I know these are difficult times. We are doing our best to keep our heads up and process events which are in many ways beyond comprehension. Maybe you are feeling a bit tender, or maybe you yourself have lost a loved one. If that’s the case, I want to let you know that the following text deals with loss. If that’s a theme that you do not feel equipped to read about now, please don’t, and know I’m sending you love. If you feel you are up to it, then please read on so I can tell you about an extraordinary individual I have been lucky enough to call a friend. Stay safe, stay healthy. x
Today I’ve written a blog post I had never truly considered I would need to write. It’s a post I wish I wouldn’t need to write. Not now, not so soon. It’s much too early.
Last week, during my lunch break I turned on my laptop. I wanted to get a couple of things done before I continued my work day. One last read through of a blog post before hitting publish and a few Facebook messages to send. One of those messages was to a dear friend of mine, Phyllis. It had been about 5 days since we last spoke, and I wanted to check in on her, as we have done consistently for the past year. Our updates are routine. I send her puppy photos, tell her about new songs I’ve learned on the ukulele and report on my general well-being (she worries about me). She sends me photos of her vegetable garden, lets me know how her cats are doing and tells me how her health is (I worry about her, too).
I’d gotten a friend request earlier in the day, and as the page loaded I saw that I had received a message from this stranger (now a friend). She informed me that Phyllis had passed away. Two days ago. It was a scooter accident. She told me your name a lot, so I wanted you to know.
Grief, I believe, is not a feeling the human mind or body can ever get used to. No matter how many times you have encountered grief before, that feeling, that stomach drop that occurs the moment you hear the news, never becomes less jarring. Loss is, quite simply, a shock to the system.
The next three days were a haze. Right now, typing these words almost a week later, I feel dizzy. My breath feels stolen from me, it hangs suspended, sticky in my throat.
But writing is therapy. It’s the best way I know how to process things. It is also the only way I know how to honor my friend. So I will tell you about her in the hopes that it makes up for the goodbyes I am not able to say in person. I haven’t told much of her story; the impact our friendship has had on me is far too deep to describe in a mere blog post. I will tell you more one day, but for now, meet Phyllis.
I met Phyllis on February 2nd 2019 in Hoi An, Vietnam. I was looking for a hostel close to the beach where I could spend the lunar new year. Eventually, I made it to Seaside Bungalow. As the owner, Vy, booked me a bed for the night, I scanned the common room, wondering where I should sit – in other words, who do I want to socialize with? On one side of the room there was a group of backpackers around my age. Off to the other side of the room was an older lady. As Vy and I chatted about the menu, the older lady said “the noodles are real good.” Her voice had a rich, deep timber to it and I detected a Southern accent – Louisiana, she’d later tell me. We exchanged a few more words and as she spoke, her hands busied themselves with ripping the filter off a cigarette. I ordered the noodles and asked if I could sit with her.
Within moments, I knew something remarkable was happening here. Phyllis was 69 years old, trans, and immediately very open with me. She quickly told me she had been in Vietnam before, during the US – Vietnam War. At that time, having not transitioned yet, she served her country as a male. She had joined the Marine Corps because she was, by her own accounts, a troublemaker. “I needed structure, I needed purpose. The Marines gave me that,” she told me. Now, in 2019, she was back in Vietnam for the first time since then. “I always knew I would come back to Vietnam, though. Something was always callin’ me back here,” she’d tell me, eyes twinkling. “I was stationed in this area, just over near Da Nang. Being here feels right. Especially being close to the ocean. I’m a Mariner. A sailor.”
Sitting across from her, listening to her talk, was fascinating. Hours evaporated as we spoke; my beers did too. I’d watch her rip the filters off her cigarettes – “I don’t use the fuckin’ things” – and wondered how it must feel to return to a place that once held so much fear; a place that holds so much loss for her. At the same time, as she described the reasons she loves this place, I found I understood her fully. These are the things I love, too.
For the next six days, Phyllis and I got to know each other. She lived down the road and came to the hostel every day. I was always there to meet her, and over the course of countless cigarettes, she strung together the events of her life for me. An upbringing in the South, enlisting in the war, falling in love, going back home, marriage, coming out, and later on in life, transitioning.
Certain connections are difficult to put into words. The marks that people leave on our hearts and lives are often difficult to describe. I knew Phyllis far too briefly; it was only six days. Six. It seems so strange to say. It’s a flash in time, it’s seemingly inconsequential. But from the moment I sat down, I knew Phyllis was something special; I knew she would mean something to me.
After five days at the hostel, my friend Michael and I made plans to leave. I said my goodbyes to Phyllis. I wanted to ask for her contact details, but a shyness came over me and I didn’t. I regretted it immediately. Lucky for me, the evening got away from us, – okay, we drank too much at a bonfire on the beach – so Michael and I decided to stay one more night.
The next day, when Phyllis came to the hostel, I immediately asked her whether she would mind adding me on Facebook. She said yes, visibly excited, and that’s when I realized it. I meant something special to Phyllis too.
For the rest of my motorbike trip through Vietnam and Cambodia, we spoke every day. She began calling me “sis.” I really liked that. She moved into a little home near the beach and sent me videos of the updates she was making. A palm frond roof, a vegetable patch. She shared with me her worries about something happening to her. She feared that her cat, Fantasia wouldn’t be taken care of. “She will be, I’m sure of it. You have friends in Vietnam, now. And you have me. We’ll make sure of it,” I would tell her.
As I continued my travels, we spoke every few days. I told her about the shimmer of Singapore, I told her about learning Muay Thai in Thailand. I told her about how nervous I was to go to Australia. I sent her photos of the farm, videos of my friends. We used Google Earth so she could see the exact sheds where I packed paw paws and bananas. She said it made her happy being able to imagine me there – “it seems like a real nice place.” When I traveled through the Outback, I updated her whenever I had mobile service. I knew she worried. I would tell her about how at night you can see the Milky Way. I’d share our location and she would look it up on Google Earth; “looks dry; real desert out there. Make sure you have enough water.” I promised I always would.
Ever since February 2nd 2019, Phyllis has been with me every step of the way. We’ve shared our happy moments with one another, as well as our heartbreaks. We have made plans and promises to meet up in Vietnam again in 2021. I never told her, but I was looking at flight tickets to go to Vietnam in October of 2020 because I felt it: that calling. I told my friends: “I’m not sure what it is, but I feel like I need to go to Vietnam sooner. I feel like I need to go see Phyllis. I want to see the places that she wants to show me, I’d like to hear the rest of her stories. I can’t explain it, I just feel like Vietnam, and Phyllis, is where I need to be.” I never told her that.
Thankfully, I did tell her what she meant to me. Funny enough, we were both consistently vocal about that. Phyllis said it was our feminine connection. It makes me happy that one of my last messages to her was: “I’m so glad to know you, sis.” One of her last messages to me was to keep myself safe.
On May 4 2020, Phyllis Austin left us. She was riding the scooter she had spent months saving for; she was so excited about it. She was on the road from Hoi An to Da Nang; her favorite stretch of road to drive. She always said that area was full of memories. The way I see it, there is a beauty to be found in the tragedy. A poetic balance in the fact that her final happy memories were in a place she had first traveled to under such different circumstances. A sweetness in the fact that she was doing what she loved the very most.
Phyllis, my sister. I have no photos of our time together, nothing but my own memories to tell the story of who you are to me. It’s a story I will keep telling, it’s a story I have big plans for. I know you liked that. If I can find solace in anything, it is the fact that I know I took every possible opportunity to tell you how much I care for you. My only hope is that you truly heard me. You have changed me, you’ve grown me, you’ve made me feel seen. Thank you for sharing yourself with me, I love you and I’ll carry you.
I’ll carry you forever.
And we promise you, Fantasia will be loved.