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A Writer Returns to the Grand Canyon, This Time With His Mother’s Ashes

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I stop to sit on a large rock hanging over the canyon and eat my peanut butter sandwich. I dangle my feet over the lip, staring into the chasm of rock upon rock, my awe eclipsed by terror as I accidentally dislodge a few stones into a free fall. I think of the Hopi, one of the 11 Indigenous tribes with ancestral claims to this land (the park administration has worked with these tribes on restoring their presence in recent decades, but the horrifying displacement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans haunts every aspect of its history). The Hopi people believe that the canyon is a passage to the underworld, a place made sacred by its proximity to death — a warning not always heeded by the nearly five million annual visitors to the park.

The Grand Canyon is a dangerous place. There were reportedly 828 search-and-rescue attempts in the park between 2018 and 2020, and it averages 12 fatalities per year. Three weeks before I arrive, the body of a 57-year-old hiker was found 200 feet below the Boucher Trail near Yuma Point, just west of here. It’s hard not to consider his fate as I watch a California condor divebomb the shadowy depths. Life and death are twins, we all know that. But I’ve rarely stood so close to the brink.

“Keep it in perspective,” my mom always said; it was a constant refrain throughout my teenage years. I was a sensitive child. As if summoned, a sprightly woman in her 60s walks past and calls out a warning to me: “Be careful, kiddo!” I back away from the rim.

As I walk, I admire the shifting light illuminating the gradients of the canyon’s opposite walls — differentiations that make manifest time itself, according to the geology museum I discover farther along at Yavapai Point. The schist and granite at the bottom of the canyon are almost two billion years old, with younger and younger layers of sandstone, shale and limestone stacked on top in horizontal bands. In the 19th century, expeditions to the Grand Canyon helped geologists to disprove creationist myths about the planet’s age. The canyon is time embodied.

Like me. My body is layered, my past selves a foundation my whole life is built on. I used to feel differently — when my siblings and I cleaned out Mom’s home after her death, there wasn’t a photo of me in sight. This had been at my request — at the time, I found old photos dysphoric and impossible to reconcile. But I was later shaken by those empty squares of space, by the suggestion of erasure. I may be different, but wasn’t I also the same beaming child at a karate tournament, the same high schooler squinting into the sun on graduation day?

The question felt urgent because it wasn’t just about me. It’s hard to reconcile my mother’s legacy — Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist, civil rights activist, lifelong feminist, insistent eccentric, devoted parent — with her rapid, horrible decline. We were incredibly close. She encouraged my writing. She loved my queer friends. Our home became a safe place for those with less accepting parents. She knew what it was like to be different and always fought for the underdog. When I told her I was trans back in 2011, when less than 10 percent of Americans reported knowing a transgender person, she responded with a simple, perfect “I love you just the way you are.” She was my best friend.

I knew she drank, of course — like all children of alcoholics, I kept count of her screwdrivers and noticed how fast she went through the wine in the fridge — but she was eminently functional, so much so that I didn’t realize how bad things were until it was too late. At least, that’s the comforting lie I tell myself now. The truth is, in the last months of her life, as the ammonia broke through her blood-brain barrier, she began behaving erratically: calling at all hours, confused and paranoid. Something terrible was happening, and I did nothing to stop it. It was 2014, and Time magazine had just featured the actress Laverne Cox on its cover, optimistically declaring a “trans tipping point” of visibility in popular culture that portended a sea change of social attitudes toward trans Americans. I felt the declaration was premature, as my own lived experience as an out trans person, even as a cis-passing white one, was still mostly defined by fear. I was alone and felt lower than ever, new to New York City and to being a man, fresh off the painful breakup of a nine-year relationship, afraid my landlord would Google my name and change his mind, afraid of landing in the emergency room and being made a subject of ridicule, afraid of spending the rest of my life alone. I was also angry — trapped, in what sociologists call the “man box,” the constrictions of masculinity that tightened around me as I attempted, every day, to prove my right to exist. I was unrecognizable — a fact that haunted me in my mother’s dwindling days when, in her confusion, she lost her short-term memory and me along with it. I suppose I hoped that by bringing her here, I might be able to stitch together the past and present and find a way to hold our whole history within each.

Thomas Page McBee and Melody Melamed

2022-05-12 12:20:33

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