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It’s a dysphoria day.

I’ve been living authentically for almost ten years; I’ve been on hormones for just over seven. Two surgeries, four-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years ago, went a long way towards banishing these moments of disconnect.In my daily life, no one questions my gender. And yet, I still have days where question myself, where the dysphoria that once occurred daily rises up from the dark corners of my mind and makes itself known again. I can’t always pinpoint the trigger for these feelings. Today, though, I know exactly what caused it.

I’m letting my hair grow again.

Some context: At its longest, my hair has never passed my jaw. In fifth grade, I got it cut so that it brushed the tops of my years. Not a “pixie” cut either. Some of the earlier pictures show a bowl-style cut; later, I styled it by parting it on the left and pushing my bangs off to the side. I got it cut again right around the time I started hormones and have spent the last seven years sporting an almost Tintin-like style: short back and sides, with the front long enough that it flips upwards. Until I moved to Alaska, haircuts occurred monthly, although I would occasionally grow it out a bit for Halloween costumes.

Things changed a bit here on the tundra. My coworker Jenny cuts hair, but between her schedule, my schedule, and the cooler temperatures I’ve taken to going two or three months between trims.

As has become my custom, I got a haircut in August right before I returned to Nunap. My intention was to then grow it out for Halloween. I ended up buying a wig to use with my costume, but I didn’t get my hair cut right away. For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of doing something different with my hair anyway, so I figured this was as good a time as any to start.

Watching my hair get longer again has been interesting. Some things are funny, like seeing my students exclaim over how it no longer stands up. Other things are annoying, like the two cowlicks in the back that won’t lie flat no matter what I do. (One advantage to letting my hair continue to grow: Said cowlicks no longer exist.) And some things I’d just plain forgotten about, like how much static charge can build up in this dry air.

At one point a couple of weeks ago, I looked in the mirror and realized that my hair has now reached the same length it was in high school and my first few years of college. Back when I was bullied for how I looked. Back when I avoided public restrooms for fear of the looks and words that would come my way. Back when I started living authentically and had to deal with people questioning each and every thing about how I presented. Old memories and feelings I thought I’d dealt with began clamoring for attention again. For the last two weeks, I’ve been coping with these demons from my past as I try to go about my daily routine, teach my kids, prepare for the holidays.

The loudest voice keeps telling me, “You look like a girl.” Intellectually, I know this is bull. My hair is longer than other men, about the same as others, and far shorter than some. Emotionally, the words resonate with a different meaning: I look like I did when the world identified me as a girl. And that was not a happy time.

I admit, once I realized just what memories were stirring, I nearly texted Jenny and asked for an immediate haircut. But I didn’t. Instead, I spent time thinking and reflecting.Part of me wants to keep my hair this length, at least for a little while. Yes, I have bad memories associated with it, but if I get it cut again right now, then those will also be the only memories and feelings I have about this look. I’d rather overwrite them with a more positive take on things. And what does it say about the society that I was raised in, that I worry so much about if my appearance and gestures are more “feminine” than “masculine”? Because it’s not just the length of my hair that can cause dysphoria; I still worry about the shape of my body and the way I gesture with my hands or sit in a chair.

So how do I cope with dysphoria days? I reach out to my support network. In this case,  I took pictures and posted them on Facebook, seeking validation from my friends. They responded with nothing but positive energy. I pull myself out of my body for a bit by reading or writing fiction. I watch some of my favorite movies or TV series. I work out. Or sometimes, like today, I pull on a favorite baseball cap (backwards) and t-shirt, park myself in front of my computer, and spend hours working out how to arrange my thoughts into an articulate blog post. Because the naming of the demons gives them less power over me. Because “shared pain is lessened”. Because I know I’m not alone. Because I want other people struggling with similar issues to know that they aren’t alone, either.

 

 

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.

A few days ago, an article popped up on my Facebook news feed: a group called the Binding Health Project just published the first study on chest binding to be carried by a medical journal (Culture, Health, and Society).  As I read through the article (which can be found here), I found myself immersed in memories of my own experiences.

As a youngling, my body didn’t offer too much in the way of dysphoric triggers. In my experience, society as a whole and my family in particular were more lax in what kids got to wear and how they acted. Several photos exist of me running around the family lake house as a toddler with the top of my one piece bathing suit pushed down around my waist, and I have strong memories of sitting by fires on the beach there in just shorts or pants.

Initially, I was in denial about the changes puberty brought to my body. I saw myself as a boy, and the idea that my body may be developing in a different way intensified the feelings of discomfort I was already experiencing. When I couldn’t deny the changes to my body any longer, I insisted on only buying sports bras. Through high school, my dysphoria and body image issues only continued to grow. The sports bras became both a blessing and a curse: Underneath my preferred t-shirt and vests or hoodies, the undergarments provided enough camouflage that I felt comfortable moving through the world, but at the same time the very name of the things reminded me that society saw me as a girl. I only wore a “regular” bra a handful of times, and never outside a dressing room or my own bedroom. To this day, even the memories of those few experiences bring an overwhelming feeling of disconnect between the mental and the physical, a dizziness that only increased when I’d contemplate wearing the things out in public.

College brought the opportunity to explore my identity and begin living authentically. No longer happy with the sports bras, I researched other means of binding my chest. For the immediate future, buying commercial binders was out of the question. Instead, I settled on using Ace bandages. Each morning I’d wrap the elasticized cloth around my torso, pinning the end in place with my arm as I secured the little clips. This method had its drawbacks: The bandages would roll around the edges, leading to an oddly lumpy silhouette. And while I joked that it forced me to breathe from the diaphragm, I would sometimes feel short of breath when exercising or playing trombone. I never had trouble following the so-called “eight hour rule”; by the time my classes had ended for the day, I was more than happy to return to my dorm room and ditch the bandages while lounging in a baggy t-shirt.

In the middle of my junior year, I finally bought several binders from Underworks, one of several companies that sells these items. After the constriction of the bandages, the binders brought a new feeling of freedom, both physical and psychological. Instead of a tight band around the center of my chest, the binders spread the compression out over my entire torso, which meant no more unsightly bulges. Even better, the garments looked like an undershirt, which meant I no longer had to worry about what would happen if someone caught a glimpse of one. Best of all, I no longer wore a bra, which marked me as a girl, or a bandage, which implied I was damaged in some way.

I wore binders for four years. While never as uncomfortable as the bras and bandages, I still had to deal with a near-constant feeling of over-heating, particularly in summer. After I started hormones and my body began changing, the binders gradually became even less amenable. Testosterone combined with my workout habits to begin reshaping my chest even without surgery, which lead to chafing around my armpits and shoulders. I also had the fun of learning how it feels when hair grows in underneath such tight garments. Not binding was never an option: I couldn’t bear the sight of my naked chest for more than a few moments at a time, and hated the weight that hung off my body without support. However, the idea of wearing binders for the rest of my life never held much appeal, either. Like so many others, I sought a more permanent solution in the form of top surgery.

Even though it’s been over four years since I last bound my chest, I still think about how that experience shaped me, both psychically and physically. I worry that the Ace bandages in particular re-shaped my ribs in some way, and wonder what the consequences of that will be further down the line. I also worry about my trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming siblings who resort to even more dangerous methods of binding themselves. I sincerely hope that the Binding Health Project continues their good work, and that that work influences how the medical community helps others like me.

The middle of August has arrived, and I find myself immersed once more in the Tundra Bubble.

The Bubble is relatively large, incorporating not only Nunap but also the Hub and rest of the school district where I work. This gives the Bubble an area approximately the size of Ohio. I have yet to explore all of this space; the reality of travel in this place combined with a limited amount of things to do in each village means that I’m usually content to stay in Nunap and the surrounding environs. Those that love to hunt, trap, and fish have more reason to travel from place to place, as different game can be found on the coast as opposed to inland. Likewise, the locals who grew up in a different village will frequently travel to visit their families. Neither of these descriptions apply to me, however. I typically travel only when chaperoning school sports teams or for required in-service meetings at the Hub. Sometimes I go up river to visit friends at the school in the next village. For the most part, though, once school starts my world effectively shrinks to a radius of about thirty miles.

Back in the mid-Atlantic states, thirty miles can have quite a lot to do, especially if it includes a major city like the one where I grew up. There’s the zoo, at least seven different museums, opportunities to see live theatre productions, malls, stores, restaurants, movies, libraries, and numerous other opportunities. And transportation isn’t too complicated: If I want to get somewhere, I have my car. When I lived in the city, my apartment sat near at least eight bus routes that could take me just about anywhere in the city if I didn’t feel like driving or didn’t want to bother with parking. I could also walk to a variety of places.

Thirty miles in the Tundra Bubble, however, is quite different. With transportation limited to plane, boat, four-wheeler, or snowmobile, getting someplace can be a challenge. Then there’s the fact that most of these villages started as seasonal gathering places for Alaska Natives; even today, many families in Nunap head for their traditional fish camps from May through August. The Hub, being an actual town, has roads, cars, a few restaurants, several stores, even a small museum and nature center. But most of the villages are lucky to have one general store and a post office.

During the school year, I’ve found that the world beyond the Bubble takes on a sort of dream-like quality. I’m still aware of what’s going on, thanks to the Internet, letters from home, and phone calls. But the distance lends a softness, I guess you could call it, to things that don’t happen right here.

This distance makes for some interesting, and in some situations startling, observations. One of the first things I noticed when I moved up here is that, while Alaska is technically part of the US, many times it get treated like a separate entity. Nowhere is this more apparent than when shopping online from a retailer like Amazon. While Amazon itself has no problem shipping things to Nunap, quite a large number of third-party sellers on the site throw Alaska under the heading of “international shipping”, which means that they either won’t ship or will charge an arm and a leg.

Something else I quickly learned is that when most people hear the word “Alaska” they think of Anchorage and its surrounding area: someplace not all that different from smaller metropolitan areas in the Lower 48, aside from the occasional moose wandering through and the extreme daylight differences. They picture the mountains, and a cooler temperature, and scenic lakes and rivers and wildlife, and roads. You know, where services like UPS and FedEx can quickly reach you. I’ve had more than a few phone conversations with customer service reps about why it’s really easier for me if they ship care of the USPS (while we do get UPS and FedEx in Nunap, it can take two or three times longer than the post office), and when I explain that there aren’t any roads where I live you can almost hear their minds screeching to a halt.

This lack of awareness goes both directions. While I can’t pinpoint exactly when I truly comprehended just how big the U.S. is, I do know that by the time I entered third grade I understood that Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were all part of the same country. In contrast, I can only think of two kids in my current class for whom the names of other states aren’t some near-mythical place, and that my stories of traveling during the summer aren’t just a fantasy. Given that many of the kids in our school rarely travel beyond other villages or the Hub, I can’t say that I’m too surprised.

The Tundra Bubble also resides in my mind, in that I don’t really expect much to change when I’m gone for the holidays or for summer break. I know that I’ll still see many familiar faces when I go to the store or the post office, no matter the time of year. I can count on certain kids tagging around after me anytime I’m outside. Even the new faces at the school each fall are to be expected, as is the feeling of hiding a part of me until I know them better. This mental bubble can be pierced, as when I returned this fall and noticed that the one church (which sits between my apartment and the school) had collapsed. But for the most part it’s the lens through which I view life here. Life in the Tundra Bubble is separate from life outside, and for the next few months, I’m back on the inside.

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”.

Even though I now live three-thousand miles away in the middle of nowhere, I’m still active in the trans community of my hometown. (Actually, it’s likely because I live in the middle of nowhere that I’m active in the community….) I maintain the Facebook page for the Initiative for Transgender Leadership, and communicate with several members of other trans and LGBTQ groups. When I’m home, I try to get to at least one event or get together. In between times, I keep updated on various goings-on via Facebook and online news sources. Back in April, an article ran about the local school district’s plans to unveil a district-wide transgender non-discrimination policy (NDP). Based on the policy that’s been in place at one high school since 2014, the district-wide version merely sets things out in a such a way that every school in the district can also be accommodating of students who don’t fit into the gender binary. Prior to voting on the policy, the school board announced a series of three public hearings where anyone could speak their opinions on this and other policies or issues before the board. The first two of these hearings took place while I was still in Alaska, so I had no chance of taking part. The last, however, took place just this past Monday.

Preparing for the hearing actually began the week before, when I called the office of the board to state that I wished to speak at the upcoming hearing. I had to give my name, where I lived, and the issue about which I’d be speaking. In return, the person I spoke with gave me my number (I’d be the 21st speaker of the night), told me I would have three minutes, and requested that I bring 15 copies of my remarks for the board members.

I spent most of Monday morning writing, crossing out, re-writing, and editing what I planned to say. (Three minutes doesn’t seem like a long time until you actually try talking for that long.) I then spent time that afternoon worrying about what to wear. Polo or button down? Short sleeves or long? Tie or no tie? I eventually settled on an outfit I frequently wore while substitute teaching.

The school board’s offices are in the same neighborhood as my grandparents’ apartment, the natural history museum where I once worked, and the main branch of the local library. Even though I speak in front of groups a lot, I still get nervous about it, so my original plan was to park the car and then hang out at the library for a bit before going to the meeting. On my way from the garage to the library, I passed a van that bore the name of a local Baptist church, which didn’t seem like a good sign. Turning the corner, I noticed a sizable crowd gathered outside the main entrance of the board building, and my heart sped up. Could all of these people be here to protest or speak in support of the NDP? Would I have to talk in front of them? Would there even be room for everyone at the meeting? Mostly concerned about this last question, and curious to hear what (I thought) the opposition had to say, I decided to forego the library and approached the group.

Within a couple of minutes, I discovered that the group gathered at the door, which included the church group, were actually there about a completely different matter: the recent hiring of a new superintendent. My nerves calmed a little at that point, but I still felt jumpy at the thought of speaking in front of all of these people, especially as the crowd continued to grow as the time of the meeting drew nearer. Fortunately, I did spot some friendly faces in the mass: The leaders of the local LGBTQ youth theatre group and several of their actors. When the doors finally opened, they and I positioned ourselves as close to the front of the line as we could. This turned out to be a good move: The security guard who opened the door said that due to the amount of people speaking (85!) and the fact that the building had no power, they would not be able to let everyone attend the hearing. Fortunately, the theatre group folks and I made it inside.

Public hearings are held in one of the conference rooms on the second floor of the building. According to family who have been to these things before, normally the public sits at one end of the room, the board members at the other, and anyone who is speaking stands on the floor in front of the board and uses a microphone. Due to the power outage, this set up was changed slightly: Members of the public sat at either end of the room, and the board members sat in the middle, facing the entrance along that wall. Said entrance had been blocked off to create a sort of podium so that any speaker could be heard by everyone in the room. After making sure everyone was ready, the Speaker of the Board explained the procedure for the night: People would be called on to speak in the order in which they had phoned in in the week leading up to the meeting. Copies of the complete list were available for the public. The Speaker would call people in groups of 6. Those called would head out into the hallway to wait their turn at the podium. In a speaker’s turn came, a board employee would take the copies of their statement for distribution to the board members. Once you started speaking, you had three minutes. A bell signaled you had about a minute left; a second bell meant your time was up. Due to the amount of speakers, there would be a short break after number 40. “Are there any questions? Then let’s begin.”

By now, I knew that not everyone was there to talk about the NDP. Several people spoke on behalf of a local charter school whose charter is up for renewal. Others spoke in favor of proposed renovations for another school. The majority spoke for or against the new superintendent. And several other people spoke about the NDP. As I listened to each speaker, I scanned the crowd to see their reactions on each topic. School renovations and charter renewals mostly garnered polite applause. Pro-new superintendent speakers got huge rounds of applause from their faction (which seemed to be the largest in the room), while those who want the board to re-open the search garnered less applause and the occasional “boooo!” Speakers on the NDP also earned a fair amount of applause, and no catcalls that I could hear. Soon enough, the Speaker announce my name, and I moved into the hall to get ready.

After handing the copies of my statements to the staff member, I paced a little as I waited my turn. I’d recognized some of my former coworkers in the crowd; what would they think when they heard me speaking? There were cameras from a couple of local news networks there; would my face be on the 11 o’ clock news?

Soon enough, it was my turn. I walked to the makeshift podium as the copies of my statement were passed to the board members. With a last look around the room, I looked down at my own copy of the speech, tucked my hands in my pockets so no one could see them shaking, took a deep breath, and began speaking:

Good evening. My name is Cee Jay L. I have a story to share with you. In February of 2012, I was hired by this district as a long-term substitute for a middle school science classroom. In March, as the [standardized tests] approached, I led a discussion on basic genetics with my 8th graders. One of the students asked about what makes a person a boy or girl. My initial answer focused on X and Y chromosomes, but several students quickly jumped in with questions about terms like, “hermaphrodite”, “transsexual”, and “he-she”. So I took a deep breath, tried to calm my racing heart, and walked the students through the differences between sex and gender, and what exactly makes a transgender person. One student vocally struggled with the thought of making such drastic changes to her body, so I asked her to think about it like this: “Imagine that you were born in the body of a boy. In your heart and mind, you know you’re a girl, but because of how your body looks society tells you that you are boy and you can only do certain things.” All of the students got thoughtful looks on their faces, and then the student who had asked the question stated, “That would suck!”

I admit, I breathed easier at that point. For you see, I am transgender. As an adolescent, I fell squarely in the middle of your definition for “gender expansive” students: a perceived girl, complete with an “F” on all the paperwork, who neither looked nor acted like the other girls. Fortunately, I had friends and teachers and administrators who worked with me to make my time in school an overall success. As an adult, I’ve worked with organizations like the Initiative for Transgender Leadership and THRIVE to ensure that more students like me have equally supportive experiences. So tonight I am here to show my support for the proposed Transgender Nondiscrimination Policy. As you can see, your students already get it. I encourage you to follow their lead. Thank you for your time.

Applause followed me as I returned to the hallway. Other speakers waiting there offered me smiles and congratulations. I thanked them and stepped off to the side to take a few deep breaths and calm my racing heart before rejoining the audience to listen to more speakers.

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.