There are things you take for granted when living in the Pacific Northwest. You can bet that when November rolls around, the daily misting rain will start and not end until April, if you are lucky. When you round a corner in Portland, Oregon you will get a glimpse of Mt. Hood staring back at you in all its snow covered, iconic mountain glory. That’s when I gasp and utter “Holy crap!” for the umpteenth time. I just can’t believe that big mountain is right there.
It was a little over eleven years ago when I first laid eyes on Portland and the Pacific Northwest. I stood on the busy curb at the airport waiting for my friends to pick me up. I watched the airport traffic swirl in front of me, and I stood aside as people rushed by.
I found myself being lifted up into a faraway quiet space. The soft air surrounding me had a familiarity which passed straight through my heart. It was a feeling of something long forgotten. I wondered if perhaps in a previous life, I had breathed that same soft air now filling up my lungs.
I slid into the back seat of my friend’s car. We made our way through the busy city streets, dodging a light rail train or two. We drove past deep green conifer trees growing bigger than any I had seen before. As I gazed up at the overcast sky slowly gliding by my window, all I could think was “I have been here before.” That feeling washing over me was deeper than my soul could wrap itself around. I felt I had finally come back home.
During the week I spent visiting with my dear friends, I realized I didn’t want to go back to the life I had built for my transgender-self in North Carolina. When I thought about my life there, I felt tired. I was tired of fighting the daily struggle to keep myself out of harm’s way. Living in a region of the country which can be unaccepting of people who are different, is exhausting.
I was tired of being closeted in my work life. I was not out to the people who lived in my condominium complex, or to any of my acquaintances. I was never sure just how accepting they would be of me. I could see living my life here in Portland would be much easier.
Almost every person I met during that week asked me, “You are moving here, aren’t you?”
During the first days of my stay, I would tentatively say “Well, maybe.” But by the end, I knew I wanted to move here.
Six months later I did.
It was a couple of months before my moving date, and I started thinking about the long drive to Portland. How was I going to do it by myself? I thought of my friend Frankie, and wondered if she would consider making the journey with me.
I called and asked if she would come with me for support by helping with driving and just being a good travel buddy. I was delighted when she said yes.
A few days later, she called me back and shouted, “Stacey, Portland is on the other side of the country!”
My dear Frankie hadn’t looked at the map before she agreed to come with me. She was in a state of disbelief at how far away Oregon was. After some persuasion on my part, and after her initial shock wore off, she agreed, “Okay, I will come with you.”
On an early frost filled morning in late February, I picked up Frankie and we eased ourselves onto I-40 West. I was heading out of the Blue Ridge Mountains which had held me close for most of my life. But I knew deep in my heart, I was heading towards a life which was going to be better.
The drive across the country with Frankie was full of the most wonderful adventures. Every so often, we would look at each other and laugh. This trip was just like the movie “Thelma and Louise.” We had the sunglasses, but we veered off script: we didn’t commit any murders or robberies along the way.
In Tennessee, we found ourselves at Sun Studios in Memphis. We walked through the front door and into a room which held more hillbilly dust than you could imagine. We stood in the very spot on that worn, linoleum tile floor where Elvis had sung all his early songs.
We sped 85 miles per hour across the pancake flat panhandle of Texas. There we stopped at a combination gas station/Subway restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Then we saw two cowboys ride up on their horses in the pasture next to the Subway. They tied their horses to the fence, and went in to order a sandwich. “Howdy ma’am,” they both said, to Frankie and I, as they walked by.
In New Mexico, we left the interstate and drove onto Route 66. The old road took us past house after house with red chile ristras hanging like tasty stalactites, just waiting to be dropped into a red chile sauce.
Then Frankie spotted a small apartment building, and swung around in her seat. Looking intently into my eyes, she said “If I ever disappear from my life and you wonder where I am, this is the first place you should look.”
After six and a half long days of driving we arrived. At the intersection of Interstate 84 and Interstate 5, the city of Portland was laid out before us. I stole a glance at the trip odometer and it showed we had driven 3,004 miles from my North Carolina front door. Little did I know on that day, in the early spring of 2012, those 3,004 miles would feel like a million miles in 2020.
It was a few months into the pandemic, when I realized there was something very precious I had taken for granted. Something more than the never-ending rain and the majestic Mt. Hood that had become part of my life here. It was the unacknowledged realization that I would always be able to see my family back in North Carolina whenever I wanted.
My daughter and her family live in central North Carolina, between the mountains to the west and the coastal plain to the east. It gets hot as blue blazes in the summertime. There is a smothering humidity that drapes your body like a wet blanket.
Those mountains to the west, held my 89-year-old dad, my brother and his family. All nestled in those tall, rounded, ancient blue mountains that fill up that part of the world. Just like clockwork, every year, I would fly back a couple of times to visit them for a week or so
Then COVID made itself known. In June 2020, I lost my job and found myself quarantined and socially isolated. There was no workplace to connect to, no partner to be with, and no friends to visit. They were as tightly quarantined as I was. As I sat on my sofa early one morning in mid-June, it hit me. I was thinking about my family and how far away they were at that moment. I realized there was no way I could go see them because of the epidemic. I started to cry.
Deep, deep sobs. “I am so alone,” was all I could say to myself over and over through my tears. A deep, soul-crushing loneliness and isolation overwhelmed me. I wasn’t sure I could get over it.
Loneliness and I have been friends for a pretty long time. We first got to know each other when I was around five years old. It was then I understood the world around me saw a little boy and not the little girl I knew I was inside. My days for a very long time were filled with a crippling anxiety and an aloneness that often overwhelmed me. All I could think was, “I must be the only one in the whole world that feels this way.”
The loneliness and anxiety I experienced during those decades before my transition, twenty years before, came back with a vengeance on that day in mid-June. How could I be at this place once again?
My mind started racing. What if I get sick with COVID? What if I die alone? Whenever I felt a slight scratch in my throat, or I had to cough, I panicked. I was sure this was the beginning of COVID. Do I have a fever? Good Lord, I don’t even have a thermometer. What about my family? Are they safe?
Despite all of my fears, I started to hatch a plan to go back to my family, even if just for a little while. There was no way I was going to get on a plane with my risk factors. I had had a heart attack and heart bypass surgery five years before. After all that damage, I didn’t have a whole heart left to be attacked any more.
However, I did fantasize about going through TSA with my carry on. Once on the other side, I saw myself opening it up and pulling out a hazmat suit and respirator which I would put on. That would protect me. However, I wasn’t sure what the airline would think about a passenger traveling in a hazmat suit. I pictured my fellow travelers, befuddled and all jealous they hadn’t thought of my brilliant idea first. Would I even be able to go through TSA PreCheck if I did this?
Everyday my life began to resemble a movie. This time “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” I studied train schedules and researched quarantining options of a sleeper accommodation.
The more I searched for answers, the more questions I had. What does an RV cost to rent? Could I camp out of the back of one? What about a rental car? How many days would it take me to get back closer to my loved ones?
I continued to pour over my maps. It took a while before I realized that none of this was going to work. The strength of the pandemic restrictions, the amount of money and length of time needed to make this trip was just going to be too much.
However, something larger than the pandemic and my fear of pandemic flying, finally took me back home to my family. It was a phone call. My dad called me the previous fall and told me he was tired. He was tired of living and struggling with a myriad of long term health issues. He was tired of the social isolation he had been living with since the pandemic started. He said, “I just want to go see your mom. It’s been so long.” My mother passed away many, many years ago. I understood in my heart what he was saying. He was truly ready to go.
A couple of months later, he passed on. I found myself heading back home to those North Carolina mountains that I love, pandemic flying be damned. I was on my way to say goodbye to the man whom I loved so much. It was my dad who had, against so many odds, accepted his transgender daughter.
I thought about the day, so long ago, when I first shared with my dad I was transgender and I was going to eventually transition to my female self.
The first words out of his mouth were, “I wish you wouldn’t do this.”
Then he asked, “Isn’t there a pill you can take for this?”
I remember being a bit amused by his question about a pill. I answered him, “Yes there is Dad. It is called estrogen.”
He struggled with what I was doing and becoming. It took some time for us to work through it all.
He was a man born in the early 1930’s and who lived his whole life in those mountains steeped in a conservative culture. But he hung in there because of the love he had for his daughter. Despite the fears he had, his thoughts about what people would say, and all the things he didn’t understand, in the end, it was his unconditional love for me which overcame it all. This was the most beautiful gift he could have given me.
Little did I know when I arrived back home for his funeral, that his gift of acceptance would continue after his death.
From my socially isolated pandemic home in Portland, I was suddenly thrust into spaces filled with people. So many people. People who had known me long before my transition, over twenty years ago. Most had not laid eyes on me since then. They included my many cousins and other relatives. There were also longtime friends of the family, like the woman who cut my hair when I was a teenager, and people I went to high school with. And the plumber who plumbed the houses I built back in my previous male life, along with so many others.
My mind was reeling with expectations, but I was also cautiously on guard. I could not help but wonder, “What are people’s reactions going to be? What will I have to deal with? When and where will I have to stand up for myself?”
But like the beautiful gift of love and acceptance that my dad had given to me, I was soon surrounded by that same love and acceptance from everyone I met over those next few days.
Their words of how happy they were to see me after all these years, were a balm to my soul. And I could just picture my dad smiling because he had set the best example of all.
Published in "Covidology: Sharing Life Lessons From Behind the Mask", 2022