Finding Leo: The Holes In My Heart

This article first appeared in PQ Monthly, Portland, in May 2016.

Warning: It is a dangerous thing to open our hearts. Love is risk and vulnerability. Love is fear and hope.  Love for our friends, partners, families, and pets will lead us to both exultation and grief.

In my family, my coming out journey has been mostly a positive experience, though I do not take this for granted. I would like to share a part of my family story.

In 1994, I was dating a man that I would marry (and later divorce) and I met his nieces, who were infants and toddlers at the time. These are the four little girls who stole my heart. How do you describe the way a child takes your hand and grabs hold of your heart for the rest of your life?

Tosha, Merissa, Sheena, and Brianna, lived a few hours away, so I was not around as much as I wanted. I tried to stay connected by writing them postcards, and notes, and sending little presents.  I saw them grow from toddlers to teenagers, and tried to be the best Aunt Laura I could be.  (I was still living as a straight cis-gender woman. I didn’t even know I was trans).  When my ex-husband and I divorced in 2005, it was easy to pledge that I would continue to be their aunt forever. Love does that.

In 2009, I took two of these wonderful young ladies to New Orleans for a national Lutheran Youth Gathering (ELCA). It was a good but exhausting week, chaperoning over 25 kids amongst 37000 youth.  At one point, Merissa touched all of our hearts when she gave her available cash and snacks to a homeless mother and child, and then encouraged the group to collect their snacks to donate as well.  At the end of the week, I dropped Sheena and Merissa off at the bus station, hugged them, told them I loved them, and eagerly drove home to my well-earned chaperone nap.

Just a few weeks later, I received a call on Monday morning, August 31, 2009, that Merissa had died in a car accident at 17 years of age.  I regret so much, including my exhausted and abrupt last words.

There is so much I grieve about Merissa, and I know that my grief is only a small proportion of that felt by her parents and sisters. She was so vibrant, hilarious, loving, and adventurous. She was beautiful, and special, and the world is not as lovely without her.

I think of my nephew and all my nieces every day, including those I have gained since 1994. When reflecting on family this month, my heart was bursting to talk about Merissa again.

I have found that each of my family relationships has changed ever so slightly since I transitioned from female to male. I was daughter, and am now son. My best friend, Daniel, now bugs me to make sure I’m a good son. I try! I was sister, and am now brother. I was aunt, and am now uncle.

In addition to the millions of other moments and memories that we all miss out on since Merissa is gone, I never got a chance for her to meet me as Uncle Leo. When Sheena told me recently that Merissa would have accepted me, it made me happy. But I wish she could have met me as the more authentic me.

How do I explain this so it makes sense?  I am the same person, but more fully. I am me, but living into my maleness. She will never know me as Leo. I will never have a picture of us where I am Uncle.  It is only one small part of my grief, but it is real.

After I came out as trans in 2013, I avoided my nieces for a while. I was afraid of how they would handle me after transitioning to male, after I had been Aunt Laura to them for so long. I knew I was missing out, but in those early days of coming out, fear defined a lot of the choices I made. I finally visited in the fall of 2014, and then drove down for the birth of Tosha’s first child, in January of 2015. I am grateful they received me with love and acceptance, and my fears were unfounded. These girls are special.

I deeply wish that Merissa was here to share our journeys and enjoy long conversations. I never got the chance to know Merissa as an adult.  I would love to go to her graduation, and celebrate her escapades. Our lives are an infinite number of stories, as we say in our Building an Inclusive Church training.  I want to hear more of Merissa’s stories. I will grieve her death for the rest of my life. There are holes in my heart that will never be filled because she is gone.

But I am grateful for those four little girls who stole my heart, and the relationship I can still have with my beautiful, talented, and caring nieces, Tosha, Sheena, and Brianna, and now their children, Serenity and Josiah.  I am their Uncle Leo, and they love me as I am. Thank you.

To honor Merissa’s passion for those in need, please consider a donation to OutsideIn, New Avenues for Youth, or P:ear, all organizations working to improve the lives of youth affected by homelessness.

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