I’ve been here before. In the crucible. Missing everything before. Longing for after. It’s been ten years since my three-year-old son, Lev, died, very early on a Wednesday morning. November 3, 2010. Election Day was the day before; I don’t remember it seeming important or even relevant that I vote that year. Lev died from a recurrence of Lymphoma, suddenly but not unexpectedly, inside the state-of-the-art children’s hospital where I worked. The hospital building sits on the site of the former Austin airport, high on a hill made from recycled crushed runways. I don’t work there anymore.
Seven years after Lev died, I had the opportunity to buy a tall, skinny house within eyeshot of the old air traffic control tower. I live here, now, inside the ghost airport, with my husband of two years and my teenaged son, who was not yet in kindergarten when his younger brother died. In 2020, the world shrank down and we three came to live our whole lives inside our little place. Online-school, work-from-home, grocery shopping, three meals a day, masked dog-walks in loops around the block and up and down familiar streets. The zebrawood urn that holds Lev’s ashes sits in the office on the ground floor, where I write, less than one mile from the hospital. In a few days from now, it will be Election Day. November 3rd, 2020. I took the day off from work even though I cast my vote early. So many reasons for sorrow and fear connected to this single day. Ten years. Four years. Voids and vessels. Prismatic days; whole years that bend the light away.
On the second anniversary, I have brunch with new friends and take my seven-year-old son to a music festival. I don’t tell anyone about the significance of the day. We ride back to our car in a pedicab wearing our giveaway sunglasses at night. When we get home, I put my sleepy kid to bed and I sob in my room for a long time. On the sixth of November, we re-elect Obama — I make white bean soup while I watch the returns come in. In 2013, Election Day and Lev’s deathiversary pass like ships in the night. I am in love with life. I go to a burlesque show. I forget to vote. The next year, I turn 40, I vote early for Wendy Davis, I don’t write anything about Lev on social media. The 5th anniversary of Lev’s passing is a Tuesday, Election Day, 2015. (I might have voted? I can’t honestly remember.) My dearest friends throw me a dinner party at a house I am about to move into, but which, at the time, has just a few odd pieces of furniture and not even enough chairs for all of us to sit at the table. We stoke the fire in the fire pit in the backyard and drink red wine. Everything is possible. Nothing is off the table. I’ve lived five years beyond my own viking funeral and the worst is behind me. I am certain the unknowable future is brighter than anything I’ve seen yet. I write: Five years ago, we lost [Lev]. He was half of my whole heart and everything went black. It took me some time to regather the puddles and piles of love that spilled out of the wounds grief left on me. But I’ve got it now. I’ve got all the love. Come at me…
Election Day 2016. Like everyone in the entire world, I do not see Trump’s win coming. The sea change is surprisingly instant. The veil is peeled all the way back. At my son’s hockey game the Sunday after, I am as yet grieving the future. Going through the motions. At the rink, I look up from my own shocked sadness to see lively parents in fleece vests and cowboy boots, gleeful, celebrating, not a care in the world. It’s at this moment that I realize grief, applied as a lens, will show you things you wouldn’t otherwise see. Like Rowdy Roddy Piper’s sunglasses in They Live, I can see clearly these fellow hockey parents are aliens who voted for the weird, orange monster. I can see everything but there’s nothing I can do about it. Dining out a few weeks later, my boyfriend and I overhear a table of white Republicans at an adjacent table talking loudly and proudly about teaching their college-aged daughters to carry guns in their vehicles in order to protect themselves from the residents of neighborhoods near where we live.
In the spring of 2017, I buy the house in the airport. My boyfriend lays down new floors. He moves in the following year. For his 40th birthday that year, I have cake shipped in dry ice from New York City to Austin, TX. I order giant Mylar balloons from Party City and when I drive to pick them up, I listen to Tori Amos and sing at the top of my lungs with tears streaming down my face the whole way. Something is coming. We get engaged the next month, my 15-year-old dog dies the month after that, and on Election Day 2018, the blue wave sweeps a Democratic majority into the U.S. House. 11 days after the year turns over into 2019, we get married. A planned elopement at the Blanton Museum of Art. My son, two friends and our photographer are the only witnesses when we make our vows quietly to one another under a rainbow pinwheel of light inside the otherwise-empty Austin, Ellsworth Kelly’s posthumously constructed minimalist temple of color and white space. My only living child is 13 on our wedding day, a proto-adult, lanky and elegant and completely unsure of his limbs, a newborn horse in a slim one-button grey Cary Grant suit, a borrowed YSL tie, and Vans. He hands us our rings.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2019, we leave on a week-long three-city tour of Japan – new husband, teenaged son, and me. Looking back from now, the idea of flying 12 hours across oceans for fun feels like an artifact: torturous and amazing, all mixed up together, crowded into trains and underground shopping malls; packed shoulder-to-shoulder in restaurants; throngs of commuters and tourists moving in sync through intersections, bees in a hive – every person, every one of us, blissfully unaware of the spreading virus and worldwide sequester only weeks away.
In the waning hours of 2019, my husband and I are home after a big dinner at a favorite restaurant with old friends and a small NYE party at the home of newer friends. We are sober and sleepy, happy to be resting our 40-something bones before the year turns over. From my bed, a single firework sparkles in the stairway window. I stand and walk toward the light, now a panorama of twinkling color spreading across the midnight sky, low and bright bursts coming from absolutely everywhere, like bombs in wartime. We live too far east to see the municipal fireworks on Town Lake from our house. These are just regular folks in their yards, making magic at midnight with explosives bought, more than likely, from a roadside stand somewhere just outside of town. Breathtaking and mundane. Welcome to 2020. No one has any idea what’s coming.
Of all of the things I’ve done and lived through, raising a healthy teenaged son is the most challenging, the most devastating, the most hopeful. In March, after the City of Austin cancels SXSW but before businesses in Texas go dark, my son leaves on a long-planned spring break vacation with his best friend’s family to the TX Gulf Coast. They ride around in golf carts wearing Hawaiian shirts, meeting girls. After the kids return from the beach, the pandemic engulfs the world. Places of connection, places of contact, places of commerce shut down one after the other, far and wide and close to home. The streets are empty of cars, no one goes anywhere. My son finishes the school year online. It does not go well, but it doesn’t matter. I begin working from home full time. It’s fine. Everyone in my neighborhood takes up jogging or remembers they own a bike.
The pandemic proves a pass-fail test for relationships, a furnace that smelts the ore of your joint raw material; you dissolve or you are buttressed. For my husband and I, the months spent sheltering at home during a global pandemic are some of the strongest of our 5-year relationship. We nurture one another. We feather our nest. We rarely fight and when we do, it’s succinct, solved and over, nothing like before. He makes coffee for both of us each morning, like always. I walk our new dog while the sunlight is still coming up pink and orange. He does the laundry, relishes vacuuming; I order the groceries, cook weekend breakfast and weeknight dinners. If we’re home together all day, we text one another photos of our pets from different floors of the house. We spend too much money on takeout dinners from our favorite restaurants. There is a tranquility between us with which I am wholly unfamiliar in my life and relationships. I am content. I am so grateful. I have never been here before.
Inside my head, I prepare, always, for the fall, for the mess, for the nameless but certain catastrophe I know is coming. This is who I am. I am a knot of consuming worry – worry about the misfortunate state government of Texas where I live; worry about the thin veneer of safety in pandemic-rattled New York State, where I’m from — worry about the health of my elderly parents who live there, and who I cannot travel to see; worry about voter suppression, about the ugliness of white supremacy that was always here but now parades proudly in the harsh light of day; worry about the devastating personal toll of this fucked-up time on people who were already struggling and on those who are suddenly drowning.
A couple of months into the pandemic lockdown, I go digging in my purse, looking for my recently-filled Rx of higher dose antidepressants. Buried at the bottom, I find my small red suede half-moon zipper pouch full of lipsticks. Without opening the tubes, I know the four shades of crimson red, one coral orange, and three rosy nudes by heart. I dump them out and turn their shiny black plastic and cool grey metal cases over in my palms. I think:
I miss fancy dress-up dates. I miss telling stories on stage. I miss trips together before we were married, New Orleans and Paris and Baja California Sur. I miss mini-breaks in fancy hotels with our elderly dog who lived a long life. I miss wandering Brooklyn, shopping and stopping for champagne and oysters, madly in the beginnings of love; I miss watching Hitchcock on the big screen at the Paramount, day-drinking whisky and eating cheese plates; I miss driving home at 2 a.m. after Tuesday open-mics and late night food truck Chicken Kara-Age. I miss being packed shoulder to shoulder inside a general admission music venue, sweaty and irritated at all of the tall men in front of me. I miss parties. I miss all of the apartments I lived in that never felt like home. I miss panic attacks that came on like freight trains. I miss the pendant full of my son’s ashes that I lost in a hotel in D.C. on the morning I was flying home. I miss the friendships I ended and the friendships that were ended for me. I miss the babies of friends who I never got to meet, who have since grown into surly adolescents. I miss singing to my own babies, rocking them to sleep in their bedroom in my long-ago dream house in the arm shell rocking chair that moved with me to each temporary resting place and now sits idle and ornamental, a design element in my living room. I miss the tip of Cape Cod, the dunes and the ocean and the seaweed; fried clams and drag queens. I miss driving the streets of Hollywood and Silverlake and Santa Monica, mixtapes on actual cassettes in my blue jellybean car, Fiona Apple and Ivy and Cat Power and Elvis Costello and Common and Van Morrison pouring from the open windows sailing down Fountain, down La Cienega, down Pico. I miss dancing at the Dragonfly in a brand-new century, a whole new millennium, three or four of us crammed into a bathroom stall, bumps of cocaine until our hearts felt like they would explode, spilling out onto the sidewalk, breathless, watching my friends smoke cigarettes, waves of sparkling joy rolling off of all of us.
I take a breath, put the lipsticks back in their case, and zip it up; toss it back into the archive of my life before. Whatever’s coming next will be here soon.
There is an after.