One night while my mom was tucking little 6-year-old me into bed she told me she had something very important to say.
"Well Kate, you know when babies are born they are a boy or girl, right?" I nodded. "Well, some people feel that how they look on the outside doesn't match how they feel on the inside. Does this make sense to you?"
I shook my head no.
"So sometimes when they get older and realize that they can change their bodies to match what they feel on the inside. For example, your Aunt Nancy was born a girl but she always felt differently. She never liked to wear dresses that Yaya would make for her and would insist on wearing boys clothes. So now she is older she has decided she is going to start transitioning into a boy. She will start to look a little different, her voice will start to get a little deeper and she might start to grow some facial hair," I giggled at the thought of my aunt with a beard or mustache.
"Aunt Nancy is very nervous about changing, but what is going to make her happy is our support and unconditional love. Do you have any questions?"
"So when I get older I could become a boy if I wanted?" She smiled and nodded. "So is Nancy going to be my uncle now and is her name still Nancy?"
"Yes, so now you will call her Uncle Quinn and Uncle Quinn wants us to refer to her now as a he or a him not, a she or a her."
"That's so cool how you can just change your whole you." She smiled and giggled.
Learning that my aunt was now my uncle was something that seemed normal to me. The way my mom had explained seemed so simple for everyone to understand, but later on in life I learned that that was not the case.
Going to pride parades was something that always gave me so much joy. I have been marching in the Chicago Pride Parade every year since I can remember. Every year I always feel a surge of joy and emotions seeing so many people gather and celebrate something so special, but different. Before the parade starts my mom and I walk around and look at all of the floats. While marching I'm always cheered on by people on the sidewalk; they always ask my sisters and I for hugs and high fives. They shout out that our parents raised us right and how they are so proud of us. Being surrounded by all of the cheerful people was always my favorite part of the year. I always felt that the positive energy could never end. I remember at my first parade that one of the men marching with us came up to me towards the end of the route and told me something that always stuck with me.
"Alright, when we get to the end we are going to see some ugly people. Just keep smiling and don't give them any attention. They might yell at you and say some mean things, but remember that you have a big voice and you are doing the right thing, standing up for those with a quiet voice," he said.
As we approached the end I heard shouting through megaphones and saw signs being waved. When the protesters came into sight I tried not to look but I couldn't resist. I noticed parade-goers waving their rainbow flags in front of their faces and people shouting things in hopes to change the protester's opinions. I admired these people for their courage to stand up to someone who thinks so little of them.
Throughout my life I was very close with my uncle, he would always call me his "little buddy" and whenever we went to visit him in Michigan there would always be something fun to do. One day he came over to our house and told me we were going on an adventure. He dragged me out of the house and lead me to the swingset. He went on about a legend of the baby unicorn with a broken horn who had lost its mother and that it was spotted in Elmhurst near our garage. At first I didn't believe him but after searching in a pile of wood sure enough there it was, a little music box with a white unicorn laying on top with a chipped gold horn. He told me that he would let me keep it if I promised to love it forever and give it a nice home. We pinky promised and raced each other to the back door.
On Oct. 31, 2010, my mom told me that she had to go to visit my grandma to help her with something and that she would be back soon. Since it was Halloween, I was so excited to go trick-or-treating with my sisters and my neighbors. It was getting close to the time we were set to go out and my mom still wasn't home. I was starting to get nervous, I always went trick-or-treating with my mom.
The next day my mom still wasn't home, now I was really worried and all I could think about was if she is alright. Around 2 o'clock the office called Mrs. Bradley's third grade class and asked me to collect my things and come to the office because I was going home for the day. When I walked into the office I was so relieved to see my mom standing there smiling with her arms wide open. She held my hand as we walked to the car. I asked her why I was going home and she told me,
"Just 'cause I love you."
When she opened the back seat door I hopped in and noticed my uncle Tom sitting in the passenger seat. He greeted me with a warm smile and I immediately knew something was off. Uncle Tom lived all the way in California. What was he doing in Elmhurst? All I could think of was a business trip for the reason he'd be here but something still seemed off.
When we arrived home, my mom called my sisters and I to the living room. Next to her sat my dad and Uncle Tom. She had a solemn look on her face. She told us she had something very important to say. Those were not the first time I had heard those words but, I knew that this time the news wouldn't be as joyous.
"We have all had accidents before," my mom started. "Sometimes accidents happen to us and they happen to people we know and love." I sat listening intently. "A few days ago someone we know and love very much got into a car accident." All I could think of was that my grandma was okay and that whoever it was is still alive and only injured. "Uncle Q pulled over to the side of the road because he was starting to get sleepy. Since it was dark out another car did not see him and crashed into him. Uncle Quinn passed away."
At first, I didn't have a reaction. I didn't understand that meant he would be gone forever. I didn't cry at all when my mom first told me, or after the funeral. It wasn't until a few years later, when I actually needed him, that I cried.
On Nov. 6, I stepped into the funeral home and was hit by the strong smell of flowers. I walked over to my grandma where she knelt in front of the open casket sobbing. I had no idea what to do, I had never been to a funeral, I had never experienced death in my family before. I took a seat in the back of the room and prayed. I prayed that God would watch over my buddy in heaven. I walked around the room and looked at all of the pictures set up. I saw a picture of me and Uncle Q where we shared the same expression with our mouths wide open looking surprised. That had always been my favorite picture. I wanted to go back to that day and find out why we were so happy. I wished that I could've made more time and made more memories with him.
In the days leading up to his funeral, I sat out of recess to prepare a speech about my beloved uncle. When it was my turn my mom gave me a warm smile and nodded from the other side of the room. I placed the unicorn music box from so many years ago on the podium and began my speech. My knees were shaking and I felt my face getting warm. When I finished my family was in tears and I received applause from everyone. When I walked back to my seat next to my dad he gave me a reassuring hug and told me Q is so proud and is smiling down from heaven. I touched the horse's broken horn remembering that day.
I am so grateful to have had someone like Quinn. He taught me to always be accepting, empathetic, and unique. I never would have learned these things without Q. He gave me so much joy and helped me find my interests and passion here in life. Through all of my memories with Q he has taught me to be my best self.
For an article on Quinn Collins, who died at age 38, see www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Transgender-PFLAG-inspiration-killed-in-car-accident/29439.html .
Kate is a 15-year-old freshman in high school who lives in the Western suburbs of Illinois. She has a passion for music and especially enjoys performing and singing. When asked to write an essay in English class about a person or experience that changed her life, Kate wrote this essay about her Uncle Quinn "Q" Collins.