Arts·Pandemic Diaries

In this time of isolation, we must push ourselves to love braver than ever before

Gender and sexuality can be a source of strain for family relationships — but for Heath V. Salazar, a phone call to their grandfather during COVID-19 changed everything.

For artist Heath V. Salazar, a phone call to their grandfather during COVID-19 changed everything

Left: "The family kitchen resting between meals." Right: "Itty bitty Heath V. Salazar experiencing the joy of Halloween in their hand-me-down homemade and gloriously beloved bunny costume." (The Salazar family)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

It's my grandpa's birthday as I write this. Growing up in Canada, the only things I knew about my grandparents as a child were that they were elderly, they lived so far that we couldn't visit, and when the new CiCi calling card came in you had to speak up real loud so they could hear you on the other end of the phone. My grandpa is the last grandparent I have left, but no matter how loud I speak or the strength of the phone connection, he can never recognize my voice. As COVID-19 visits us family by family, I ask myself if he ever will.

Chemically transitioning affects each body differently. (The contract I had to sign before receiving my first round of hormones had so many variables in it, it may as well have said, "The following medication will most probably perhaps make your body change in the following ways and/or maybe not, being so, it may be that it will surely change in other ways not here listed if that does in fact take place as it might or may in fact not.") But now, having been on testosterone for the past two and a half years, I can say that the changes it's made in my life are without a doubt some of the greatest changes to ever come my way. Sure, it's complicated because of societal violence, discrimination, and all the other goodies stuffed into the Ardene surprise bag of transphobia — but feeling at home in my own body? That's untouchable.

For most of my life, I only knew my grandpa by his voice. When he finally arrived in Canada, our entire family celebrated. There was an expectation, with blood coming together, of instantaneous connection. But as elated as we found ourselves, my grandfather and I met as strangers and our conversations quickly fell silent. About four years in, we were seated across from each other at my cousin's rehearsal dinner. My grandfather looked me in the eye, poured me a glass of wine, and nodded, so I drank it. We continued this sequence throughout the entire evening without a single word. We didn't know each other well; our silence confronted us with the distance that was needed to preserve our family. It was just wine, but it was the closest we'd ever been. He kept pouring. I drank the whole bottle.

His birthday arrived two weeks into my self-isolation through a text message from my mother. She wanted me to give him a call. My world went into slow motion at the thought of how drastically my voice had changed since we'd last seen each other. Seven years had passed since my last family reunion. Would my voice end our relationship for good, or had our final conversation already taken place?

Heath V. Salazar in drag as Gay Jesus. (CBC Arts)

As I stared down at his phone number, I counted the years we'd spent apart — the first fifteen for my sake, and nearly a decade now for his. When my mum initially asked me to call, it didn't seem like an option and was so outside of our norm that I honestly thought he'd prefer it if I didn't. But then I thought of him sitting in isolation. I thought of every relative he would speak to over the phone as they all wished him a happy birthday. I wondered if he understood that I felt like I couldn't call, or if he thought that I didn't want to. I wondered if he thought I couldn't be bothered to say, "I love you."

When I was 13, my aunt told me that if I got pregnant as a teenager, I could come live with her — but that if I was gay, I shouldn't bother knocking. Coming out to my family would ask them to choose between me and their core belief systems; it would force them to choose between each other as a direct result. Too many of my relatives have had to spend their lives separated from one another for survival. I couldn't fathom, even for a second, being the cause of them losing one another all over again. I was at peace with my choice for years — until, of course, I was asked to call my grandfather.

There are too many family reunions with empty chairs, too many loved ones asked to leave their sexuality or gender identity at the door. As COVID-19 visits us family by family, I ask you to look at your empty chairs and ask yourself: what it would be like if you chose to love the people who should be sitting in them completely?- Heath V. Salazar

He's lived on his own ever since his wife, my abuelita, passed away a couple of years ago. If you met her, you'd understand that it's less that she lost a battle with cancer and more that she kicked cancer in the teeth and eventually decided she'd prefer to take her morning walks in heaven. He's known more birthdays with her than without her. I have no idea what it's like to love like that, but if I could get him a direct line to receive a call from the other side, I know he would recognize her voice instantly.

Something my grandma and I have in common is that we both have rituals in how we say goodbye to our loved ones. My grandma used to end every phone call and every parting with what we lovingly came to call "Las Bendiciones." She prays over you to her favourite virgins and asks for your protection and wellbeing; then she finishes with, "Hasta la proxima," which means, "Until next time." It's like a promise that you'll both be okay until you're reunited again. When I say goodbye, I always make sure the last thing my loved ones hear is, "I love you." When I was in the sixth grade, a classmate told me about the day her uncle passed away. She said that her mother, his sister, couldn't remember the last thing she said to him before he left the house. She told me that she wished she had said, "I love you." It's stayed with me ever since.

When their abuelita first got sick, Heath began collecting rosaries as a form of prayer for her. They continue collecting them to this day. (Heath V. Salazar)

I remember the last time I spoke to my grandma. We Skyped and she told me not to look at her grey hairs because she hadn't gotten to dye them while in hospice. She did her goodbye, and I did mine. I haven't Skyped with anyone in my family since. I'm proud of the person I've become, but when I think of seeing my grandpa, I worry that what I look like now might just make his heart stop.

It took two days, but I finally made the call. I brightened my voice to bring it as high as I could; he didn't have a clue who I was even after the first three times I said my name, but we got there. I don't think I've ever heard that much joy in his voice. He sounded like a new man. He wouldn't know it, but in many ways, I did too.

My grandpa loves me because I'm his blood. But in all likelihood, we'll never see each other again. We'll never share another glass of wine. We'll never meet as more than strangers. There are too many family reunions with empty chairs, too many loved ones asked to leave their sexuality or gender identity at the door. As COVID-19 visits us family by family, I ask you to look at your empty chairs and ask yourself: what it would be like if you chose to love the people who should be sitting in them completely?

I'm holding on to my phone calls because it's all my grandpa and I can have. But it doesn't need to be that way for everyone. In this time of isolation, I urge you to love braver than you ever have before. You never know when you'll get your last "I love you." Start today with your first.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Heath V. Salazar (they/them) is a Dora Award-winning Latinx performer and writer. In drag, they perform as Gay Jesus and are best known for their multidisciplinary protest performances combining the worlds of drag and burlesque. Within theatre and film, Heath works as an actor whose body of work spans the gender spectrum. In 2019, they were announced as a nominee for LGBTQ Person of the Year by the Inspire Awards. Currently, they're in their second year as an Artist in Residence at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. You can follow their work on Instagram at @theirholiness.

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