When my 15-year old daughter Alice revealed herself, I did what felt at the time like the most natural thing in the world … I believed her. While the child standing in front of me still looked for all the world like the boy I'd raised, decked out in a Sean John jersey and steel-toed boots, I understood that this masculine exterior didn't necessitate a masculine interior, that if she believed with all her heart that she was female, that mattered. I did not imagine that this act of love would later be looked upon by others as a parental failure, that it would be held against me, as if somehow it made me complicit in her self-destruction.
And so, on the day after her revelation, my lunch hour finds me in the middle of the Juniors section of a department store near my office, staring at racks of girlie clothes with an overwhelming urge to shout “What the hell does one buy for their son who is suddenly apparently their daughter?”
I have never seen so much pink in my life.
I pass up racks of skirts and flouncy blouses, gravitating to a display of screen-printed t-shirts. There's a bright green one emblazoned with “THINK GREEN” across the front. I guess at her size and grab it. Another, little white t-shirt with VON DUTCH in red script comes off the shelf. Nearby, I find an olive drab v-neck sweater with a hoodie. By this point, I've reached the edge of the Intimate Apparel section.
If I'm going to be the world's most progressive and accepting mother, I'm going to have to cross into the intimate apparel section at some point. I'm going to have to peruse all the lacy things and select the perfect panties for a child who yesterday morning was my teenage son. I don't think I can do it. In fact the thought of doing it makes me want to toss the t-shirts and sweater onto some nearby shelf and run out of the store. I'm considering doing just this when I notice a table across the aisle with a big bright sign that reads Boy-Leg Bottoms 3/$10.
“Boy legs indeed” I laugh and cross the aisle. One pair green. A second pair in blue and a third with blue and green stripes. I pay for my purchases without incidence and head back to the office, feeling like quite the badass. When I get home I rewrap the clothes in tissue paper and tuck them into a shoebox which I leave on top of the footlocker in her bedroom.
“No pink? No bra?” She has followed me into the bathroom and shut the door behind us.
“Baby steps” I say weakly.
“I don't want baby steps!” She protests in an exaggerated whisper.
“No, I meant for me … and actually for you too until you tell your dad. You can't exactly go flouncing around here in a pink lace dress without at least giving him some kind of heads-up.”
“you saw a pink lace dress?! Was it cute?”
I can't help but laugh, feeling like I'm in some weird alternate universe or having the biggest “Candid Camera” joke ever played on me. And yet, in this overnight switch to all things girlie, there is still that same kid standing in front of me.
“You like pink then?” I say, reaching up to flatten one of her many cowlicks.
“duh” she's digging through my makeup box now.
Not duh. I've been a girl my whole life and I loathe pink.”
Instantly, she looks up, her smile gone and her eyes narrow.
“I've been a girl my whole life too. It's just that nobody noticed.”
She opens the door and walks out of the bathroom. I feel like shit. Super-progressive mommy sucks. I follow her into her room.
Jory … I mean Alice, I'm sorry.”
She sits on the bed folding the new clothes and not looking at me.
“I'm trying.” I say
“I know” she says without looking up.
“I'll work on the pink while you figure out how to to talk to your dad, ok?”
“ok.” she throws her comforter over the stack of clothes and stands, “I'm gonna go see Brit. I'll be back for dinner.”
When I was little, my mother read to my sister Ruby and I every evening. Lots of great books, and at least twice, all the way through The Bible. That's how we knew where all the salacious parts were, like the piece in Song of Solomon where he's worrying over his beloved's little sister's lack of breasts. We giggled a lot over that one. And although I never dared to blurt it out in front of my mother, I always thought the appropriate response to Solomon's question was clearly “We buy her a training bra!”
I think of this the next day when once again I am spending my lunch hour in the Intimate Apparel section, on the hunt for a bra for someone who has no breasts. I've never been quite clear on the purpose of or naming of the Training Bra. What's the training part of it. Are we training the breasts where to go when they decide to grow? Encouraging them by giving them a goal or something to shoot for? Or does the training refer to the training of the girl, to induct her into the irritation of having to wear a bra every damn day for the rest of her life? Because neither one seems like much of a plus. Still, I arrive at the itty-bitty bra section determined to pick a winner.
I come away with a perfectly girlie white padded bra with a lovely layer of lace and a tiny pink bow in the center. It is seriously the sweetest bra I've ever seen. I buy it and squish the bag into my purse.
That same evening, I sneak the bra to Alice while Jay is walking the dogs. She gets all shy about it and shoves me out of the room. I'm still standing outside her door when Jay returns.
“What's up?” He asks, passing me in the hall.
“What do you mean?”
“Clearly there's something going on that I don't know about. You've been insane for two days and the whispering and, “he points to Alice's door, “he's not tearing down walls or peeling the paint with new and exciting obscenities.”
I follow Jay into the bedroom, trying like hell to keep from blurting out the whole thing.
“Jory and Linda had some kind of breakthrough, like a big one, like big big and maybe it's the thing behind all this madness, but they made me promise not to tell you because Jory wants to tell you only I don't know that he's worked up to it and...”I'm flailing my arms and hands all around. I want him to decipher my sign language and just pop out with, but of course he doesn't
“Big and bad?”
“Big and complicated.” I say. “But look, if this is it, I mean if this is THE thing and if fixing it makes all the other shit disappear then that's good, right? And we can do this. I'm pretty fucking sure we can do this.”
Jay sighs heavily and falls back onto the bed. The littlest pup Bob immediately jumps up beside him and nestles into his armpit.
“If he doesn't tell you this weekend, I will. And I'll tell him that, ok?”
“Why do I feel like I don't want to know?”
“It's gonna be ok.”
“Things would have to work pretty damn hard to get worse, right?”
“Well Jory's never been one for hard work, so that should put your mind to rest.”
We lay there for a while, long enough that the other dogs come down the hall and up onto the bed with us.
“Do you remember that outfit Jory made when we lived in Ben Lomond?” I ask, Tthe one that was basically just a sheet wrapped all funky.”
“That was funny.”
“Right up there with Max's suit of tinfoil.”
“And that hideous bright purple cowboy shirt I couldn't get Jory to give up until finally we incinerated it while he was at camp with Grandma?”
“That was awful. Max should have used it for his big gay cowboy wrestling character.”
“Jay, we have weird kids.”
“Yeah. I blame you.”
“I like our weird kids.”
“You know I don't like children as a whole, but I prefer ours to all the other little twits out there.”
We fall asleep on top of the blankets, surrounded by dogs. Hours later, I get up, check all the locks and turn off the lights. I crack open Alice's door and peek in on her. I concentrate on the softness in her features. I try to see the girl inside the boy suit. Then I move on to Max's room where's there's light streaming through the crack beneath the door. I knock once and open the door. He's at the drafting table, and he looks up briefly before returning to his work. I cross the room to see his drawing, a portrait of a darkly pretty girl with delicate features and a wistful expression.
“You're up. What's wrong?” he asks.
“Everything's fine. You ok?”
I want to tell him about Jory, but I don't. Not because he couldn't keep the secret, but because everything in this family has been about Jory for much too long and if I were Max, I'd be sick to death of that.
“Who is she?” I point to the drawing.
“This girl I met down at the college.”
“Does this girl have a name?”
“Yeah. She is.”
I ruffle his hair and kiss the top of his head.
“Get some sleep before the sun comes up.”
“I'll try.” He says.
I close the door, go back to my own room, toss an afghan over Jay, shove the collie aside and crawl beneath the covers. I tell myself that everything is going to be ok. I think about the statistics I've seen on transgender youth, how many of them end up out on the streets, how many end up in the system, how many turn to survival sex and worse, what a dangerous world it is for them to navigate. I tell myself that everything is going to be ok because Super-Progressive Mommy is going to make damn well sure that it is.
[Note: The final year of my daughter's life was a revelation and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I tell her story in bits and pieces (sometimes out of order) as part of my own therapy, but also to let others who may travel some piece of the same path; You are not alone. This piece and previous diaries about Alice are cross-posted at Laurustina.com.]