Gina Drey: unsung star

Indianapolis has lost one of its valuable citizens, though her death will be noted only by those who personally knew her—all who cherished her.

Memorial Day weekend, Gina Drey died in her home. She was recently diagnosed with cancer in her vital organs. In her early seventies and already coping with a variety of health issues, it is easy to imagine her heart simply gave out.

And what a heart it was—always giving out to others in her community, her church, her family, and her friends.

Julie and I met Gina the second Sunday in July 2015. We had just moved into the house we bought and were looking for a new church home. As I used my daily run to get to know the neighborhood, I jogged by First Trinity Lutheran Church, a convenient half mile from us.

We checked their website. We found them a small group and mostly older than us. Multi-cultural, just like our new neighborhood. We got the sense this could be the place for us.

Entering, we were greeted by a gregarious woman handing out bulletins. “Welcome! I’m Gina!” Her smile was as large as her friendliness. Before we went to a pew, we felt like old friends.

In these days since her death, I have realized this: Gina was the best friend I’ve made in my six years in Indianapolis.

In “retirement,” Gina was the church secretary. (Her previous occupation had been, of all things, a debt collector. I could only imagine that no one could say “no” to her.) As secretary, she was paid for six hours a day, three days a week. She was in the office way more than that.

You know the type. Every congregation has at least one of them. That woman who serves on boards and committees and the altar guild. That woman who teaches Sunday School. That woman who prepares an abundance of food for church dinners. That woman who attends every congregational event. That woman who’s always first to arrive and last to depart.

At First Trinity, that woman was Gina Drey.

You know the type. Every congregation needs at least one of them. That woman who calls the sick to see how they are. That woman who mails birthday cards—homemade ones, at that. That woman who provides snacks for meetings. That woman who bubbles over with her greetings, who laughs with ease. That woman who is so reliable that you never think about her not being there, doing that.

At First Trinity, that woman was Gina Drey.

You know the type. The way she is in her congregation, so she is in her community. That woman who frequents many local diners, making friends at every one. That woman who belongs to all the social groups. That woman who gladly picks up whoever can use a ride to dinner or a meeting. That woman who always calls to see if she can give you a lift—especially of your spirits.

On the northeast side of Indy, that woman was Gina Drey.

Gina never married. She had no children. She had two brothers, with whom she was close. Despite her small physical family, she had many brothers, a host of sisters, and loads of kids. If a person did not feel a kinship with Gina, it wasn’t because Gina didn’t have a caring heart for that person.

The Lord Jesus instructs all to “let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) This, Gina did. As her Lord faithfully shined His love upon her, Gina faithfully reflected it wherever she was and in whatever she did.

Even after Julie and I left First Trinity, Gina remained faithful in her friendship. The calls and cards and invites to lunch kept coming.

The last time I spoke with Gina was a few days before her death. She had learned that her first chemotherapy was to be on Friday. Her prognosis was not good, but you never would have known it by her voice.

I recited the Twenty-third Psalm. Arriving at key phrases, I slowed down. Stressed the faith heard and promises made.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I concluded, “Gina, you belong to the Lord. Whatever happens, you will dwell in His house forever, with your Jesus.”

Now, I heard a tear. “Yes. I know I will.”

I closed with “I love you, kid. Talk to you, soon.”

Since learning of her death, I’ve been experiencing the thing that’s common at the loss of a loved one. I can’t grasp that I won’t be talking with Gina again in this life. I’ve been daydreaming about the many ways she and I spent time together, especially at church. In worship. At Bible class. Having lunch after church.

Though I look forward to the great reunion in heaven, I mourn the temporary loss. All of us, her extended family, mourn a deep loss.

Gina Drey made the world better. She left our hearts fuller.

Truly, Indianapolis has lost one of its valuable citizens. An unsung star.

We need a lot more like Gina.

Let’s all be like Gina.

August 19, 2015/16/17

From left, pictures from each August: 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Are you able to spot the difference in these pictures, which are seven years apart?  Give up?  It’s the glasses!

Two years ago, today, I changed my Facebook profile and my name on each of my online accounts.

On July 2, 2015, I had restarted the Real Life Test, which I had initially begun that January 1, but had abandoned as I resumed trying to abide with living as a male. I did this quietly, even though I had, since that April, been posting about my struggle. Before going public, I wanted to see how it would go.

By mid-August, I was feeling so good that I thought I was in for the long haul, that I would be striving to pass the Real Life Test, which would mean that my therapist would agree that transitioning was effective for me and so she would endorse me, giving me the ability to begin the trek toward changing my name and having surgeries.

In 2016, my therapist agreed that I had passed the Real Life Test. I applied for a name change, going to court on May 2. I legally became Gina Joy Eilers, a female.

2017 has been the Year of the Surgeries. On January 19, I had my vocal cords shortened, that I might have a higher-pitched voice. April 11 brought gender affirmation/sex reassignment surgery. On September 13, I will have facial feminization surgery.

I will consider myself as having fully transitioned.

While I continue to have the attitude that I do not celebrate this, I am thankful for the positive changes transitioning has brought me. The fierce hatred I had been experiencing, which crushed me early in 2013, has been quelled. The sense no longer exists that I have two people inside of me, the male and female in constant battle to annihilate the other.

Indeed, though I now live as Gina, Greg is alive and well in me. I never knew this could happen. When I was fighting for Greg’s life, I thought that getting rid of Gina would mean killing her. That horrified me. So, naturally, by transitioning I thought that Greg would be the one who would be killed.

But I’m still Greg. Everything which is fundamental to the person who is typing these words—body, mind, and spirit; Christian, husband, father, brother, grandfather, friend; writer, gardener, jogger, joker—remains me.

Even more, I do not reject that I am, fundamentally, a male. Of all of the changes I have made—and, by my count, I will have done everything possible for a male-to-female person to do—there is one that I deliberately did not do. I did not change my birth certificate. I will not change my birth certificate, unless terrible laws are made which box me in to have to do it to protect myself.

My birth certificate, along with my certificate of baptism, confirm and confess who I am and, even more, whom I will be for eternity.

Gina is temporary. Transitioning is to me no different than the means a hurting person uses to find healing of body or mind, or both. But, of course, it’s temporary healing. It only endures to the day we take our final breaths.

When I take my final breath, the Lord will take me to Himself. As my soul rejoices at the throne of my Lord Jesus, my body will be laid to rest in the earth. Julie knows that I want my headstone to read this way:

Gregory John Eilers

Gina Joy Eilers

I want neither to deny nor disrespect Gina, but Greg comes first. Greg is who I am.

Then, on the Great Day, the Day our Lord returns in glory, my Jesus will resurrect me from the grave as a new man, fulfilling in me His promises in 1 Corinthians 15, giving me an imperishable, glorified, powerful, spiritual body; a body which will transcend anything we know in this world.

I will be a man.  I will be a male.  I will finally be whole.

And the many tears of this life—the weeping I have been doing as I’ve typed these last paragraphs, as these matters have once again struck me to my soul, my desire so strong to run the race of the Christian faith to completion and my longing for eternal healing being so great—finally, the many tears of this life will be a thing of the past. No more crying, or pain, or mourning, or death (Revelation 21:4).

As I mark two years in the books of my publicly living as Gina, I am thankful for the blessings I have received, for the healing I have experienced, and for the many positive things I have been able to do and the folks I have gotten to know. I have sought to use my situation for good, to achieve positive things, to educate, and to continue to show my fellow Christians that a transgender person does not have to give up his or her correct doctrine and faith.

The purpose of my life remains unchanged. First, that I love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and strength. And, second, that I show my love for the Lord by loving my neighbor as I love myself.

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).”

 

Meet Aunt Mabel

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When I was in high school, she was the lunch lady. And she was my great aunt. And I am sure that the small talk we made as she dipped mashed potatoes onto my tray were a diversion so that the other kids didn’t see that she was giving me more than them.

That was my Aunt Mabel.

On Saturday past, the last of the generation on my dad’s mother’s side of the family left this earthly pilgrimage. Mabel (nee Schultz) Parker was the youngest of her two sisters, Ethel (my grandmother) and Martha, and two brothers, Les and Walt. She was younger than the rest by enough that the children she had with Uncle Gene—David, Joy Ann, Nick, and Dan—comprised a half-generation tucked neatly between their cousins (for example, my dad), and their cousin’s children (like me).

I cannot say that I knew Aunt Mabel tremendously well, but the impression which she and Uncle Gene made on me will not allow me to let her passing go without my penning my memories. Mabel Parker was, in a word, a gentle woman, and Uncle Gene a gentle man.

Aunt Mabel epitomized the Schultz spirit. She, my grandmother and their siblings were hardworking, easy-going, kind, generous, fun, and full of life. They were unflappable. And they made great use of their gift for gab.

I loved hot lunch in school, and I loved seeing Aunt Mabel. She was always upbeat, had a big smile, and made me feel special. As the head cook, she provided us with a quality of meals that public school students of today do not enjoy. Though she was small of stature she stood tall in my eyes, the kind of person you look forward to running into. Whom you know you should emulate.

Before I departed my home town, whenever I saw Aunt Mabel, perhaps at a wedding reception or in one of the aisles at Montague Foods, I knew what to expect. She would draw me down to her level, place both hands upon my cheeks, and plant on me an auntly kiss.

The Parkers lived north of Montague on Whitbeck Road, on the far side of Eilers Road. (Yes, Virginia, there really is an Eilers Road.) When I was young, I thought they lived way out in the country. Then, as a high-schooler, I would ride my bike up Whitbeck, turning west on Eilers, to pick asparagus at Benny Scholl’s. I could see their farm from the corner. Hmm, the Parkers weren’t so far out in the country, after all.

They had this distinctive concrete block building on the other side of the driveway. I am thinking it was the milking house, though I cannot tell you that they were dairy farmers. The building’s blocks were a creamy color, a shade that I don’t believe I have ever seen on another building. Even now, when I am visiting Montague and I purposely take Whitbeck Road north out of town, I have to gawk as I drive by. And I am a kid again.

After high school, my best bud Tim Todd and I joined the Thursday night bowling league. Uncle Gene bowled in that league. Now, I really got to know the man. He was good-natured and kind, always quick with a story and a laugh. That smile! Surely, when young Gene and Mabel first laid eyes on each other it was their smiles that drew their hearts together. They enjoyed true wedded bliss all of their sixty-three years, until Uncle Gene was laid to rest in 2000.

He must have had really bad knees. He was as bow-legged as I ever saw a man. Making the approach to throw his bowling ball, he looked like he was held together with some of the baling wire from his farm. Yet I still could not find a way to beat him.

Returning to the bench after a nifty strike, he was fond of finding me. “See, Greg,” he would smile. “That’s how you do it.” The stinker.

I never got to know their sons, David and Nick, but I crossed paths with Joy Ann and Dan plenty of times over the years and, in them, I saw their parents. Last February, I attended my first family funeral as Gina. Before the Sunday afternoon gathering, I went to worship at primo pal Tim’s congregation, Montague United Methodist.

During worship, they have a moment for sharing good news and prayer needs. Tim took the microphone to rejoice in the marking of the fortieth anniversary of his baptism. When Tim handed the mic back to the pastor, I stood and requested it. I thanked the congregation for the warm welcome they gave me before worship, noting that the last time I had been in that church was to be Tim’s best man in 1981. I spoke for a second about the challenges of being a transgender Christian, then asked for their prayers for all people who are easily cast off by family and society.

It never dawned on me that this was Aunt Mabel’s congregation. No, she was not in attendance as she had been confined to the local care center for some years, but Joy Ann was there. After worship, she sought me out. Seeing her, I felt like a punk for the shock she must have experienced when I spoke and she realized who it was. Finding me after worship, she greeted me with the familiar Parker smile. We threw our arms around each other and made quick catch-up talk.  All was well!

Later, at the funeral, I saw Dan. He also graced me with a big Parker smile. I said, “I ran into Joy Ann at church.” “I know,” he replied. “She called right after church.” Of course, she did.

In Joy Ann and Dan, I continue to know Aunt Mabel and Uncle Gene. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? We pass on ourselves through our children. Hopefully, what we hand down shows that it was good that we had children. It was very good that Aunt Mabel and Uncle Gene had children.

Our Lord Jesus, recorded in Matthew 5:16, said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Aunt Mabel and Uncle Gene did just that, and by their good deeds God the Father was glorified and we, their family and community, received the benefit.

And so concludes an all-too-brief snapshot of my Great Aunt Mabel.

And so she was. She was great.