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The Least Competitive Person in the Room

There is nothing in the world quite like dirt therapy, I thought as I knelt, shifting every few minutes to ease the sting of grit on my knees. The drought-dry dirt lacks the soft landing of planting season, or even harvest. Shallow roots come up easily; even the tough knobby joints of the wild violets give up their stronghold, and dandelions dangle their long tubers from my grip. Still, it only take a couple breaths until my exhale is a contented sigh. Even when it’s 82 degrees at 7 am, I find refuge in the garden.

Ella wandered around the yard, sticking her nose in every nook and cranny she hadn’t seen in a while. When it’s just the two of us, I can let her wander in the quiet dawn, though it takes some coaxing to get her out of the house without it now. As I pull the invited plants from the garden, I watch her explore the spaces she cannot usually reach: the far corners of the yard where the mismatched fencing meets, the rotting wooden posts behind the tiger lilies, the dried stalks at a permanent-until-pulled lean. I worry a moment she’ll get her head stuck where the two fence slats are missing, but like her human sister, she figures it out without my assistance. 

This was reentry week. I have been out of work since the beginning of June, as I played gracious hostess to a lovely intestinal parasite that moved in and wreaked havoc on my body. I was supposed to go back to work on Monday, only somewhat eased in by a 4 day workweek. I felt ready as I could be; the only part I was dreading was opening my email. The rest, I felt normally nervous about. Figuring on that anxiety to only grow exponentially until Monday morning, I tucked these quiet moments in envelopes in my mind, labeled by light and scent, to pull out when I needed. 

About an hour later, not liking the cough Lucy had woken up with, I wrapped her in a thin blanket to  keep her some semblance of still and stuck a Q-tip up her nose. Covid positive. Well, shit.

On the first day Lucy was pretty much fine. She was vaccinated, and acting pretty normally; there was no need for immediate concern. At first I was, selfishly, more upset about the timing. My friends had been planning on coming in for months; I was all set to head up to Vermont, a place I will always consider home, and take the next step in my dream. I had a writers conference to attend, and an appointment to pitch to an agent who might be interested in my book. I was feeling ready to go back to work, hopeful, armed with my updated notebook and shiny new mindset.  But I shrugged, said c’est la fucking vie, and prepared to hunker down in quarantine with the kiddo. 

Within a day, my symptoms were starting. The sore throat came first, sharp and uncomfortable; less than twelve hours later, on my way to get tested myself, I felt my bones catch fire and my whole body begin to weep. I almost turned around to go home and curl into a ball. By day three, I had the cough and logged less than 600 steps. We were a sorry pair, for sure; we spent the weekdays in our pajamas til nine, the TV on almost constantly, and doing our best imitations of potatoes. I kept up on Lucy’s over-the-counter medication regimen better than mine, and she repaid me by spending the majority of the hottest days sprawled in my lap. The threatening storms had Ella practically attached to me as well, none of which helped the fever that pushed against the Tylenol. Lucy still seemed mostly herself, just subdued. She continued her moratorium on taking naps at home, even as I struggled to simultaneously rest and stay awake with her. 

My anxious and fevered brain began to ramp up when my eyes closed. I remembered being in the PICU last year, with RSV and pneumonia, looking at the uneven tiling in the bathroom by the locked doors. I remembered the 24 days she spent in the NICU before she could come home, this tiny human that didn’t even break 5 lbs until three days before she left. I remembered getting the steroid doses into my body with minutes to spare, to help fortify her underdeveloped lungs were born via emergent C-section at exactly 34 weeks. 

I dreamed of Oscar, gone before he could take an earthside breath. I wept for Hawthorne, who had lived their last months in fear of this new respiratory virus they were convinced would be their death. 

That’s when the guilt hit, taking full advantage of my weakened defenses. 

I hadn’t protected Lucy. I hadn’t stopped her from getting Covid. I had let this plague get to my preemie daughter – because no matter how old she gets, I’ll never fully get past those first 24 days.

But, I reminded myself, had protected her. She was vaccinated, as soon as she was eligible. I took her to one of the first available clinics for her age group, and she’d had the second dose not quite two weeks before. I had done everything I could, for the 870 days since the pandemic was announced as a public health emergency. She is one of the youngest kids I know of to be vaccinated. I don’t need the headlines to tell me that the uptake by toddler parents is frighteningly low; I can see it by our clinics. 

We are coming out of it now, definitely on the upswing. I’m still exhausted, but other than that one day, we’ve gotten outside to at least get some fresh air, and usually a walk around the block. The sunshine, as well as the rain that finally broke the heat, felt so good. I am so glad and grateful that we were vaccinated. I’m completely certain that without it, we both would have been much sicker. Even as it was, it’s nothing I’d want anyone else to get, so we stayed away from people all week, and practiced wearing a mask, too.

I go back to work next week, providing my testing is clear. I’m a tad anxious, which feels about right. I don’t want to think of this as the summer of sickness. I want to think of this as the summer I learned, the hard way maybe, that I need to take better care of myself (and sooner); I’ve got someone watching every move I make. And I’m done feeling guilty; I can acknowledge that I did, and be proud of reminding myself that I have no reason to. And if Hawthorne were to somehow take it up with me from beyond the grave, I’d bank on their competitive streak, and point out that in the grand scheme of the three of us, I went the longest without getting it – that is to say, (morbidly, I know), I win. 

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I Miss the Weight of You

Monday, 13 July

I can feel the distance growing. The saturated colors of July dim to deep shadows as the days pass. My arms and legs twitch, muscles hoarding both energy and emotion; motivation becomes a memory. The state and country continue to open in a so-called “post-Covid” world, but the burning in my chest to scream that there is no such thing has faded. As Closed signs are flipped over and people take their seats six feet from others dining at outdoor tables, I am pulling on the shutters and setting the hook to keep them shut. Oscar’s birthday is approaching, tumbling closer quickly now that Hawthorne’s has come to pass. I turn inward, closing off my body, mind, and heart, even my energy. It’s hard to recognize myself in these days.

My period has returned, with gusto. My body reminds me of the emptiness, an ache that my womb has no one to hold right now. The cramps sweep over me, more painful than I ever remember them, each one a clenching reminder that she stretched and grew and pushed, and gave our son a birth attended by empowerment and heartbreaking in its finality. Every crescendo echoes the contractions that brought Oscar into the world on that clear-blue day. 

My tolerance for noise and motion has changed drastically in the silence that followed. I used to be able to at least try to harness whatever chaos surrounded me. Now the sheer amount of sensory input I am faced with is a bolt up my neck, paralyzing my hands and feet from moving and sharpening my tongue. I can’t think of what to do; I grab onto minutes of focus before my attention flits away or my eyes close again. I am tired constantly, regardless of sleep, but I have trouble finding any rest. The anger is back, jaws snapping and shredding my patience, and the words “I’m sorry,” take up residence behind my sarcasm. Hawthorne bears the brunt of it, both of us knowing they neither cause nor deserve it. 

My grief for my dead child lives. I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I keep to myself at work; I let texts from friends go unanswered. Last year, on his first birthday, I had a breakdown – I was flailing, and I needed help with the rage, the intrusive thoughts, the devastating ownership of my failure to keep Oscar alive, even as I carried Lucy through her eighteenth week. I went to a healing place and found people who made space for me and my grief and surrounded me with compassion. It was that week we found out that the sex of the baby I carried was female. It helped to know that; it was an additional weight to the side of the scale that said no, this pregnancy was not to be a repeat of last time. The knowledge added evidence I needed so desperately to hold on to. Losing Oscar did not mean I would lose this baby. My guilt was a liar, and fear my constant companion.

The day Oscar was born was beautiful. A Japanese maple stood sentry in the courtyard outside my window at the birthing center. It became a focal point for my entire stay. On our way home a couple of days later, we picked a few of the merlot leaves. They wait on the bottom shelf of a dark bookcase my grandfather built nearly forty years ago, pressed in a book likely a decade older that we rescued from the pick-and-poke. Like our houseplants, most of our books are rescues, snatched back from the metal jaws of the incinerator. There is so much that is tossed away seemingly without thought – books and faux crystal candy dishes, dingy plastic children’s toys and threadbare table runners, dusty photo albums with a couple faded memories still tucked inside. They all meant something to someone once; maybe it was forgotten, or finally let go, or simply left behind. I think of the blue velvet box where my son’s ashes lay in a marble urn that nestles snugly into the palm of my hand. I hope that after I’m unable to take care of it, no one forgets the fierceness of the love inside. May that it never end up on a table at the tri-town dump, velvet worn away from corners and the clasp dangling from one tiny screw.

Friday, July 17

I don’t know how to do this. Last year I was consumed by my grief, unable to hold space for even Hawthorne. I keep hearing it gets better with time. I’m still waiting.

Last night I dreamed that I was burning in a hell I don’t believe in. My skin turned black with ash, shifting rivers of fire crackling underneath as if I were bathing in lava. A keening sound poured out as I writhed, a wail drawn up from deep, deep below, deeper than any human can hear. The pain was inescapable, every muscle and sinew and pore weeping. Every ounce of my heartbreak was on full display, weighing me down like so many chains. Here was the pain I had earned for not keeping Oscar alive; here was my due.

The ferryman met my gaze and snapped his bony fingers. I found myself immediately removed from the fires and surrounded by emptiness. The burning was gone; the pain was gone. In fact, all feeling was gone, purged. I can’t even say what position my body was in, or if I even had one – there was nothing. It felt like absolution after the flames. I stepped between those two worlds at the mercy of the ferryman until I woke to clear blue skies and birdsong, jarring me back into this pastoral landscape.

I remember waking that Tuesday morning, thinking that the date sounded important; I told myself to remember it. Maybe it was the day I’d go into labor. After all, I was massive, the baby had been tracking far ahead on all the growth scans. It would be several hours before I knew that it was over.

Sunday, July 19

Lucy whined me awake minutes before my alarm. I snuggle her close, breathing her in to reassure myself of her presence. The night of my dream we had caught Lucy sitting upright in her bassinet. Rather than give her a chance to figure out how to climb out, I had dragged in the pack-and-play, too terrified to let her be more than a foot away from me. I slept with my head at the foot of the bed, all the better to hear her with. We need to put her in the crib next week. We need to finish building the crib next week. We need to finish the decorations, the curtains, and a million other things. But first, we need to get through today. 

There is nowhere to visit a stone, no name carved to trace. Wildflowers bend in the wind, summer’s bouquet for all occasions. The stream babbles on over stones slicked with green and brown algae. We have no cake, no celebratory plans. We have broken hearts that we try to keep from piercing Lucy in our sorrow. She is our bright and shining light, and I never want to see it dimmed by our grief. 

It’s hard to reconcile the brightness of our living daughter with the idea that if we had not lost Oscar, we would not have her. I could never wish her away; her laugh and her little words keep the lamp lit when my ears roar with the silence that followed Oscar’s birth. The grip of her fingers as she pulls my hand to her mouth ease the memory of his tiny, still body as my heart beat around his. The breaths she takes move the air that he never got to.I don’t know where I would be today without her, without Hawthorne. I don’t know how to be without Oscar, still. I don’t know how to celebrate and mourn him while raising her. I don’t know how to keep stepping between these worlds of pain and joy. I only know the road I’ve been given will forever be guided by the love embodied in my starside child.