked up underneath me. I turn the pages of a magazine I found when she was crying in the bathroom. I sip my coffee; while I neither sleep nor need the caffeine, I like the ritual and bitterness. I can hear her stirring upstairs in bed. Not wanting to rouse myself yet, I give her a small mental push to turn on the light. I want her to see the wreckage of the bedroom, the hastily shoved furniture, the scattered clothes. She hasn’t actually made the bed here, just thrown more blankets on top. It will be an archeological dig for her to get out. 

As I hear her shuffle around and pause, I get myself ready for the day. I roll out my shoulders, lifting my arms and leaning back and forth from the waist. To myself, I am weightless. 

She moves down the hall, footsteps soft so as not to wake the baby. That sweet faced child; there’s magic in her. She sees me, and doesn’t know me. I’m just another person to her, one who never holds her, and only passes a hand over her lightening hair once in a while when her mama cries. The little one knows that Papa isn’t here right now. Sometimes she looks for them. I watch her as she sleeps, but I let her be. She doesn’t need to know me yet. 

I’m waiting for her when she comes downstairs. I put a comforting arm around her at the bottom; it lays heavy across her shoulders.

“How’d you sleep? Want some coffee? There’s so much to do today.” I hold her in place for a few moments before she moves to the sink. She fills her water bottle and drinks half while the coffee brews. She’d be jealous if she knew I never needed a refill, and that mine was always the perfect temperature. I stand with her in the kitchen, hands wrapped around our respective mugs. I remind her of the things that need to be done; sending off the death certificates, checking in with the lawyer and the medical examiner, figuring out what to do with all this damn stuff in the house. She has help, which I’m grateful for. I am always glad when the people I’ve been assigned have company other than me. 

This is not my first time with her, not by a long shot. But, as she has come to realize, it’s different each time. Our relationship changes, deepens. I am her familiar now, a constant companion for months at a time, and only a flick of a thought away at any other. 

“Let’s sit,” I say gently. I take her by the shoulders again and place her on the stairs; it’s not comfortable for more than a minute, but she’ll stay there as she scrolls mindlessly on her phone, trying to escape me. I sit behind her, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. I don’t have to talk much, this time, with this death. We know each other now. 

There is no companion like grief, I think to her. “How’s that for a business card tag line,” I say, and she smiles wryly. She looks up, looks around, taking in the chaos. Empty boxes are jumbled against the back door, waiting to be filled with the mementos of a life that is no longer here. There are so many; the one who is gone was a Collector. Rocks, books, forgotten glass bottles dug out of the rotten still up the mountain; everything from wine corks and cookie fortunes to postcards and matchbooks. She’s going to have a hell of a time culling through everything, deciding what to keep, and what else she’s willing to never see again. 

I let the dull red of anger pulsing in the corners, held back by the thick fog of despair, lighting up the gray like an ambulance racing through a cool morning. She isn’t aware of it, only of my presence, and that’s ok – she needn’t notice anything else right now. The baby stirs, kicks the side of the crib, and settles back down. She stares at the ceiling to determine how quickly her response is needed. As the little one falls quiet, she is content to rise and refill her coffee. She moves to her desk and opens her computer, every movement deliberate. Nothing is easy right now. I let her go to write about me, and stand to return to my corner chair. Something stops me; sometimes I’m not even sure why I do what I do, other than following instinct. I press my hand to her chest, hard; fingers spreading over her breastbone, my forehead pressed to hers as she begins to cry. It’s not a sob, it’s not a wail; it’s the creaking of the wreckage of her heart, the keening of the viscerally wounded. I support her as she leans forward in her chair, the pine desk no matter in my ethereality; I won’t let her fall as she breaks. It’s odd for this moment to come now. She prefers to save this for when she is truly alone, which is likely why I had so little notice. Nevertheless, I am here. Chest heaving, her voice echoes with the cries of those left behind and those gone before. She cries for her Hawthorne, for her Oscar, for all the promises broken and adventures abandoned. She cries for the relief and the guilt she feels; she cries for the loneliness and confusion she wades through. I hold her face, brush back her hair.

“I don’t understand,” she says. I know you don’t. 

“I’m so mad at you,” she admits. I know you are. 

“I don’t know how to do this alone,” she whispers. You’ll learn, little mama. 

“I hate this.”

“What right did you have to check out?”

“How fucking dare you?”

“Oh god, I miss you.”

“My baby. My love. My heart.” She calls them again and again, and all she gets is my whisper in response.

“Lean in, lean in, lean in. Go through, mama, go through.” All but chanting, I rock her, soothing arms around her.

Her voice softens, her body relaxes. This storm is passing. Exhausted, I pull back as she reaches for her pen. I watch closely for a moment as she opens her journal, waiting for the aftershocks that occasionally strike, but none come today. She takes a deep breath; I let it out, shakily. She looks out the window.“Dawn is coming,” I offer. She doesn’t respond, just looks back at her journal. One more breath, and she begins her daily page. She is OK for now. I settle back into her embroidery chair; I have a project for her for when she’s ready, but she hasn’t tried yet. I pick up my magazine and let her try to leave me behind, a shadow she is trying not to trip over.

You have to watch your step with me around; us Griefs have a way with ground cover. We stay as close to our companions as their hearts hold their beloved. I turn the page and look up when she sighs; the short fall day stretches out endlessly in front of her. She looks up, almost as if she sees me. She doesn’t; she can’t. I’m her formless friend, her constant; I am her Grief, and I’ll hold her in the abyss as long as she needs.

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Follow That Blinding Light Down a Crooked Path

Autumn has fallen a much gentler season than I anticipated. The skies have been Oscar blue for days, and the foliage is brilliant. I’m writing this in the mountains of Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest. A strong breeze shakes down the trees, sending shimmering waves of gold and fire-orange to the grass already blanketed. The branches weep, reaching for their leaves as they slip away, dancing in the wind on their inevitable descent.

My friend has been kicking me out of the house every day for some solo, baby-free time. I’ve gotten coffee, run errands, walked a lot, and written. It’s been really nice; as my return-to-Vermont date grows closer, the idea of learning to be a single parent and handling everything on my own becomes more daunting, so I appreciate these daily breaks right now.

On our first day here, my friends took me down the street to a local park on the James River. Trails run through it and connect some parks via the waterway as well. The river is home to some class 4 rapids, nearly unheard of within city limits. Signs posted state that with the river over five feet, life jackets are required for anyone entering the water in any manner; over nine feet and one must have a permit. The plan is to stay firmly on land, a plan endorsed by both our dog and theirs. The pups competed to see who could pee in more spots; I believe it ended in a tie. 

One of my host friends is damn near a botanist, by knowledge if not by trade. He had been sharing an incredible (read: nerdy) amount of detail about the woods, pointing out the conservation efforts to encourage the old growth forest, the different native plants (Latin names included!) and the invasive species. About a half mile into the woods, he pointed out wild grapevine, nearly half a foot thick where it broke free of the ground. It rose and dove along the ground, its boughs and bends mimicking the motion of deep sea monsters, not so out of place with the muffled rush of the river behind us. Sinuous in its stillness, it wrapped around a giantess of a tree. The oak rose from its hidden roots, at least four feet across; the deep ridges of her bark were worn away in softened patches from the constant embrace of the grapevine. I laid my fingers in her grooves, feeling them sink toward the heart, and feeling mine beat in response. There are many trees I have felt a connection with; it’s never something I have questioned, but enjoyed. I felt the quiet excitement of discovering an old friend in a new neighborhood. We paused long enough to take some pictures of Lucy and I there, and I promised myself I’d return soon.

Two days later, when my friend kicked me out for the first time, I went nearly running down to the trail. I was almost immediately slowed by the reminder in the morning fog to enjoy the journey. My eyes sought to follow all the flitting of small wings across the road. The calls of crows and jays and the indistinguishable chirps were a backdrop to new and unfamiliar songs. I entered the park and picked up the beginning of the trail. Alone, my steps lengthened over what I had taken with the stroller and the dogs and my friends; they fell on the gravel, the crepitus dampened from the hundreds of feet that had fallen before mine. It took longer than I anticipated to reach the tree, but eventually my steps fell silent as in reverence as the crushed rocks gave way to smooth, dark earth.

I reintroduced myself, sinking my fingers into the creases in her bark again. I ran my hand over the exposed fibers of the grapevine, completing the circuit, my body as battery. I breathe in the energy and the peace. I disconnect and retreat to the bench across the path. I lose myself for an hour or more, pen in hand, words flowing like an extension of myself onto the pages of my notebook. I forget to move much at any point; by the time my stomach demands we leave, my feet are tucked up under me asleep and the muscles in my back feel tangled and tight. I roll everything out for a few minutes, pay my last minute respects to the tree and the vine, and start back down the path towards home and another cup of coffee.

I come across the fairy bower accidentally, as most do. I was on the main path, bag slung over my shoulder with its pens and pencils quietly clacking together with my steps. I glanced down the side paths that wandered off the main, quick jaunts down to the riverbank. One to the left caught my attention, calling me back from my automatic forward motion. I looked down the path with its slight winding, a grapevine twisted in an arch overhead, tall enough for most men to pass through without stooping. English ivy thickly banked both sides and climbed to intertwine with the wild grape. The boughs didn’t quite reach down to the other side, leaving the arch just incomplete. Beyond it a new tree, verdant in its youth and against the ivy, stood like the centerpiece to this wild garden. The tricks of the fey, was the first thought that came to mind, and didn’t for a second believe that because I was within the city limits they would not also be here among the old growth forest. I found I had taken a few steps down the path and turned back to the main road. I nearly bumped into someone who clearly did not understand the need for distancing. 

He stood casually, leaning against an old hickory. His boots were clean and his clothes crisp; add a to-go cup of coffee or a slim briefcase, and he could be any local businessman just stepping out of the office for a bit. He carried nothing, wore no watch, no rings. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t notice that he didn’t belong there. 

“Beautiful day,” he said, the barest hint of a smile playing around his lips.

“It is,” I replied. With a slight nod, I shifted my weight to continue forward. He came out of his lean to stand fully in the way between me and the main path. 

“This is a gorgeous time of year to visit. You have made it just in time for the leaves to turn and fall.”

If there had been any doubt in my mind, his lyrical small talk would have put that to rest. I smiled but did not answer. 

“What’s your name?” the fairy asked. 

I nearly replied. I felt the warmth of the day as a gentle breeze stirred the leaves beside us. 

“Not a lot of people out this morning, hm?” he mused, watching me. I had been hoping for some jogger or intrepid dog walker to interrupt with their passing. I realized that he had blocked the fairy path from sight. There would be no accidental intercession. 

“Your name,” he said, voice a little stronger and with a slight ring of authority. The fey command respect, even with their antics.

“Hawthorne,” I replied. Knots inside me that I hadn’t been aware of loosened, and my body relaxed.

He looked surprised. “Hawthorne. That’s not a common name. Your given?”

“Chosen,” I said simply. He nodded, satisfied.

“A strong choice. A name like that carries magic in it. The owning of it, the speaking of it.”

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “I know.”

A companionable silence fell between us as a flock of swallows took to the clear morning sky above, trilling, their song falling through the canopy like a gentle summer rain. 

“Have you no interest in continuing down this path for your travels?” he questioned me. 

“No, but thank you,” I said, firmly, but with respect. He looked me up and down, and his eyes searched mine. I maintained my polite smile; as his gaze lengthened, I raised my eyebrow a fraction.

“Very well,” he said, letting go of the search. “May the rest of your day be as lovely.” He stepped back cordially to allow me to pass.

“Yours as well,” I replied, walking back towards the gravel of the main path. I didn’t dare look back until I made the turn; as I suspected, there was no trace of the man. The bower stood silent down its crooked path, still ensconced in shadow. The light beyond was dappled and no longer highlighted the young tree; in fact, it had become indistinguishable from those that surrounded it. 

I left the woods feeling lighter. I had come here to heal. I needed to get out of where I was for my heart to stop seeing them at every turn. Here there was no history, no memories to dim new ones made. I need that space right now, in the immediate hereafter. We were never in this place together. And so I had come, seeking peace, and leaving with far more than I imagined.

I lied to the fairy I met, but with mischief and no malice. Giving the fey Hawthorne’s name lets me let go of a little bit of them; I can’t carry all of them, my heart is already so heavy. I know they wouldn’t mind; they had so many more (mis)adventures left. I can’t think of a better way to let them live them out than with those are not quite of this world, but not quite out of it either. 

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A Blaze of Glory and an Untold Song

On September 19th 2020 Hawthorne (Emily) Barber-Dubois joined their son Oscar in the stars. The fare for this unplanned voyage weighs heavy on the rest of us here on earth. They are survived by their brother, a man of considerable volume and clear blue eyes; their sister-in-law, a woman who has far less fear than she realizes; their niece, who never fails to lift the spirits of anyone around her; their mother, a woman who is generous to a fault and makes a hell of a casserole. They leave their daughter, the brightest light in this universe; cousins, aunts, uncles, chosen family and forever friends, and me. 

Hawthorne was born in the summertime of ’83, burning out at the rubber tree, a long-awaited first child to hard-working parents outside of Buffalo, NY. Intelligent and quick from the start, when their brother arrived three years later, they asked when he would be sent back for crying so much. Pictures of that time are scarce; the few that exist are tucked into a cardboard keepsake box adorned with sea life. They grew up creative and brilliant, only to be checked by poorly controlled asthma and the regimented nature of school and church. The markers for advancement weren’t their grade level, but the guitars they played and practiced on until their fingers bled. 

They left high school early and without graduating rather than fail another math class that didn’t make sense to them. High school had not been a place of youthful adventures and education as much as it had been the backdrop to bullying from peers and professionals alike. One teacher and her laminated promise to keeping kids like Hawthorne safe kept them coming back as long as they did. 

They traveled to Chicago and found themselves in a cult now made famous by Netflix. In six short months they experienced some of the highest and lowest moments of their queer life. They fell in love with a beautiful woman who touched their heart, holding hands in secret and away from the searching eyes of elders. They endured isolation and shunning for letting that love shine.

Hawthorne left Chicago, arriving back in Buffalo the morning the towers fell in New York City; they were one of the last trains to arrive anywhere that day. Conversations about America’s due for meddling in foreign affairs only hours before in the dining car rang true as their father picked them up at the station. They returned home to watch the first tower fall, Spot coffee and cigarettes in hand. 

They dated a boy they promised to marry, still believing their eventual destiny to be a pastor’s wife, still dedicated to being straight. It may shock some to know that this relationship did not work out. When they finally embraced their love of the feminine and the female, the scorned former fiancé moved out, and Hawthorne opened the Heartbreak Hotel with one of their closest friends. The pair charmed the pants off women, drank cheap whiskey on the roof, and sometimes cleaned on Sundays. Those golden days shined in memory over fifteen years later. 

Hawthorne went on to meet people and fall in and out of love, as your twenties are for. They formed a bicycle gang with their friends; the Spreadeagle Feminists made sure that George W. had as little chance as they could. They smoked, drank, wrote songs, and played every chance they had. They worked in group homes and coffeehouses; the jobs changed but the friendships developed within them blossomed. They settled down once or twice, ended up with a redhead in the banking world, and joined the Rural Metro EMT Academy and become certified in having a pulse and performing CPR, the two most skills the company demanded for the job.

It was unexpected when their love appeared on the scene.  Ella was a scraggly creature, more a blur of black and teeth than a dog when they first met at the SPCA. A one-year-old stray, wire-haired and just wired, the staff asked if Hawthorne was sure they wanted that one. Two days later after her spay surgery, Ella the Fitzgerald terrier took a nap on Hawthorne’s chest, and the two were bonded. If you asked Hawthorne what they wanted for a tattoo, it looked like this.

I had been lucky enough to meet Hawthorne in 2008 at work one night. They stood to the door of the trailer, smoking a cigarette as I stomped past, pissed and swearing about my partner on the ambulance. Hawthorne was coming off shift and I was coming on. I had noticed the hot butch in uniform but didn’t register more than that until the morning when I arrived for shift change to find them sitting on the donated couch with their feet propped up on a flimsy coffee table, reading the paper. They said good morning without moving, and watched me step over their extended legs to punch out. Their mischievous grin told me everything I needed to know. 

I can’t say a romance was born that morning, but I definitely had my eye on them. I was married but it was a rather open arrangement; Hawthorne was in a committed relationship. It would be years before the interest sparked again. Trying on pants in the women’s room, I complimented them the best way I knew how in that setting: a firm slap on the ass as I walked by, saucy smile tossed back over my shoulder. They were speechless – a rare occurrence. 

It was at least another year before they charmed me off my feet after driving me batty. Christmas 2010 they were partnered up with me, and like a little boy mistakenly pulling pigtails on the playground, unplugged the unreliable Toughbook computer I needed for my paperwork repeatedly. We ate chocolates their girlfriend had made and tried not to think about the other. We became lovers in a dangerous time; they helped me leave an abusive situation, and their own relationship ended with its fair share of drama. They left the ambulance company and started their college career intending to earn enough credits to apply to the police academy. The first day of orientation, they came home and asked me, “do you know what I can DO with a criminal justice degree?!” With their sights set on law school, they poured themselves into their studies. After one year they changed their major to sociology and pretty writing; they met some of their best friends and most influential people in their life. 

Hawthorne learned to hold a baby when their niece was born, a bright little girl with piercing blue eyes. The love emanated from them as they gingerly cradled her and the wonder filled their own ocean eyes. Two days later, with the sand on their knee to prove it, they proposed to me in the woods of Thoreau. We were married in June of 2014, on a beautiful summer day during the Allentown Art Festival. Their gray tux hangs in the closet next to my wedding dress and still carries the scent of whiskey. The honeymoon in the backwoods gave them a taste for country life that drove the city mouse to consider law schools in northern New England. 

They graduated cum laude in 2015 and earned the Conrad Vogler Promising Sociologist award. They were so proud to have been one of the small percentage of those who leave high school and go on to collegiate degrees. Within a few weeks, with no backup plan, no jobs, and no contacts, we packed up and moved to rural Vermont. Their dream of living in the middle of nowhere was realized, and they fulfilled a promise to Ella of having a yard big enough to run around in. They met the neighbor and discovered the local law school had a rugby team that was open to community members. Without hesitation and with zero experience on Hawthorne’s part, we signed up. Besides the whole fitness and running aspect, they had an absolute blast steering the scrum and chasing down the backs.  

That summer was spent in the river with a beer in hand by day and job hunting by night, with the daylight being much more successful. When they received the call back from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for a job, they were talking about selling platelets to make some meager income because I refused to consider them selling a guitar. There was no end to their generosity and devotion to care for their family. Thankfully they were hired into their addiction research department, and the qualitative sociologist began handling more quantitative data than they had ever hoped to see.

On December first, Hawthorne fell down a full flight of stairs. It would be four months before their pain was taken seriously enough to get an MRI, and an additional two months for surgery. To literally add insult, they were laid off just days after their surgery as their department was merged with Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. They then took a job at the local designated health agency as an emergency case manager, a job that recalled their time on the ambulance.  It was there that they met their adventure buddy, a friend who later helped give them a space to better define their gender fuckery. 

After that job was unable to work with them to aid their recovery after a second back injury and surgery, they worked at the local hardware store for the summer – another dream realized – and then at the local coffeeshop. Their barista skills from early-2000’s Starbucks served them well, and the tips were often returned to the same store for more books to line our shelves. 

In July of 2018, their wife gave birth to Oscar Prince, a beautiful boy who was stillborn. They held tight to the earthside body of their starside baby, knowing that this world was too fucked up for any firstborn son. They chose his only outfit, and drove him around the mountains when his ashes were released by the funeral home. They never forgot him, and never stopped loving him. 

Hawthorne returned to work just after what was supposed to be Oscar’s due date, and left the coffeeshop for a local residential crisis respite house. There they provided peer support to other Vermonters who were dealing with their shit, and found a beautiful community of folks that they connected with. They began playing guitar again, and in a few months Washboard Honey was born. 

In the summer of 2019, they came out as genderqueer and transmasculine; finally they were able to define themselves with words that rang true. They embraced their chosen name of Hawthorne, and began using they/them pronouns, since they often didn’t catch the message they were supposed to receive when referred to as “she.” They had top surgery at the end of the summer, or as they said, they Marie Kondo’d their breasts because they brought no joy. After that they pretty much refused to wear a shirt. They were finally starting to feel at home in their body; until then, they had thought of their body as a shell of pain that carried them around and didn’t match up with who they were. 

Their littlest love came into the world six weeks early, making them worry from the moment her mama started having preeclampsia. They wore their tweed coat and flat cap for three days, wanting to make a good first impression, and ended up having their fancy duds covered with an operating gown. They followed her to the NICU and held her first, keeping her skin-to-skin on their proud chest. In the pictures, Lucy Danger is already looking up at her papa with such wonder. They loved her fiercely, and it was returned the same. 

With the advent of 2020 also came a new wave of discovery and personal development. They began taking testosterone; nearly immediately their voice began to drop. Their soft alto voice deepened and richened into a smooth baritone; they picked up new harmonies and new skills to adjust for the transition. Their mustache and beard began to come in, their arms and legs became more muscular. Their thrill was a daily celebration. 

Hawthorne was injured at work just two months after Lucy was born. The medical system plodded along, finally recommending surgery in March, just as the novel coronavirus made landfall in New England. Ambulatory surgeries were cancelled, and Hawthorne waited, not patiently, for a date. It wouldn’t come until more than 5 months after the original injury. Unfortunately after that long wait, the “Hail Mary” surgery did not bring relief. 

Car rides were a particular hell for Hawthorne, but we travelled out to western New York for a cousin’s wedding over Labor Day weekend. We met up with close friends and danced at the wedding until we lost our breath. We met friends’ babies for the first time, and Hawthorne took Lucy down her first slides and on her first swings. They sang with their brother and their cousin, and smiled for dozens of pictures. 

In the dark hours of the morning of Saturday, September 19th, they woke up sick. After steadying out with an early morning bath, they took a nap. They fell asleep with their head on my chest, cuddled under their favorite blanket in our bed with Ella curled up behind their knees. Our son’s ashes sat under his golden crown across the room, guarded by his teddy bear as they always were. The sun poured through the windows in the early fall morning, throwing rainbows from a crystal prism on the windowsill. The frost melted to dew on the grass, and Hawthorne slept on. They never woke up.  

Hawthorne leaves behind a family devastated, a daughter too young to understand, and me. They leave a legacy of laughter and music. They leave a body filled with pain and burning, with lungs that didn’t like to work and a mind that outpaced us all. They leave a woodstove for me to curse over, a pandemic that continues to rage, and a political climate that is wrenching apart our democracy. They leave their dilapidated fishing hat and about a thousand flannel shirts. 

But the Universe must have balance; where there is leaving, there must also be joining. Hawthorne is reunited with their family who has gone before; their father and grandparents. They have finally met their father-in-law, and probably are avoiding my mother. They are able to take their son’s hand and hold him as close as they once held their daughter. The captain of misadventures is no longer held back by pain and trauma. 

They also leave us gifts – not just the crow presents of railroad spikes and shiny rocks, not just the memories. They leave us with their music, their words and harmonies. They leave us with the connections they made with us, between us. They have touched literally hundreds of lives. And they leave us with a reminder to live – to carpe the fuck out of that diem.

So when you are out in the world, finding your way from place to place, and you find a pen someone has dropped, or someone’s wallet in a snowbank, or an inhaler tucked into the crook of a resting tree, you will know that Hawthorne has stopped off for a little visit. When you hear someone say, “well I didn’t think that would happen!,” know that they just wanted to have a little fun. When you hear quiet music, play it loud; and when you see injustice, stand up and speak out. Everyone who knew them knows that Hawthorne was not a quiet soul; I don’t see any reason that should end. 

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I’m Drawn to the Ones That Ain’t Afraid

This is the first time I have sat down to write in a while. These June days are long and tumultuous; the nights are broken into chapters of sleep, interrupted by pain. I have found myself startled awake by the cries of both my beloved and my baby only to find salt on my own cheeks. I look at this tiny, wondrous creature and despair at the world we have brought her into. I look at my beloved, with a strength and resilience I have yet to see matched, and my heart wrenches with silent sobs.

Today is our wedding anniversary. We married in Pride month, during an art festival under an administration elected on a platform of hope and change. We were married legally as two women, in a church, with 8 people fit into a limo, not a thought to sharing the close quarters with each other’s laughter and singing.

The then-and-now picture that emerges next to that happy day is in negative, a strip of film that had fluttered away when the photographs were last handled. The sun is shining still, but the golden light has never felt more temporary. June is still Pride month, and we are still married; but the rainbow that shone so brightly has wavered and dimmed. 

The art festival, shared limousines, and singing in enclosed spaces have all been paused by the coronavirus. Infections are rising as restrictions lift across the country. Pride month has given way, rightly, to gay wrath month. We hold our platform steady and try to use our voices to amplify those of the black community, who have been disproportionally killed by the police. We remember who stood for their rights in 1969 so that we may stand together today. We have lost a son, and felt his spirit when our daughter touched down earthside on Dia de los Angelitos. And my partner-in-crime, by beloved, is no longer a woman. 

Simone de Beauvoir said that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” To me it makes sense, then, that a woman can continue to become – even if it means that “woman” is not inclusive enough of a term, it can be a resting stop on a person’s journey of identity.    

Hawthorne is the not the first first name of my love. She/her pronouns do not encompass the wonder that is this person. The love of my life transcends the binary, genderqueer and proud. They have never been one for conformity, so why should their gender be any different? 

Two days ago, the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protections for trans* folks as defined by the Affordable Care Act. I was immediately incensed. It felt like a tipping point; I felt like the world was exploding around me as I stood, screaming, hands clamped over my ears so I could not hear the impacts of the shrapnel on the disenfranchised. How much more can I take, I wondered, rage pulsing through me. I can feel the echo of it in my blood still. 

We had fought so hard for marriage equality, which was passed and the most prominent house in the land was lit with rainbows. We were acknowledged, we were validated as a community. Congratulations, you are people too! Enjoy it while you can! is what the cake should have read. Hawthorne saw that then; I foolishly held more hope. 

Hawthorne is due to have surgery on their back in 9 days. This new injury occurred over 5 months ago; this is not their first tangle with the healthcare system, but it is the biggest one since they have advanced on their identity discovery journey. We live in a progressive state – at least one that is progressive in their practice, even if it takes some time for the laws to catch up. There seems to be an air of, “oh, we have to spell that out for people?” in our legislature. The majority of the time, it is an accepting place. And when it isn’t, people take action. I know that this move by the administration to redefine sex-based discrimination as based on biological sex (as well as decrease abortion access and decrease translation resources for non-English speakers) will not fly here, nor will it impact Hawthorne’s long and desperately-awaited surgery next week. But I worry. 

Covid-19 put off one particularly important thing. Hawthorne was in the process of changing their name before non-essential work stopped and travel was restricted in March. Here, it’s not a terribly hard process, but it does require certain government offices to be open. We are now looking at how to relaunch that process; it’s difficult for people who operate outside the gender binary to constantly hear their former name in the already fraught setting of healthcare. Electronic medical records are also notoriously slow to update with changes to the capture of demographic data. All this coalesces with the injury itself and the excruciating nerve pain to make every healthcare appointment a daunting endeavor. 

Right now, Hawthorne cannot carry our child easily or safely; walking is manageable, but stairs and sitting upright for any length of time is difficult. The nerve medication is a time-thief that steals the words and slows the speech of my favorite conversationalist. I miss seeing their ocean eyes unclouded by constant and debilitating pain. I wish I could alleviate that pain, even for a minute, and give them just a moment of sweet relief. I don’t know how they find the strength to carry it day after day. 

The amount of pain they have been left to languish in is inhumane. To add the constant need to correct their name as others speak it adds emotional overtime; then, for this embroiled country to put such hard-won progress in reverse and reclaim the ability to deny rights to trans* people removes even the vestige of respect. And still they rise: they make the calls and complete the paperwork and attend the appointments. The definition of insanity is not repeating the same action and expecting the result to change; that is tenacity, that is perseverance in the face of the storm. Hawthorne stands against the winds that buffet them with inadequate pain relief, with judgments about weight, mental health, and addiction thinly disguised as medical concern, and tangles of red tape. 

And here’s the kicker: they are afraid. Of the surgery, of the disregard for black and brown lives in this country, of the Republican National Convention now announcing their platform will still oppose marriage equality and support conversion therapy. They are afraid as I am, and that fear crowds out their anger while it elevates mine. But still, they stand and make their progress, inch by excruciating inch, intent on clawing back to their true self. They do it afraid. Their courage is nothing short of astounding.

They are my Pride. And whenever need be, I’ll be their Wrath. 

I thought I was going to write about anger today. Instead, the love came pouring out of me. If blog posts have dedications, then this one goes out to you, my love. I’ll be by your side through all that is to come, as I have all we have been through. You have stood by me, strong and indominatable, fluffy and dented, maybe bent but never broken. We have had ten years together, six married; two births, what feels like countless deaths; joy personified and vast rolling oceans of pain; a hundred storms, a thousand rains. Let’s get back to the garden, there are new greens to tend. Here’s to the next step in our forever.