The evening light is streaming golden through the windows in the kitchen and in the back hall. Past the washing machine and humming refrigerator, radiant through the leaves of the money tree, it lands on the hardwood floor, illuminating the polished boards with the warmest glow. I close the door to Lucy’s room quietly, the dying day washing over my bare feet. It’s been gray for three days, rainy for two, so the evening sunshine is a welcome surprise. My hair curls in the humidity, sticking to my skin as I try to brush it away from my eyes, then my neck. My body is aching and exhausted; my tired heart still weeps. Our wedding anniversary has come and gone; check off another painful box in the Year of First Withouts. The day was bleak, but hot; the rain did nothing to soothe for once. Work was futile; I should have taken the day off. Instead, I hoard my PTO like a dragon with her gold, burned from years of workplaces with punitive attendance policies.
It feels dramatic to say that I survived the day. I mean, of course I did; there was no danger of not waking up the next morning, that is to say, no more than for anyone on given day. But for a day like that; when the grief has claws that carve deep, when it hurts to draw the next breath, when every sob wracks you to the bone; yes, I survived it. It was one of the most difficult days that I have had in several months, but it was over. The first anniversary without them; in the books.
The next day, just as my heart was starting to steady a little, I got a text that ripped the rug out and sent me tumbling again.
“Hi! We are making Father’s Day presents with the kids, who should Lucy’s be addressed to?”
Innocuous enough. Gutting. I had compartmentalized the month so well, so focused on our anniversary, I forgot about Father’s Day.
There is nothing that is not irrevocably changed. As if the little family we made were our own little world; Death came to cradle Oscar and just sheared off a third of it, before out sweet boy even got to see it. We tumbled along, sometimes rolling, sometimes clunking when that missing piece reminded us. Then our bright little light came around, and that hole felt a little smaller, and we felt a little less broken. And then.
We had two days with Oscar to prepare for his birth after learning of his death. Forty-three hours where he was still, and still with us; where he was held, warm and perfect. When Death came for Hawthorne, though, she gave no warning, pulling the last breath from them in front of me. I was left with minutes to hold them, precious minutes spent trying to drag them back to me, to put breath back in their body and make their still heart beat, please, beat. Then there was nothing warm at all.
And so our little broken world, again, split. Jagged and raw, I am left clinging to Lucy as another massive part of our world was wrenched away, cast back and returned to the depths of the universe. We’re left with memories that shower down like meteors as half of our home spin among the stars.
There are some days, like today, where I can’t look ahead or behind. The tumbling yaw of our haphazard trajectory makes me dizzy. If look around, I wonder how things possibly worked out that I’m living back where I never intended, and with so much missing. Look back, and I’m searching for the turning point, where things maybe could have changed, and I feel sick with futility. Look forward, and there are still empty places where my baby and my beloved should be. There are some days where the calendar feels coiled up, compressing so many hard days into just seven weeks.
First, Hawthorne’s late father’s birthday; ten days later, my own father’s. We were married directly in between. Then July, with its fireworks and festivities; I should be planning birthday parts for Hawthorne, and again, ten days later for Oscar.
Instead this year I am planning a memorial. On a loop in the back of my mind I keep saying, this is bullshit. This shouldn’t be happening.
At this strange point of what feels like middle distance – it has been over nine months, not yet a year – I almost feel more incredulous that they are gone. Even though I have moved, found a new job, and everything around me is different, I still feel like this can’t be happening. It does not compute.
What do you mean, they didn’t see Biden elected, or sworn in? They didn’t call me at work, panicked about the Capitol riots? They haven’t met my new friends, or had post-pandemic dinner with the family? What do you mean, they weren’t able to see Stan again? They missed Christmas? And Easter? How is this possible?
By the time Hawthorne’s birthday comes, they will have been gone almost exactly half of Lucy’s life. I don’t know what to do with that. She won’t have any of her own memories with her Papa. She will have pictures and guitars, and tales from friends which seem too tall to be true; they will always be a legend to her.
Last weekend, after the anniversary, we were visiting a couple of friends out in the country for a few days. I was getting Lucy ready for her nap, and had slid Hawthorne’s signet ring off to change her; depending on the weather, it gets loose sometimes. She picked it up and played with it, pretending to put it in her mouth and laughing at me when I pulled her hand away. As I was pulling her pants back up, she put it on her tiny finger and held it up, turning it in a princess wave. Clear as day, she says, “dada, dada!”
My heart was pounding, every beat bittersweet. I grabbed my phone and tried to get it on video, but she had moved on to her few other words. I held her tight to me for a minute, tighter and closer than the hot day allowed for. I put her down and snuck out, quickly, as she protested her nap before falling asleep. I ached, feeling the scars left on my heart from seeing Hawthorne hold our Oscar, so still, and the tender new muscle exposed from watching them hold Lucy, her tiny dark eyes already staring up at them in wonder.
Now I sit, facing the golden sun as she continues her descent. I have only to look behind me for the thunderclouds, slowly receding into the distance to blanket the sea. The veil of the evening begins to fall over me as the beer in my hand catches the last rays in the brown glass, shining. Tomorrow will be a new day, and my heart will be rested, if not eased. For now I give in to the night; let the tears wash away the makeup and the day. I turn their ring around on my finger and hold on to the sun, as warm and bright as their love, just a little while longer.
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.
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.