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People of the Past

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

What does it mean to be dead anyway? Thich Naht Hahn gives a beautiful sermon on how a cloud never dies. It turns to rain. It becomes grass. It feeds the cows. It becomes ice cream. Oh, I love ice cream.

And I love these people who are no longer among us clouds, no longer in the floating world, but very much felt in the world of sweet things, and whom I am quite confident will become a cloud again.

Mary Forsyth She was my Grandma. At her funeral, someone described her as “loving, caring, and concerned.” That’s about right. Grandma’s house was fun for three reasons. 1) There was almost always other kids there – my cousins. 2) There was cable television and a pool. I was introduced to Spongebob and laughter was never the same. The pool had a deep end, so I could dive without breaking make neck. 3) There were always cookies in the cookie jar, which was shaped like a cow. As a kid, of course, I loved my Grandma and felt loved by Grandma, but I don’t remember getting along with her.

I remember sleeping over her house once. I brought a Star Wars VHS to and she really didn’t like it. She said it was “violent” and in my head I thought, “this woman is crazy.” I didn’t love her cooking. And she would stare at you, cascading her fingers on the table, while you finished what was on your plate, even after everyone had finished and left. Later, I remember feeling awkward when my parents separated because grandma never came around to my house anymore and there was a general vibe that she would no longer associate with my mom and my mom would no longer associate with her. I really hated that.

As I got older, I fell more in love with grandma though. I developed a penchant for baking and shared that with her. I started drinking tea in high school and had a newfound respect for her collection of teapots. When she died, I took one and I’m looking at it right now. I keep a deck of cards inside of it because Grandma had lots of playing cards. Me and my cousins would play together on the carpet in the living room. I also took a few pieces of chalk and keep them in the teapot too. She had this old telephone, a big brown boxy landline that hung on the wall. On the side of it was a chalk board for taking notes. I thought that was so cool and sometimes I would draw pictures on it. I think about how these pieces of chalk belonged to that boxy phone and wonder if I will ever use them again.

I thought about coming out to her, but ultimately decided not to. When SCOTUS legalized gay marriage in 2015, I asked my Grandpa what he thought about it. He said, “Oh, I think it’s a horrible idea. Big mistake.” So, in that moment, I decided that Grandma and Grandpa would die without knowing the real me. I wasn’t surprised. Grandpa was a huge fan of George Bush, so perhaps believing he would become a third-wave-feminist was a bit much. (Although, for the first time ever, Grandpa voted Democrat in 2020.)

In my 20s, I realized that I didn’t have as strong of a relationship with Grandma and Grandpa as I wanted. When I came home from college, I would make it a point to visit them. These were my favorite times with them because I started to realize they were just people. They were the people that raised my father and helped to raise us as well. They had a wry, but heartwarming sense of humor. They would pick on each other in a gentle way and recount the past. Grandpa would usually lead the conversation because he always had a story re-tell, but Grandma gave the story dimension because the moment he said something off color, that didn’t line up, she would let it be known, if not with her words, then with her face. It always made me smile. And, as they always had, they expressed their love for me, and it was much easier for me to feel unambiguous about what that meant. I loved them too. When Grandma was dying, I went to go see her. She looked like a zombie. She had moments of incoherence, confused as if she were trying to escape, but was mostly non-responsive. Grandpa had painted her nails – glittery rose-pink. I had never seen him so sad. Alone, I held her hand. I told her that I loved her. I thanked her for being my Grandma and told her that I believed God would take of her. I kissed her on the cheek.

When Grandma died, maybe a week or two later, I pulled out her molasses cookie recipe. Those were her signature cookies. The original recipe came from an old yellow book with faded German-looking children on the front, but I much prefer to have the handwritten copy she gave me. She had beautiful handwriting. The night before the funeral I baked two for each of my 20 something cousins.

(It occurs to me, after writing this, that I have not seen Grandpa since Grandma passed. He had a stroke a few years prior… I don’t have a valid excuse as to why I have not seen him. It has not been a priority, and I suppose I should change that.) Caiya I met Caiya in 2014. We went on a date and watched a movie. After that we kept in touch sporadically. He came to a Holiday party. We saw one of the new Star Wars movies together. We would message each other on Instagram. In 2020, after the pandemic spread to the US, Caiya reached out to tell me that he had moved back to Baltimore and was living in my neighborhood. We made plans to meet up on Easter Sunday, after my family had our first Holiday Zoom. We met outside my apartment. I was very cautious about the spread of COVID, but was happy to go for a walk. He tried to give me a hug and I recoiled, “Woah! COVID...” He seemed slightly offended, but hey. We started walking and caught up. We hadn’t spoke in quite a while. He asked me about my love life and what I was doing for work. After we made it a few blocks down the street he told me he had cancer. It was stage four. I’m pretty good at receiving difficult information with empathy, without losing my composure. In the back of my head, I was regretting not accepting his hug. We walked a few more blocks and I said, “I would like to give you a hug.” “What about COVID,” he asked.

“It doesn’t really matter,” I replied. “I would rather give you a hug.” Since we broke our social distance, I figured that I might as well invite him back to my apartment, and we spent the rest of the night together. We talked about everything. Family stuff. Love and romance. The ways people had hurt us. The things we hoped to do, and our outlooks on life. I had always been in awe of Caiya’s heart, courage, and optimism. He was confident that he was going to beat it and was living accordingly. Despite what some people may think of me, I am not an optimist, but I believe in the power of belief. The next morning was strange. I felt so happy. I felt so hopeful. Have you ever had a day when every time you caught yourself in the mirror you realized that you were already smiling? Before meeting up with Caiya the night before, I had been feeling kind of lonely. I was single, in the midst of the existential dread that came with 2020, and I had receded into a bitter resignation that anger, imagination, and poetry could not solve. After spending the night with Caiya, though, I woke up feeling deep in my bones that I would be able to love again, and that I did not have to worry about the who, what, where of it all. Caiya and I continued to see each other. We went on a few dates. We hung out. We texted a lot. I still have those texts, and they are nothing, but affirmations of love and gratitude.

When I got back together with my ex, his friendship did not wane. He was incredibly supportive. He said my face changed when I talked about him and was genuinely happy that I was with someone who made me feel that way. He thought we were meant to be together. Like me, Caiya was a romantic. He lamented that he did not have a husband and I lamented that with him. He was incredibly loving. Sometimes I texted Caiya and he wouldn’t respond. Sometimes he would agree to hang out, but then he wouldn’t follow up. It was usually because of a new health complication, or a family commitment, or a spontaneous trip that he decided to take. He had invited me to travel with him to Egypt or to the Caribbean, but those plans never manifested. Over time, the non-responsiveness increased.

In September of 2021, I went to go visit him. He had moved in with his aunt, out of my neighborhood. We had some ice cream sandwiches and talked about life. I could see that he was in a lot of pain. Sitting and moving was laborious for him. He told me that he was in hospice. Then he invited me to his 35th Birthday Party, about a week away. I already had plans, but of course, I backed out of them. At the party, I didn’t know anyone there. Save for the time I visited his aunt’s house, I had never met his family. He had rented this huge event hall in Baltimore County. Every table had a bouquet of red roses. Every plate had a single red rose. There were balloons, fairy lights, a 360 degree photo booth, and a DJ playing hip-hop, pop, and R&B, especially from the 2000s. He had a lot of family members show up, and show out. I remember feeling under dressed. My outfit was giving L.L. Beane. Everyone elses’ was giving B.E.T awards. There was an open bar that I availed myself too, probably one time too many. Caiya was the last to arrive, wearing a red velvet blazer with a silky black lapel and a sleek cane to match. He looked really good, happy and very full of life – unsurprisingly. The DJ switched up the music for his entrance. I want to say it was Drake, but honestly, I don’t remember. Everyone wanted a photo with him. It was giving paparazzi vibes. He was a celebrity.

There was a catered meal – soul food. There were speeches, tears, and then there was dancing. My emotional stamina started to wane. It was all so beautiful and celebratory, but I felt lonely and aware of how fleeting life can be. Half-way through the night, I called my friend Doug and asked if he wanted to come. About a year prior, Doug and Caiya met when I invited them both over for dinner and knew it wouldn’t be weird.

Doug came. We danced. We caught up. We danced some more. Most of the night, I did not have much time to talk to Caiya. There were at least sixty people and, naturally, he was in high demand. Of course, we said hello, exchanged affirmations, and took some pictures, but again – he was a celebrity, a king holding court.

At one point, towards the end of the night, Doug and I were in the parking lot talking and laughing about something. Caiya came out and talked to us. He gave us hugs and expressed how grateful he was for us to have come. We did the same.

Then, Doug asked a question that was, in fact, the question. It was one that I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t find the words because I hated the idea that this was the last question, that asking the question, “what advice do you have for me?” implied or admitted that this is the end. Doug, though, found a way of wording it that was compassionate. Doug said something like, “What have you learned now that your 35? What do you think other people should know?” Caiya’s response was love. Again, I don’t remember the words exactly, but it was about living love, finding love, being in love with life. We parted ways after that, as the party was ending. Caiya seemed tired, but happy. Drunkenly, I drove to a friend’s house, before driving back home even more drunk than before. Caiya and I continued to text here and there, but then the texts stopped. I texted his Aunt. He was still alive. I texted Caiya on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. There was no response and I had a feeling. I had taken a long break from social media, about eight months. In May, I reactivated Facebook. Eventually, I navigated to his page: November 27, 2021 was when he passed away and all I could do was cry and cry for what I had already known. Caiya loved horror movies and Halloween. In 2020, we went to the Field of Screams: hayrides, haunted houses, carnival games and junk food. He insisted on buying me a souvenir. I insisted that he did not. Knick knacks aren’t my thing, but he insisted anyway. I chose a plastic skull, about the size of a softball, painted silver and gold, molded with an occult design. He got one for himself too.

I keep mine on my alter. When I pray for the dead, when I contemplate what is hidden, I look at the skull and think of Caiya, the person who reminded me, time and again, love is what matters.

Sophie Sophie was many things. Most obviously, she was a dog, a miniature schnauzer with smoky, gray-white hair. Less obviously, she was a human. Even less obviously, she was my sister, born in 2011. Mom got Sophie when I was 19. I had just moved to Baltimore for college. I wanted a dog my whole life, and I remember thinking, “Oh, great, now you get a dog…”

I teased my mom for it, claiming to have been replaced. Mom got Sophie because Shea was having a hard time, recently enrolled in a new school and in the midst of a transition. Shea wasn’t too keen on Sophie at first and neither was I to be honest. I was a Sophie skeptic. Of course, that changed, for both of us, in no time. I first met Sophie when I came home for the Holidays, but I really bonded with Sophie when I came home for the summer in 2012. She loved to play and so did I. I would chase her around the house. I would play frisbee with her. I would get on the ground and growl. I love acting like a dog. It’s very fun (and a great exercise). I never understood people who would say, “I like animals more than humans.” Frankly, I thought these people were crazy. I was more than a little concerned by their estimation of humanity. But after that summer, it was like a light switch flipped. Sophie was just too loving and too fucking cute.

She gave her love without question or condition. She was always down to play. She was always curious to smell something, look at something, run up to the window. She was always happy to see you, if only to say a simple hello. When I would get home, Sophie would charge towards me like a bullet. My favorite was when we were outside in the grass. Seeing her run great distances to get the ball, or to chase you, or to see who/what was over there… it was immensely cute. Sophie had a simple wisdom that I think we forget about sometimes: take care to be out there and embrace whatever you see. She was a spiritual teacher, a little German Buddha on four legs.

Although she started as a family dog, Sophie had the strongest connection with my mother. I have the million and one photos of Sophie saved to my phone from hers to prove it, including the first one, which featured Sophie running, for the first time, through the snow to the birdfeeder in the backyard.

Mom called Sophie her daughter. Initially, I was concerned, not by the love, but by the inevitable. I had never seen my mom so in love. Shea and I, sensing the strength of their relationship spoke privately about how disastrous it will be when Sophie dies. With Shea and I no longer living at home and with my stepdad struggling with chronic pain, Sophie became the heart of the household. She took that roll effortlessly, but nonetheless I was concerned. In 2020, Sophie had to be rushed to the emergency room. There was something wrong with her heart. She recovered. In 2021 a similar thing happened. My Mom called me at the end of Pride month to tell me she had died. She was nine. I flew home. It was my first time coming home since being vaccinated, but not the best reason to return. I asked my Mom if she wanted to hold a memorial service and she said no. She cried a lot. We talked a lot. One night I stayed up until 3:00 in the morning to help my mom co-process the pain of Sophie’s loss, the pain of dreams deferred, and the traumas of the past. It was one of the most difficult experiences that I’ve had, to bear witness to my mom’s grief. It felt like drowning. But what else can be expected when you lose a sister? What else can be expected when you lose a child?

The next day we spoke again. Mom offered me hope and a commitment to move forward. It took me a long time to unpack Sophie’s death... not only because she was gone, but because she helped to hold my family together. When she left us, and as I felt my mom’s hurt, I was reminded of how deep pain can be carried, how intimately hurt can be felt, and how helpless struggle can make us feel.

Something that made it much easier to grieve Sophie was to imagine her in the room. In fact, imagining her is one of the easiest things in the world. It still makes me a little sad, but she was never a sad person. She was a free spirit and always happy to be here. I’m not much of conjurer, but I know when I call upon Sophie, she appears, and she is just as happy to see me as I am her.

Epilogue On the ride back down to Maryland, I was listening to a podcast with community healer Shawna Murray Browne. She said, “get right with your ancestors,” meaning take the time unpack your family’s history and connect with the cultural practices, the ways of being and knowing, that helped them connect with each other and the land. Between Sophie’s death and my family’s grief, it felt like a call that I was ready to answer.

A big part of my spiritual journey has flowed from Sophie’s passing. I delved into my genealogy, Christian theology, Pagan reclamation, Queer construction, and my mother’s Yoga practice in an attempt to reconnect with my ancestors and better understand if, and how, Spirit may be able to heal our collective pain.

I keep a photo of Sophie on my alter near the skull. She reminds me to be happy. She reminds me to ask, with urgency, excitement, and curiosity, “what’s-that?!

At my best, I look to the world as she did.

Above: Grandma, Me & Caiya, Mom & Sophie

This article is part of a month long series on gratitude. You can read the first post here and all other posts here.

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