"I want to wear a dress. That's how Nana would want me," C.J. declared.
When my mother, Nana, died on Memorial Day, we immediately started planning her Celebration of Life.
Mostly, it felt better to be actively doing something as opposed to sitting immobilized unable to do anything. And those were our only two options.
As we began planning, my brother Michael, my husband Matt, and I explained the event's significance to my sons, C.J. and Chase. "What are we going to wear to the Celebration of Life?" C.J. asked immediately, because even when grieving, he's concerned about fashion.
"I'm wearing a tie," said 12-year-old Chase, who loves any excuse to wear a tie.
"I want to be a girl at Nana's Celebration of Life. I want to wear a dress. That's how Nana would want me," 8-year-old C.J. declared. He asked if we could go shopping. I promised him we would.
"Will everyone at the Celebration of Life know that I'm gender nonconforming?" he asked.
"No." I waited for the usual self-editing and deep consideration about his gender expression around new people to begin.
As C.J. explains it, he's a boy who likes "girl things" and "girl clothes" and wants to be treated like a girl, all while preferring masculine pronouns and his male body. We say that he's gender variant or gender nonconforming, and he floats on the gender variation spectrum from super-macho-masculine on the left, all the way to super-girly-feminine on the right.
"I don't care," he said. "I'm wearing a dress."
"That sounds good," we said.
C.J. could have said he was going to dress up like a dragon or be a dandelion, and we would have said it sounded good.
The sudden death of a loved one puts things into perspective, and the Celebration of Life would be casual, loving, and accepting, just like Nana was.
Every day that week, C.J. pressured me to take him shopping for a new dress, and every day, I told him that we needed to wait until his uncle Michael got back in town. I was physically and emotionally spent and didn't feel well-equipped to help my son pick out a dress for his grandmother's funeral. I needed some back up, some support, and in this case, I knew my brother was the person I needed most.
When Uncle Michael arrived on Thursday, our first stop was Target.
C.J. led us to the "girls' section" and started purposefully working the aisles and holding out fabrics he fancied. Uncle Michael and I did the same.
The three of us called out to each other when a dress caught our eye and held it up for comments and opinions. Uncle Michael and I have similar tastes and found a few options that we thought were perfect. C.J. nixed them all.
C.J. finally decided on a cream linen dress with delicate eyelet detail, a dainty navy blue cardigan and a headband with blue and yellow flowers adorning it. He could not be swayed.
Over the next two days, C.J. kept reminding us that he was going to wear a dress at Nana's Celebration of Life.
We said we knew and thought it was perfect. If that's how he felt Nana would want him, then that's exactly what he should do.
He never again asked about the strangers who we would welcome into our home and what their reactions to a boy in a dress might be. He was unwavering in his decision and he didn't care what other people thought. He was committed to making the event about him and his Nana, and that made me proud. That's what memorializing a person and the relationship you had with them is all about.
"Pa, I'm going to be a girl at Nana's Celebration of Life," he said to my dad the night before the service. He looked his grandfather right in the eyes and stood firm. If anybody in our family was going to have a reaction, it would be Pa. I nervously held my breath.
"That is exactly how Nana would want you and that's what you should do. It's about you and Nana, and she loved you so much," Pa said as he wrapped C.J. in a hug.
The day of the Celebration of Life, C.J. made sure I steamed his dress, like I did mine, and flat ironed his hair, like I did mine.
He spritzed on some Chanel Coco perfume and applied his favorite lip gloss. After he put on his cream dress, navy cardigan, and flowered headband, I surprised him by presenting him with a strand of Nana's pearls to wear.
He greeted people at the door as they arrived at our house for the Celebration of Life. We introduced him to people from my parents' church and to their friends who had never met him before.
"This is our youngest son, C.J.," we'd say.
"It's nice to finally meet you," they'd say. “Your Nana told us so much about you."
That afternoon, my son was not one bit worried about what perfect strangers would think about him wearing a dress.
He listened to those strangers tell him that his Nana loved him very much and that she told everyone all about him. He was unabashed and unashamed. He honored Nana and their special relationship beautifully.
I imagined her looking down on him.
"That's my beautiful boy! You look so pretty! I love your dress!" she'd say, like she always did.