I Can See My Future Through the Haze of My Grief
I didn’t recognize myself as a person who had outlived their sister
Kiah Holliman’s car accident happened on the last icy day of February 2022. The following morning, clear blue sky lit my journey from Detroit to Grand Rapids, melting any remaining ice from the night before. The earth seemed to smile, soaking in the long-missed sunshine. As the world inhaled the first hint of spring, my lungs collapsed inside of themselves, refusing to let the sunlight touch the freshly wounded parts of me. The natural movement of the world felt absurd. How could the sun rise, the land smile, the breeze move, as if this was any other day? The sun shone yellow, almost joyful overtones. My dreamlike denial came easy. The closing distance between myself and my mother’s house in Grand Rapids cemented a newly gleaned truth: hell was recognizable; hell still had sunshine.
A week later the February sky returns to its characteristic gray, dressing the world in the somber mood most appropriate for a funeral. The condolences I receive come with a mix of recognition and confusion. From the mourners who know me, I am offered firm hugs, and declarations of love and sadness. To everyone else, the question of who I am to Kiah is written on their faces. Their eyes look for a similarly feminine version of the woman lying in the casket: a short, light skinned afro-latine woman in her mid-twenties, with dark eyes and long hair.
I am not a full year into my medical transition. The changes in my body are subtle, even to me. Standing by my sister’s casket, I face the stark reality of how different we had become. Kiah and I had been a complimentary set throughout our lives. She was delicate, feminine, and graceful; I, a culmination of all the uncouth, rough edges of our dna. Our similarities were our laugh, our yell, our mannerisms, all hand me downs from our mother and grandmother. Our modes of self-expression, and the maladaptive coping mechanisms we both inherited, were our visible signs of kinship. Now, to the room overflowing with mourners, and to myself, I no longer feel recognizable as Kiah’s little sister. I do not recognize myself as who I am now—someone who has outlived their sister.
My funeral outfit, much like the funeral itself, is a haphazard collection held together with love by family. I wear a small men’s black dress shirt that was hastily bought the night before at a grocery store, with assistance from mí tío. We had tried to find a full men’s look but there was not much befitting my diminutive frame. The black dress pants I wear have been uncovered from my mothers closet, as graciously offered hand-me downs from my step father would not fit around my hips. The surgical mask I wear covers any semblance of the budding mustache on my upper lip. My blue durag covers my overgrown hair, and atop that sits a black and pink harley hat recovered from Kiah’s car after the accident. It feels like a memory, and I haven’t removed it from my head since it was found.
No one expects you to look well dressed at a sudden funeral. I don’t expect to be seen—I am not the guest of honor after all—yet I feel more exposed and fragile than ever. My grief is obvious in my chaotic dress, the shards of my life that have randomly imploded, collected together in one dysphoric, unflattering outfit.
The visual juxtaposition of our genders is not new. In high school, Kiah and I looked like a young stud/femme couple to those unaware that we were siblings. For me, wearing feminine clothes ended when my mother stopped putting us in matching outfits in elementary school. In our adolescence, we grew into our own individual selves and further from one another. This is natural and would have been fine, had it not been for the rift that widened in our misguided attempts to understand each other.
In my exploration of transness and queerness, there are points in history where I’ve looked weird, quirky, downright ugly in some aspects. I rejected the traditional norms of femininity that I knew I couldn’t stuff myself into. I stopped shaving my body hair freshman year, while simultaneously shaving different parts of my head whenever I could. I never wore a skirt, and I was unattractive, often downright volatile to the male gaze. Kiah’s gender expression was hardfought as well. Our practical capricorn mother was not one to place emphasis on fashion trends, so all of Kiah’s beauty skills were self-taught. After a brief emo phase and some youthful blunders, she found her stride, spending hours on her makeup and hair, curating her clothes to emphasize the changes in her petite frame. Her efforts, however, did not bring up concerns of mental illness or questions of her emotional well being. At times I wanted to learn from her, asking how to apply eye liner or put extensions in, things I saw her doing. These misguided attempts had me looking ghoulish, and I can imagine her reluctance to waste her coveted makeup collection on a clown’s appearance, as she often refused.
But in her kinder moments, she never had me leaving the house looking like a fool. Although she couldn’t style me in the way that she utilized femininity for herself, she dressed me in outfits that accentuated my natural personality and features. She was the first in the family to buy me mens shoes, shirts, and pants, before the words nonbinary or transgender had been spoken between any of us. Through many Christmases and birthdays receiving clothing that was obviously intended for the person my family wanted me to be, Kiah gave me gifts reflecting who she saw that I was, who she wanted to help me become.
I cannot recall the first time I came out to Kiah, but I remember one of the rifts that had occurred after being out to her and only her for a year. We were in our late teens, and had gone down to Texas to vacation with our tío and tía’s family. Mi tio and tía had been very close with my mother growing up, but the physical distance limited the time for the extended family to know our personalities from more than the pictures my mother had been sending them. It was night one of the vacation, and we were arguing in hushed tones. “Can’t you just keep your hairy armpits hidden?” Kiah questioned. “Do you have to be so vocal about feminism?” “Can you please, just while we are here, tone it down?”
I pushed back. “Why is it okay for me to behave like myself when we don’t put a name to it? Why is it not okay for them to see me as I am too? It’s hard enough having to be misgendered while we are here, in all the spaces that I’m in, can’t you at least respect me when we are alone?”
“I just don’t get you,” Kiah responded in frustration, “I don’t understand what happened to my sister.”
We ended the conversation both in tears, both trying to see each other, both trying to express our frustrations without waking up the whole house. I don’t understand what happened to her sister either, for all I knew her sister was still there, still in this body, still trying to be a good sidekick, while also trying to survive.
Three weeks after the funeral, I go into Kiah’s bedroom and gather what will be my last hand-me-downs. I am surprised when a pair of green sweatpants fits me. She had always been flaca afterall. Among the items I collect are some pairs of shoes that I manage to squeeze my feet into, an overshirt with the tags still attached to it, a small plastic bejeweled ring that was recovered from the accident, a hello kitty baseball cap and a large stuffed snorlax that took the most space among her growing plush collection. I feel a semblance of familiar joy as I think of all the times we went through the other’s room borrowing items, and never asking. As I feel her clothes on my body, I think, What will happen when my body changes in a year from now? Or Two years from now? Should I stop taking testosterone so that I can still hear her voice in my own?
Even throughout the emotional distance of our adulthood, I always held a sliver of hope that the closeness of our childhood would return. We had been working to mend that bridge with a sibling weekend that would now never come. I had planned to bring her to Detroit in March, to show her the places where I went dancing, or enjoyed art and music. I wanted to introduce her to my new friends and show her the wonderful life I had created. Through my transition, I was growing into someone that I wanted Kiah to meet. Instead of all that hope, I begin to fear losing the person that she helped to raise. On my way out of Grand Rapids, I am head-to-toe in Kiah-regalia.
In my opinion, Kiah doesn’t look her best at the funeral. In life, Kiah ranged from soft to dramatic, with baby pinks or dark purples and blacks, spending hours on her makeup at times. This time, she lacks her lifely glimmer and shine. Her arms rest over the bottom half of her torso, and her palms are held together in a little heart, loosely collecting the letters people had written to her throughout the funeral. Her nails are bare, and nude. When my grandmother Lila walks into the room during family visitation hours, the first thing she cries out is, “Where are her nails??” Kiah’s coffin shaped nails were her signature look, rotating colors to match with the season, or the outfit. Kiah and I were different versions of ourselves, existing there together in our not-our-best-but-the-best-that-we-could-do looks.
There are family members in attendance who I’ve not seen since I was a toddler. I assume the same was true for Kiah. Our reconnection with our estranged father’s family had caused tension between Kiah and I in recent years. January 2022, on a rare FaceTime between us, I finally heard her why. “I just want to know where we come from,” she said. She was straightening her hair, and wouldn’t look directly into the camera. “I found out about our great grandmother passing before we got a chance to meet her, and I just want to learn about them before time runs out”. Now these family members—strangers—and I gaze at each other across years of disconnect, very likely asking the same question. “Who am I meeting because I’m grieving Kiah Holliman?”
What to say about someone who was just starting to live?
I was tasked with writing the obituary. 25 years surmised into 161 words. Debating how to honor her just when we were reconnecting as adults, was difficult. I pause at the point in the obituary where I am to write the names of who survives her. I had just legally changed my name the summer before. Kiah and I were the only Hollimans in our household growing up because we were raised by our mother, Karina Alvarez, and had no relationship with our father—or his side of the family, the Hollimans. In choosing my own last name, I wanted to start my own lineage, claim myself as founder and creation. I wanted to honor the ever-lasting transition that I would always find myself in. I chose Jueves to honor my mother, and her mother’s native tongue (Spanish), and to honor myself, having been born on a Thursday.
Pausing at how to address myself in her obituary, I longed to be a Holliman again. If there was only one other Holliman I would deeply know and love, it was my sister. At that moment I regretted the decision I’d made. I would go back to my maiden name in a heartbeat to be a Holliman again with her, to have that automatic sign of kinship. This was an unexpected consequence of this severance from who I once was, a “Holliman Sister.” I type my chosen name, Alizae Jueves into the obituary. I feel a chasm of separation and loss where months ago, I’d felt the bounty of euphoria.
My paternal grandmother, Cynthia Patterson, walks in with my father’s family at the start of the funeral. They bring their own funeral programs, and a beautiful portrait of Kiah painted by my uncle Coy. Cynthia approaches me with kind, concerned eyes.
“Do you know who I am?” she asks.
“No.” Normally I would feel shame or embarrassment. I know to assume that we are family, and obviously she knows who I am. But the grief interwoven with the shrooms I had consumed before the funeral numbs my social graces.
“I’m your grandmother, Cynthia,” she says, matter of factly. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I know about you and your transition from Kiah’s Facebook. I know I can’t understand your grief, but know that I love you fiercely, I have always loved you, and I want to get to know you. It will take a while to build our relationship, and I am willing to wait as long as it takes for you to come to me.” She looks me in the eye with an intensity. I let my body be hugged, imagining what Kiah would feel if she had been able to receive this. I am blessed beyond measure, receiving affirmations of my transness, and love, from family I am meeting for the first time. I feel damned beyond measure not being able to experience this with her.
I am, however, blessed on both sides. Not many people can say that both grandmothers receive their transness with grace. In December of 2021 I came out to my maternal grandmother, Lila, while walking her home. The short two and a half block walk contained a transgender lowdown, explaining to my 60 something year old Salvadoran grandmother what nonbinary meant, a brief overview of pronouns, how my gender is in constant flux, and why my little sisters call me by my buddhist name “brother Mushim” rather than my given birth name. We ended the night with a hug on her doorstep, and the affirmations, “I will always love you.”
This was a blessing that I was not able to relay to Kiah, the first person in my family to whom I had come out, years prior. Kiah and I last saw each other in January of 2022. I was in town for the last weekend of the month, visiting friends and family, handing out delayed Christmas presents. Kiah was my final visit before making my way back to Detroit. I had brought over iced coffee and baked goods for her and my grandmother. They were dubbed “the roommates” by my mother since Kiah had moved back into our childhood home. We walked around the block with my dog Ruby. We had tense, reactive conversations, both leaning on each other for support but not knowing how to express it explicitly. I remember telling her about the joys that I had in my life, and navigating exciting crushes that I had on other Black Trans folk. Detroit had been a refreshing bounty of Black Trans community with a thriving arts and creative scene that I wanted to share with her. She was telling me about the moves that she was making in her life, leaving her on again, off again relationship and wanting more for herself. I scoffed, giving a terse “I told you so.” I had been wanting more for her for years. I apologized and reframed, but the damage had been done. “I’m happy for you that you are seeing your worth,” I said. We were turning back around now, and the rest of the way we made lighthearted jokes, laughing, trying to connect through goofy banter.
I said goodbye to Kiah for the last time at my grandmother’s back doorstep. I gave both my grandmother and my sister a hug. My grandmother boasted about how responsible Kiah had become, and Kiah gave a self-satisfied nod. “Be like your sister,” my grandmother said to me. I looked up the back steps at these women I’d spent my life with.
“She’ll be good,” Kiah said. She grinned smugly at me. She was protecting me, not wanting to out me to our grandmother. In that moment I realized it had slipped my mind to tell her about the magic of having been received by our grandmother, and how much it meant to me to be out to all of the family now. All of this good news I planned to tell her at another time. I gave Kiah a loving eyeroll and a smile, told them both I loved them, and that I would see them again soon.
I only remember one line of my speech from Kiah’s funeral. “Kiah lived her life off the cuff, and that’s why I chose not to write anything.”
Everything that comes after is a blur of memories, merely a semblance of how much she meant to me, and our family. I speak about how I loved growing up with her, how grateful I am that I spent so much time with her, more time than anyone else who got the chance to know her. The grief, shrooms, and overstimulation might be a barrier to these memories, or perhaps the virgo in me does not want to recall the unscripted. But I speak from the heart, and lead for my mother, friends and family so they can speak freely and share their love for Kiah.
I am never more than a few feet from the casket. My body remembers proximity to Kiah as a place of rest. I recall our childhood bedroom, our safe haven, a home within a home, where our twin mattresses lay no more than a yard apart from each other, and how in that space we discovered how to move through the world together. I left the funeral home that day knowing that I was to move and grow into the world on my own now.
Drawing had been one of the things that anchored Kiah and I in our childhood. Hours were spent in our grandmother’s living room, sitting cross legged on the couch sketching, drawing, and trading comics with each other. I had been avoiding drawing because I did not want to put the hard truth of Kiah’s death onto paper. Sitting at my mother’s dining room table, drawing with my little sisters in the hours after the funeral, a whimsical amalgamation breaks my hiatus. With a mix of crayon, pen, loose lines and scribbles, I depict the childhood table where we had tea. Different iterations of our faces cross the page. I write the first poem I’ve written in a while.
No One Told me Hell had sunshine
If Hell is a place without my sister, it’s also a place where I hear my mother laugh louder than I’ve ever heard before. On a family hike a couple days after Kiah’s death, mí tío falls down a snowy path. My mother has no choice but to double over in laughter. Hell is a place where I meet love in different forms, find myself in different ways, discover how to move in the world carrying my old self and healing into someone new. Hell is a place where my sister’s travel sized urn is well worn from the adventures I take her on, adventures she would have adamantly said no to if she were still alive. Together, earthside and spiritside, we spend the summer of 2022 exploring the midwest; kayaking, hiking, biking, and laughing in places that would have felt out of reach for us only a handful of years ago.
Hell is a place where a year to the day of my sister’s passing, I wear the funeral dress shirt to go out dancing with friends. I walk into the club with braids done, tattoos out; alize consumed, good friends by my side. An homage to my sister, redeeming our not-our-best-but-the-best-that-we-could-do funeral looks with a sexy-while-healing look. The funeral shirt is unbuttoned, chest tattoos on display, binder safely tucked underneath to keep dysphoria at bay and be the firm container from which the plant of my spirit blooms. Found family, friends old, new and newer move throughout the club. Black trans performers take center stage, dazzling the crowd with a live band performance. I dance and experience a joy that I would have wanted to experience with Kiah earthside, but I know that her spirit accompanies me everywhere I go. Before my eyes I am confronted with the consequences of living a life of tenderness, vulnerability, authentic crumbling and regrowth. My voice is hoarse from laughing and shouting in joy. At the end of the night the shirt is sweaty and lightly stained. A promising redemption, in my opinion, to an outfit that was so dysphoric only a year before. A year to the day of transmuting grief and despair into joy and exuberance. If Hell is a place without my sister physically existing, this reality is a place where my sister’s joy is conjured and sustained through dancing, exploration, and deep, long belly laughs.