My wife Debbie and I have an adage: if you see someone you know but don't normally encounter multiple times in a short period, the universe or God is trying to tell you something. When I saw my cousin walking past my house I mentioned it to my siblings and thought nothing more of it. Weeks later, when I spotted my relative in a cafe, I knew I was supposed to learn something.
Growing up on different coasts, I rarely saw Charles. His family lived on the East Coast. We didn't see them more than once a year. To me and my siblings, though, Charles and his brother Michael had a glow of celebrity. His father, my mother's brother, was a famous genius, frequently appearing on radio and TV shows. Our cousins seemed more erudite than us, reading sophisticated European comic books and traveling with their academic parents to England.
By the time I was in my 40s I'd lost any connection with Charles, who had moved to San Francisco. I'd heard, though, that Charles had changed his gender and his name. The cousin I saw walking past my house, and later sitting in the cafe, headphones clamped tightly on, working on a computer, was a woman.
At the cafe I walked up to my cousin, who was dancing slightly in her seat, eyes glued to her laptop. "Michael," I mistakenly called out, thinking of her brother. When she didn't look up, I waved at her face and shouted "Charles!" She remained absorbed in her work and music, though another cafe patron stared at me. Realizing I'd twice messed up my cousin's name in the face of her clear desire for a different identity, I slunk away.
It dawned on me that my cousin had done something heroic. She'd intentionally decided she wanted to be someone else, and by force of will and no small expense had created that person. I don't know what challenges she faced or still encounters. But I know change is hard, particularly deeply personal change.