Friday, September 27, 2013

Final Farewell: Lisa Empanada's Memorial

I thought I'd finished writing about Lisa.  But so many people asked me about last Friday's events, I decided to post the story here.

The week of Crying culminated in Friday's memorial.  September 20, 2013

There was to be no funeral.  Lisa didn't want one.  Two viewings were scheduled.  The first was 3-5 PM and the second was 7-9.  Unannounced was another viewing for family only from 2-3 PM.

My day was a comedy of errors.  I had so much going on, and was late from the beginning.  I took forever to get my makeup right, and eventually gave up.  I went to the MAC store in the King of Prussia mall.  There a very talented woman worked on my eyes.  It occurred to me as I drove away, that I had walked into and out of the mall in a dress in broad daylight and didn't even think twice about it.  I remember not long ago when I almost hyper-ventilated doing the same thing.

I met Jane Air at the place where I live and we drove to Baltimore together.  I was making us both late.  However, the directions I received were perfect, and we arrived at the funeral home at 3:30 PM.  Outside in the brilliant sunlight I saw Jen Bryant and Suzanne Olivia among so many others.

The Funeral Home

I hugged them both and walked slowly up the stone steps to the door.  Inside the light seemed dim compared to the brilliant sunlight outside.  To the left of the small foyer was a small guest book, which I signed.  Once past the foyer, I saw my friend Hayden, dressed all in black (which actually isn't unusual for him.)  He pulled me aside and said "Sandy wants you to have this." 

He gave me the Four leaf Clover necklace that I had sent to Lisa a lifetime ago (was it only a couple of months?)  (I'm wearing it as I type this.)  I looked at the small silver charm and necklace in my hand, and my eyes began to mist.

There were maybe sixty people there, mostly family.  I went to Sandy and we hugged.  Lisa's daughter Kristy was holding a pink stuffed animal: Mudsey.  Mudsey was in the van with Lisa.  Apparently, Lisa would bring Mudsey to her therapist appointments to dry her tears.  There were mascara stains on its head. I saw Ally and a few others and spoke to them briefly, with my back to the casket.  Then I turned to face it. 

The body was in drab.  It was Tom dressed in a suit.  The shirt was purple, as that was Lisa's favorite color.  I knew that under his shirt was an Underarmor constriction shirt to hide Lisa's breasts.  His black hair was slicked back and his hands were folded over his abdomen.  He was heavily made up.  In the hairline I could see why.  The skin was hot pink (a side effect of carbon monoxide poisoning.)  I looked at the face for a moment, and I could see Lisa's feminine features.  This... guy... whom I never met, was indeed Lisa. 

I knelt at the provided kneeling thing, and said a prayer for Lisa,  I then looked into the lifeless face... and bitched her out for over a minute, crying the whole time.  "You were supposed to call when you felt this way.  Now look at you- decaying in men's clothing!"  I then stood and headed out the door, all but bawling. 

There was a bar across the street- the Laughing Pint.  It was a small dive bar.  Myself, Jane, Christina Tali and Danielle Roberts went over for a drink.  There we found many members of Lisa's family.  The barmaid was overwhelmed with the number of people in the bar.  Eventually, we all toasted to Lisa. 

While I was waiting for the drinks, I suggested the rest of us occupy a nearby table.  Danielle said "Aren't you bossy!"  I told her that I bartended for many years, and I was used to the bar being my domain.  But that wasn't totally true.  I mean, it was, but it wasn't the full story.  I was blustering.  It's one of my defense mechanisms when I am extreme pain.  I start giving orders and "assume command" hoping people will go away so I can suffer alone.  Never works.  Just makes me look bitchy.

After a couple of rounds, the party broke up and many people went to the Canton Dockside.  The family reserved a room with tables for thirty.  However, there we more than fifty of us.  So they made the room family only.  I understood why, but I admit being a little hurt.  After all, I had been told many times I was family.

Canton Dockside.

But that's ok.  Myself and my sisters sorted out tables and we all had a wonderful meal.  I started blustering again. though. 

"Dammit, we are here to celebrate Lisa's life so let's celebrate!"  All I wanted to do was curl into a ball and sob, but I refused to do so.

That's when Lisa's daughter Kristie and a few others left the back room and joined us at our tables.  I was SO moved by that gesture.  She objected to us being segregated and wanted to be among those of us who knew Lisa best. 

At the table.  Pic by Christina Tali

Dinner went well.  The food was great and the service was wonderful.  I dreaded the next step.  Back to the funeral home for the last part of the viewing. 
After parking, Jane and I walked to the funeral home.  It was packed!  So many people!  So many transpeople had come out to pay tribute and say goodbye to Lisa.  Maybe 120 people, mostly us.
I re-entered.   I saw Kristy, and held Mudsey rather roughly.  See, she had been in the van and hadn't stopped Tom from doing what he did. I then went back to the casket, where I waited in line for my turn.  The room was quite hot as it was fairly full of people.  Eventually it was my turn.  I knelt again, and said another prayer for Lisa.  I then quietly caught her up with events in my life, as I used to when she was alive.  Again, I cried the whole time.  This time I reached out and touched her arm.  Stone cold.
I hugged Sandy again, I went to the back of the room.  Someone had made Kristy a book of pictures of Lisa and her writings.  I was told I was "all over the book."  And I was.  In it were several pictures of Lisa and I together.  Also there was the piece I wrote for her, as well as her description of receiving the necklace I gave her.  The necklace that was now zipped into an inner compartment in my purse.
Soon a priest appeared.  He was older and Hispanic, and spoke with an accent.  He summoned "immediate family only" to the front of the room.  So it family in the front, transgenders in the back.  I stood next to my friend Cecilia Watkins from Harrisburg.  Many of us looked at each other in confusion.  Why was there a priest there?  Lisa was anti-religion!  I found out later that Sandy asked him there for her comfort, as she was Catholic.
The priest started by referring to "Brother Tommy" and led everyone in prayer.  Then he started in with "everyone knew about Tommy's identity issues" and kept on going.  "The pope has ordered we clergy to be tolerant of these poor misguided individuals" and "God will forgive them anyway,"  Cecilia and I held hands, both of us squeezing very hard.  All of us were so incredibly angry!  This... person... was not only insulting the deceased, but also insulting over 2/3 of the people in the room!  I had a clear line of sight to his face and glared at him angrily.  My eyes never leaving his face.  I was so pissed off!
The priest finished with a prayer, and took off like the hounds of hell were biting at his heels. 
Kristy then stepped to the spot he had vacated and introduced herself.  She spoke of how she was Lisa's daughter, and how so many of us never met Tommy, only Lisa, and continued from there to paint a loving portrait of the Lisa we all knew.  She always referred to Lisa, not Tom, and to her as "my mom."
She redeemed the service in all of our eyes.  And I told her so.  I also told her that at the Angle Inn later, that her money was no good.  And it wasn't.  All of Lisa's sisters lined up to buy her drinks.
After Kristie finished, there was another line to visit the coffin, and I joined it.  Eventually it was my turn.  The moment I dreaded was here- the moment I prayed would never, ever come.  It was time to say goodbye to one of my best friends.  To my "transition buddy."  To my Sister. 
To Lisa.
I again knelt and offered one last prayer in her presence.  I then looked into her pale, dead face and told her how I loved her, and how I would carry her in my heart all the days of my life.  That I would live by her example of welcoming everyone, and of loving all.  I placed one of my business cards in the crook of her left arm, on the back of which I had written "Goodbye Lisa.  I will always love and miss you."  I then said that to her as I held her lifeless right arm.  I then said goodbye, crying like I'd never cried before.  I turned my back on the coffin, on Lisa, and left the funeral home.  Now I had to do the impossible- go on with my life without her.
She was cremated the next morning.  All the beauty that was Lisa.  her smile, her eyes, are now ash. 
From there, the family and a few transpeople went to the Angle Inn, which was close to where Lisa lived.  Walking distance in fact.  There I set up Kristy's first drink, and a few of us settled into some tables back by the dartboards and quietly talked. 
The Angle Inn from the parking lot.
After a drink, I walked to Lisa and Sandy's house.  Sandy had asked me to come over.  Upon arrival, I sat with Sandy and Lisa's daughter Tiffany.  We sat and spoke quietly about some private things.  I looked over at a table and again saw the wedding picture that Lisa had with her in that horrible van.
Sandy and Tiffany told me some private things that made me cry again, but I also smiled through my tears.  She then led me downstairs to the basement, where, hanging everywhere were Lisa's things.  And she pointed out several full suitcases- all full.  Lisa was quite the shopper!  As she and I were the same size, Sandy started stuffing a bag with dresses and tops.  She tossed in six wigs, two of which had never been worn.  She then disappeared around a corner and said "wait here a sec." 
She returned holding a white floral dress: the one Lisa wore to her Affirmation Party.  Sandy said "you should have this."
I said "I... I am not worthy of this."
Sandy said "I can't think of anyone Lisa would've wanted to have it more than you."
I took the dress and looked at it.  I then placed it in the bag.  I WILL wear that dress.  I will wear it when I have MY affirmation party.  And I WILL have one... just to wear that dress.  And to educate those who come on what it means to be trans.
Lisa speaking at her Affirmation Party
We spoke for a little while longer, and then hugged.  I took my leave, and placed the bag in my car.  From there I went back to the Angle Inn.  I had a few more drinks with various members of Lisa's family.  I handed the keys to Jane.  I knew I couldn't drive at that point.
Soon after that, we left.  We took Hayden with us.  He had been sullen and silent most of the day- grieving in his own way.
At 1:30 AM, we were in the driveway of the house where I am staying.  I went inside and removed my black dress.  I will never wear that dress again.  I pulled off my wig and collapsed into bed without removing my makeup and slept a dreamless sleep.
In the days that followed, the picture of Lisa's final day became clearer. 
Lisa's last phone call was just after 10 AM to the foreman of the job she was working.  It lasted under two minutes.  She said "I'll be back to stain the stairs."
Her last known text was to Ally, but that message was private, so I won't say what it was. 
Sandy spoke to the man who found Lisa's body.  She told me what he said.
The van was there at 3 PM. ( Last prior sighting prior was 11:30 AM.)  The man saw it pull up and park across the road from his house, but this was not unusual.  The next morning, the van was still there, so he went over to look in it.  He looked in the front window and saw what he thought was a Hispanic sleeping in the back.  He went to the rear doors and opened one.  Lisa's foot flopped out lifelessly.  The man called the police.
Lisa was found with the pink stuffed animal, Mudsey, under one arm. Keys were in the other hand. Between that arm and her chest, facing out, was the wedding picture. It slid there after she died. The necklace and wedding ring were on her. Tiffany's makeup bag was next to her. In the bag was her carry letter and her driver's license. The machine was NOT running, as it automatically shuts off after 4 hours. 
It was the police who moved everything to the front seat to remove the body.  Lisa died with representations of her loved ones with her.
Since the estimated time of death was somewhere between 6 and 9 PM, and the van was parked there at 3, what did Lisa do before starting the compressor?  My educated guess is that it took maybe ten or fifteen minutes for the van to fill with the poison gas.  From there, it would take ten minutes for her to die, quietly.  She just fell asleep and left this world. 
I like to think those hours were filled with Lisa fighting for possession of Tom, trying to stop what was happening.  Maybe she sat crying in the van.  Maybe my estimate is all wrong, and it took her hours to die.
In any case, Sandy didn't go upstairs to see the note left for her until 9 that night.  By the time the search began, Lisa was already gone.
So Lisa is gone.  I keep looking for a silver lining to all this.  My friend Sharon Stones offered one.  She mentioned that Lisa's passing has "brought the community together like nothing [she'd] ever seen before."  And she's right.  We have pulled together in mourning.  We are talking to each other.  We are talking about suicide and how to avoid it.  And this is a good thing. 
As an aside to this story, I offer this.  Many have asked me "Why did she name herself Empanada?  Did she eat a lot of them?"  No.  She told me why. She named herself for a Goddess.
"Empanada, also called Empanda or simply Panda, is the Roman Goddess of asylum, charity, and hospitality. Her temple on the Capitoline Hill was always open, and from Her temple food was distributed to those in need. Her name derives from the Latin verb pandere, "to open" or "to spread out" (used in the phrase passis manibus "with hands outstretched") and means "She Who Opens". She is said to have originally been a Goddess of the countryside, worshipped by rural folk, which would seem to imply some connection with farming or nature."
 Fits doesn't it?
I think it's appropriate to give my sister Lisa the last word.  This is from a piece she posted on Facebook on December 24, 2012 at 8:27 AM. The last line is so appropriate to her memory.  It distills Lisa to her essence. 

Sleep well, my Sister.  I will never ever stop loving you or missing you.
Can you take some stuff away from us? We have too much of somethings that no one should have so much of. Could you please stop by on Christmas and take away the doubt. Can you remove the tremendous pain and grief from our many of us are buckling under the weight. Could you take away the nightmares that haunt our waking hours. Can you take away the feeling of loneliness? Can you take away the skepticism that we can ever manage to believe in the magic that moves us?
Santa can you take away our fears. We have too many of them already. If you can, please do. Because so many of us are trapped by fear and doubt, by regret and a lack of confidence.

If you could just take this stuff away ... or find a way to help us to, I know we can be stronger and soar higher. I know we can be the Angels on Earth we are destined to be.
SCC 2013.  Eight days before she died.


  1. Beautiful Sophie. I will admit, that was very hard to read and I went over every last word very slow when you described her last hours. It made me start to get dizzy and afraid. I don't want to die. It's too scary. I want to live. She took a piece of us all with her.

  2. I think the way her family treated her end probably shows why she is no longer with you. This is not the first time one of us has been treated with such disrespect at the end of our time in this life and it never ceases to sicken me.

    For so long I thought I would die by my own hand to stop the pain but all my plans included utter destruction of mortal remains to ensure that no such final humiliation could take place.

    When the final choice came I chose life and it has turned out sweeter than I could ever have imagined as I hope it does for you too.

    1. Actually, most of her family were amazingly supportive. i point to the affirmation party and to Kristie's heartfelt defense of her at the viewing. Of course there were some that may have objected, but that's life. Lisa couldn't have asked for a more supportive wife and family. And the Community couldn't ask for better allies.

  3. Thank you again, for sharing the experience of love and loss of our beautiful friend! The phases of grief will do it's thing, as you look back on our sweet sister...and I wish you strength and resolve in this difficult time. Lisa would want the very best for all of us! Truthfully, I don't understand it all..and wished in those last moments before she ended her life, that I could have done SOMETHING to stop this well planned execution of a disaster, that would tear a piece of our own hearts from our chest. Love you, Sophie and much peace to you.

  4. Thank you Sophie for writting this. I love you sister and though I did not always agree with Lisa I also loved her and she was a VERY special woman and person,. I still can not believe she is gone. I am crying so much typing thhis the keyboard is wet. Have to go but Thankyouand remember I AM YOUR FRIEND! Still rememebr the first walk to the "bank Cash Machine"

  5. Hmmm. I got this message (Your HTML cannot be accepted: Must be at most 4,096 characters) when I tried to reply so I will break my response into two sections.


    Thank you so much for sharing this. I put off reading this since as hard as this may have been for you to write it was equally as hard for me to read. It’s like you are telling the last chapter of Lisa’s life; perhaps not reading it meant she wasn’t really gone.

    I never knew Lisa as well as you did. I met her perhaps half a dozen times all of them too brief but we shared some emails exchanging ideas and thoughts. We always wanted to spend more time together but it never worked out. She was as brilliant as she was beautiful. Our conversations were always energetic and sometimes sparked with controversy and constantly sprinkled with humor. It was hard to see what was lurking deep down in her soul even when we touched on issues that were problematic and similar in our own marital relationships. Her friendliness, happiness and joy were contagious and they were so easy to focus on.

    You must feel a great void in your life that can never be put into words. You must be wrestling with the grief even as you recall all the happy moments you shared with her. Those feelings will go on and on; and the grief will come and go but you will know her as your friend forever.

    It is good to grieve. Never let anyone tell you to move on or get over it. Whatever time it takes is how it will be. You are entitled to your feelings and you know Lisa will pop things into your head to put a smile on your face.

    It is hard to read the account of how she ended her stay on this earth. She must have felt so lonely and sad. I doubt if she were the smiling happy Lisa we all knew as the fears, doubts, and pain reached up to cause her to do this. Her suffering must have been intense and as I think and write I am overcome with sadness and woe (and tears) picturing her there all alone helpless to stop herself. Often we are so beset by our own problems and worries that we fail to look closely and see those of people around us. My heart breaks as do so many others wishing there was something we could have done to ease her pain and prevent her demise.

    Hopefully the silver lining offered by Sharon Stone will not fade and the closeness and strength of our community will grow. It would in the least be a fitting tribute to Lisa.

  6. This is part two. I hope I remember where I left off....

    Hopefully the silver lining offered by Sharon Stone will not fade and the closeness and strength of our community will grow. It would in the least be a fitting tribute to Lisa.
    It’s very interesting to read about how she chose her name. Most fitting indeed. That gives me pause to add an aside of my own.

    I have remarked in several places that Lisa’s essence and energy is still around and will last forever and touch us when we least expect it.

    So even before we met Lisa had written me asking where my name came from. My name (Reena) has been with me for decades and its origin is well perhaps shady or a bit less than honorable. I recall writing back telling her that if we were at a noisy bar and shared a few drinks I would tell her, hoping that the noise would make hearing difficult and unclear or the drinks would cause her not to remember or care. Well on my first venture out a few days after her wake I was at a crowded bar talking with someone I had a nodding acquaintance with. After some initial talk the person asked me about my name and where I got it. Stopped me in my tracks ….POW! It was like Lisa’s spirit had flown through the room and was asking for the answer I never had a chance to give her.

    I tell you we will never be rid of that girl! And isn’t that a delight.

    There are so many things I wanted to say to her and never had the chance. Sometimes I feel like writing paragraphs and paragraphs on her page just hoping she might ….. well read, hear, listen, understand a bit of what I’d like to tell and ask her. Maybe I will. It’s just still too tender of a time for me.
    I had read and replied to many of her notes, post, and comments on Facebook but must have missed the one you share here.

    Is it not reflective of many of our own thoughts and also telling of what struggles and burdens she dealt with under a contrasting and delightful exterior in her search for true happiness and self realization.

    She is not only an Angel on Earth; she is an Angel of the Universe and will be there always through our tears and smiles to inspire us and bring us joy.