On This Day, and All Days, I Think About What I Have Lost

On the day my son is born, a summer thunderstorm stomps and slashes through San Diego. Pellets of hail hit the window four floors up as I lie in my hospital bed and hold my squirming pink infant.

My husband checks the radar on his phone, making little comments to himself about unprecedented weather patterns and hook formations. Our son’s face is a red, squishy orb, but as I gaze at him I can see my husband’s cheeks, his eyebrows.

I fall asleep with my son at my breast, and when I wake my husband is holding him near the window. Night has fallen.

“The storm put out the fires,” he says, his voice full of awe. “We’re looking for the stars.”

I join them at the window and the three of us look out at the June sky, wondering if the smoke will finally clear. The city’s glittering lights dull the expanse of stars above us, but I know they’re there all the same.

On the day my son turns two, we host a birthday party in our scraggly back yard. The kids from his preschool class run through our too-tall grass and climb on our splinter-riddled treehouse. The other parents sip light beers and eye us with curiosity and pity. They drove here in pickup trucks, SUVs and luxury cars. We share a beat up Forester that is older than our marriage. They ask what brought us to Dallas, and like most transplants, we say work. They regale us with Texas pride, and we smile and wonder if like their children and their cars, everything really is bigger here.

Planes pass overhead every few minutes, making their way to and from Love Field and DFW Airport. They seem to be increasing in frequency, and I wish we’d looked at flight paths before buying our house.

The father of the ginger-haired boy digging holes in my vegetable garden pulls me aside to ask for directions to the restroom. I send him into the house and notice he’s openly carrying a pistol.

I catch him when he returns and ask him why he thinks it’s appropriate to bring a gun to a toddler’s birthday party. He looks at me with a hardened face.

“To protect my family, of course. Can’t be too careful.” He pauses, and I know he’s trying to gauge if I’m like him or feel threatened by him. I ask him to leave.

I kick at a pebble in a muddy patch of the lawn as the man collects wife and son and goes without incident. Sweat slides down the back of my legs into my sandals.

The summers feel hotter here than anywhere I’ve lived, so I’m thankful the fat, gray clouds have blocked most of the sun. The children look pink all the same, and I think I should have bought juice boxes, even if the plastic cartons feel wasteful.

When our son is in bed, my husband finds me in the backyard braiding dandelions and looking up at the wide night sky. The clouds have parted. I spy early June constellations, though their brightness is faint even in the suburbs. He wraps his arms around me and kisses my neck.

“Will we be ok,” I whisper to him, and I feel his body tighten around me.

“Us?” he says. “Always.”

“No,” I say. “The world.”

On the day my son turns five, we’re in the Forester driving north to Colorado with a trunk full of camping supplies. We plan to find a spot of Earth to claim for the next week, where we can see the stars unadulterated by the glow of civilization.

My womb is still bleeding from the final miscarriage that sealed our fate as a family of three, but I will not be deterred. I want to dig my feet into cool dirt and get lost counting bright dots of light in the milky sky. I want to get away from the preschool moms who won’t stop asking me who I’m voting for in November and the protests and demonstrations that roil the city.

My son pulls on bright pink headphones and turns on his Switch, and my husband tilts his head toward me, eyes on the road.

“The San Diego office has closed indefinitely, so I won’t have to go out there when we get back.”

“Really?” I say, relieved.

He nods, his gaze distant. The sun irradiates the blacktop and wavy heat pours off the surface of the road. I’m anxious to begin our climb into Colorado and feel the cool breeze that comes with higher elevation, but part of me is afraid the heat will follow us. The vegetation along the road is parched and brittle. It looks ready to ignite.

“Yeah,” he continues. “They don’t want people leaving their homes. I guess the air quality is that bad.”

I nod my head and think about the YouTube video I watched two days ago, long-burning fires tumbling down the mountains like ravenous wolves, consuming everything indiscriminately. Post office, grocery store, football stadium. I feel thankful we left when we did, but I do not feel relieved.

On the day my son turns eight, I call home to tell him happy birthday and let my husband know I’ve arrived in DC safely.

He is quiet on the phone, struggling with his desire to have me there versus his unwavering support as I make a last ditch effort to claw back the rights that have been eroded.

I scream and chant all day, and when night falls over the Capitol I sip beers with three girlfriends from college who all left their families to come to the city and add their voices to those of the women who still want the right to choose, the right to protect their livelihood, the right to vote.

I try to find the Big Dipper as I lift the cold glass bottle to my parched lips, but the air is so clogged that even the brightest constellations have gone dark.

I think about my boy, who is sensitive and loving and so much like his father, and I wonder what they’re doing. I think about calling home again, but I don’t want to hear my son’s disappointment when he tells me about his day. He would never say he wished I’d stayed, but I know he feels that way all the same.

The next day the National Guard sweeps into the city and shuts down all protests. Tens of thousands of people—the ones who are not arrested—flee home. I am not arrested, but I take a can of tear gas to the face and am forced to stay for two more days at a local hospital for surface burns.

As I try to dial home that night, a ravenous summer storm descends on the city and takes out all power and cell service.

On the day my son turns thirteen, my husband leaves and never comes back. We have been hiding out in a friend’s basement for two months, hoping the militia will not come through and conscript my son and husband, but my husband can no longer cower. He has a plan.

Thirteen is the age of readiness, the camo-clad terrorists say. They will take my son and put a gun in his delicate hands, and I will never see him again. The thought crushes my soul into fine sand. We should have left before they closed Dallas down, but we were under a cloud of denial that things would never get this bad, that there were enough of us to vote and protest and change the tide.

If we’d gone back to California before the Pacific States closed their borders, we would have had droughts and fires and protests there just the same. By the time we knew we needed to go, it was too late.

Our friends have a home full of daughters, and that carries its own risk, yet they keep up appearances to keep us safe. Their home is goodly, Godly, and open to the cause. They do not tell the soldiers who come in to appraise the lovely girls who are not quite old enough to be married off to go to hell, because that would end in bloodshed. The father has multiple sclerosis, so the militia lets him stay and watch over his family for now. When night falls, the city goes dark. Power rationing has been in place for the past year, and when it’s safe to sneak a peek through the windows we see a sky erupting in constellations. Every look feels like a risk and an act of defiance.

My husband puts on a frayed backpack and tucks a pamphlet into his pocket. He tells me that his contact can get us out. There is room for us on the dairy truck that will deliver supplies to outposts in the east. The northern resistance is watching the routes and knows of the plan. They will intercept the truck and liberate us, and we can start over again in Pennsylvania. It’s all set up. He just needs to make this run, secure our spot with the last bit of money from our savings.

He kisses our son on the head and wishes him a happy birthday and tells us both he’ll see us by daybreak.

A month passes before I pull myself together enough to make my own plan.

On the day my son turns fifteen, I ride in the back of a pickup truck on the same highway we drove to Colorado when my son was five. I am surrounded by other middle-aged women, and I am alone.

Fires blaze in the grasslands. I haven’t seen a clear blue sky in months. Lazy June heat is a thing of the past, and now the planet burns with the intensity of an oven well before what used to be winter comes to an end. We’re wrapped from head to toe in light, white clothing, because if the sun does make its way through the pollution, it will sear our skin to blisters within an hour.

The truck rattles, and the women hold onto one another, some crying, some drinking from dented tin canteens, some trying to sleep. We are being moved to a shelter across the border. We are the lucky ones. We have been saved.

Dallas burns behind us as we drive north, the fighting still audible in my ears and heart. I wonder if my son is alive or dead. I have not seen him in eighteen months, since he was pulled from our shelter and loaded onto an armored truck with a handful of other boys and my friends’ three daughters.

The militia had little use for a woman my age, but two months later they took me all the same. They were not good men. When I was lucky, the soldiers pretended I wasn’t even there. I felt like a ghost walking through a ravaged world, and I howled at night for everything I’d lost.

Some part of me wonders if I ever had anything in the first place. If I had ever been carefree, or if I had been doomed from the start. I cannot remember now. All my memories of my son and husband are tinged with the background noise of news reports on the radio, comment threads on Twitter, and increasingly violent weather.

I try to remember my son’s seventh birthday, what he wore, where we were, what he got as a present, but all I can remember is that I wanted to make him a chocolate cake and couldn’t. The cacao crop had collapsed that year, and even if I could have found chocolate, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

I lay my head on a gray-haired woman from Austin who lost her wife and two sons. Unlike me, she knows her loved ones are gone from this world. I don’t know if I should pity or envy her.

She is stoic and never cries when she tells me about the organic farm she ran for fifteen years before the soil turned acrid and her plants died. She and I talk wistfully of tomatoes as the truck lumbers on to our salvation.

On the day my son turns twenty-one, I take a mug of homemade wine out to the porch of my tiny cabin and look to the stars.

The sky is wide open, ringed on the edges by mountains that lurk silently in the distance. The stars are brilliant and provide an ambient glow that illuminates the swaying grasses that surround my little home.

My Australian shepherd is my sole companion, and he twitches in his sleep as he lies across my feet. I wonder what he dreams about.

My dreams are cruel. In them, the world goes on unbroken. I watch my son grow up, looking more and more like his father every day, dark brown hair with streaks of amber that catch the light as he learns to ride a bike, learns to build a computer, learns to fall in love.

In my dreams, I hold my husband’s hand as our son walks across a graduation stage. The high school is used for learning, not stockpiling weapons and triaging wounds.

In my dreams, my son brings home a boy, shy like him, taller than him, who holds his hand and smiles at my son with love in his heart and dancing light in his eyes. We help them move into their first apartment, drive their belongings down the long stretch of nothing highway between Dallas and their new life. In the old Forester on the way home, I cry, and my husband tells me that everything will be fine as tears roll down his face into his graying beard. We both know that the pain we’re feeling now is just the untethering of our family of three.

In my dreams, my husband and I come home to an empty house, and for a long time we’re sad and unmoored and there is too much time and not enough teenage angst, music at all hours of the night, or laughter. There is too much food in the fridge without our son to eat it all up.

In my dreams, my husband and I slowly come back to one another, back to the life we had before our son came screaming into this world on a stormy June day. We build a fire pit in the backyard, and though the city has grown around us, night sky ordinances dim the surrounding glow and open celestial views above. We sit outside and smoke a joint and try to identify all the constellations. Planes still pass overhead, but we have grown used to them.

In my dreams, we drive west into the nothing, into the vast land between Dallas and New Mexico that still hasn’t been built up, no matter how much the world continues to prosper. We park our car on the side of the road and spread a blanket in the dirt and make love under a huge milky sky, the stars dancing with us and around us. We get back in the car and keep driving.

In my dreams, we go back to California. The fires have stopped. The revolutionary legislation passed just in time pulled us back from the brink, and now the rains have come back and the storms have subsided and we start an organic farm and spend our days with our hands in the dirt until our aging backs scream for rest. We eat butternut squash soup and sip chilled sangria and take long walks through our orchards at night, the stars and lighting bugs as company.

In my dreams, my son and his husband fly out to spend time on the farm, and with them they bring a squalling, squishy-faced baby that has my husband’s cheeks and eyebrows. I bounce my grandson on my knee while I watch the men in my life pull cucumbers and tomatoes for our dinner, and I think of how grateful I am to have clean air and clear skies and a life of unburdened possibilities.

Though I know the heartbreak that waits for me in my dreams, I fall asleep on the porch as my shaggy dog warms my feet. When I wake the next morning, I’m cold and stiff and go into the house to make a warm cup of mint tea.

Fat, fluffy clouds make their slow crawl across the open Colorado sky as I weed my garden. I plant crops to harvest in the fall, potatoes and squash that will keep me and the dog fed through the winter.

Not a single plane passes overhead, and I wonder if some day they’ll figure out how to produce enough gasoline again for air travel. I hope not.

I stand up and stretch my back and notice two figures walking up the long path to my cabin. As they get closer, I see they’re wearing US Army fatigues, and sunlight dances off the amber shades in the younger one’s hair.

For a moment, I think it is my son and husband, but of course it’s not. The soldiers bring me a crate of supplies, issued to all homesteaders once a month. They know me, and I know them, and I offer them mint tea before they head on to the next farm.

I sit in silence with them, relishing the company, then I work myself for the rest of the day and wait for sleep to take me home once more.