Picture it: Catholic Youth Group, 1997. I, a young innocent teenage girl. He, a few years older. I was interested in this young man. He had rosy cheeks, and the most infectious laugh I had ever heard. He wore interesting clothes, often a t-shirt with a long sleeved shirt over top of it, with a neck tie that he would tuck into the button holes. I knew right away that he was friend material. I could see the genuine kindness and the quirkiness that I often sought in a friendship.
Fast forward a couple years, and we had gone on a road trip to Calgary with the youth group. And I don’t think I would be exaggerating when I say that we laughed the ENTIRE time. Like, laughed until I almost peed my pants, tears rolled down my face, and my guts hurt for days afterwards. Derek had become one of my best friends. He GOT me. He was easy to talk to, an excellent listener, and our brains kinda worked on the same frequencies. He was artistic, creative, hilarious, and insanely intelligent.
Later on in high school, I remember him very awkwardly asking me if I would like to go on a date with him. At the time, I wasn’t sure I was ready to date anyone, but I told him I was flattered and that I would let him know when I was ready. I hadn’t had what I would consider a “real” boyfriend before, and I needed some time to think about it. Then that summer, he was home from university, and I knew I wanted to ask him out. He was my best friend, and that seemed like something I should explore. I remember being insanely nervous about it. I walked down to the local movie store where he worked during the summer and stood outside the doors for what seemed like an eternity before I finally gathered enough courage to go in and talk to him. In “classic me” fashion, I danced around the topic for probably an hour as I visited with him and asked him how his summer was going before I finally decided I needed to shit or get off the pot. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I had been stupid to be so nervous. He said that he would love to go on a date with me, and we made plans to do so.
I won’t share too many details, but my romantic relationship with Derek was definitely not what I think a typical relationship is. He was so kind, and I would go out to his parent’s farm to spend time with him watching movies, playing video games, singing to Avril Lavigne, and painting each other’s toenails (yes, we will circle back to this later on haha). He had a Spongebob Squarepants shrine in his bedroom. And I mean, a SHRINE, with candles and the whole nine yards. He had written and illustrated children’s books, and created a “dictionary of Derek’s vocabulary” where he kept all the made-up words he often created and used on a regular basis. We held hands, and on the occasions where he would drive me home and would want to give me a good night kiss, he was so nervous every single time that we would sit for an hour outside my house and the old car he used to drive would start to overheat and it wasn’t until then that he would get up the nerve to give me a good night kiss. We joked about this for years and years afterwards.
In hindsight, for someone who is no longer a virtuous catholic school girl, it was pretty obvious that Derek was gay. But it was also very apparent to me that he cared about me very much, and I him. I did end up breaking up with him, which I remember vividly. He was so sad. But I think we both knew that we were meant to be friends rather than romantic partners. So when he came home the next summer and asked to meet up with me, I was not in the least bit surprised when he told me that he was gay. I think he may have been worried that I would be upset by this, so I doubled down and told him that not only was I super ok with it but that I myself had been questioning my sexuality. From that moment on, our friendship grew stronger. I had the privilege to be there for Derek’s first drag appearance (the birth of Jenny, though she didn’t have a name yet), which happened on Halloween in Weyburn, SK. We went to McDonald’s and had some fries while he tried out his new persona. We went on road trips to Regina, singing Evita at the top of our voices (including the instrumental interludes). We stepped foot for the first time into the Q Nightclub together, at about 2:00 in the afternoon, just to see what was behind those queer rainbow doors (it turns out, not much was behind those doors at 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon :D). He was my escort for grad when I graduated, and he matched his tie to my dress. The next day we drove to Regina and he paid for my first tattoo as a gift.
When I moved to Regina for university, I think I spent more time with Derek at his place than in my own place. One of the memories that will always stand out for me was when he had moved back into the dorms after summer (he was living in the College West building on campus) and he had to move into a new apartment. I told him I would help him move his stuff, and so we went down to check it out before we started moving him in. When we opened the door, the sight was horrendous. Clearly the RA’s hadn’t been checking this apartment for quite some time. There was literal garbage everywhere. Like, I’m talking bags of garbage, and loose garbage piled in the living room, on the common area couches, up to your waist. And his new room mates were in their bedrooms, apparently oblivious to this disgusting mess. So, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work (we couldn’t even walk into his new room without wading through garbage). We grabbed a trolley and started piling bags onto it and wheeling them over to the garbage chute in the main hallway. After a load or two, we started to be able to see the carpet (which was not much cleaner than the garbage bags at that point). On this load, we had attempted to put a few plates that had old chicken bones on them onto the bags we were wheeling to the chute, but when Derek went to move the bag, a couple chicken wings bounced off and touched his skin. This resulted in a few minutes of Derek dry heaving into the garbage chute, and then running back to the apartment and actually throwing up for several minutes while I continued to try and wash the floor and kitchen to try and make it as livable as possible. We ended up being able to laugh about it later (as we did with most of our ridiculous adventures), but that apartment was his last in university and I’m sure he didn’t miss those roommates when he left.
That year was the year that Derek made the decision to let Jenny loose on the world. We had visited the Club together, gone to see some drag shows, and he was determined to make that a part of his life. I know he always cringed remembering the first time he went to the bar in drag, with the lavender wig and the make-up that made him look vaguely like Karen from Will and Grace, but I was so proud of him. Because when it came right down to it, when Derek made up his mind to do something, he did it.
The years of university for me were a blur but I know that a great deal of my free time was spent with Derek, at his apartment on Froom St., watching him paint for shows, helping him glue shit to shit for his amazing outfits, and generally enjoying each others’ company. That damned disco ball dress he made took us hours and hours and so many glass slivers trying to peel the hundreds of tiny disco balls he bought from the dollar store just so he could meticulously glue them onto a dress that weighed about 30 lbs but shone like a star in the lights.
In true, dramatic Derek form, he wore a black veil to my first wedding. I asked him if he would do a reading for us, and he agreed, but I know that he was legitimately worried that me getting married would change our relationship. And in some ways, it probably did. But over the years, there was always a constant person, someone who I knew would be there for me no matter what, and it was Derek. And I know that he knew that the same applied to me. Because when my marriage ended and I was scared and alone, he was there. And he was the one who gave my future wife my phone number so she could contact me. And he was the one who, above everyone and anyone else in my entire life, I knew without a shadow of a doubt would still love me and accept me when I told him I was transgender. He was the first to know, and the one who gave me the courage to tell everyone else.
I know Derek had a wide and bright influence on a very many people, but to me Derek was just that, himself. He was my first real love; even though that love shifted and changed over time, it remained. I saw him, I saw his light and darkness. I stood in awe of his fearlessness and his courage and his creative soul. I watched helplessly as he struggled to love himself. I sat with him and held his hand when he was hurting, and I tried to be for him what he has always been for me. He told me a few times that I am the one reason that he ever questioned his sexuality, because he loved me so much that it confused the shit out of him for a long time. But I also think that it makes perfect sense, considering that I’m now writing as Mike tonight and not as Michelle. I think he saw the true me before I even did. And I think that his love was real and true. He was my cheer squad, and he was meant to be in my life for a reason. Anyone who has been in the presence of someone who truly sees you for everything you are and still loves you will know what I’m talking about.
I guess what I am trying to say tonight is that I am feeling gutted. I feel like the bottom has been dropped from beneath me and I still can’t quite process the idea that he’s gone. I don’t quite know how to even begin to grieve the loss of my oldest friend. How do you even begin to put thoughts together to process the loss of someone who has had such a massive impact on your life, who has walked through the majority of your life along with you, through all the shit and all the gold, even when your paths took different directions at times? How do you begin to comprehend that the friend who would message you randomly during a day just to tell you how proud of you they are and how much they love you is gone? How can I come to terms with the fact that we will never laugh together again? I know that these words aren’t enough. This little excerpt doesn’t do him justice, and it does little to help the pain. Mental illness ultimately stole him from me, stole his life from him, and I’m angry and I’m broken and I am sad that my love for him wasn’t enough. I’m sad that he never learned to love himself. I’m sad that his beautiful, creative, intelligent mind continually betrayed him. I’m sad and angry and broken and I will be for a while. But I pray for his peace. I pray for his family, his mom and his brothers, his nieces and nephews and aunties and uncles who loved him so much. I pray for all of those people in the Queer community and beyond that he inspired and gave light to. I pray for all his friends who continually loved him and gave what they could of themselves to him. I pray for myself, that I will find comfort in my memories and all the good he has done for me over the years by loving me exactly the way I am. And I pray that Derek, who struggled his whole life to love himself and to believe that he was someone worth loving, is now wrapped in love and peace.
I wish I could hold your hand again. I love you, too.