• Amy Cherie Copeland

My Cousin's Big Trans-Veteran Funeral

Updated: Apr 2

On June 22 and 23, 2018, I had the pleasure of presenting my original monologue at the 2018 Coming Out Monologues in Jacksonville, Florida. This is my script.

Delivering my monologue on opening night. Photo by Cindy Vaughn-Wardle.

VOICE OVER: Pt. Charlotte Man Apparently Drowns at St. Pete Beach” (St. Pete Times, Oct. 2, 2017)

[BEGIN MONOLOGUE]

The news shocked me to my core: That was my cousin, Bret’ny.

Her girlfriend Ashley begged me to come to the funeral. She didn’t want to be the only one there who knew the real Bret’ny. She told me of her plans to offer mementos after the service; she’d painted sand dollars she and Bret’ny had collected at the beach with “In loving memory – Bret’ny A. Rule.”

The next night Ashley texted me. Bret’ny’s father didn’t want the new name mentioned in the service. My uncle asked Ashley to paint “Bret A. Rule” instead. Now I was even more upset. How could they erase her name like that?

My cousin Bret’ny was a 34-year-old Iraq war veteran, and she was proud of the Outpatient Treatment Program certificate she’d only recently been awarded by the VA with her new name on it.

I texted Ashley back: “Please paint ‘Bret’ny’ on a few, anyway. I know some people will appreciate them.”

The morning of the funeral, on the long drive down to southwest Florida, I told my husband Charlie of my anguish over how to honor my cousin’s memory at the funeral while respecting the grieving family, some of whom had not accepted her choice.

To pass the time, I googled Bible verses about our relationships to fear and love. I wasn’t sure if I would find the right words in time to address my feelings in a proper tribute.

The altar at the church where the funeral was held displayed a picture of my cousin in uniform.

When we arrived in Pt. Charlotte, flags were flying at half-mast for my cousin, the fallen veteran. Family, Army veterans, and friends packed the tiny Methodist sanctuary for the service. I sat in the second row, behind my aunt and uncle and waited to see what would happen. When every pew was full, they began seating people in the choir box and brought out chairs to place next to the ends of the pews. By the beginning of the service, the mourners standing in the back were making room for the Army Color Guard that would later present Bret’ny’s mom with an American flag in memoriam.

The minister who gave the eulogy knew Bret’ny since childhood. He talked about “Bret’s” exuberance, his big-heartedness, the questions he asked, his entrepreneurial and artistic talents, how “Bret” knew the common and Latin names for every plant he could point at. The minister’s closing puzzled me: “Bret was always uniquely, unapologetically himself.”

Hmmmm….is he hinting at something?

My uncle spoke next. His tribute focused on Bret’s well-known quirkiness, the battle with PTSD, his troubles with the law, how far he had come, how resilient he was, and what he had to look forward to. The funniest part was a story about how Bret had eased his incarceration by making Jailhouse Teddy Bear greeting cards and trading them for extra food while serving time.

Okay, so we can’t say “Bret’ny” or discuss addiction, but we can talk about PTSD and say he was locked up for a little while. Noted.

When my uncle invited others to speak, a cousin went first. He, Ashley, and several others gave moving tributes. Many of the speakers seemed to be dancing around something they couldn’t or wouldn’t say. As the last speaker wrapped up, the words came to me. I stepped up to the podium and said this:

[RE-ENACTMENT OF MY TRIBUTE]

1983 picture of my baby cousin from the scrapbook/photo album I made back then.

There was never a dull moment at my aunt and uncle’s house. It was a magical place to grow and learn. When Bret was born, I was 15 and I was looking for trouble. Instead, I spent the summer caring for Bret and his sisters. I was paid to be a live-in domestic assistant – they called it an ‘au pair.’ I guess my parents figured I’d find a lot less trouble in rural Sarasota County than at home in Key West.

My aunt and uncle chuckled a little in the front row.

As Bret grew up, we drifted into our own lives, then I reconnected with him after the Iraq war and knew he was having trouble readjusting to civilian life. Each time we visited, Bret was always so glad to see me, and he gave the best hugs. Sometimes it embarrassed me, because I couldn’t figure out what I had done to deserve it. But Bret and I shared a bond. I had cared for him as a baby. Now we had PTSD in common, though neither of us understood it at the time.

When I saw Bret last summer at our Grandma’s memorial service, he wasn’t doing well. I promised to stay in touch, then he entered” – I hesitated, mentally crossing out “rehab” and replacing it – “treatment.

My aunt blinked back tears.

In May, when Bret completed his treatment program, he reestablished contact with me on Facebook. He was becoming a new person.

The look of horror on my Aunt’s face made me fear for her health. A tense silence fell over the sanctuary as I scanned for other reactions so far.

Bret was changing and growing as a person, and I was privileged to share his life with him at this vulnerable time. There were so many things we didn’t get a chance to talk about, so many questions I had, but none of it mattered more to me than supporting him in his choice.

By this time, my aunt’s left eye was twitching. The room was thick with palpable tension.

Bret'ny in summer 2017.

Bret was fearless in being his unique self, whoever that was to you. And there is so much we need to talk about, so much we cannot say here today, but I think we need to aspire to be fearless, too, so I want to leave you with this verse from I John 4:18:

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love."

[END TRIBUTE]

[ADDRESSING THE AUDIENCE DIRECTLY]

I’m here to tell you today, my cousin Bret’ny was fearlessly, unapologetically herself, and I have no doubt she was perfected in love.