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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.

 

 

Prior to moving to Alaska, I spent almost every Thanksgiving with my family. Some years, we’d travel to visit relatives in other cities. Other years, we’d host dinner at our place or go to my grandparents’ apartment. The only time I did not celebrate with my family was during my sophomore year of high school, when the marching band traveled to Los Angeles during the long weekend to march in a few parades.

Of course, moving three thousand miles away meant that holidays would be a little different. Thanks to a three-week break at the semester, I’ve been able to make it home for Christmas and New Year’s, but making the same trip for Thanksgiving is just not worth the effort and cost. My first year, my friend Michael invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him in Anchorage. Last year, I returned to Anchorage for the same holiday, this time spending the long weekend with some fellow teachers from my district. When I thought originally thought about this Thanksgiving, I figured I’d be spending it once more in Anchorage, hopefully with D, the girl I met earlier this year. Or I’d see if Michael would host me again.

Of course, life often has a way of changing your plans. Between a new girlfriend for D and roommate drama for Michael, by September a trip to Anchorage sounded a lot less appealing. My mind also chimed in with memories of how each year previously I’ve gotten stuck overnight in the Hub on the way back to Nunap. So I figured, why not just stay in Nunap?

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Lucas and Andy have always spent the holiday in the village. So does Leigh, our second grade teacher. As for all of the new teachers, well, they make their own decisions. Somehow or other, by October it became clear that, with the exception of Jenny, all of us teachers had decided to spend the break in the village. Talk turned to how we’d celebrate the holiday. Lucas and Andy have always invited some of the other staff from our school to their holiday meal, and they wanted to continue this tradition. We all agreed that sounded great, but where could we gather? With teachers, staff, and family members, we were looking at about 25-30 people, too many for most of the teacher apartments. Then somebody suggested using the hallway at the building where Lucas and Andy and I live. We could put tables out there for both food and seating, and Lucas and Andy and I would also open up our apartments.

Thanksgiving morning brought the sounds of moving furniture as the three of us began setting things up. We maneuvered our dining room tables into the hall and added the table that lives out there to create one long surface. The couple of desks that normally sit at the end of the hallway (around here, any place can be used as storage) were pressed into duty as buffet tables. Vacuums ran, stoves and ovens heated up, and it wasn’t long before the whole building began to smell of cooking turkey and other goodies. As the morning went on, other staff members came by to drop off food and drinks, help with setting up, and even make use of oven space.

In all, we had probably close to 40 people at the meal. The buffet held not only things like turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie, but also things like pasta, dried fish, akutaq (sometimes referred to as Eskimo ice cream), and berry pies. Not enough chairs at the table meant some of us had a picnic on the floor, while others ate in Lucas and Andy’s apartment. Conversation flowed easily among most of us present. Topics ranged from the day’s football scores to the various Thanksgiving traditions from our families. (I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I didn’t hear anyone start in on politics.) I spent quite a bit of time playing games with the kids, as well as visiting with my coworkers. I think one of my favorite memories from the day is when we decided to take a group picture: More than a few of us made goofy faces or put moose antlers on people, resulting in much laughter.

After the main meal was over, most of us headed up to the school to start preparations for the basketball tournament. Hosted as a fundraiser for the senior class, the tournament took place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons. I spent five or six hours working the concession stand Thursday evening before returning home and collapsing into bed. Friday found me once more at the school, where I spent the morning entering grades and the afternoon and evening once again found me in the concession stand and taking a turn as hall monitor for the basketball tournament.

Saturday was spent reading, writing, and relaxing. Today I’m up at the school for my usual Sunday of writing lesson plans. Then it’s off to Lucas and Andy’s for the weekly pancake brunch. It doesn’t match the Thanksgiving holidays of past years, but I at least had the good fortune to spend it with good people.

In the two weeks since the results of the election were announced, I’ve been trying to put into words just how deeply the results have affected me. It seems only fitting that I find a bit of inspiration from the date. Today, 20 November, is the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is day that trans communities around the world gather to memorialize those lost in the previous year, often times to hate crimes and suicide. The majority of these victims continue to be transwomen, particularly transwomen of color (TWOC). From January of June to this year alone, 166 trans and gender variant people were murdered, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project.

I’ve written before how isolated my life can be, what I referred to as the “tundra bubble”. I’m one of a handful of non-Natives living in an Alaska Native village 27 miles from the nearest town. The only ways in or out are by bush plane (year round), boat (spring thaw until freeze up), or river taxi or snowmobile (freeze up until thaw). In addition to the geographic isolation, I am personally isolated further by my status as a transman. It’s a self-imposed isolation: I made the decision when I moved up here to live stealth because I didn’t know how the locals would react if they found out. (Based on my research, First Nations people often times were quite understanding of people like me, but a lot of things changed when the missionaries came, and religion plays a big part in the lives of the villagers.) Since I “pass” as a cisgender man (that is, a person passing me on the street doesn’t think I’ve ever been identified as anything other than a man), no one has ever had reason to question my gender identity. As far as the locals are concerned, I’m Mr. CJ, the third-grade teacher. They don’t see the barrier that exists between us, the tightrope that I walk on a daily basis to make sure that I don’t say or do something to out myself. After all this time, I doubt that there’s anyone here who dislikes me enough to make an issue out of my trans status, but you never know….

This bubble not only keeps things in, it also keeps things out. My students know that they live in Alaska, but are still struggling to grasp the concept that Alaska is only one part of the US. Most of my kids have been to the Hub, that town 27 miles away, and some as far as Anchorage. But beyond that? Nope. As far as they’re concerned, anything outside of Alaska may as well be happening on another planet. Now, I certainly didn’t know all about current events when I was their age. I only vaguely understood the importance of news reports on the TV or stories printed in the newspaper. While I’m sure there are TVs in most of the homes here, I know there isn’t a satellite hook-up in every one. (Cable TV doesn’t exist out here.) With one or two possible exceptions, families don’t have a home Internet connection. There’s only one newspaper, and it focuses predominantly on news and events a little closer to home. Heck, until midway through my first year here, there wasn’t even 3G service for cell phones in the villages!

Through the school, I’m connected to the Internet. Between that and my phone, I have a lifeline to the world beyond the bubble. On a daily basis, I can get in touch with friends and family through Facebook or e-mail. I can call my grandparents to say “hi”. I stay as active as I can in organizations I care about, mostly through signing online petitions and making donations to various groups. When I’m feeling especially isolated for whatever reason, I have a way to remind myself that the world doesn’t end at the horizon. This can be both a blessing and a curse. I make a point of following news from the US and around the world, so of course I see both the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

I followed this year’s election more closely than I ever have, because I knew just how much was at stake for my communities both physical and of the heart. The villages out here on the tundra are feeling the effects of climate change. Higher temperatures means rivers don’t freeze as solidly, or freeze and thaw more frequently, which can cause problems with transportation. It also affects the availability of fish and game, a large part of the still-predominantly subsistence lifestyle by which the locals live.

As for my community of the heart: Half of my family is Jewish. I have a large number of POC friends, and many, many relatives and friends who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. For more than a few of them, legislation like the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage were important steps in their fight to be recognized as human beings. Even with these major steps forward, there continue to be battles that must be fought, notable the wave of anti-transgender legislation (the so-called “bathroom bills”) that has been sweeping through the nation in recent years.

When the results of the election hit the news two weeks ago, I felt sick. And worried. And, for the first time in a long time, scared. The increased reports of hate crimes in the days since haven’t alleviated those feelings, either. I’m relatively safe here in the village, but what about when I travel home for the holidays? Yes, all of my ID has the correct gender marker on it, but just suppose? And what about my friends? Are they safe? How much harder will it be for them to get their ID changed if they haven’t already done so? What about everyone’s mental well-being? Calls to help lines like the Trans Lifeline spiked following the election, because everyone is suddenly that much more afraid.

And what about my students? How will all of this affect them? Thankfully, they’ve been spared the horrendous bullying that I’ve read about, but what about their futures? Will their way of life survive the next four years? Will they? (If that last question seems extreme, look up the suicide statistics for American Indians and Alaska Natives.)

So on this TDoR, I’m not only remembering those that lost their lives this year, but am also pledging to do my part to make sure that there aren’t more in the coming years. I’ve upped the amounts of my monthly donations to organizations like Trans LifeLine and the ACLU. I’m reading up on how to be an ally to anyone who might need my help, and how to do so in a way that will hopefully bring about a (relatively) peaceful resolution. I’m done sitting on the sidelines, done being afraid.

Some other me asserted his male identity as soon as he could speak.

Some other me still hasn’t publicly said, “I’m a guy.”

Some other me identifies as female.

Some other me has a body that aligns with their gender identity.

Some other me hid how smart he was in school, so he could fit in better.

Some other me came out in high school.

Some other me had multiple girl- and/or boyfriends before he turned twenty.

Some other me went to Homecoming and/or Prom, at least once.

Some other me never went to college.

Some other me went to a different college.

Some other me made it to Australia for that semester abroad.

Some other me actually had a relationship with Her.

Some other me made a career in musical theatre.

Some other me plays in a symphony.

Some other me works as a zookeeper.

Some other me got the job running the Teen Docent program at the museum.

Some other me never even worked there.

Some other me turned that long-term substitute teaching job into a full-time career.

Some other me got a job in Baltimore or Denver.

Some other me worked in a bookstore rather than go back to substitute teaching.

Some other me still works in the labs at the university.

Some other me got a part in a Star Wars movie.

Some other me makes his living as a novelist.

Some other me actually managed to tell a person that I loved them, and had them reciprocate.

Some other me already has a significant other and kids.

Some other me never had surgery.

Some other me never met my best friends.

Some other me never got over his social anxiety.

Some other me makes friends with everyone he ever meets.

Some other me cut off all ties with his pre-Transition past.

Some other me never left my hometown.

Some other me always has a plan, for everything.

Some other me randomly jumps on a plane or drives with no destination in mind.

Some other me has the privilege of moving wherever he wishes.

Some other mes have it better than I do.

Some other mes aren’t nearly so lucky.

“If I met [him] I would ask [him] that one question we both fear: Some other me, how’d we end up here?”


This summer has brought a lot of changes with it, and it got me thinking about many “what if?” scenarios. The title of this post and the quote at the end come from the song, “Some Other Me” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey for their musical “If/Then”.

Okay, so this likely was not my last visit to Athens. Yet because of the circumstances, this trip carried a certain finality.

It’s been three months since Yiayia passed. The whole reason these trips started was so that my sister and I could see our grandparents. When Grandpa died almost 10 years ago, I suddenly realized just how important that connection was.

I say “one last time” but this trip still brought several firsts, not least of which was the fact that I didn’t see Yiayia. We (I traveled with Mom and Dad) didn’t have to call her in the mornings to see if she was ready for us to come visit. In the evenings, we didn’t go over to the flat for dinner or to share the events of our day. In fact, I didn’t even approach the flat until our second-to-last night in the city. Of course, since no one lives there anymore I couldn’t get inside, but I could go to the building’s front door and stare for a moment at Yiayia’s name on the panel of doorbells.

This year’s visit to the Acropolis brought another first: waiting in line for our tickets. Normally we arrive as soon as the site opens and so avoid lines and too much of a crowd. Not so this year. I can’t help but think that Yiayia and Grandpa would’ve gotten a chuckle out of that fact. Still, I made one last trip around the top of the hill. I took photos of all of my favorite pieces and places, and Dad got a snap of me in the “traditional” spot at the east end of the plateau with the Parthenon in the background.

I had similar experiences at most every other place we went: the Benaki Museum, the Numismatic Museum, the shopping districts of Monastiraki and Plaka, hiking up Mount Lykavittos. Even swimming at the hotel pool felt different, because I didn’t have to get dressed again to go see the grandparents afterwards. As Mom stated several times, it seemed like ghosts were following us around.

The only place the ghosts didn’t follow was on our overnight trip to Delphi. I’d been to the site 2 or 3 times previously, the last of which occurred when I was in high school. I suggested it again because, if this was to be my last trip for the time being, I wanted to go someplace outside the city for a little bit. I remembered bits and pieces from our previous visits. On this trip, we did everything we’d done previously, such as visiting the Temple of Apollo where his Oracle held forth, and tried some new things, like hiking further down the road to the Temple of Athena.

We returned to Athens with one full day left before returning States-side. That morning, we visited the cemetery to pay our respects to Yiayia. D, her nephew, met up with us to show us where the grave was. My first impression on entering the cemetery was, “This place is HUGE!” (According to Google Maps, it occupies an area of roughly 640,000 square feet.) Thankfully, Yiayia’s grave is located relatively near the entrance. I had expected to start crying when I saw the tombstone; surprisingly, I stayed dry-eyed throughout our brief visit. D related stories of the funeral and the 40 day ceremony, noting that Yiayia was very well loved by many people.

We spent our final afternoon and evening in Athens shopping, swimming, and visiting the National Archaeological Museum. I got one more picture with my favorite statue, the Jockey, and took more photos of other favorite pieces. Back at the hotel, memories of the many trips over the years kept running through my head: Seeing things for the first time when I was ten, learning more with each successive trip; getting to know my grandparents; adventures outside the city to places like Delphi; how hard that first trip was after Grandpa died; getting to know Yiayia even more; coming out to her; her continued love and support. I may be done traveling to Greece for now, but the memories of the places and people I love will always be with me.

 

I woke up this morning to another text message from Mom: “Please call when you can.” Even though I’d just woken up, I knew immediately what she would say. Sure enough: “Yiayia passed away yesterday.”

Y’assou Yiayia!

I’m struggling with getting my thoughts in order to write this letter. Can it really be the last one?

I don’t remember the first time we met, because I was barely 6 months old. But Mom sent a picture the other day from that meeting: You’re holding me, and we both are smiling.

Remember some of our later meetings, when you and Grandpa would come to Boston? I think those were some of your favorite stories: How I’d hide behind Dad’s legs at first before gradually coming out to say hi. I remember feeling very shy towards you. You were this person I called “Grandma”, but you weren’t like my other Grandma, who took me to the library and swimming lessons and spent weekends with us at the Lake. You spoke with an accent and lived far away and I talked on the phone with you maybe once a year and saw you even less.

I remember our first trip to Athens to visit you and Grandpa, and how you met us at the airport even though Mom told you not to. I got shy all over again, because it had been two years since I’d last seen you and now I was ten and meeting you again in a brand new place. But you and Grandpa both smiled, gave L and I the presents you’d brought for us and took our hands, and I realized that this could be fun.

Even on future visits, it always took the two of us a couple of days to find our footing, both of us working against the lack of interaction during the rest of the year. Thanks to Mom’s weekly letters, you always seemed to know what was going on in my life, while I felt like I didn’t really know what was happening with you. The only comparison I could make was to my other Grandma, but since none of your grandkids lived near you how did you spend your time? And yet every time we visited you took the time to get to know me all over again, to ask questions about school and friends and music. By the fourth or fifth trip, we no longer had to re-introduce ourselves; we’d just pick up where we left off.

You and Grandpa both were such good sports on those trips. You’d ooh and ahh over report cards and drawings and books and toys. When you’d insist on going out for coffee or dinner or to Yannis’s shop, you or Grandpa always walked with a grandkid and pointed out anything you thought we’d find interesting. As L and I got older, you’d look through yearbooks and listen to endless stories of marching band, musical, and, in my case, work at the zoo or the museum.

Prior to college, I only wrote letters when prodded by Mom, usually to accompany the latest report card. But when I left for college I started writing on a weekly basis. I wanted you to hear about how my life was going from me, rather than second-hand through Mom. I’d also gotten a bit of a wake up call to the fact that you wouldn’t be around forever; Grandpa was already in hospital when I started my freshman year and left us not long thereafter.

Several times over the years, you apologized for not writing back to me, explaining that holding a pen was too difficult. As I said many times, I didn’t need replies. Just knowing you got the letters and were part of my life was enough.

After Grandpa passed, I made a point of getting to know you better. I loved listening to your stories of growing up in Alexandria, hearing about your mother and sister. Your stories of working in Libya, where you met Mom and her sisters and their mother and Grandpa, have always held a special place in my heart. I’ve always known that you are technically my step-grandmother, but that distinction never meant much, especially when you, too, had stories of Mom and her sisters as children.

It seems so strange to say this now, but coming out to you scared me. I didn’t know how you viewed the LGBT community, because it was something we never really talked about. I also hoped to initially talk to you in person. But then I started hormones, and knew that I’d look and sound different the next time you saw me. So I wrote you a special letter, one solely dedicated to my coming out. You took the time and effort to write me back, saying that what mattered most to you was that I was happy, and that you couldn’t wait to see me that summer. The hug I received when I arrived still means so much to me.

Every month since 2009, I’ve made sure to write. Sometimes I’d get so busy I’d miss a month, but the next letter would always cover the lost time. Any time we talked on the phone, you’d remind me how proud you were of me. While it was never the same after Grandpa left, I still looked forward to my visits because I got to spend time with you. I loved hearing more of your stories, like how you felt about living in England when you and Grandpa first got married.You loved hearing about my life, even if I talked about things I’d previously covered in my letters. I think one of my favorite memories is from the trip in 2014, when I got to tell you immediately and in person that I’d had a job offer.

I remember during visits when I’d call you from the hotel to let you know I was on my way over. In the early years, I spoke only English during those calls. I remember how excited you were when I started speaking Greek.

I remember last year’s visit, when you asked so many questions about living in Alaska. And I remember you happily looking at the hundreds of photos on my computer, even the ones of the seal I helped skin.

When we talked this past Christmas, I assured you that I would be coming to visit you this summer. Even after Mom called in January to say you were in hospital, I kept telling myself you’d get better and that I’d see you in a few short months. Mom’s phone call this morning, however, proved me wrong.

I’m still going to Athens this summer. Mom, Dad, and I have already bought the tickets. Just thinking about being in the city and not seeing you feels strange. Knowing that we won’t call you to visit after breakfast, or to see about joining you for dinner, leaves a hole in my thoughts, because I’ve literally never gone to Athens without seeing you.

Do you remember my first or second trip to Athens, when you and Grandpa gave me my coin? It’s a replica Athenian drachma from 300 BCE, showing Athena’s face on one side and an owl and olive branch on the other, with a loop so it can be put on a necklace. I started wearing it in junior high, and have worn it daily since then. It’s always been my way of keeping you close, and it will continue to be so.

It feels odd to know that you’ll never see this letter. I won’t be printing it out, nor will I need to address an envelope. For that matter, I guess I’ll have to find another use for my leftover airmail stamps.

Please know that, no matter where you are, you will continue to be in my thoughts. Thank you for being such an amazing yiayia.

Love always,

CJ

I’m in Anchorage for a conference this weekend. At 1:45 this morning, I awoke to a shaking hotel room. Earthquake. The shaking disconcerted me, but I couldn’t hear anything beyond the rattling of the window blinds and other assorted objects in the room; no evacuation signals or footsteps in the hall. Five minutes later, the shaking finally stopped. It took a little longer to get my heart rate back under control and stop my brain spinning worst-case scenarios, but I soon fell back asleep. Even though the event now has a dream-like quality, I later learned that the shaking was caused by a quake with a magnitude of 7.1, about 130 miles south of Anchorage, 50 miles down in Cook Inlet.

A few hours later, I woke to a text message from Mom: “Call ASAP. Yiayia is in hospital.” My world shook again. I called immediately. Mom answered right away. Apparently, Yiayia fell down yesterday, Saturday. When they got her to the hospital, she started going downhill. While she’s currently in the ICU, the doctors don’t know what caused the fall or her downturn. Of course, the woman is in her 90s; it could be anything. Her nephew called Mom about 5 AM EST this morning.

Thoughts flew through my head as I talked with Mom. We’re planning our visit for this summer. I’m working on a letter to her right now! How is this possible? Will I ever get to hug Yiayia again? This isn’t happening. I need to go home. What difference would that make? This can’t be happening. I just spoke to her at Christmas. This CAN’T be happening.

I’ve gone through the motions this morning of getting ready for the day, but I feel like a zombie. My thoughts are 6,000 miles away. I’ve been very fortunate in my life: I had five living grandparents until I was almost 19. I know it can’t last forever, but that doesn’t make this any easier. I’m already planning to find a seat near the door when I’m at the conference today, just in case I need to answer the phone in a hurry. My world is still shaking, and I wish it would stop.