It’s been over a year since I have experienced music live, more than three since I had a ticket to a performance in another city. I thought I knew how much I missed it; I thought I knew how much I associated live music with love.
This week, a good friend took me to see one of her favorite musicians, Takenobu. They were playing at a club I had sworn I’d been to before, but after going, I don’t think I had. People were respectful of the masking rule, free masks were available at the door, and everyone had to show proof of vaccination. I felt comfortable in the space, as small as it was; we made quick friends with the woman on my right, a recent college graduate and new resident of the city. When the unassuming couple took the two steps up to the stage, silence swept the underground room.
I had never heard of the musicians, at least, not knowingly. I didn’t know anything about them other than my friend was super excited to see them. I just missed the experience.
It only took the first song to have me hooked. We were maybe ten feet away from the musicians, just the 3rd table from the tiny stage. Their movements flowed like water, bows sliding over cello and violin strings. It was beautiful, and appeared effortless. The music simply lifted from the fingers that played it. This was not music you listened to; this was music you breathed. I felt it with every inhalation, as I filled my lungs with the sound and let it go, let it surround me. The voices that rose were the perfect complement to the classic instruments.
By the third song, I was actively swaying in my seat. I noted that my friend was as well; everyone else in my line of sight sat statue-still. I didn’t understand that, never had. Could they not feel it? Feel the way the music moved around them, electrifying the cells in their bodies, coaxing the movement from their limbs? I had an image of a ballet performance in my head, the dancers reaching forward as if their fingers were desperate to feel the music run through them, even as they were pulled backward by some other invisible force. I wished it was an open floor plan; I wished for the confidence and the grace to be able to get up and dance the way the music was insisting. I wished I’d worn a long skirt that would continue to flow with the movements of my hips after they changed direction.
I absently noted the passage of time only because the clock was in my direct site. The brass hands made their slow sweep over black as the view out of the high windows went bright as the streetlights came on. The violin and cello continued to make their easy transitions, moving from smooth notes drawn out with the bow, to playful with quick plucks of the strings. I noticed a familiar hand pattern; yes, the cellist was finger picking the cello. I felt the excitement bloom in my chest and turned my head to tell Hawthorne. Oh, right.
As happens when I get really into something, I had lost track of where and when I was, swept away in the music. That surrender is how I had danced for our entire wedding with my shoes on the whole time; it was what made road trips fly by as fast as the highway outside. It had been a long time since I felt it. It was what happened when music and joy and love and wonder converged.
The music swelled with meaning, not just from Takenobu. Bright memories of both my first and last loves washed over me in time-hazed pastels. Half-running from the train to get to the little club where we had ten-dollar tickets to see someone we had barely heard of, waiting to snuggle up and sway together in the sweaty crowd. Having a mountain of a man put me and my skinny boyfriend in front of him, protected from the pit forming behind us. Hawthorne dragging me closer to the stage so they could watch the hands of the musicians. Sitting on the grass and watching their eyes sparkle in the dusk.
I pressed a fist to my heart to hold it, that joy, that sweet ache of beautiful memory. This is what live music is about, I thought. This has been missing from my world.
The last time I’d heard it was at the jam at the Wild Fern where we had gathered to celebrate Hawthorne’s life, just over a year ago. I felt that sweet ache falter towards something more painful; applause rose around me and brought me back to the moment.
We drank our craft beers and savored the rich mouthfuls of tres leches cake we split. I watched the young person in the corner write page after page in the notebook balanced on their knee, occasionally reference a book with a pink cover and long title that I couldn’t make out. I remember those days, where any moment I sat was a moment to study. I made notes on my phone, regretting the absence of my own notebook. I didn’t want to be rude, but I knew I needed the words that moved through me to be captured and not carried away on the music.
Suddenly I heard bars I’d recognize anywhere rise to dance on the air. The instruments were different, but suddenly I was on a mountaintop in Vermont in midsummer, bonfire lit, chairs pulled up to the light, Hawthorne and friends picking up the key and melody. The melancholy rendition of Shady Grove transported me so that the woodsmoke obscured the young student, the café tables and fake candles. I could see the faces of friends, of my love, as if they were there to reach out and touch them. My heart squeezed. I pulled up a favorite picture of Hawthorne on my phone and set it on the table; for a moment, just for a beat, they were with me at the show.
Takenobu finished their main set, then told the story of why they don’t actually leave the stage at Club Passim, and then immediately began their encore. We paid the bills that were handed out, heads bent toward bright phones and paid by QR code. I thought of when my first boyfriend and I went, the black X’s on our hands and cash carefully folded into his pocket. I looked around at our masked companions, and hoped he was still going to shows.
The show ended at what, at thirty-six, was the perfectly reasonable time. Twenty years ago, my boyfriend and I would be wondering if another act was coming on. Instead, my friend and I joined the tiny merch line, where she got a T-shirt and the chance to tell them how much she loved them. I asked if he had actually been finger picking, and he said that he had. I felt a smugness that I know Hawthorne knew well, and was glad they had taught me what that style looked like.
I had a blast at the show; we talked about how perfect it was on the way out of the city. The only thing that could have made it better, I told my friend, was a cup of Turkish coffee to go with the sweetness of the tres leches cake. She agreed. Neither of us could understand how the rest of the crowd was so still; I could already feel the motion of the night in my sides, those muscles rudely awakened. I smiled at the slight pain, willing to take that as my due. Whatever the price was from dancing in my seat, it didn’t matter. The music is back.
We talk so cavalierly about love and death. Flip on the country station for a while and listen; for that matter, the pop station, or anywhere you’ll hear (usually) a man professing how he cannot or will not or does not want to live without the love of this woman (again, usually). There is no pause in the lyrics, nothing to actually address the mortality, and I fully understand that it is a turn of phrase. To profess that you would rather die than live without, that you don’t want to even breathe without, is to walk with a privilege forgotten by those who have lived with loss. To announce that there is no way, even in the romanticism of song lyrics, that life could possibly continue after the death of your beloved, is blind arrogance.
When we married, Hawthorne carefully curated the list of approved songs to make sure there was no mention of death in the lyrics. We didn’t mention it in our vows; the closest we came was using an instrumental of “The Luckiest,” which has a verse about an old couple who passes away within days of each other. Even then, we both were too well acquainted with death; had felt that cold hand rest on ours as we tried to pump life back into a still heart, had lost enough of our own to not be intimately aware of our own mortality. We refused to invite death to our wedding.
And yet, it found us in our marriage, time and time again. I think I’ve thought about the movies of the Final Destination series more in the past year than I have ever before. Logically, I know that death touches everyone; and in pandemic times, even more so. I get that. It doesn’t mean I’m OK with it, or that I can easily accept it, or that it changes the individual losses experienced by each person.
I’ve been talking a lot about the difference between seeing patients and population health at work recently. I am privileged enough to work with a group of great providers and staff who care about their patients. In my position, however, it’s integral that I see both the forest and the trees. It’s harder for the folks who see patients to do that; they sit for a few minutes to an hour with individual people, learning about them and what they are feeling and experiencing. I’m grateful that I know what that is like from my paramedic days, that I have that background to draw from.
But I am also trusted to remember the fact that we are serving both individuals, and a population. From that 30,000 foot view, it is not the individual that we are caring for: it’s the subset of people who have breast tissue and need mammograms, it’s those who have high blood pressure and diabetes, it’s kiddos under the age of two who need their vaccines. In that thinking, the individual is not the concern, it’s the group. I realize that sounds callous, but both views are absolutely necessary.
The fact that I have lost so many in my time and in my family means nothing in the grand scheme of life and death in this world. How many people, lives, relatives, humans died in the past week due to disasters or the pandemic? Over 600,000 have died directly from Covid-19 or its immediate complications, to say nothing of those who have perished due to more ancillary complications: not being able to get a hospital bed for another condition, not having access to the social services that helped keep them alive. It is a heavy thing to know the weight of the forest as you watch individual trees be felled.
I am still standing.
That’s not a brag, or even a point of pride here. It’s just fact. I have lost, our families have lost; we are all tired of watching Death come for our own.
There are moments where I have absolutely wanted to give up and lay down, let my body be consumed by earth or fire or water, and join my son and my beloved in the stars. I have no shame in admitting that.
Grief has torn me to pieces so small that it’s a wonder there’s enough left to be stitched back together, and makes it hard to find the needle and thread. But I’m holding on, if (at times) for no other reason than my body isn’t done with me yet.
We talk about this love, this undying emotion that is so strong it would kill us to lose our partner. We hear the songs and stories about elderly folks who pass on within days or hours of each other. We read and watch The Notebook. We talk about dying in the same moment, so we are never without.
It doesn’t usually work like that.
In the movie Midsommer, (possible spoiler alert, but it came out in 2019, so catch up), the couple whose “time has come” is preparing to jump to their deaths. One has accepted this, the prescribed end of his life. His wife has not. She weeps and wails, not ready, even though her love is laying below, bloody and bludgeoned and gone. I can’t tell you if she is “assisted” over the edge, because I closed my eyes. I couldn’t watch.
“How do I live without you?” It’s hard as shit. But you do.
“I don’t want to even breathe.” Too bad. Your body just keeps breathing, your heart keeps beating. It requires far more action to stop those things than you have the energy for. Even if you just sit there, wishing to go gently into that good night, the time passes. People urge you to eat, drink, live, and at some point it becomes easier to give in to that than fight it. Grief demands the path of least resistance. You take the road that requires the least amount of energy and effort, because you have neither to give – but you are still on that road.
I have lost, immeasurably. And while it’s hard, I still want to live. I want to continue. Some days more than others, some hours are spent just letting the time pass and my body breathe for me; but I want to live, even without Hawthorne, without Oscar. I know that I have their love, I just don’t have them with me here.
Sometimes when these songs come on the radio, I get angry. There’s no choice, I scream out the open window on the highway. That’s not how it works. Sometimes I cry, tears slowly rolling out of my eyes. Sometimes I just shake my head at the audacity of the songwriters to think that life stops because the body that held your love died.
Life doesn’t stop. Time doesn’t stop.
I have likened both Oscar’s and Hawthorne’s deaths and the days that followed to being on a train, speeding through the land. Inside the train car, everything is still; everything is how they left it, nothing is touched. There’s some change from the sway, the outside pressures of acceleration and movement and disturbances, but it’s almost like you remembered it.
Then you look out the window and see everything rushing by, and you realize, the stillness is false. Time hasn’t stopped out there, all around you. Life continues. And at some point, you have to get back outside the train car.
It hurts my heart to think about how many people are going through this; hundreds of thousands of people who may not have had to face it right now, were it not for the pandemic. I see the struggles my friends are facing with their family and friends. I am primed for bad news at any moment, guarded constantly. This isn’t living in fear, it’s living with reality. The forest is vast, and each tree cut down is a fresh wound to it, no matter what view you are taking.
One artist Hawthorne and I never got to see live was Jason Isbell. I’m getting to the point where I can listen to his song “If We Were Vampires,” again, without H, but rarely without crying. And while I’m not ready to see time running out as a gift, I can at least be grateful to a songwriter who understands both the depth of love we had, and the cold, hard truths of mortality.
I didn’t see it put down on the sidewalk; in fact I didn’t see any crows. But the single, white LEGO stood out on the gray cement. It was clean, other than few grains of sand that were lodged in the crevices that make it stick so sturdily to another LEGO and nothing else. It wasn’t the usual place for a LEGO to end up; but then, it wasn’t too unusual, either. It was right outside my daughter’s daycare, where I know for a fact they have LEGOs of multiple sizes. It may have been dropped from a toddler’s hand (cough Lucy cough) when they tried to shove it in their mouth, or maybe was smuggled in from home in a tiny pocket. However it got there, there it was.
It was such a Hawthorne thing to find. I would find so many random little things in their pockets or lodged in the washing machine. The normal things like paper clips and guitar picks, crumpled Post-Its; but also bits of glass, strange pieces of metal that looked like nothing at all, brightly colored plastic from some tossed-away toy. And the rocks, oh, the rocks. The countless rocks that they carried; smooth, jagged, sparkly, striped. All it had to do to be picked up and taken home was catch their eye, and be a rock.
I was thinking of their fondness for rocks when we were in Vermont for Hawthorne’s memorial jamboree. The mountains that echoed with the voices they loved best would leave pieces behind that their daughter might (definitely) put in her mouth. They were talismans, imbued with strength; offerings for a strong soul that had carried those mountains with them. Hawthorne missed the wide expanses of sky in Buffalo, and the wide array of available food options in the city, but it was the mountains that called to them and the stream that carried them home.
The stones they pocketed somehow made the weight they carried lighter. Maybe it was a grounding touch-piece, or a reminder that no matter how much they hurt, the mountain would be there when they were ready to hike again. The river would be there to hold them and carry them over its smooth stones when their body healed. Hawthorne, friend to both mice and men, became known to those they loved as the collector of rocks and shiny things. So well was this known that one of the amazing kiddos in our lives brought a heartfelt offering of a special geode; and much to her parents’ chagrin, she also channeled Hawthorne and needed to bring a curated selection of her prized collection for the trip.
The mountains shone for the jamboree, sun pouring across the verdant hills that surrounded us. The Wild Fern stood empty but for Heather working her magic in the kitchen; picnic tables, salvaged chairs, and thick blankets held the nearly forty people who came to celebrate. The littlest kids sat on the blanket and at the tables, eating other people’s snacks and running to any arms that would hold them. The older kids climbed the steep foot of the mountain, sitting on an old fallen log, hanging by one hand off the slimmer trunks. They lost themselves among those trees, in sight of everything, and blind to any world beyond what they were creating.
Lucy was captivated by the music, listening to her friends sing and play songs that she had heard since she touched down on this earth. She had slept through the eerie wail of the saw that Justine bowed, and been rocked to dreaming to Toby’s voice sailing over Aretha’s classics. She had been cradled tight to Heather’s heart, and engulfed by Rick’s giant, gentle hands as the two would trade instruments for holding her. Our littlest love had travelled through the hands of nearly everyone there, at one point or another, in Buffalo or right there at the Fern. The days when Hawthorne and I brought her there, I remember handing her over to one person when we came through the door and stomped off snowy boots, then picking her up at the other end of the building over an hour later. She watched, as enraptured then as she was now.
The jam was fluid. Some people came, some went; most stayed, let the music wind its way around us and bring us together. Justine brought an antique scythe she had borrowed from her father, a man who was no stranger to pain that Hawthorne had befriended outside the little grocery store, not knowing the relation to their bandmate. It wasn’t his good one, so the danger was a little less imminent; that is, until Danger herself decided to walk under it a few times. Dana and a couple others talked about running back up the road a couple miles, to where the farm of staunch Trump supporters had a full pride of peacocks, and liberating a couple for the party (fun fact, a group of peacocks is also called an ostentation, because of course it is). There were homemade, handmade donuts, of which about a half-dozen I immediately lay claim to; and gourmet pizza galore. The parking lot across Route 100 was as full as I had ever seen it. There were a few people missing, folks who couldn’t get away, those who were already away, and those I knew had ran into a flood of problems trying to get there. The one missing most, of course, was Hawthorne.
What a perfect celebration, I found myself thinking. How dare they miss this? How can the guest of honor be gone? Is that what it took to get all their people, scattered across the country, together? Buffalo finally met Montgomery, and got to hear the harp guitar that had been born right there on Elm Street. Washboard Honey sang their signature, setting people swaying more like honeybees than they could ever know. Heather gave us a song of both remembrance and hope, bringing fresh tears to my eyes. As the day edged toward evening and the sun-washed valley started going gold, everyone joined in a final rendition of Pink Floyd’s via the Milk Carton Kids Wish You Were Here.
After a quick jaunt back to the inn for diapers and repacking of snacks, we arrived at the river to find the party already flowing. People sat in the water in camping chairs, letting the current massage their legs. Some of the Vermonters in the bunch stood mid-stream, shoulders above the cold water. The river flowed fast, speed bestowed from the recent heavy rains.
Without Hawthorne there to argue about it with, Justine efficiently built a fire in the same area that H had toiled over their own fire pit. If anyone mentioned the fire pit wars of 2020, I missed it; but those battles are long over now. For the first time in my memory, someone came prepared with skewers for the sausages and marshmallows; the older kids ran around offering their toasting services. The goodbyes started slowly as the shadows crept further across the water, until the sun dropped behind the treeline. A few of us stayed until the first stars came out in the summer sky, laughing and talking, sharing memories and embarrassing stories.
We made it back to the inn around ten-thirty; most everyone had already gone to bed. My friend Sarah had picked Lucy up from the river and taken her for the evening, giving me the night off. Everyone had been such a help with her; like the Fern, we were surrounded by our village, and any hands that held her took wonderful care. I had no worries about her being out of my sight, not with our village in full force.
We had always known how lucky we were; we had a big love, and we knew that, down to the bone. From Boston to Buffalo to the green mountains majesty, we had forged unbreakable bonds and strong communities. We saw it in the times we had moved from one place to another, across city and state lines. We heard it in the music shared with us, felt it in the hard hugs that came at the beginning and end of every trip we took. We were overwhelmed by it when Oscar was born starside; we were fed, washed, and clothed in it. And now, the village had come together to lay one of us to rest. One gone far too soon, though I feel like I would say that no matter when they left.
The magic of that day lingers, hanging in the air, a last note allowed to fade out. There can be no encore, no reprise. And that, my friends, is okay; sometimes, for no other reason than it simply must be. The rest of us are left to go on without them, but knowing that they live on, deep in the hearts of everyone our village encompasses; they are stardust, shining down. It’s up to us to let their stories and memories become legend and lore, rich with their soul, their pride, and the sound of their laughter. May we always remember that no matter how thick the clouds or devastating the storms, the stars shine on beyond our sight, and that those who have gone starside make the darkness just a tiny bit brighter. May we also never forget that the same atoms that make up stardust also make mountains, they just trade them back and forth over eons, and not a single one is ever lost forever.
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.
It’s been a jukebox week. One emotion fades out, the record changes, and a new one overtakes me. I lean, exhausted, against the smooth wood and neon glow of the machine, two fingers of whiskey cradled in one hand. My hands are empty of quarters, my eyes tired and swollen from crying. I scroll constantly through the menu, keeping up the perpetual motion, so they have something new to focus on. The past few days I’ve been playing whack-a-mole with the image of Hawthorne laying on our bedroom floor after the ambulance left.
When I first met Hawthorne, music was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to devour them; catcher’s legs in cheap uniform pants, curly hair just long enough to fist my hand in, that cheeky grin. They were hot; that first impression was indelible. I quickly learned how funny they were, how smart, and certainly, how charming. When I melted under their hands during our first kiss, heart pounding, I learned that they were talented. It wasn’t much longer until I knew just how good they were with their hands.
When they told me they played guitar, I said I couldn’t wait to hear them play. I meant it, even though I was expecting another rendition of Ani DiFranco’s Both Hands; Buffalo lesbians have a little bit of a theme. One thing I hadn’t learned about them yet was to hold a space of wonder; they were never what expected to be. They laid their guitar, one of several in the apartment, across their knee, and smooth notes I didn’t recognize slid out to hang in the living room air. The melody rang a distant bell but I knew I had never heard this song before. Not having had much exposure to Prince at that time (which was thereafter quickly rectified), I didn’t recognize Little Red Corvette until the chorus. This version was akin to the acoustic version of Layla, a stripped down slow burn. I was hooked.
Music was probably the most important thing in our relationship after communication. There was never a silent day in our house. At any hour of the night or day, some unheard refrain would slide out of the tiny speaker of Hawthorne’s iPhone. Often, it would play two or three or twelve times, depending on how much guitar they were playing that particular week. Any mad money we had went to on concert tickets. Hawthorne didn’t like to shell out more than 30 unless it was a select short list of acts; while we were thrilled for Brandi Carlile to start getting the recognition she and the band deserve, we were bummed that her prices slid out of reach. I would blatantly ignore their thoughts of fair pricing, however, when it came to birthdays and Christmas. I would make tickets out of construction paper, conveniently leaving the price off. I got a good deal, I’d say, a lie I was comfortable telling if it meant I could give them the chance for live music.
They stopped playing guitar for a long time; they enrolled in undergrad and really threw themselves into their studies. They’d pick up the Taylor or the Larrivee during semester breaks, always remarking how they couldn’t way til they had more time to play.
Early in their academic career, Hawthorne began to have strange symptoms. They developed neuropathy, and had trouble getting their hands and feet to do what they wanted. They were in pain constantly. The doctors would put them on prednisone while they told Hawthorne to lose weight and reduce their stress. The prednisone helped; it felt like the doctors didn’t. They went through years of intermittent flares of symptoms and pain, followed by intermittent testing. At one point, one neurologist said they were sure it was multiple sclerosis, only to call three days later and say it could not possibly be MS due to the lack of findings. Eventually a rheumatologist diagnosed them with seronegative spondyarthropathy; hey, we acknowledge all of these symptoms and believe it is rheumatologic, but we can’t prove exactly what it is with the tests we have. Hawthorne was told they probably had ankylosing spondylitis, but it would take ten years to develop the physiologic damage that was needed to diagnose.
It was a disheartening time. All of Hawthorne’s energy was conserved for school; they had structured an amazing network and courseload in the sociology department; they spent hours in the library writing, and were never without at least three of their books. The music still played, but the guitars lay quiet.
When we moved to Vermont, we hired movers for the load-in; we were old enough to barely afford them, but lacking the solid team of friends who had emptied our apartment into U-Hauls and F150s, we desperately needed them. I remember the two men moving things in; after the third trip for guitars, the question shortened from “Where do the guitars go?” to “More?” In total, Hawthorne had 13 guitars and electric basses.
It took time to find our place in Vermont, not our house but our community. We moved here and looked for our fellow queers, putting out the lesbian bird call; alas, the woods are dark and deep. One day we were driving around, getting to know our new corner of the world; we drove too fast for roads we didn’t know and ended up turning around a lot. We zipped past another antique store, front door just steps from the road. I banged a U-ey, and we pulled into the Wildwood Flower.
Cats made themselves immediately known to Hawthorne’s asthma; but one doesn’t worry about asbestos when entering Aladdin’s cave. They were drawn to the wall of guitars, a look of wonder on their face that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I could practically feel the itch in their fingers as they waited on someone to come tell them to go ahead and play one. Moments later, we met Jake, and Hawthorne spent the next 45 minutes playing different guitars and talking music while I wandered around the rest of the shop, listening to them chat and wheeze.
After that, we would stop in occasionally; there was always vague talk about plans to play or have guitars fixed. It wasn’t until our hearts were irreparably broken that any of would come to pass. We were searching for solace, for any balm on our wounded souls. While I started writing again, Hawthorne picked up their guitars for the first time in years. Their fingers found their way over the fretboards; tuning became the background music to my keyboard tapdance. Within months, Hawthorne joined the band that would become Washboard Honey.
Their playing music was the key to the golden city; suddenly we had plans to work other things around, nights reserved for practice, and weekly dates at the Wild Fern. We were introduced to Rick Redington and the Luv, Vermont-style bagels, and the People’s Jam. We grew closer to our neighbors there; they held us, fed us, and wrapped around us in music and in community. When Lucy Danger touched down, we asked Rick and Heather to be her Vermont godparents. We were family.
Sundays became our sabbath, our cathedral the valley in which the Wild Fern rests. The music rang out, reverberating off the mountains, calling all to witness. Guitars and ukuleles, fiddles and voices lifted, joined by harmonicas and flutes and whoever brought what instrument. The person who chose the song called out the chords; choruses gained strength with familiarity. The few there who listened and did not play would sway and dance and clap along. Lucy was rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the People’s Jam in the arms of whomever she landed in, her lullabies rockin’ blues and old country songs. Those Sunday hours were some of the happiest and most meaningful of our lives.
I sit here now in the dark of a November morning and listen to the silence. This early hour has always been my quiet time, but lately more often I’ve been turning on the music as soon as I sit to write. The house itself sounds different without them; the floorboards creak in new ways without their weight, the tiny taps of the heat kicking on sound off more frequently. The noise Hawthorne made is in stark negative; the bath doesn’t run every day, and there is no thud of their inhaler or phone hitting the floor from being pushed off the bed in their restless sleep. What used to be treasured time has changed, skewed. It is no longer a precious space for me to gather myself before the start of the day, but a clamoring crescendo of their absence.
The music did not die with them. It plays on; in Rick and Heather and everyone at the Fern, in the members of Washboard Honey, in the hands that will pick up some of Hawthorne’s guitars. The song lives on in Lucy Danger, in western New York, down to Mississippi and out to Seattle.
Hawthorne just has a new gig in the chorus of silence.
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.