When You Can't Breathe.
Today is my sister’s birthday. She would be thirty-nine today, if she hadn’t left this world as teenager who still watched Disney movies and played with Barbies. Her disabilities meant she never grew up. The apathy of piss-poor rural medical treatment means she will never grow old.
We go to the cemetery for birthdays, anniversaries… the kinds of things people celebrate together, we observe with our dead: my sister, my father, my grandparents, an uncle, a cousin. We do not come empty handed to the cemetery. We bring flowers, yellow roses when we can find them, or bundles of the flowers from our own garden for Decoration Day. And the kinds of sweets they liked, candies and Little Debbie’s cakes.
Driving out, we observe the farmers have started planting corn in the kinds of fields we refer to as “bottoms”—the rich soil in lowlands near water. Tractors kicked up puffs of dusty earth behind their equipment. We slowed for a small herd of deer, one of whom stood in the center of the road startled and staring us down for a bit before it hightailed it across to the others. A pair of large, red-headed turkeys took off over a low fence. They were big, but not yet plump as winter.
We reached Smalltown and stopped at what used to be the G2M grocery store, across from the Dollar General. It’s been bought out by some small chain that hasn’t changed a damned thing about the little place.
Mom and I were going through the checkout line in Smalltown for the cakes, when the checker—a middle-aged lady wearing glasses and a pleasant smile, says apropos of nothing, that “Budweiser is losing sixty million dollars since they put transgenders on their cans.”
The smile doesn’t waver.
Ours do, but she doesn’t seem to notice. We mutter, take the Zebra Cakes, and walk out.
As my tears roll, I think about the trans kid I reached out to hug on Tuesday night in my state’s Capitol. It was well past a reasonable bedtime for a teen of that age. We stood in the Capitol basement and a hearing had just hit the gavel on a pair of bills that would deny basic human rights to transgender children and adults.
They had come to oppose something and listened for hours to people saying shitty things about them and their parents. Oppression dressed up in civility and concern.
I had asked the kid if I could give them a hug, and they’d said yes, holding their arms up only halfway, as if they couldn’t hold the weight of it all in their arms. They shook while I held them, and all they managed was to whisper, “I’m so scared.”
Goddamn it, I thought.
Mom and I made it to the cemetery, and all I felt was hopeless and worn thinner than a pair of blue jeans fit to be thrown away, nothing but blown-out knees and ragged hems ripped to shit.
I made it to my dad’s grave before I started to sob.
I sat cross-legged on the cool, April grass—green but still patchy—and I touched his name. And all the pain came out in a rush. My lungs emptied in fierce, snotty whispers that made it hard to draw air into my lungs.
I won’t write down all the things I told my Papa’s tombstone. They were for his ears—the ones that used to stick out kind of funny from his head if he wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat (which wasn’t often). I’ll admit that I begged for strength and guidance.
I’ll even allow as I choked out questions. I asked his name carved in marble if he’d be proud of me fighting this fight like a man trying to hold back a flood with a cardboard box.
My mother couldn’t stand to watch it, I guess. She told me she’d be back, got in her car, and drove away without saying where she went. I halfway knew where she was going but couldn’t focus enough on much of anything but wishing the sun on my shoulders was Papa’s hard, wiry arms.
By the time she came back, I’d cried myself out, blown my nose on the hem of my sweatshirt, and felt emptied of my fear.
“The woman at the store apologized,” my mom said, her voice carefully controlled and tight like a fist she had to remind herself to unclench.
“Good,” I said.
And we said a little bit more, again, words meant for the Smalltown Cemetery, the wind on its hillside, and us.
I went to the store myself before we turned for home.
I told the checker, “You never know the impact your words will have on people.” She was apologizing all over herself, and I said, “I love a lot of transgender people.” Her face softened, somewhat with embarrassment, but she didn’t turn red, and she kept looking me in the eyes.
“I do, too,” she said. “And I don’t know what came over me. I’d never hurt a fly. I don’t want to hurt people.”
“I believe you,” I said. “Thank you.”
She said people, and she meant it.
Fundamentally, she had done something mean and small, and she knew that.
Even if she didn’t know transgender people, even if she just felt uncomfortable about having embarrassed herself, she knew she’d done something wrong. Deeply wrong. A sweet, well-meaning woman who made minimum wage and just wants a halfway decent life looked me in the eye and chose the word “people.” I’d listened this week to a lot of folks in suits, ties, and privilege say a lot worse and have a lot of power backing them up.
I see so much ugliness, hear so much hatred, and I carry the fear of it in my body. It holds me up sometimes when nothing else does—my spine hard and my belly like lead. My breath grows so shallow, as if the rigidity of my chest could bounce a bullet.
I came to the checker soft. My eyes were red and saggy from where I let my guard down. I wouldn’t spare her, but I wouldn’t hate her. Henry Emerson Fosdick once wrote, “Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.”
On the drive back we listened to country music, somehow both of us choosing the same moments to suspend conversation and sing along. We talked about my brother and his husband who plan to visit this summer. Marrying and burying are usually the only thing that gets my brother and I together, but we’re determined to have a visit.
They live out west, so they don’t see land like ours.
Conversation moved towards lightning bugs and Ozark legends and how my brother and brother-in-law might see this place through their eyes. And finally, we shared the gratitude we have for family and the evening Mom and I had last night, sitting by a firepit in her backyard, talking family, sipping a little bourbon, watching a warm flame in the cool spring night.
I could breathe again.