My friend Dottie died last month.
In 1993 we'd been neighbors when my ex and I moved to Los Angeles. We stayed in touch after my now-ex and I bought a house and moved away - not far, about a mile and a half.
Dottie grew-up very poor. One day she returned from school to her Lower East Side tenement to be greeted by her neighbor shouting out that Mr. _____ was dead. He'd had a heart attack. Dottie was ten.
Her mother, who was functionally illiterate, was a basket case. She could barely support herself, much less Dottie and her sister. They survived only because her father's brother stepped-in to help them.
Dottie graduated high school at fifteen and went to work as a secretary. She was very good. When she was seventeen she'd saved enough to set out on her own by train for California. She found work as a secretary with Paramount.
Dottie was very pretty. It never hurts. She was a top-notch secretary, always in demand by writers, most famously Raymond Chandler. She dated and had affairs with movie stars. She regaled me with wonderful stories from a time gone-by before the freeways, when men and women regularly wore hats and Hollywood was truly glamorous.
Even after we moved I was always dying to tell Dottie my secret but could never come out and do it. We'd speak cordially on the phone and she was an occasional dinner guest but my inability to be open prevented us from moving forward. I knew that if I did not there was no chance we could ever have the friendship I so desperately craved because honesty was an non-negotiable prerequisite. It took me years to build the courage.
In late 2000 I was at a crisis point in my transition. My mother had recently died. My marriage, always strained, was finally moribund and I was being kicked-out. I invited Dottie to lunch. It was the afternoon of Veteran's Day, and we sat on the patio at the Daily Grill in Studio City. I told Dottie I had something I needed to say. I struggled to get the words out and while I don't remember exactly what I said it was probably something as straightforward as "Dottie, I'm transsexual."
There - I'd said it. Her jaw dropped but I just sat there and smiled, settling into my true persona. After just a few minutes, Dottie realized that this is who I truly was and we embarked on a remarkable friendship. Even the food tasted better.
Back then my understanding of transsexuality was still very spotty and I hadn't yet formulated the spiel I have now but she got it and we proceeded to have the first of many truly delightful encounters together. It was a watershed. I learned that more than anything I can tell people, my honesty in baring my soul and their seeing me so natural, so relaxed, so comfortable in my femme self could work the charm. It didn't hurt that by this time my appearance was decidedly feminine, even though I wasn't yet living en femme. I've been blessed. I've never suffered being baited as a 'man.'
Two years later something similar happened on the telephone. After 9/11, I called to check on friends in Manhattan. I told one of them, "Jan, I'm not (my old male name) anymore."
"Who are you?" she asked, and I answered, "Debra."
There was a slight pause, then some brief conversation, and then Jan told me she could hear in my voice my body relaxing. It was so easy. I could almost hear her crying out of happiness for me, or was that me?
Dottie and I starting meeting regularly for lunch every two months or so. She delighted in watching me blossom and she was unstinting in her advice and her loving praise. To be sure, she never held back her appropriate disapproval but her criticism was always constructive. I'm the confident woman I am today in large measure because of her.
Dottie was 82 when she was diagnosed with cancer nearly three years ago. They gave her three months but she confounded them all. She lived another two-and-a-half years, electing to forego treatment - no burning from radiation, no poisoning from chemo, no disfiguring surgeries. Her doctors were astounded when she went into a seeming spontaneous remission. She suffered other ailments but when she'd see me her eyes would light up and everything was ok. I always made a point of dressing nicely for her and she'd tell me how nice I looked. Her approval meant the world to me.
After Dottie's diagnosis we increased the frequency of our rendez-vous's. I'd pick her up since she couldn't drive anymore. More than anything else she hated losing her mobility. We shared a laugh when my back started acting up together with other ailments presaging my older age. It was comforting.
Dottie was a true film afficionada and we has similar tastes. We liked foreign films and we'd take-in a matinee on Wednesdays when it was only $4 for seniors (I fudged - kids work the box office and they can't discern age.) We didn't always agree but even then it was wonderful to sit in the emptied theatre discussing what we'd seen and savoring how it enriched our lives. Then we'd get a bite to eat, usually somewhere one of us had a coupon. It was wonderful.
Dottie left two daughters so there was no chance she'd adopt me but she knew how I felt about her. My mother knew about me but we never had a dialogue. I loved her dearly and miss her terribly but there was always something missing. I found a bit of that connection with Dottie.
I take classes at the Plato Society. It's a continuing education program, part of UCLA Extension. Most of the members are retired. I'm one of the 'kids' ... but with a mouth. Some of them know about me but only if I tell them, mostly women. They're good friends. I hope I'm not fooling myself but I believe their acceptance of me as a woman is sincere but what do I know? We never really know what people think, do we? I did though with Dottie. I know it.
Dottie taught me about life and she taught me about death. She savored the former and faced the latter unafraid. I always told her she never appeared ill, not to me, and it was true. She always looked wonderful.
I called Dottie about a month ago and asked routinely how she was doing and she told me plainly, "Debra, I'm dying." I knew it wasn't idle talk, and I said nothing. I just listened. Dottie never spent a minute fretting about illness or the prospect of death - never. In her quiet, dignified way she was awesome. She was a classy lady, insistently independent without ever losing her femininity. She taught me about choosing one's battles, what's important and what's not, about generosity and when and how to let go.
I would have loved to have been with her, fixing her meals, tending to her just so I could have more time with her. When in our last phone conversation she told me she loved me I knew I wouldn't see and probably would never speak with her again. She'd just said her goodbye to me and that was that. I had to accept it.
Dottie's daughter was with her at the end. She was loved by many.