You’re Still Transitioning
I see you every day. The woodprint portrait — “Fossils” you called it — hangs over my living room television, ever ready to be stared in upon, the way you weren’t when you were still alive. Fit conveniently into the available space are designs evoking your life, just the way you saw it, a collection of pocket-sized absurdities: a crayon, a rosary, a dime, a mustard bottle, an MP3 player (of the sort iPods made obsolete), a butt plug, a screwdriver, a paperclip, a cigarette, and other tools we use to get by. They surround the centerpiece, a skeleton depicted from the torso up that seems life-sized until you realize it’s slightly larger. The skeleton is neutral, actual, unsentient. It noticeably lacks any affect or sign of life or attitude. As skeletons go, Halloween decorations brim with character and even scientific models seem to have implied personalities, but your skeleton — that is, the one you made — looks vacant; positively dead.
The balance in the work is uncanny. The black space and white space balance each other perfectly, the items you chose cover all life’s bases, it’s all life is, or was, or will be, somehow. I appreciate it and yet half the time I look at it feels like I’m glancing at a suicide note. You couldn’t have known, at least not for sure, but in case you followed through, it couldn’t hurt to put your life story in an image somehow. I lament the artwork even as I adore it.
I often show the work to others, and I’m so proud to show it off because even people who don’t “get it” can glean something from it. If nothing else, there’s lots of things to look at: the cord on a wired pair of headphones, the notches on a depicted key, the verterbrae running down the spine of the skeleton. It could have been done by someone uninteresting, and seen by someone uninteresting, and still be interesting. Across from it hangs another work of yours, a more predictable work, a forest of trees with a figure walking in the background toward the center, toward something, toward what inspires the viewer. The robust gold frame, which probably outsizes anything you possibly imagined for that piece or any piece you did, ornately dignifies the piece even while drawing some focus away from the contrast of the placid blue and mundane brown that make up the piece. Between the two offerings, there’s something to enjoy for everyone. My living room is pleasant for company; that’s one effect you’ve had on my life.
In my bedroom is another piece, an absolute delight of a work, showing an anthropomorphic alarm clock dislodged from its daily repose by the pinching fingers of a proverbial and somewhat vengeant human arm. “A Daily Struggle,” a piece of resistance art if there ever was one, depicts the anxiety rush that is one’s daily morning awakening if the shoe were on the other foot. Ultimately, the viewer does wind up feeling bad for the clock, even if the grumpy buggar appears to have it coming. It is comforting to peek at it before I go to bed, or as I struggle to wake up in the morning, and be reminded that this cycle of awakening to anxiety is really a big joke, and could happen to anyone, and does.
On the way to the basement level in the house I rent, there is another one of your pieces, the last of your art I have hanging, depicting a mangle of hands clawing at each other and at nothing (and one of them seemingly at a rogue vagina), a banner that displays pure want, and the uselessness and arbitrariness thereof. It also gives off this vague messaging of danger, as though there are creeps in my basement waiting to grab you. In my experience, there aren’t. Your work with hands was always so effective. You always made them so grotesque, possibly because you saw the things hands are used for as grotesque, so you colored them in with this type of symbolism. Notably different in presentation, however, was your hand-turkey that you made the first time you were hospitalized because you thought you were going to kill yourself. You chose to make it so silly and simple, a work in contrast stylized to fit your catalogue. Believe it or not I keep wanting to hang that in my children’s bedroom. Then again, I also don’t.
You once told me you were anxious about the idea of someone getting a tattoo of your design. The permanence of your artwork being on someone’s body was both scary and exhilarating for you, a noted departure from your tendency to value internal understanding over physical manifestation (of anything, even of appreciating your art). At first you were wracked with anxiety over the task but as you worked on it your confidence grew to where you said you were 100% on board with the project.
Five days after telling me this you committed suicide.
I wonder if they got the tattoo.
More and more, I’m getting better with your name, Erin. I remember at your funeral: There we all were, your closest friends, occupying a single back row in a Catholic cathedral where was held a service for an adjacent version of you, and we were all a bit muddled on how to refer to you. In conversation with your family, it was Max, as you never introduced your new name to them. But even with each other, all our memories were of Max, even though we had been at least clued in on your new name. Did the name of the apartment you shared with Jenn and Alex change its name too? Or could that still be JeMaal? Did we call you Max if we were referring to you before you discovered you were trans? It was also confusing because Max was a very fitting name, a single syllable implying something that is a lot, a kid name, a happy, easy name. Underneath that easy truncation was the beautiful Maximilian, which nearly made me — an avowed loyalist to the sound, spelling and uniqueness of my own name — jealous. Five undulating syllables that reveal the complexity behind the simplistic facade you used to protect yourself while interacting with the world. You seemed to be fond of it, too. You seemed to have a good relationship with your name.
I remember being disappointed when I found out you were still going by Max to your family. When I found out, I actually unchanged your name in my phone. Oblivious to what steps I should be taking as an ally to you in your struggle, my emotional response was surprisingly strong. I wanted you to call them on their bullshit, flaunt your truth in their face, and damn however they want to respond. This was, of course, wholly insensitive to the reality of your struggle, attempting to exist as a trans woman in a space where being a gay man had already made you tainted, seemingly irredeemable. However, I’ll also assert that I believed you would get there eventually. It was never a sense of “Oh, if Max still goes by Max he must not be serious about becoming Erin.” It was that you were never one to equivocate on what you believed in, and if you were equivocating on your name, you must not be ready for it yet. I never told you any of this, though. I at least knew enough to stuff it, not burden you with the disappointment you didn’t deserve. I was never proud of it. I was processing some things too.
I actually never met you as Erin. The last time I saw you was for New Year’s. You had long hair, just long enough for a sad little ponytail. When I close my eyes, I can still feel how tightly you hugged me when we said goodbye. Did you know that would be the last time? When that happened, I had the distinct feeling that you weren’t sure you would see me again. But after you died, I began wondering if you knew. It was three months after that you texted me saying to call you Erin. A month or so later I found out I was more or less beta testing your name. Two months after that you were gone. I had so little practice calling you Erin, especially after my little boycott of your name had me deadnaming you when not speaking to you. It felt at the time like an equivalent gesture; now it just feels shitty. I try to resist the urge to feel bad, though. See, you wouldn’t know what this is like, ahem, but when a friend commits suicide, your entire relationship with them gets papered over with regret. You are consumed at the question of where in the massive flowchart of your interactions did you miss the choice that would have veered them off the path toward suicide. Could a remotely delivered bouquet of flowers on the right day have been the difference? These thoughts are ever-present, and there’s an ocean of them, and you just have to stroll by them and pretend not to notice when you do allow yourself to reminisce. See in my head, though, you would have accepted this transgression. Your voice still audible in my head: “Fair.” I feel you’d be in agreement with me now, though, that it was shitty. You’d have the perspective to recognize that you deserved more support than what I gave you at the time, even if it was behind-the-scenes. In spite of that, I also have gone ahead and forgiven myself for it on your behalf. I think you would, first of all, but also: I inherited plenty of your pain, and if I can inherit your pain I can inherit other things from you, too, so I’m OK to use a bit of inherited grace on myself in this case.
Anyway, I’m much better now. The name “Max Harrold” scrawled into the corner of some of your prints appears like a pseudonym. When I talk about you, you’re Erin. When I remember old stories, you’re still Erin, because that’s what to call you, even though you went by Max at the time. Sometimes I do use Max, but it’s more rare, and employed as a shorthand, rather than how I think of you. I think of you as Erin now. Jenn and I gave our daughter the name Erin to use as a middle name. In my heart, I know your instinct is to hate this, but you recognize it as a form of love so you allow yourself to accept it, as a practice. When I sing her songs, I say her middle name in them and it’s your name and a tiny corner of my brain cues up memories of you and it brings a warmth over me, a pulsing echo of that ultimate New Year’s embrace. One day, I will tell her about you, and she’ll walk around for the rest of her life knowing that you existed and you had a legacy worth imparting. She’s absolutely beautiful, by the way.
One thing I rarely think about is how much harder this would have been to navigate if my spouse wasn’t also a best friend of yours. To be able to grieve simultaneously and equally albeit not identically with Jenn was a mercy. We cried together at times, other times we would come home and share “I thought about Erin today” or “I heard a song on the way to work and it made me cry” and the other person would understand, fully, specifically. We thought it was funny how you had such strong connections with each of us, and mostly kept those connections individualized. We both would have long phone conversations with you, but rarely with the other person there. Your relationship with each of us was specifically tailored, and with her you had a certain dynamic, and with me you had a different dynamic, and the dynamics worked best on their own. I feel like all three of us understood that, which made it great. We both miss you. We miss you in different ways. We miss the way you filled a particular space for us. That space remains vacant for each of us. The vacant space is a condition we both carry, can talk about, commiserate, support. We both wanted to name our daughter in your honor — to give Erin another chance, and to give ourselves more time with Erin. That’s what legacies do. Now we say your name all the time, the name of our daughter we named after our friend. As we do so, you become more and more of Erin. To us who kept on, you’re still transitioning.
It was basically tradition to get off my shift at the country club, change out of my server clothes in the staff locker room, and find a new text from you, pontificating on this or that. I was also used to you struggling to allow yourself to exist, asking for support in little ways to make it through tough moments. When I opened my phone on June 10th, my brother’s birthday, and saw a text from you, I wasn’t alarmed:
“could you tell me it’s gonna be alright? I can never believe it when it comes from me.” -8:29 p.m.
I got dressed, and opted for a calm tone:
“It’ll be alright.” -8:35 p.m.
You responded right away, which put me at ease:
I was very used to your facility with plying big ideas. You always weaved humor in and out of even the most serious conversations. You did it in a unique way, though, in that you never really made jokes about the serious thing. The serious thing was the joke. The hand turkey you made in the psychiatric hospital evokes this. So when you texted me about an hour later, the last texts you had with anyone, it came off to me as removed from the mini-crisis of the hour before, and as a zany, silly thing:
“is god an orphan?” -9:20
“God didn’t have parents. The rest of us are orphans.” -9:20
Because God is dead; get it? God, our species’s parent, is dead. So we’re orphans. The last text you’d ever respond to and this is what was written.
“I hope he’s not lonely” -9:22
Twelve minutes later, I responded.
“God has us.” -9:34
I hope you saw it.
I will never get those texts out of my head. I will never get that exchange out of my head.
To those of you who knew her, I don’t know what to say. Maybe the exchange was immaterial, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe if I had said something different, embarked on a line of inquiry, I could’ve sparked a conversation that could have held off this one attempt. Maybe you all had conversations with her that were similar that you can’t talk about. Maybe she saw my text, thought I was full of hot air that night and not matching the energy she wanted and she reached out to someone else. I don’t know, and I don’t know if I ever will know. I’m left holding onto these scraps of context and wondering what I did. I feel embarrassed. I feel ashamed. I feel like part of a soccer team whose lack of focus in an instant allowed a game-losing goal. Only we lost her, which is like if a game weren’t a game at all but something real and human. I want to emphasize that analogy, though: In soccer, there are so many variables keeping the ball out of the net. So many games go the full time with no goals scored. It requires bypassing all those obstacles — a hundred yards of field, eleven defenders including a goalie, any unwitting teammates in the way, the boundary lines, the crossbar and posts of the goal — and managing to put a viable strike on the ball, moving it on a trajectory that takes it into the net. There are times watching a soccer match, the back and forth flow of it, that a goal feels like it won’t happen if the teams played for another four hours. And then it can just happen like that. I think about that analogy all the time. Erin’s team was Everton, by the way. She on a whim decided to get into Premier League soccer, choosing Everton as an apt avatar for her hapless fighting of the good fight.
I wish I had called you. I wish I had saved you. Like a slow-motion replay where a player has broken through all the other dozens of obstacles and sees a window for a clear opportunity to score, only to have the last line of defense happen to jut their leg out in such a way that it deflects the ball clear of the goal, maybe even as the defender does so you can see their eyes close and their head turn away to protect themselves in the face of potential pain. You see that type of play and think “How did they get so lucky?” I jutted my leg out the wrong way. The ball got by the defender. The ball got by the goalie. The defender agonizes the loss.
“I’m curious, do you ever think like this? It’s a hypothetical I try to remember when I feel essentially fucked: If I could be around for my ten-year-old self right now, I would mama bear the shit out of that situation. No question. My love would be fierce and scary. So with that in mind, there has to be a 35-year-old version of me who would do the same now, right?” -March 26, 2017
I know, maybe, that there was nothing I could do. I was a thousand miles away. I don’t hold myself responsible. I think that’s giving myself too much credit for you moods and decisions. It also doesn’t matter if I do think it was me. You’re not here to apologize to. You’re not here to do better for. I can think these thoughts, and feel the things I feel, and the recipient of those thoughts and feelings is fully gone from me. That’s why grief is always characterized as a hole. Thoughts meant to be received by someone can’t be. I’d love to talk about it over coffee, what you really needed. Whether I stood a chance in my quest to keep you alive. Whether you stood a chance in your quest to want to live. What were the keys to success? Now that all is hindsight, do you see how it played out and what adjustments could have fixed the whole thing?
I sit with these thoughts. I play with them like a child alone in the bathtub, naked, isolated, playing until the water drains away and I’m left sitting on the wet hard surface with nothing to do but move on. I think of our friends who loved you and know they take their baths too. I wonder if they play the same as me. I wonder if any of them have reached out to your brothers, like I have so often fantasized about, or made special memorials to you to help themselves cope.
I think about that friend group. Our college crew. Jemaal. The party playlist. Drunk Ron Swanson. Game nights. That group completely disintegrated when you died. We got together for your funeral. We sang Shake It Off and danced like only you were watching and we cried together and then we fell apart completely. Bonds fractured, cracks emerged, rifts deepened, and we were all out of our glue. It’s not the most important thing in the world, but it was drastic, even impressive, how quickly drifting and rifting set in, and we left it in the past where you were.
I also don’t fully absolve you of blame. I am really hurt. You once asked me if you owe people your continued existence, and I said yeah, I felt that I did and I think it makes sense to feel that way, so you can’t even pretend you didn’t know it would hurt me when you died. You’ve also explained to me before that in your darkest moments you could not possibly care about that and, while that’s something I’ll never know, I do have that as a morsel of context. The anger of it still surges, the fact that it was your decision that was bad, your actions that ended your life. You were the one who killed one of my best friends. I would be angry at anyone who did that. All you had to do was not.
One thing that doesn’t get old is thinking “What would Erin be like if she were still alive today?” Five and a half years later! Can you imagine? You were amid dark times, but those can pass. They would almost certainly be passed by now. You would have maneuvered into a position of safety. You’d still be evolving. It would be beautiful. You would be beautiful. We’d all be so proud of your perseverance. Things would still be hard, but there are always hard things, and maybe it’d be manageable instead of impossible. Maybe you’d be completely who you wanted to become. Life isn’t beautiful when you give up halfway, it’s beautiful when you make it through things. I believe you could have made it. Your struggle was so raw and real and deep, a balanced universe would have produced something utterly amazing on the other end of it, I’m sure of it. I want to believe in a balanced universe. Instead, there’s the hole analogy for grief again. You had so many returns to account for. All those are lost. They slipped away through what we only understand to be a hole. Your gorgeous art. Your delightful conversation. Your transition. Your relationships with your family. Your relationships with your friends. Your relationship with yourself. This life misses out on all that evolution, all that development and progress that would have been the continued output of you.
A parallel universe where you are alive. Lots of parallel universes and you’re alive in all of them. Why do I have to be here? How can I get to there?
A bargain: Once a year I can give you a hug for as long as I want. I’ll compromise on the exchange of words. You transmit so much emotion with physical touch. Again I feel the hug from New Year’s. Your energy cycles through me again, your only known remains.
A text from you that changed my life: “please call 911 for me.” October 5th, 2016. And I did. And you were safe. You got help. You made a turkey.
The new memories I don’t have of you. The old ones whirring around like items revolving within a cyclone. Feeling trapped there. Realizing there’s no way out.
“sometimes conscious thought isn’t necessary for ideas to have value.” -April 2nd, 2017
An image of you reading Dubliners with your feet kicked up on the Jemaal balcony. The Pride flag is behind you, illuminated by the lingering sun. You are content, escaped.
A grainy photo sent on your flip phone. You are in a dress. Your hair is long. You are smiling.
“not gonna lie I kinda feel like I’m gonna be cute as fuck one day” -February 9th, 2017
The clothes you left at Brian and Jon’s apartment because you couldn’t risk your parents finding them at home. How long did they leave them hanging there?
Images I make up have no basis in reality, but I can make myself see you; you transition further and become happier. You are a woman. You are cute as fuck. You send Jenn and I more selfies than we care for, but we’re all three OK with it.
It really is too much.
Just one more call for help. It could have changed everything.
Each day I get further away from the moments in time we spent together. The conversations recede, their nature becoming more abstract. The role I played in your life adapts to suit my self-concept. For a while, I yearned to be asked about you by peers or colleagues. I felt unseen by people who couldn’t tell I was grieving a friend. I was asked recently in a work meeting what it was I wished my colleagues knew about me. The answer was you, but it wasn’t the right moment to say that. It’s been five and a half years and I’ve come to an agreement to just tell myself about you, so I could feel seen by myself, if no one else. In talking about you, though, I yearned to feel your community. Writing about you gets that feeling going, at least a little bit. The resonance of my thoughts almost feels like a response. The thinking work of this almost feels like a conversation with you.
I’ll carry you with me forever, at least at this rate. I want to know whether you’re sorry. When I think of death, I think of you. I don’t really think about an afterlife, or reincarnation. I’d settle for reliving iterations of this universe but I don’t dwell on the notion. I think the people who suggest we’re living in a simulation are wrong. I have a lot of life left to live, but when I do die, I hope it answers the questions I have for and about you.
There’s a lot of your spirit and personality that I haven’t touched on here. You were, as persons tend to be, vast and deep and more than can be held in the grips of mere words, especially just mine. That’s OK. It gives me more to commune with later. I’ll want to keep coming back and checking on you, the collection of fossils you left me.