On Difficult Mother Child Relationships (Part 2)

OK, where was I. In Part 1 I discussed how hard puberty hit me, how my mother and I drifted apart, and how eventually I fled to Canada, where I discovered a language that described me: I was a transsexual, female-to-male, a transman.

Coming out was not a straightforward decision. Perhaps it never really is. But in my case I had my father’s health to consider. I debated whether to wait until he passed away before coming out of the closet. I knew that his finding out about my newly discovered identity could not end well; he was an old-school psychiatrist who believed transsexuals were delusional, mentally deficient. He was also my father and a man I loved deeply for his quiet persistence in the face of excruciating physical pain and chronic discomfort.

It felt wrong, though, to wait for this man I barely ever saw (we lived on different continents after all) to die before emerging from the shadows. Besides, his doctors had predicted a much earlier death for him and he had proven them wrong before. Who was to say that he wouldn’t live much longer still? Did I really want to wait for an undefined period? I couldn’t bear it anymore. I needed to get on with my life.

My transition started with hormone therapy, a haircut and some new clothes. My first injection had me burst out in tears, not because it hurt but because I felt a deep relief, that I was finally taking a stand, moving forward with my life, letting myself be. At first my parents noticed little, only that my voice sounded different, lower. My father commented that I looked more relaxed than ever before and that it was good to see me that way. He also asked if I was smoking a lot of marijuana – that would explain the lower voice. On this, he was disapproving.

I laughed off his questions, told him I had a cold, but the cold never seemed to go away and eventually I realized that this ruse had to end. Call me a coward, but I just didn’t know how to do it. Only three years before my parents had lived through a suicide attempt that had landed me in the hospital briefly. My mother still refused to talk about that event, saying that she just wanted to pretend it never happened – it was easier that way.  And here I was, with a new piece of news almost equally dramatic. I bit my tongue, held my breath, and closed my eyes, hoping the whole issue would just go away. Of course, it didn’t.

During this time, my father enlisted my help in publishing a series of short anecdotes in a book he’d written about his 30 years as a practicing psychiatrist. I was working as a prepress technician at a self-publishing company and helped him design the book. But what he didn’t yet know was that at work I was known as a man; I went by a man’s name. When his customer representative, a colleague who did not know of my history as a woman, referred to me by my male name one day and used male pronouns, the cat was out of the bag. My father confronted me via email. I had a choice: I could pretend it was all just a big misunderstanding, or I could come clean.

I came clean, but too late.

Most of my communications with my parents were by email, had always been by email. Phone calls between Canada and South Africa are expensive, but also, ours was a family that didn’t like direct confrontation. We tiptoed around each other dragging behind us duffel bags containing secrets that everyone could see but no one acknowledged. My father sent me a heartbroken message; he could not accept my decision to transition.

My mother went further. To her, I was no longer her daughter, nor would I ever be her son. She called me a freak and said I was dead to her. And would be until I repented and returned to the righteous path. Whatever affection we pretended still existed between us turned to dust. And then, when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the unthinkable happened. My father was diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. Within three weeks of the diagnosis he was dead.

Though my father had been sickly for as long as I could remember, when the day finally came, I was not prepared for the grief. It hit me like a boulder and crushed me until I couldn’t breathe. My mother, in her grief, cried out that I had murdered him with my actions and that I had destroyed our family for good. I stayed away from the funeral, for everyone’s sanity. As it turned out none of his children could be there. My middle sister was pregnant and unable to fly from England (where she lived) to South Africa (where he died). My oldest sister had just gotten back from a visit to our parents a few weeks earlier and, as she was self-employed, could not leave again so soon. We each grieved separately.

While my mother had said earlier that I was no longer her child, she could not seem to leave me in peace. Instead she attacked me with email messages, missiles with no other conceivable goal than to wreak maximum damage. Each was a two-pronged attack on my worth and my integrity. I should have died, she said, when I tried to kill myself years earlier; I would’ve done everyone a favour. I should have been the one to die, she said, not my father.

Raw and hurting and alone with my grief, I did not reply to her messages. I blocked her address and cried myself to sleep. Eventually, I left my job at the self-publishing company, unable to find meaning in my work. I debated transitioning back, briefly, but I simply could not imagine doing it. Not now, not anymore. I was a man; I had always been a man. To be anything else was to live a lie.

My father died in 2005. The last time I spoke to my mother was in late 2006.

It is better that way.


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