So long for now, dear Kurt

Kurt’s most recent Facebook profile photo.

You know that type of person, the ones you are always glad to see. The ones who light up a room with their natural smile and witty remark. The ones with whom you can pick up a conversation as if you’d just talked the day before, even when you hadn’t seen each other for years.

My cousin, Kurt Mackey, was one of those. On August 5, the light he shined on earth went dark. In our hearts, his light will continue to radiate with the joy he brought us.

Kurt was fifty years old. On August 3, he took a spill, hitting his head. Hidden internal bleeding was the culprit that finally overwhelmed his body.

It took a lot to overwhelm Kurt’s body. He lived with diabetes. He was just a young kid when that nasty condition struck. A decade or so ago it caused him to require a kidney transplant.

I’ve known many people who are diabetic. I can’t think of a one who didn’t handle the malady with grace. The daily checking of their blood sugar. The ongoing doses of insulin. The ways in which the ailment attacks the body, one of the common evidences being what Kurt experienced with his kidneys.

If you didn’t know they were diabetic, you wouldn’t know it by their words or actions. That was Kurt.

I’m just about the last relative who should be writing about Kurt. I didn’t know him nearly well enough. What I know, I hope adds up to a fitting tribute, because what I know is that Kurt was one of those people I was always glad to see and, for how little time we spent with each other over the years, when we saw each other you’d think we hung out together all the time.

Kurt is noteworthy for me, because he is the first person in my life whose birth I specifically recall the date. It was Columbus Day, 1968. I was eleven. At the time, I told my mom that I couldn’t remember when any other cousin had been born, or even the date my youngest brother, Mark, was born. But, Kurt’s birth stuck, and never slipped from my mind.

With eleven years between us, we didn’t have a natural bond when it came to family gatherings. Yet, when he was old enough to show his keen wit, it was on display. The kid made me laugh. Sheesh, that punk was almost as funny as me.

Because I moved away, there was a long time that we didn’t see each other. Facebook reconnected us, and his goofiness, which matches up so well with my own, came through on many of his comments online, but it wasn’t until 2015 that we spent time together.

And that he gave me two hours of his time filled in everything I needed to know about him.

My sister, Sue, had undergone back surgery. She lives in Grand Rapids. I drove up from Indy to spend a couple of days with her while she was hospitalized.

As I arrived, doctors and nurses were rushing to Sue. She had suffered a pulmonary embolism—a blood clot in her lung. A huge one. Soon, her doctor revealed to Sue’s daughter, Cara, and me that she was very pessimistic that Sue was going to survive.

We kept vigil with Sue.

Kurt, and his lovely wife, Cindy, lived nearby. The third day I was there, Kurt walked into Sue’s room, his natural smile bursting from his face as his surprise entrance brought me to my feet with instant joy.

This was the day we got to know each other. Kurt showed that he knew how to hold a conversation, as we bounced questions back and forth, this one filling in how he went to college, and got married, and the work he did, and then the other having the chance to do the same.

And we laughed. That natural ability he had to find the funny aspect to you name it. He was still almost as funny as me (wink).

I’m sure I said a half dozen times, “Hey, you’ve been here awhile. I bet you need to get going.” “Nope. I don’t need to meet Cindy until…” and we kept talking.

Those were a few tough days in the hospital, not knowing whether Sue would make it and, even when she rallied, she mostly was out of it and slept. That afternoon, Kurt bridged the boredom gap for me. Thanks, bud.

Finally, there was last month. Indeed, it was exactly one month before he breathed his last and went home to the Lord. On July 5, we enjoyed a splendid reunion.

Julie and I were in my hometown of Montague for the first week of July. I posted something on Facebook about it, which our cousin, Kim, picked up. She said that a bunch of them would be in Muskegon for the weekend, for the graduation party of the daughter of yet another cousin. Kim put together a gathering, nicely enough, at my son’s pizza joint, Rebel Pies.

Here’s the gang who gathered that evening.

Kurt just can’t contain his youthful exuberance. That’s him, making the “hang loose” sign, behind me. Cindy, with her lovely smile, is to his left.

I could write plenty about each one at this hastily-arranged reunion. Indeed, I had not seen Uncle Ky, my Godfather, since we laid to rest his wife, Aunt Ginger, a quarter of a century earlier.

I hadn’t seen Kurt since that day in Sue’s hospital room. Four year’s time meant nothing. We met, we hugged, we were off and running. I tried to keep pace with his quips.

As wonderful as was being with Kurt that evening was that Cindy sat next to me. This was the first conversation I ever got to have with her. What a delight it was. I can best sum it up by quoting from her Facebook post from the evening of Kurt’s passing.

She called Kurt her best friend.

Getting to know her a month earlier, I saw why it was so. One as lovely as the other. A nicely-matched pair of human beings.

The Lord be with you, Cindy. With the spirit you showed me last month, I know you will continue to shine brightly wherever you go, in whatever you do.

Everything else I might say about Kurt—for instance, he was a fine musician—my telling pales in comparison to what his six older siblings and good friends can tell, so I will leave it to them and conclude with another thing Cindy noted when informing us of Kurt’s passing.

She rightly stated that Kurt had gone to our heavenly Father.

Because God gave His only Son to be our Savior, Kurt, you are safe in Jesus. Now, we will keep the faith that we might join you in the best reunion of all, the eternal one of Paradise with our Jesus.

The Lord Jesus is the reason I titled this piece, “So long for now, dear Kurt.”

And you, dear cousin, are the reason I will enjoy being with you, forever.

First family reunion

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Dad’s four living siblings, from left: Margaret, Pat, Barb, and Betty

The third Sunday of July, at noon, at Claybanks Township Memorial Park, is the date for the annual Eilers reunion. As I compose this on Monday, July 18, yesterday was my first reunion since I left Montague to go to seminary in 1992.

Because I worked Sundays and never lived closer than four-and-a-half hours, reunions were out. Most other family events also were impossible to attend, like weddings and funerals. Before my uncle’s funeral last February, there was my father’s funeral in 2010, and one of his sister’s funerals while I was in seminary, and that’s it.

That’s the sum total of my involvement with the extended family on my dad’s side (and only one funeral on my mom’s side) since the early ‘90s. And, before leaving for seminary, I, with my first wife and kids, had been a faithful attender of all family events.

Oh, and then there’s the little matter of my transitioning from Greg to Gina. Yeah, there’s always that with these “firsts.”

Having attended my uncle’s funeral five months ago helped a lot. Yet, the reunion would have its different aspects. For the funeral, I took a seat in the back corner and, after the service, was able to watch the room and wait for folks to come to me if they wanted to, and stay away if that were their preference. At the reunion, the area was wide open—coming and going from car to pavilion with food and such, no corner in which to sit and eye the attendees, mixing with folks while filling my plate. Yet, I was very hopeful for good things because of the funeral.

Upon arrival, I said to myself, “Take pictures!”  I snapped a few at first, put away my phone, and forgot about it until someone gathered the Eilers aunts.  Ugh.

There were forty or so in attendance. Each of my siblings were there—three brothers and my sisters, but not our oldest brother, Jim, who is not able. With some kids and grandchildren of our own, Dad’s chunk of the family—1/8th of the eight Eilers siblings—accounted for sixteen in attendance, or about forty percent. Julie and I drove the farthest of anyone in attendance, not counting my brother from Tennessee because they were in the area on vacation regardless. (That’s right: I just dissed my little brother. Some things never change.)

I had seen one brother at the funeral, but this was the first time to see the others. I am pleased to report that all three spoke with me. I won’t elaborate further. Overall, I can’t complain about how my brothers have handled my transitioning. I have come to believe this is just as hard on siblings, especially brothers of a brother, as it is on the transitioning one’s children. (My sister, Sue, has been, from day one, my second-greatest supporter after Julie.) I get it: I was one of the guys, and my brothers are definitely guys. Ultimately, we, as a family, are taking each step, and each step is a forward one. For me to ask for more would be greedy.

After the lovely greeting I received from each aunt at the funeral—my dad’s four remaining siblings and one sister-in-law—I anticipated nice conversations with them. Indeed, I spent as much time chatting with all five of them as with cousins and others. (I will have much more to say about my Eilers aunts in a piece I am writing about the family farm.)

There is something noteworthy to be said about the Eilers clan. They are roll-with-the–punches folks. On the scale of judgmental, fussy, put on airs and the like, they are way down on the end of accepting, easy-going, and humble. I especially found this in my Eilers aunts who have received me with such love and affection that, yeah, just as I typed that I choked up with tears. I am filled with joy.

I have said about my late parents that Mom would have hurt very deeply for me and then become a chief advocate, while Dad would not be sure what to do with it but would continue to treat me with the love and affection he had always shown. In other words, he would have said, “Well, okay. Let’s get back to work hoeing the garden,” and I would be so happy about that.

I believe that, in his sisters, my conviction about Dad is confirmed.

Having never been in this position before, I can’t know the answers to some of the things which I ponder. The particular one I have in mind is how I look and how folks look at me. For the reunion, I deliberately wore no makeup. I didn’t curl my hair. I wore clothes typical for a picnic: a summery top, jeans shorts, and sandals. I did have my finger- and toenails painted, and wore a bright necklace. And I always have my cool chick glasses on.

So, I look like the person my family has always known, while I look different. From the way everyone talked with me, looked at me, gave me eye contact, it felt like they saw me no differently. Certainly not odd. Absolutely not like they were uncomfortable. Just plain nice and familiar.

That’s the best thing I can say for my family, and that is a wonderful thing.

I will have no hesitation about any more Eilers events. When the first opportunity arises with my mom’s side, I will take the temperature of the family regarding my attendance but, based on the online interactions I have had with many of them, I see my presence happening just as on the Eilers’ side.

I am gratified.

When one undergoes transitioning, one throws into question every last aspect of life. Too many transgender people are not received well by family, or some are just plain mean—“I’ll never call you by your new name!”—and certainly are not made to feel welcome. While there clearly are a few people who are struggling with this thing which is so new and unusual to them—there was a lot of tripping over my name, and we just smiled and I told them not to worry—not one person deliberately said or did anything to be hurtful.

I am tremendously gratified.

I did have some fun moments, poking fun at the new me. As one who can find a smile or laugh almost anywhere, I am quick with the quip. Having not seen one cousin’s wife in twenty-five years, I said to here what was true, “You have not changed a bit,” quickly adding, “Just like me.” I always love the laugh these jokes produce.

Then there is the case of my only living uncle, married to the youngest of the living sisters. In the early ‘80s, I had been laid off from my job at the iron foundry in Montague. Uncle Jerry was a fruit farmer, and invited me to pick apples.

Yesterday, when I saw him across the pavilion, he spied me and smiled, so I knew he was going to be fine with me. Besides, he has an out-there personality, a guy with whom you are always going to have a fun conversation.

After dinner, we got together. I said, “Uncle Jerry, I learned something about me that pertains to you. A couple of years ago, I read a study about a virus that grows on apple trees, which pickers can acquire. The virus remains dormant for decades—as much as thirty years—before it goes into action. Here’s the thing. It causes a person to have terrible gender identity issues!”

He wasn’t buying it—a BSer always knows a BSer—but I kept going. I slapped his arm and concluded, “So, yeah, thanks a lot for that.”

Unmoved by my moving story, he simply said, “I’d like to read that report,” flashing me his large, familiar smile.

The marvelous food having been consumed and catching up accomplished, folks began packing up and heading out. Each departure concluded with a hug and a see-you-next-year.

Next year is already on my calendar. July 16, 2017. Claybanks Township Memorial Park. At high noon. See you then!