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Last Call, Last Chance; Last Song, Last Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, my love. Let the music play.

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Why Do I Care How Much it Storms

I was a paramedic for ten years. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And Your Untouchable Face

It’s been three months.

This week has passed in a slow, melded blur. I’ve been by turns anxious and listless; my soul has the shakes, and I feel it in my joints. My hands hurt more these days, the middle knuckles starting to stick again. 

This is the third time I’ve tried to write this post. I haven’t been writing daily. My carefully crafted schedule has gone to crap. I’ve been keeping up with some things; daily yoga practice, drinking enough water. Mostly I just feel aimless. 

So, at the urging of a couple of lovely friends, I got out of the house and came to the beach. It’s not storming today, but rain is moving in. The clouds are rolling overhead, thick and heavy as they slowly edge out the blue. The dry seagrass moves gently in the cold breeze, marsh sparrows darting in and out of their quiet rattle. There is no snow on the beach. The sand isn’t even frozen; it gives softly under my boots, leaving dents instead of footprints until I approach the water’s edge. 

The tide is out, the ocean receded about as far as she goes here. I remember how much you wanted to be there for low tide to look for shells, and how excited you were to find the times of the tides were published. I brought your camera. I finally adjust the strap to fit me and sling it over my shoulder. I start walking, tracing the path we always took. 

I have never walked this beach this slow. I remember how impatient I could get with you, here, in your favorite place on earth. Most times we came here, it was winter. I was always dressed for a walk, but not a walk with you on the windy beach when there was so much to stop and look at. I don’t know why I insisted I’d be fine without gloves, or scarf, or whatever I had been missing. I knew what a walk at the beach entailed with you; I knew it could be hours before I sat back in the car. 

I’m sorry I hurried you. I’m sorry I didn’t prepare better, and my hands got cold. I’m sorry that it became annoyance, that I didn’t want to bend over to pick up shells anymore, that I didn’t want to take your picture another sixteen times only for you not like any of them. 

I never thought I’d walk this beach alone, but here I am. I’m dressed warm enough. I’m not being yanked along by Ella, or worried about the tiny baby strapped against my chest. I’m not impatient or hungry or cold or annoyed, and that just makes me remember all the times we were here when I was. I stand for a bit, the air cold enough on the soft breeze to bite at my cheeks, eyes squinted behind my sunglasses against the glaring light of the pastel winter seascape. 

I brought a bag this time. I actually found one in the car, like I always thought I would. I start walking, eyes downcast, stopping every few feet. I reach and turn over shells, picking them up like I’ll find you underneath, and have only half a moment to grab you before you disappear again. Maybe I’m searching for you here because it feels like a graveyard. The storm this week left the last vestments of sea creatures littering the sand in thick lines where the waves pushed them up. Among the pinks of the limpets, the rainbow of scallops and smooth white of clams lay the jagged shells of horseshoe crabs, ranging in size from my palm to our dinner plates. I find more spirals, broken homes of conches and who-knows-what-else, than I think I’ve ever seen before. I collect at random, filling my bag with the remnants we are drawn to. I stop here and there along my slow walk to pay respects at little altars to unknown deities; a dance of gull feathers stood up in the sand, curved mosaics of pure white shells. I find pieces of glass worn by the sea, and these I slide into the pocket of my jeans to come home with me. 

I search for every shell you ever dropped, every piece I didn’t want to pick up. I criss-cross the sand, from the tide line to the surf. The water foams up to my boots, and I remember your wild giggle as the sea would catch you in your excitement. I think of the starfish parable, and remember how you would toss  any object back into the sea if it was home to something living still. You made a difference to that one, and that one, and that one…

I reach the end of the jetty and start up the dune path; it’s an easier climb that I remember. Of course, the last time I came I had Lucy strapped to my chest, adding all of seven pounds. I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding when I reached the top. The tree still stood. 

We had picked out this tree for Oscar that first time we stayed after he was born, even knowing that it would one day be taken by the sea. The squat pitch pine stands about ten feet tall and just as wide, branches heavy with thick needles and tight cones in clusters. He is not buried here, but he is here, in this wild place where he can see the water and the land, feel the wind and the spray of the sea. Two years ago, we hung a small wooden fish ornament that we wrote his name and birthday on. It wasn’t always on a branch, but we have found it every time we came to see. I search her boughs and under her canopy, gently but thoroughly. It makes sense that this is the first time that I cannot find it. We had purposefully picked out the wood and jute rendering, knowing that sooner or later it would be returned to the natural world. I feel more peace than sorrow at the loss. I kneel on the carpet of her fallen leaves and press my face to the earth for a moment. You are ever here, and ever loved. 

I stand, feeling a flutter on the back of my neck. I ask you out loud if you are waiting for me here. It’s the first I’ve spoken this whole walk. For a moment, I feel you in the breeze, but then you are gone again. 

I don’t get any more of an answer than that, and I don’t understand the translation.

I make my way out of the dune and approach the water at the inlet. Foot and pawprints mar the sand in every direction; there’s a unmarked patch, maybe four feet by four feet, that is untouched. I take the horseshoe crab tail out of the bag and draw a large heart taht ends up a little wonky. It will be washed away with the next high tide, but that’s alright. I kneel and set out piece after piece, shell after shell, sea garbage after beach debris. Seaweed that looks like stacks of coins on a string, scallops and clams, mussels and conches; thick pieces, broken pieces, pockmarked and scarred pieces. I add the delicate leftovers of crabs, pine cones from the tree, a piece of waterlogged cedar shingle. I write Oscar’s name and his date, then yours, and your dates. You always wanted me to write RIP,  but I thought it was tacky and too much like a Halloween decoration, so I never did. Instead, I write “forever in my heart,” for you both are. I take some pictures, take some time, then turn to walk toward the car, still slower that I ever had before. 

I’m wrestling with your absence, and everything you left behind. I miss you so much, and most days I’m still pissed. I tell you almost every night that I’m still mad and I’m not talking to you. I did last night, and probably will tonight. I’m angry that you aren’t there when I lay down, when I wake up. My heart hurts because you had the audacity to die on me. You’re missing out on so much, and I’m missing you unbelievably. I’d give anything to argue with you about if we should come here for Christmas or not, or to feel your cold-ass feet sliding up my legs again. I wish I could take you to the beach, and I’d dress warm enough. I’d bring a dozen buckets and scoop up every shell you pointed out. 

I’m sorry, and I’m angry, and I miss you. 

I’ll see you on our road, and I’ll meet you one day at the tree in the dunes.