I have been away from the blogisphere for far too long, I know. I’ve been struggling to settle into another year overseas, and things have felt too overwhelming. What with the election and all the emotions tumbling from that, I really didn’t know how to start writing again. Then, yesterday, I got the news that a man I have known and loved for most of my life passed away. I have spent the past 24 hours holding him in my heart and turning over each memory of him like beautiful river stones. I want to share him and his memory with all of you, because he did more for me than I think he ever realized.
When I was six, my mother and her then-fiance moved into a New Jersey suburb. This was an immense change for me; after living my entire life alone with my mother in a basement apartment, here we were with another body in a full-size house! My little baby life was going through a lot of other changes at the time, and my little baby brain was in full-meltdown mode. The day we moved in, a man came tromping across the street towards my mother and I while we were in our front yard. As he approached, tension crept into her stance. With each step, his full six-foot-and change height, biker mustache with accompanying serious lip, James Dean slicked-back hair, tattoos, heavy-duty boots and jeans became very, very apparent. When he reached us, his furrowed frown broke into a grin and he held out a callused hand with a jubilant announcement of the name’s Dave and how can he help us and wow how good it is to have new neighbors and hey if ya need anything don’t hesitate to ask!
I have never felt tension turn to befuddlement so fast in all my life.
As if his silly smile and knee-slap laugh weren’t enough to throw us off the trail, he pointed to the house across the street and proudly announced it was his. We had noticed this particular house many times before, due entirely to the absolutely adorable white and black paint job with red hearts decorating each shutter, a beautifully tended garden of flowers surrounded by a white picket fence (no, really, I mean it), wind chimes, a porch swing with two wooden rocking chairs, and – of course – a bird bath. After some time, we were lucky enough to be shown his coveted backyard goldfish ponds. These of course were surrounded by even more beautiful flowers and plants.
Later, we found out that he and his wife were avid hog riders, with two gorgeous and enormous motorcycles (one black, one purple, of course) tucked away in their garage. His children were long grown and moved away, so I never really knew them well. The few times that I did meet Dave’s daughter, it was like parent like child – black and more black and a skeleton hand cuffed to the rearview of her SUV. As a kid, I was always in awe of how absolutely fucking cool they all were.
I’ve never had much in the way of older family – my paternal grandfather, who was a wonderful and kind man, died when I was ten and my paternal grandmother has never been anything close to kind to me. Dave was the man across the street with the surprising taste in decor, but he was also like a grandfather to me. When I played outside, I always knew that he would be happy to wave me over to his porch and have a chat about whatever it was I wanted to chat about. He loved to show me his bikes and caution me about getting on the back of one behind some cute boy. In all the years of experience I had with him, he was never anything other than purely gentle and good.
Time of course speeds its way onward, and years passed. My days of playing outside stopped. Discussing the flowers with Dave on his porch slowed to a trickle when I left for university. I seldom visited home, but when I did, I would look for him every time I arrived at or left the house. I always felt lucky to have caught him as he was heading out – even a moment of conversation was filled with happy things. My mother would keep me up to date on all the goings-on. She laughed as she told me about all the times he caught her just staring at her vegetable garden in our yard and insisted, “just starin’ at it won’t do anything, where’s your damn shovel?”
When my mother told Dave about my gender transition sometime during my sophomore year of uni, he didn’t even turn a hair. I would love to avoid the old Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover cliche, but to many people, he did LOOK like the type to completely blow up over the little girl he knew “thinking all of a sudden that she’s a he”. Instead, he was kind and full of understanding and acceptance. When I started to really look different, he finally addressed it with me and just asked a few questions for his own clarification. And that was all. Never once did he use my birth name or feminine pronouns with me.
This brings us all to the present: to the last time I had the chance to talk to Dave. After living overseas for a year, I returned home to NJ for two months. The first day home, I decided to take a long walk through town earlier in the morning to reminisce and connect to USA life again. When I stepped outside, there he was across the street. Dave. Sitting in his rocking chair. His mustache and slicked hair (now white), his tattoos (now faded), and his smile (still loving). He was so surprised to see me he laughed and shook my hand and asked me to tell him what in the heck I’d been doin’ all the way over there all this time. He told me I looked good, he was impressed with my beard and my tattoos, and he missed me. I told him I missed him, too. The conversation was short, but full of the happiness that comes with sharing a new life with an old friend. I didn’t get much of a chance to really talk to him again during those two months, but there were many across-the-road waves and smiles and hey there’s.
He died night before last. When I heard, I stood still in the street with phone in hand. I just stood there and stared. It’s strange how the moment you learn that someone is gone, you can suddenly see and hear and feel them as if they were standing right in front of you. Apparently, it was painless for him. Like he fell asleep. I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that he was treated as kindly by death as possible, because he deserves peace. He was and is a man that I love and I miss him. I won’t get to share my new life with him anymore, but I will remember all the love he gave me, said and unsaid. I believe that we choose our family, and I will forever be grateful that I had the chance to choose him. Thank you for sharing this moment with me, and please remember to make time for those whom you love.