I’ve been in a funk, recently. Maybe it’s just summer. Last summer, I was stuck in the hospital. I nearly died, but I fought back and made it through. This summer started out pretty good. I filmed my Junior Thesis, and most of it turned out amazing! We’ll be doing reshoots of one scene and a few minor changes we need to make.
Then I went home to Toledo to see my grandfather, Willie. Willie is special. He’s the one person who has always been there if I need someone. When I was younger, he was there to pick me up when I fell, kiss my boo-boos and made my world a better place. When I was young, Willie’s daughter (who gave birth to me), and my dad had both gone back to college. So, that meant my youngest brother (he’s still older than me, but we have two older half-brothers) and I spent a lot of time at Willie’s house. I spent even more time since I had respiratory problems growing up. I missed a lot of school and until I was old enough to stay home alone I went to my grandparents’ house. They also took me to countless doctor’s appointments and even went on one or two field trips with my class, when I was in elementary school.
Our grandparents were from a much different generation. Willie was born in 1918 and my grandmother, Noonie, was born in 1922! They had been married longer than most people I knew had been alive. They stayed married and devoted to one another for over 65 years, when Noonie passed away in 2008.
Willie did not embrace new technology. Neither of them did, really. I remember sitting on the front porch of their West Toledo home, for hours, and listening to cassette tapes of old radio shows from the 30s and 40s. I can still hear my grandmother’s beautiful voice singing songs like “Zippidy Doo Da” and “Moon River”. She had been a singer on the radio and taught all of her grandchildren to sing practically before we could talk.
It took Willie until the 1990s to embrace the VCR and he’s never even used a DVD player! He doesn’t own one to my knowledge. As the rest of the world has embraced technology, he has remained within the simplicity of a world he knows. I used to know his television schedule like clockwork. He watched the morning news, then kept to the CBS television station, most of the day. He and Noonie always watched The Price is Right and us kids always dreamed of winning at Plinko! Then they watched the noon news, before going into their “stories”. They’d watched soap operas together since television first aired them. Willie would come home for lunch during his days as a mailman, right when the shows started and they wouldn’t miss their stories, even when both of them worked. Before television, they had listened to them on the radio.
Their tapes of radio shows were precious, especially to Willie. He would amuse us with stories of his youth gone by. He had a fascinating life. He is the youngest son of a semi-large Irish/Swiss family. Willis Ryan kept up with his older brothers. He was a star pupil who consistently had the highest scores in school. He was a star athlete who they tried to recruit at schools with scholarships around Toledo when high schools didn’t do that. He was one of the fastest runners in the entire city when he was in 8th grade and also had an amateur boxing career that saw him boxing future world boxing superstars and took him down to Cincinnati. He would recount stories of “Goldie” the trainer with gold teeth who would help him gain the edge on any competitor with his keen insight.
Willie told stories to us about working at the stadium of the Toledo Mud Hens as a kid, where he sold score cards for $0.05. He would go fetch tobacco for manager Casey Stengel and saw Stengel bring the New York Yankees for an exhibition game with the Mud Hens. His eyes always lit up as he would tell us grandkids about watching Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, right there, on the field in Toledo! He also shared stories of buying two hot dogs, a bottle of pop and a piece of pie, for $0.25, working in a bakery as a teenager, soaping car lights with his friend Herman, who always got caught while Willie often escaped and hid, and about how beautiful and wonderful his mom was. His stories
were are the best and he spent countless hours entertaining us with them.
Willie was also amazing to us kids. He would let us spend hours climbing all over him, dressing and making him up, coloring while sitting in his lap and even was the butt of many of the jokes my brother played. He took it all in stride. One of my favorite things to play with my brother was “hair dresser” and Willie would let us put endless barrettes in his thin, white hair and fake makeup on his face. I was the hairdresser and my brother would schedule appointments. He’d also play kick ball, wiffle ball and baseball with me, letting me hit or kick the ball and giving me time to run around the bases, even though I was a very slow runner. A lot of people would dismiss me and not let me play because of my disability, but Willie always had time to play and have fun with me. He has always made his grandkids feel special and loved, no matter what we did, who we were or what was going on in our lives.
Willie was a builder who built my wheelchair ramp at 76, with the help of only my brother. It was his last big project. He also built dollhouses for his grandkids, a train table, designed and built his own board games, wooden telephones we could use when playing outdoors, and even Christmas decorations – large wooden boards with Santa Claus and other holiday themed characters that sat in his yard (and my family’s yard) for years!
Both of my grandparents could cook. Willie would make us his world famous fudge, a pot of chili and some of the best baked beans you’d ever taste. Noonie always made us veggie pizzas and she also was an excellent baker who made all of our birthday cakes from scratch. She also decorated them. When I was five, she made me a My Little Pony cake. When I was six, she made me a train cake, with separate layers of cake to make up all the train cars, connected by licorice strips with candy coated wheels and windows, and other edible decorations!
Up until she started forgetting things in the mid-90s, she made our birthday cakes. Once she stopped, I never ate another cake for my birthday until my girlfriend’s mom started making my birthday cakes. Store bought cakes just couldn’t compare to Noonie’s cakes. Even now, her delicious baking is missed.
When I went off to college, I missed my grandparents. I spoke to them weekly on the phone and enjoyed the cards and care packages they used to send me. When I moved to Michigan to recover from my tibial fracture, I spoke to them less frequently, but as Noonie got progressively worse, forgetting practically everything and thinking it was the 1970s, I increased the amounts of calls I made. I hated myself for not being able to travel down to see them, but I had no accessible vehicle. Noonie died and I was unable to get out of bed to go to the funeral. I recovered from my injury, after about five years of being stuck in bed, and returned to college in 2010 with a vengeance. On the way down to Dayton, I stopped in Toledo to have lunch with my Willie boy. I wouldn’t travel through Toledo without seeing him! It had been to long, but it was like I’d never left.
My grandfather is the only one in my family who has not only accepted my transition, but it took him several years, but he now embraces it. He respects me and loves me, no matter what. Though he still goes back and forth between calling me Dominick and my birth name, he acknowledges I am Dominick. This is more than I can say for others in my family.
After we wrapped on Trip, I knew what I wanted to do. We finally have a wheelchair accessible van and my first destination the weekend after filming ended was Toledo. We went out to eat with Willie and then he got to spend time with our puppy, Molly (he loves dogs), while he sent us off to the zoo (he wanted to go but was on a new medication that prevented him from going too far from home). Our lunch date was awesome and Willie was in great spirits. Less than a week later, I found out on Facebook he had a massive heart attack.
The rest of my family doesn’t talk to me much, if at all. Finding out on Facebook was a huge shock and I was heartbroken. I couldn’t call Willie. I tried to call the hospital but it only gave me to his room. My brother answered and refused to tell me anything about his condition. My Aunt flew in from Florida, my cousin traveled up from Virginia. I knew I had to go up and see him. We drove for four hours and the hospital staff let us into his room. I spent over an hour with him. When I went to leave, he held my hand and with tears in his eyes he told me he thought this would be the last time he saw me. I told him we shouldn’t say goodbye. We should say see you later, because that means we’d be together again. In that moment, I saw my words had comforted my 94 year old grandfather. As once he had picked me up and kissed my scraped knees, I had taken away his own pain with my words. He knew, in spite of the distance, I had him in my heart and I was in his.
I have such a special bond with Willie that even as I type this, my heart aches with sadness. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to make that happen – to see his eyes twinkle and light up as I wheeled in the room. One of the nurses in the hospital told me that he’s my biggest fan. He bragged to them about his grandchild who could act, sing AND make films. I’m just glad he’s proud of me. He’s the most positive male influence I’ve had in my life and I strive to be even half the man he is.
Well, Willie was diagnosed with heart failure and kidney failure. His entire life would have consisted of going to dialysis, but he didn’t want that. He knows his time is coming to an end soon and I told him he could go take care of Noonie. He misses his Noonie-girl, as he always called her. He had saved her from a harsh home life, so many years ago and they had taken care of each other. She had died after going into Hospice for a few days. Now, Willie is in Hospice.
I found a way to get up to Toledo to see Willie again. I was going to surprise him. It’s not like I could call him anyway since nobody would let me talk to him, like in the hospital. We drove the four hours it takes to get up to Toledo from where I live, and then the worst thing I have ever felt happened. I was told I couldn’t see Willie. I was told “the family” requested nobody be allowed into his room.
Willie and Noonie had both always insisted they be left to remain in their home. He would have been heartbroken to know I was denied access to see him. I sent him a card for Father’s Day and that probably didn’t get to him either. Well, I called Hospice to find out if they could tell me how he was, if I could possibly talk to him on the phone, or if I would be allowed to see him if I returned to Toledo again, to visit. I wasn’t allowed to be told much of anything. Apparently, I was on a list of people not to give information to about him. I was told he’d been moved from the Perrysburg location and that is all they could tell me.
I’ve gone through so many emotions the past week and a half since I was denied access to see my grandfather. I’ve been sad. I’ve been heartbroken. I’ve been angry. I’ve been confused. I don’t know what I could have done that was SO BAD that I’d be denied access to my grandfather – a dying man who would WANT to see me. Willie never wouldn’t want to see me if given the chance. He cried as I was leaving the last time I saw him, thinking it was the last time we’d meet.
Further, who is so CRUEL to deny a dying man the right to see a grandchild he loves? CRUEL….this is just immensely CRUEL. I have no idea where he is or even how to contact him, all because certain people in my family HATE me. He would want to know I care enough to ask for him and want to see him. It would brighten his day, just like it does to know his other grandchildren are inquiring about him and want to see him.
I don’t cry…well I rarely do, but I have felt teary-eyed every time I think of this meanness they are doing to Willie. Who does this? I apparently don’t have enough meanness in my heart to do this to ANYONE. People don’t have to like me. I was civil to everyone I saw when I visited at the hospital. I am a mature adult. What is being done is childish! To think my grandfather could die and not know how hard I’ve been trying to get ahold of him just to tell him one more time how much I love him is more emotionally draining than I want to think about.
Who does this? REALLY? Think about Willie and what he would want! Everybody who has seen us together knows he’d want to see me. He’d want me to have access to know where he is and that he’s okay.
All of this started after one of his nieces saw me with my beard and masculine look and realized I’m no longer the “little girl” they thought I was. I told her that I went by Dominick now and it clicked in her head that I was transgender. If this is some cruel plan to prevent the transgender guy from seeing his grandfather, then why? He is 94 and accepts me! He loves my girlfriend and my family. He told her so. This seems like a personal vendetta against me. Willie always tried to keep the peace in the family. To deny him that peace goes against everything he stands for, as the patriarch of the Ryan family. How hateful can you be??
The nurses all knew I was male. There was no denying it. Willie goes back and forth between calling me my birth name and Dominick. He also calls me his granddaughter and I found it amusing to see the expression on the nurses faces when they realized he was talking about me. They kept asking my girlfriend if she had Muscular Dystrophy because I was clearly not a granddaughter. Ash would say no and say it was me who was his grandchild.
I neglected correcting them or him, because I thought they could find their own conclusion. I don’t care WHAT Willie calls me because in spite of it all, I know he accepts me as Dominick. He has told me so and told me he just wants me to be happy. I did tell him he had to stop confusing nurses by saying I was his granddaughter, but I was clearly joking and those in the room (my uncle, the cousin, my girlfriend, Willie and I) all had a good laugh. I also said this when no nurses were in the room. It was just family. So, if this is because I’m transgender, which seems to be the only conclusion I have been able to come up with…since nobody will talk to me or tell me what’s going on…then this is discrimination. Plain and simple.
I just wish…things were different. I just wish I could hear Willie’s voice and know he’s okay. I just wish for one more time to see him and to reassure him I love him and care enough to check on him…because I do.