On January 15th 2012, my dad passed away.
It didn’t really seem possible, at first. This is someone who had both legs completely shattered when a load of lumber fell on him. Told he would never walk again, he simply steeled himself up, pushed through physiotherapy without (to my knowledge) tears, defied the odds to drive truck again, and then later reinvented himself as an industrial welder. Speaking as someone who is regularly crippled by tendonitis in both of her knees, his ability to surmount all of that made him seem invincible and unshakable.
Death is one of those things that seems to take forever to process, with daily life (the relentless cad) having to take precedence. I sometimes manage to put it out of mind and keep distracted, only to see something or someone who reminds me, and then I’m ambushed by the many emotions still swirling in the background.
Yesterday, it was a passerby whistling through his teeth that brought his memory back. I tried to fight it all off on the drive home from work, as birds danced haphazardly across the highway, swooping in front of passing cars (taunting, really) like it was a surreal game to dare drivers to try to mash them into their grilles. Then out by the bend near Aldersyde, a falcon — one I’d seen in the area many times on my drive in the past few months (you don’t miss a beautiful bird like that) — circled only a couple feet above the ground in the median before veering unexpectedly into the path of my car, lifting somewhat, headed for certain collision with the upper left part of my windshield. I gasped; went for the brake. He swooped upward gently, unconcerned.
For a moment, he was vivid, sleek, gliding, his mind sharp, focused on something in the barren trees. He looked confident, and in control. He was gorgeous, dressed in rich shades of warm brown and white plumage that reminded me of the blanket that used to lay across dad’s couch.
And then, only inches away – I could have reached out and cupped him in my hands – he moved up, possibly buoyed by the flow of air around my car. In a split second, I looked back and saw him sail across my back window, then up above the highway. And then we breezed our separate ways, into the roaring silences.
The floodgates opened. Again.
It doesn’t get better. It only gets more distant.
It’s a little more distant now – but not by much – from the afternoon of his memorial service. When we arrived, we entered and sat on the relatives’ side, but after a few minutes, my aunt called us up to join the family in the side room and sit at the front. My sister largely went on with business and acknowledged us when necessary, although my niece hung around, offering support in what she obviously knew was a difficult situation. I’d known a little bit about what to expect, having seen dad at the hospital and then the whole family in the long-term care room before he’d died. But I wasn’t sure how many among our relatives and his friends even knew about me — if I was the proverbial black sheep everyone was ashamed of, some pitiful prodigal, or the Deadbeat Who Left.
My sister delivered a lengthy eulogy that attempted to describe dad’s life and all of his relationships, attempting to animate the classic “dad” moments she remembered — his habits, his absurdist humour, his steadfastness. She invited everyone in attendance through naming them to be a part of the definitive memory of his life – my sister, our mom, my brother-in-law and their kids, dad’s brothers, his sister, his cousins and second-cousins, his co-workers, his coffee buddies, the wait staff at the Zellers restaurant where he would have breakfast….
Although I knew it wasn’t about me — and was never supposed to be — it wasn’t lost on me that the narrative she wove was one in which I had never existed at all. I was erased by the roaring silences.
My niece said a short remembrance as well, and then the priest made a brief comment about opening the floor to anyone who wanted to speak before moving on to a song… but the musician was already on the way to the podium before he finished speaking. Formalities had to be observed, of course, but nobody really wanted to risk hearing from the Deadbeat Who Left.
And perhaps it was better that way. That had been the thought, anyway, when I had dropped out of my family’s lives. I had come out as transsexual to them several years ago, and they seemed cautiously accepting at first – and mostly acknowledged that things made far more sense to them, now. But the years that followed made things more strained, rather than showing any improvement. Pronouns were always the old pronouns, names were always the old name, and if I’d complain about that, the answer would be, “you have to realize that this is difficult for us…” and then they’d go on to fail to get it right even once. The old questions kept getting repeated or grew even less informed, conversation became more strained. Whether from outright rejection (at that time), or inner denial of the situation, things in the first few years of my transition had simply moved backwards. Soon, speaking to family had become an experience in which I would step from a world in which I lived authentically and people hardly gave that a second thought, back into a world in which I was still [old name], “he,” the persona I’d had to play for forty years.
While the world adapted and came to accept me as I am and as I live, my family still fretted about not wanting to tell my niece and nephew, or being afraid of the shame they’d feel from my aunts and uncles. In conversation, I learned from mom that my father — who recovered from shattered legs calmly, with more strength than those around him — cried like a baby on multiple occasions at the thought of his son transitioning to female. I couldn’t de-transition (going back to that kind of suffocation would have been unbearable now that I’d discovered what life could be like), so it seemed like the only thing I could give my family was closure – to disown myself from them and let everyone move on. And that’s how I became the Deadbeat Who Left.
I had wanted to write about dad and not be self-focused or self-indulgent. I’m not really sure that I can, though, when my most vivid and recurring memory was the distance between us, the chasm that each of us wanted to cross, but neither could see a way. For dad, it was the tradition, the stoic discipline of silent nobility that he had learned so thoroughly that he didn’t know how to step beyond it. For me, it was the ill-fitting skin that confined me in ways that I had no idea how to describe and had only the belief that he – like the rest of the world – would see me as some freakish monster if I had attempted to do so. All we had was the distance, and the roaring silences.
And like my sister’s elegy for dad, I guess, all of our memories are helplessly coloured by the way we perceived things; by our observances, remembrances and interactions. No matter how closely we can know someone, we will all always relate that in only filtered anecdotes, separated as we are by the confines of our own skulls.
And as it was, that separation was pretty vast. That’s the way it was supposed to be, in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s: men were stoic, aloof, never fazed by anything. Masculinity was not just about being strong, but about being cold and detached… a kind of “superior,” it was thought… although for the life of me, I’ll never understand why.
For dad, his role models were straight out of Westerns, the Clint Eastwoods and John Waynes, the dark, quiet, Shane-like strangers trailing darker secrets — violent heroism, unintended misdeeds, a town left behind and a body on the plain. The world was Hollywood-simple, the conflicts tangible, and admiration from afar was seen as preferable to any close affection which might turn over the rock that could reveal one’s flaws. In this world of pre-Randian ruggedness, you never surrendered control, but rather just forged ahead, still conscious that there was a morality to that struggle, instead of just ignorantly believing (as many seem to now) that the right of way simply goes to those who take it.
Some of that harkened to the realities he grew up in, I’m sure — the oldest of several kids living in a northern prairie town, working from when he was young, taking on the mantle of responsibility like it was expected of him… but also seeming to revel in that, at times. Responsibility was a burden, but it could also be a badge of honour.
This is someone who had quit a plural-decade smoking habit by throwing out the remainder of his last package and then just never smoking again — without complaint or comment. He just as abruptly stopped drinking, which had until then contributed to a volatile home. Years later, he found he could social-drink again, without slipping into his previous addictive patterns. When it came to sheer acts of will, dad set the bar pretty high.
Yet, some of the Western motif was also escapism for him. I always wondered if his affinity for Westerns and his silence on Aboriginal (in our case, Métis, so already with some degrees of separation) history were somehow connected. Bad things tended to happen to “injuns” in Westerns — usually red and wet bad things that pre-empted any possibility of sympathetic portrayal.
In this cowboy world, you “just take it.” You “be a man.” You talk through deeds and actions, not words and feelings. You “sneck up” and don’t ever, ever cry. It’s not an easy ideal to live up to.
And it’s doubly difficult when manhood mystifies you. As much as everyone tried to condition me toward that ideal, I never really got it. I only figured out how to act the part… sometimes enough so that I still forget how to let down my guard and just relax and be myself. But for a six- and eight- and twelve-year-old round peg forced into that square hole, it was crushing at times. I admire my father for many things, but I’ll never fathom what it must have been like being him.
And that was the distance, the gulf between us. We never talked… instead, we exchanged small talk, and then listened to the roaring silences.
I cried a lot as a kid, and took a lot of scorn from people for it. I learned to try to muffle it, hold it in, cry in private and choke it back when I was in danger of being discovered. My father was not violent toward me, but I still had the feeling that my sense of being a girl was so unspeakable and alien that the inevitable critique would just as soon be in the form of a violent backhand as verbal. But even that didn’t scare me as much as the possibility of outright rejection. But it was the 1970s, and that sense emanated from everywhere, not just dad. And in those years, bad things tended to happen to “girly-boys,” while the source could be anyone — and usually, they were red and wet bad things that pre-empted any possibility of living out loud.
There was one moment that challenged that distance.
Talk show host Phil Donahue did a show about crossdressing when I was young (actually he did several shows during a time when it was almost never spoken about, eventually garnering attention when he wore a dress over a suit during a 1988 sweeps week). The day the news arrived home, I remember my mother talking disparagingly about it with a friend on the phone, and then later with dad. Dad was typically very quiet, and his four word comment was something about transvestites that was not exactly pleasant (I don’t remember now exactly how it was phrased).
I had tried to pretend I wasn’t listening to any of the discussion, but my emotions started to boil over. I discreetly went up to my room, and wept as quietly as I could imagine, probably for several hours. “Transvestite” wasn’t really the right word for me, but at that time, I had no real language or understanding to know that. What had overwhelmed me emotionally was the sudden realization that there was a word at all. Because if someone had thought to coin a word, then it meant that I wasn’t the only one.
The days following that, I would begin the first of what would be many pilgrimages to the downtown public library to try to learn more, before arriving at the “authoritative” Janice Raymond volume on the subject, which painted a nefarious, vicious and violent portrait about “co-opting womens’ bodies” and raping through emulation (or caricature) that certainly didn’t coincide with what I understood for myself — leading me to believe for a time that I must not really be transsexual. But that night, before all that library searching, well, that night was different. That night I tried to choke back the sobs quietly, when dad walked in to tell me something, and realized that something was terribly wrong.
I’d wanted to talk with him for ages — to really communicate. But there was no way I could talk to him about that. I had only just realized moments before that I might not be some lone, demon-possessed, defective freak, and certainly had no way to articulate what was going on in my head. I was just starting to realize that my sense that I was supposed to be a girl might be more than just a personal failing.
I knew I was different. I knew I related to girls. I knew that boys confounded me. I knew that my body parts were weird and didn’t fit, even before puberty came along and complicated everything all that much more. I knew that I was far more emotional than I was supposed to be — but then, the “stoic, aloof” male image I grew up having to live up to was unreasonable to begin with, and I didn’t believe that “emotional = girl.” And that was the problem: once you try to communicate it, you start navigating a bunch of stereotypes and miniscule elements that don’t adequately show how completely encompassing it is. It was a complex series of things overall, but I knew I was unmistakeably different. And when I’d try to figure out how to explain it, all I could do was either scratch the surface of a few semi-relevant stereotypes, or else stare away, feel the crushing frustration, and feel helpless at the enormity of it.
But my family, my body, and essentially everything around me told me I was supposed to be a certain way. It was something that encompassed likes and dislikes, yes, but was not really about liking dolls over trucks. It was something that encompassed being a sensitive kid, yes, but was not really about emotions. It was something that encompassed relating to girls and women, but was not really about the formation of personal bonds. It was something that encompassed body issues, but was not simply a body image problem. When I grew older, it would be something that affected sex and sexuality too, yes, but was not really about that either. It was… everything, a sense of being a stranger in my own life, 24/7. I don’t know how a 12- or 14-year-old could begin to put words to it. I still can’t completely and adequately do it.
And given that everyone and everything else told me that I should just naturally be all those things that were to me actually instinctively uncomfortable, unnatural and puzzling, I concluded that the problem was me. That it was a character flaw. It made more sense that I was wrong, than to believe that of everything and everyone else. And at that point, I came to understand myself as invisible, insignificant and freakish.
The unspeakable loneliness of not being able to tell anybody who you are.
So when dad had come into the room that evening, he’d unintentionally cornered me at one of the most difficult moments in my childhood. And I couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would explain what was going on. It would be the one chance in my life in which there seemed to be an opportunity to reach across the chasm. And I couldn’t do it — my secret was that unspeakable. Instead, I made something up about having had an argument with friends. To which he replied, “Oh. Is that all?” and made a few clichéd comments about things getting better, before leaving the room.
All that was left was the roaring silences. But then, I remember that moment, and realize that given the context of the very early 1980s, if I had tried to explain things then, it likely could only possibly have gone worse. It was a time, after all, where gender difference in children was seen as something to be quashed, and where transsexuality was equated to sociological or even literal rape by perceived “experts.” Even by 2007, you could still find the occasional hospital in Alberta which treated gender issues using ECT.
I suppose that he had tried to communicate too, in his own way. A few times, he took me out to his place of work, having a few things to do at the shop. In that masculine world, I met some of his friends and co-workers, hefty, rugged blue-collar chums who lived in a realm of grit and bravado. How I must have embarrassed him, this scared, effeminate kid afraid to talk, afraid to get dirty, uncomfortable and unsuited for that world — although if he was ashamed of me, he never did or said anything to indicate that.
It was probably his way of communicating without talking, but I couldn’t hear him, intimidated by all the roaring silences. Raised to be stoic, I often didn’t know what to do with those things that needed to be said, so I stuffed them down and buried them like I thought I was supposed to. And he, I suppose, tried to do much the same. The one outlet I had was writing, and so I did a lot of it, filling scribblers and notebooks that I would never return to, destroying them so no one else would read them… sometimes even writing on my arms and body (kept carefully covered), if nothing else was available. And he, I suppose, didn’t even have an outlet at all.
Before Christmas, when my cousin contacted me to let me know that dad was sick, I’d already been estranged from the family for a few years. I hadn’t known that during that time, dad had come around better than anyone else in the family, taking time to learn about transsexuality, telling his side of the family, and pushing them for a commitment (which many of them eagerly gave) not to shut me out of the family. In many ways, I’m ashamed that I hadn’t had more faith in him. I’d also assumed that his side of the family would likely reject me, too, yet it seems that with the exception of a couple people who couldn’t make eye contact with me at his funeral, I was very much mistaken.
But when I went to the hospital to see him, it was without knowing what I was walking into or who would be there. As we were getting ready to leave for Edmonton, a message came in on Facebook. My sister, too, was writing to inform me that dad was sick, although her note was colder, aloof, seemed to be sent as a result of mom’s prodding. In my sister’s eyes, I was the Deadbeat Who Left.
I found that mom had started to accept things, making an effort to understand, an effort to acknowledge. In the face of the opinions that some of the religious leaders she reads (John Hagee, Billy Graham, James Dobson) have about trans people, that’s a monumental step.
I’d started my transition a number of years ago. When I came out to my family, I told my sister first. I’d always been somewhat aloof from all my family, knowing that who I was could sooner or later be an issue, and I tended to shut them out of my life — which probably hurt her worst of all. But I also thought our bond was strongest in some ways, and I trusted her to be the most resilient and capable of being a support for our parents. But with her too, the distance grew over time.
My sister came to want little to no contact with me. It could happen that for the rest of our lives, I am for all intents and purposes dead in her eyes.
Her biggest excuse for keeping distance, at first, was fears about when or how to tell her kids. That was fair for the first weeks and even months — she hadn’t had nearly as much time as I had to process who I was and what that meant. But after the passage of a few years, and right up to dad’s hospitalization, she still hadn’t said anything to them. She probably saw it as protecting them from something, and the luxury of time and distance had made it easy — but it would also have the consequence of forcing a revelation at an already emotionally turbulent time.
Because up until the evening he died, they still didn’t know. And in the midst of everything else that had been going on, I also had to worry about keeping out of sight and not crossing paths, while my sister and brother-in-law had to figure out how to break that news to the kids too. In addition to dad dying, we were the hot potato in a game of hide-the-tranny. For them, it could have been a triple-whammy, because my longtime partner was there with me, and her presence might have broke the usual sexual orientation expectations, too.
After the nurse announced that they’d be starting his IV, which would contain a painkiller that would probably also cloud his perception (and they didn’t expect him to recover afterward), the room cleared out and everyone went to stand at his bedside, except for my partner and I. My sister and nephew were still in the room, and I still felt like I was supposed to keep from ruining their last moments with dad. I’d spent a lot of time with him earlier that night, so I could understand that, but it bothered me that I couldn’t be there in support during his last moments of consciousness and lucidity, as he gathered up his courage to proceed into that Big Nothing.
By the time anyone who needed to be evacuated was gone, I came back and he was already asleep. Mom was holding his hand, and asked me to do the same — at first, I was uncertain, knowing that the narcotics in his system would leave him befuddled, and I didn’t want to cause him panic if he awoke and forgot who I was. But once I held his hand, I didn’t want to let go, and I stayed with him all night. Sometime either just before or just after they started his IV, my niece and nephew were told about me. My niece stayed with us and turned out to be an incredible and unexpected source of support.
I never was able to have a father-daughter relationship with my dad. But then, even if he’d lived several years and we’d stayed in contact, I doubt we ever could have. He’d been stoic and distant all my life, and that wasn’t likely to change much. And after nearly 40 years of trying to fill a family dynamic that never fit either of us in the first place, I doubt it would have been very easy to learn something different. So I would never be a daughter to my dad, and never know what it’s like to have that relationship. But at least, at the end, he and I were able to reconcile the years that I was not really a son.
Because that afternoon, we arrived at an unspoken understanding. Although there were times of comfort and stability, his life had not been easy, and he carried some weights he never wanted to burden anyone else with, and did so the best he could. I realized that the burdens of his life were probably beyond anything I could fathom, and something I couldn’t help but respect.
And he more or less told me without saying it aloud that he came to the same realization about me.
That mutual respect was what we had both wanted. And it was the one thing that screamed across the roaring silences.
After he was gone, there was a little bit of discussion about dad’s things. Dad’s last wish was that everything along that line remain civil, so I didn’t ask for a lot: the antique clock that sat on the fireplace mantel when we grew up, and dad’s crib board. My sister had suggested I’d want an ornamental display of two swords and a shield I’d given to him when I was in my teens — although I’m not sure if that was more out of consideration for me or out of a desire to not have to see it. I wasn’t too worried about things. I got to hug my dad in his last days, to hold his hand, and even to kiss him. Those were things that would never have been possible before — men (or at least men at that time, I suppose) didn’t do that. To me, that meant everything.
Yesterday, as the falcon swooped across my line of sight, casual, intent on something nearby, I thought of dad. I was a little jealous of the practiced ease in the way it dodged; the way its confidence wasn’t shaken by a huge steel projectile hurtling at it; the freedom it had to circle above the world. I shouldn’t have been, I suppose: that majestic creature was something I was never meant to be.
As it soared upward, out of view, I saw its mouth open to cry out. Insulated and enclosed in my car, I couldn’t hear it any more than it could hear my momentary gasp of surprise. It roared in silence.
Fitting, I suppose.
Crossposted to The Bilerico Project.