I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last hour and a half, trying to put my thoughts into words, to make this post coherent. I don’t know if that’s even possible.
It’s been less than a month since my world turned sideways. On 28 February, I got a text message from Mom: “CJ call my cell”. I immediately thought something had happened to one of my grandparents. Instead, I learned that my cousin J had died. He was one month older than me.
According to the family photo albums, J and I met for the first time in early 1988, at the ages of 7 months and 6 months, respectively. I don’t remember that meeting; my memory may be good, but it doesn’t reach back that far! The pictures show that we got along right from the start, crawling around Aunt S’s house and playing with each other and M, J’s older sister.
For most of our lives, J and I lived in different cities in different states. Even so, we remained close. As kids, our time together would be spent playing with action figures, racing Hot Wheels cars, leaving rubber snakes all over the place, and chasing each other and our sisters with Nerf guns. With our sisters, we’d put on “magic shows”, consisting of tricks, songs, puppets, and general silliness. Most summers, his family would come to the Lake for at least a long weekend. We four cousins would spend the days in the water, tumbling one another off the rafts, blasting one another with water guns, and having dock jumping contests. For this activity, we’d stand at the beach end of the dock and run the whole length before flying off the other end into the water. Points were awarded for how far you could jump, or for how silly your jump looked.
Life got a little more complicated in high school (whose didn’t?). We both had known for years that we were different, but now we finally had words for those differences and used them when we talked. He was bisexual. I liked girls, so society at the time labeled me a lesbian. I didn’t have many people I felt comfortable talking to about this stuff, and I don’t think he did, either. Having each other there was a huge help and relief. Other topics of conversation included the latest Broadway shows, if the X-Men movies were as good as the comics we used to read, and our experiences with our respective high schools’ marching bands and spring musicals.
We started college at the same time, but our paths diverged pretty sharply from there. Over the next five years, I came out as a guy and began my Transition while completing first a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. J left college, worked in retail for a time before moving into social services, and settled into a relationship with a guy. Our conversations became less frequent, but that didn’t mean we didn’t know or care about one another.
J spent the last four years managing a seizure disorder. Among other things, it led to the break up of his relationship, moving between several jobs, and ultimately, moving to my hometown and moving back in with his mom. I hated the circumstances, but I was happy to have one of my oldest friends close by when I would come back from Alaska. One of my strongest memories comes from the summer between my first and second years on the tundra, J’s first summer in the city. Prior to that year, I’d been keeping some of my things (okay, most of the stuff I didn’t take to Alaska) in Aunt S’s garage. Well, the stuff had been there for almost two years, and between that and J moving in, I decided it was high time to move all of that stuff to a storage unit. The day of the move, J graciously helped me load the boxes into the truck, rode with me to the storage facility, and helped unload everything and cart it into the new locker.
After J died, I felt like I needed to come back to my hometown. It’s not the first death that’s happened since I moved, but for the first time I could not keep my mind on my life on the tundra. I could have rushed back right away, but with no sub plans ready I knew I’d be even more stressed out if I tried. Instead, I spent a week and a half teaching and preparing sub plans and went to a job fair in Anchorage before hopping on a plane for the Lower 48. I’ve spent the past two and a half days connecting with family and friends. Yesterday I drove out to the storage unit. The entire time I was there, I could not stop thinking about how J helped me out with that initial trip. I’ve visited with my aunt several times, and each time I walk into her house I half expect to hear his voice. Because of the seizures, J couldn’t drive, so when I was in town I’d take him wherever he needed to go. A couple of times, as I’ve driven somewhere this trip, I would almost swear I’d see J out of the corner of my eye, sitting in the passenger seat.
I’m glad I came back. Being here has allowed me to breathe, just breathe, and process all that’s happened. The last two weeks in Alaska, I’ve felt like a sleepwalker. I couldn’t seem to get a good night’s sleep, yet several mornings getting out of bed was almost impossible. My mind kept going back over my last interactions with J during this past holiday season. I broke down in my apartment several times. And yes, I’ve had similar crying jags a couple of times while I’ve been here. But here, I don’t have to be Mr. CJ. I don’t have to worry about explaining everything I’m going through. I can grieve, I can breathe, and I’m a little more settled in my head now than I have been lately. And now I feel like I can actually say good-bye.