House is on Fire, Everything’s Paused

Near the end of March, during an endless weekday evening, I pace in my basement suite. In the one-bedroom bachelor pad, it’s a simple line. From the main door towards the cabinet, mini fridge, toaster oven and two Instant Pots that qualify as my kitchen; past the desk overflowing with paper and chords; around the coffee table. Make a straight line back to the door, pivot at the entrance, and pace it again. I’m quickly writing to friends, flipping back and forth between text messages, Snapchat and Messenger. We’re all trying to sort out our various half-plans, our disappearing job opportunities, and all those summer adventures that now hang in limbo. What else is there for us to do, as the world around us comes to an unplanned halt? The movie theatre is closed, all our coffee shops shuttered; the libraries suspended service just the day before. Even our university is shut down, a bonus reading week as faculty scramble to switch everything over to online learning.

Anything about the newspaper job? one friend texts. I write back about an inside source informing me the newspaper is no longer hiring at the moment as local ad revenue plummets.

What do you think’s going to happen with grad? another friend sends over Messenger. A few universities have already announced outright cancellations; our university has yet to make so much as a peep as to their decision for the convocation in June.

I copy the question and paste it into two text threads, as well as the other open Messenger window. Which route will the university take? A list of disjointed theories takes shape. Then the conversations creep back what is happening in the wider world.

Just had my dentist call and cancel my next two appointments, I type as the cacophony of pots, pans, horns and sirens begins to sound out through my neighbourhood. I have yet to adjust to the 7 p.m. show of support for health-care workers. In the middle of typing up a joke about finally wanting to go to the dentist only to have a pandemic throw a small wrench into that plan, my phone rings again. An unidentified number appears on the screen. The banging outside dwindles to a single pot coming from the hill overlooking my house.


‘Hi, can I speak to Al— to Lys Morton?’ a voice asks, bearing the slightest edge of stress. I flinch at the near miss, that fraction of a second a name that isn’t mine is thrown on me.

‘Speaking, this is him.’

‘Oh.’ In the pause that follows, I imagine the caller surveying paperwork before stumbling through the next question. ‘I’m sorry, I was expecting a woman to answer.’

My question of the day: do either of us have time for me to break this all down? There must be more important questions to ask in the early weeks of a global pandemic. On top of that, is there ever truly a convenient time to explain the mismatch of identity I present – the male voice and female name, the scruffy beard that scrapes across the microphone and the intake form with F written down?

‘Nope, I’m Lys. How can I help you?’

‘Yes, this is —’ The caller stumbles through the name of a clinic my doctor sent a referral to back in October. Following the call from my dentist, I can guess what I’ll hear next.

‘I was calling to inform you we will be postponing all appointments related to your hysterectomy due to COVID-19 and the recommendations made by the province.’

‘Yeah, I was kind of expecting . . .’ Now it’s my turn to stumble. Is the surgery really postponed if it had yet to even be scheduled? I’m still waiting for the call to book an initial meeting; I have no dates yet in my calendar to cancel. Now my year-long wait for this particular procedure is about to get longer. We are, after all, just in the beginning of a global crisis. ‘I was kind of expecting that.’

‘I’m so sorry, we will be in contact with you as soon as things return to normal. Thank you for your understanding, sir—miss— Thank you.’ She hangs up and I’m left with silence, a screen filled with messages as my friends continue to sort out this shifting world. I resume pacing my familiar route, wondering if I should grab my longboard and take advantage of the empty streets around my neighbourhood. I don’t have the energy to reply to any new messages. I’ll keep this new bit of knowledge tucked away.

I’ve shared some of the ups and downs of my transition with my friends before; the seemingly unending legal name-change battle, the struggles of trying to figure out where it’s safe to use the bathroom, the medical mishaps that are stacking up. But we were all in various states of anxiety with a much larger problem than my journey. Why bother them with the latest transition hurdle?


Friday of that same week, I’m on my way to work. Cleaning and maintaining the university’s dorms is still considered an essential service. The first quarter of my shift is now dedicated to disinfecting every surface my team can imagine someone touching. Door handles, vending machines, the payphone that somehow remains in service, the sides of doors, stairway rails, every window crank that will be grasped as summer rolls in. All of it sprayed down with a disinfectant we’re buying in bulk from a supply store in town.

Last summer I was stepping around students cramming in the common rooms, meal prepping in the kitchens, or gossiping in the halls. I was working with a team of twenty as we readied empty buildings to be used as hotels for the summer. Now I’m cleaning deserted halls and abandoned rooms with four other staff members. We spread out into different buildings, only catching sight of students if they’re returning from the laundry or communal kitchen. A quick nod of the head hello, a nervous smile or wave, both of us moving a half-step away from each other as we try and gauge two metres of separation.

I’m at the back of the bus, one of three passengers riding during the 7.15 a.m. rush, munching on an apple fritter. My phone vibrates, a call comes in from another unknown number.

‘Hi, is this Lys?’

It’s odd to feel a sense of relief given the current state of the world. My newsfeed is, after all, filled with growing unemployment numbers and rates of infection. Still, I exhale a breath I’ve involuntarily been holding at the mention of my own name instead of the one still attached to many of my records.

‘Yeah, this is him.’

‘Hi, Lys. This is —’

I recognize the name of the secretary from my doctor’s office before she tells me she’s from the clinic. Is there a doctor’s appointment I don’t remember booking? I assume it’s about to be cancelled.

‘I’m calling you on behalf of Dr G. He’s a little swamped right now, as you can expect. But he wants you to know that due to the damage of your ribs we learned of in January—’

How does it feel like a year has already passed since January?

‘—that you’re classified as high risk for complications from COVID-19. You’re not exactly more susceptible to the virus but . . .’

‘But a history of mucked-up ribs doesn’t exactly play well with a respiratory infection?’ I attempt a gallows-humour laugh.

She tries to match it; hers sounds even more forced than my own.

‘That’s right. Are you able to take measures to keep yourself safe?’

My measures? I take a bus to a housing facility of nervous students, I’m only ever able to get groceries after work with everyone else, and I have three cloth masks that just barely fit over the patchy beard I’ve worked so hard to grow. My list of ‘can’t do that or you’ll spread COVID-19’ seems to change hourly. The list of friends and family I might be putting at risk if we meet up is expanding. Now I’m watching my transition seemingly erupt into a trash fire; surgeries paused, the possible backorder of testosterone, and a name change that’s lost in the limbo of shut down government offices. I’m used to a state of flux while everything around me proceeds as normal. Now I’m the one paused, with no restart in sight, while the world tumbles towards an unplanned transformation.

‘I live alone, and school’s all online,’ I answer. ‘We’ll figure it out.’


Later that day, I read a Vice article that is quickly making its way through the various trans and queer spaces I inhabit on social media. ‘As Hospitals Prepare for COVID-19, Life-Saving Trans Surgeries are Delayed.’ I know the comments are going be a battleground. Still, I can’t help wading into them, my lunch forgotten beside me.

Chopping your dick off doesn’t scream life saving to me.

We have way bigger things to worry about, focus on the issue.

I get it. Surgeries for cancer treatment are being cancelled and I’m low key freaking out.

Can our doctors focus on real things first??? We’re kind of in the middle of something here.

I’ve been waiting for three years already. I’m scared.

The last sentence begins appearing in messages from acquaintances. My phone buzzes over and over again in the apron I wear for work, which gets draped across the desk as I scrub at unknown substances caked on the underside. I take breaks from cleaning to send quick replies of support and tips to find resources that might help alleviate the creeping feeling of despair, trying to contact everyone I can think of to ensure they’re still around to answer.

We are a community attempting triage.


I still have that article on my mind, am still sending messages out to check in on community members, when a friend calls in early April to see how I’m doing. We’re all frustrated with the new distancing protocols. ‘Y’know, the world’s on fire,’ I announce. It’s a half-joke.

‘The dog meme wasn’t supposed to be this real,’ my friend responds, referring to the increasingly relatable meme of a dog sitting in a house as it burns, vacant look on its face as it says, ‘This is fine.’

And then it all spills out: the cancelling of my hysterectomy, the call from my doctor once again reminding me of my loss of top surgery, and the most recent phone call informing me that my legal name and gender change would be on hold as offices close due to COVID-19. I’m not sure what else can be added to the transition trash fire, I try and joke.

When that falls flat, I start to echo the numerous texts I’ve received these last couple weeks; over and over again the message of ‘I’m scared.’ My friend, in an attempt to ground me, asks what I’m scared of. What boogeyman, in this new world, is now calling my closet home?

‘ID,’ I reply.

Like most people unable to shelter at home, I struggle with the fear of getting sick. Whether it’s from the bus I need to take to get anywhere around town, the rooms I’m cleaning, the supplies I don’t know who else has handled, the grocery stores I rush through during my bi-weekly shopping, and the contact with strangers I can’t avoid while running errands. There’s the fear of having to lock myself down once again and wait out the two weeks of quarantine alone. I see these fears echoed on various social media timelines and in conversations with peers. We all seem to have some variation of these particular boogeymen.

But it’s the prospect of ending up in the hospital mid-transition, my gender and identity up for debate, that puts me in a camp different from others. Without anyone there to advocate for me as I try and draw breath. Without a way to declare my name and identity as a tube is threaded down my trachea. Without anyone to make it known that the name on my student ID card, my library card, my Costco membership conveys more truth than the name on the driver’s licence. Unable to speak, to explain a driver’s licence with a picture of me and my patchy beard, my squared-off face, and an F squatting just to the right of that picture.

An F that better stands for frustration than an identity, a symbol of dysphoria, as if somehow I’ve been failing this whole gender thing since the very beginning. The F is a letter I’ve been struggling to change for close to two years. My request to change the letter and the name gets repeatedly yanked back and forth between provinces as each new phone call and email informs me how I’m going about all this the wrong way. Both need to be changed in Alberta, but you can mail in the info. No, you have to be in person to change the name, but the gender can be mailed in. Didn’t anyone tell you? The name has to be changed in the province where you now reside. They’ll inform your birth province about the change. But you need to mail the gender change and the name change and the old birth certificate together along with your fingerprints record. No, they still need to go to different provinces, but you have to mail them together. These hurdles are difficult at the best of times. Maybe I’ll laugh someday about my first F grade appearing on my birth certificate. But I can’t let the pandemic be the reason it stays there for good.

With that F on my records, I fear passing away surrounded by strangers who would only know me by a name that isn’t mine, wouldn’t know me as the man I have spent years fighting to become. It’s not a unique source of dread for most trans individuals. How many of us in the community have dreaded what will happen to us after our death, after we relinquish control? Have feared being buried in the wrong clothing and under the wrong name. Have tried to find ways to make sure our identity would be known by the strangers who might accompany us during that final transition.

Under all these fears is the notion that I will die and be buried (perhaps cremated) in a body I have not felt at home in since the early days of grade three. This particular house has been on fire for well over a decade now. Like that cartoon-dog-surrounded-by-flames meme my friends and I half-laugh at, I’ve come to accept the current state of the house as I wait for relief. This is fine. A few months ago I thought I heard sirens heading my way. But they were diverted, understandably, to a much larger house on fire.

I’ll wait. In the growing heat of summer, I’ll don sweaters to cover the shape of a chest that does not match my face. When I attempt a swim at the creek with friends, I’ll wear multiple shirts and baggy jeans to hide hips that don’t exactly proclaim ‘male’. I’ll be thinking through every activity that might still be salvaged this summer. I’ll have to predict which ones require ID and will have to be skipped, as my beard marks a stark contrast to the info on my driver’s licence. I’ll muscle through the pain of a near-monthly cycle that refuses to quit, wrapping myself around a heating pad after a sweltering day at work and going through pain meds that offer a slim chance of any relief.

I understand that I have to wait. But like so many things we’re losing during this crisis, I still get to have a moment to mourn. Am I allowed a bucket at least? To toss water on this trash fire of a home?


It’s the first week of June, and I’m set up in front of my computer. A passably nice button-up shirt, a dinner vest, my hair wrangled into a style one might consider stylish. I’m camera ready.

Shortly after my school year ended, news about Pandemic University rolled in. A collection of writing courses to help Canadian writers with financial loss, hosted over Zoom to all of us eager to partake. And tonight is our wrap-up ceremony.

There’s still no word from my university as to future plans for convocation. For now, it’s postponed indefinitely. I’m more than happy to use this ‘fake university’ party as a stand-in for the one I’m missing.

Retired news anchor Peter Mansbridge is brought onscreen to give the Commencement Address, a journalist legend I grew up listening to on the CBC. We are told he’ll take questions at the end, and my fingers shift to my keyboard. I can’t ask him outright what I’m supposed to do now that my graduation, my first journalism job, summer plans and transition are now overwhelmed by a global event. Or can I?

‘What advice do you have when personal large events are being heavily overshadowed by world-shifting events?’ My voice cracks, jumps, and drops with anxiety and the shifting shape of my vocal chords due to testosterone.

Mr Mansbridge’s answer aligns more with the state of journalism, and I take notes for the day I might need this info for the job world, but I’m still hopeful for something that might put me at ease with the long pause and burning house.

‘These things are difficult,’ he concludes. ‘But that’s why you need not only the belief in what you’re doing, but the understanding of those who are in your family.’

This I can work with. It’s a small bucket of water. And it pairs well with the envelope I’ve received in the mail. The world is broken, the process is stalled, my body is caught in-between, but letters still arrive. One of them was a larger-than-normal brown envelope with government crests stamped in the top left corner. Printed on the label was the name I’m doing everything I can to remove. It’s never an easy name to look at, especially on a government document.

I tore it open and retrieved a single sheet of paper, then quickly crushed the envelope printed with the dead name and tossed it into the recycling. Why spend any longer with the name on the envelope when I could stare at the name boldly printed in the middle of this very pricy piece of paper? It’s comprised of only three words, but each one holds a joyful permanence. I snapped pictures and sent them to half a dozen friends and family. I wanted them to know the exact moment of its arrival.

Now the piece of paper sits on the corner of my desk. A part of me is scared that if I put it away it will no longer remain real. Throughout the rest of the celebration I keep glancing over in overwhelming relief at my glossy new birth certificate. It reads: Morton, Lys Aaron. And in the lower right-hand corner, Sex: M.