She lies across the loveseat in your study, torn, baggy jeans and oversized t-shirt covering a body heavy with something you cannot name, hot tears soaking the pale, freckled skin of her fourteen-year-old face.
“I just feel all wrong,” she moans, flinging her arms like a helpless child. You sit on the edge of the couch, meaning to reach for her, press her close like you did when she was small, when touch and comfort were synonymous, when the safe embrace of your arms had the power to put the world right again, but she stiffens at your approach.
“How about if I find you someone for you to talk to? A counselor who can help you figure out what’s bothering you?”
“Noooo. That won’t help.”
Your friends tell you to relax. She is a teenage girl, after all, and this is what they do. Don’t you remember? It’s hell, they counsel, sympathetic and all knowing, like wise sorority sisters welcoming the new initiate into their fold; but it will pass. You want to believe her behavior, that this state she is in is normal, but it nags at you, mother instinct in your gut, the rumble of a long-planted seed growing more restless by the day.
When Casey was small, you smiled as she slept in Superman pajamas, or followed her father around instead of you, Fisher Price tool belt around her waist. You weren’t sure what to make of the superhero action figures she begged for until you relented, perplexed but trying to be open-minded and “Free to Be You and Me” echoing in your head. When she insisted on shopping in the boys department, you looked longingly over your shoulder at the racks across the aisle, all softness and pastels, and swallowed your disappointment as she chose thick jeans and khaki shorts, the kind with zipper pockets and silver key fob, striped crew socks, grays, navies and reds. At Halloween, the furry animal costumes you sewed her gave way to astronaut, then Kung Fu fighter, Dracula, a camouflaged gun-carrying G.I. Joe.
You envied the mothers whose daughters wore bows in their hair and played with My Little Ponies, daughters who seemed to possess an innate alliance with the female world of their mothers, while yours wanted nothing to do with it. Often, you felt yourself watching from the sidelines, disconnected, while she followed some other internal lead to which you were not privy. Had you done something to make her this way? Was it because you divorced her father when she was small? Was your life as a female so objectionable to her that she watched you and thought, I don’t ever want to be like her?
Yet a part of you was fascinated by this daughter you had produced—you, who had come up below the Mason-Dixon Line a country-club debutante, born to a strict set of codes that governed your every move, shaped and molded you from the moment you were born, the roles laid out like stepping stones leading to the promised land of marriage and children, the full embodiment of southern femininity. You strayed from the path when you dared to leave your first husband, though you had quickly remarried in an effort to redeem yourself.
Okay, you thought, okay, secretly proud of this daughter who was, apparently, impervious to anyone else’s expectations, including yours, not all meek and accommodating the way you had been. In school, she was bright, confident, and fast on the playground. At home, you marveled at her ability to be assertive, opinionated, determined, even when it exasperated you. This is good, you thought. She is her own person; no one will ever walk on her.
Nevertheless, your brain assessed and reassessed, watchful, alert, weighing and balancing the evidence, the pros, the cons, the frantic pedaling of intellect and rationalization. She wasn’t the daughter you expected, but you cheered at her feisty spirit, her strength, and you loved her fiercely even as you counted the days until puberty, when surely her body would awaken to itself, tell her brain it was time at last to be a girl.
There was a glimmer of hope near the end of grade school, when New Kids on the Block stickers appeared on her notebooks, stacks of fan magazines by her bed, Donny grinning from the poster she hung above it. She wore pink stretch pants and glittery tops, got her ears pierced, tried on your lipstick. You tucked Maybelline blush and lip tint alongside the usual chocolate and jellybeans in her Easter basket, expecting delight. But she scoffed, as if sensing your need, or perhaps suddenly self-conscious, as though faced with the actual ownership of makeup had jolted her back to her former self.
“Why did you buy me this stuff?” she demanded, glaring at you.
The earrings disappeared, black pants replaced pink, and her thick, auburn hair—short to begin with—assumed the asymmetrical shape of a skater cut, of which she was immensely proud. One evening you found her lying on her bed, face to the wall, her cheeks wet with tears.
“What’s wrong, Casey?” you asked, stroking her back.
“At lunch today I tried to sit down with the other girls, but they were mean to me.”
“What happened? How were they mean?”
“Joanna made a face at me and said, ‘who invited you?’”
They were the same girls who had come to her birthday parties year after year, accepted her just as she was, and now they had turned on her. You hated them.
She developed curves in the right places, got her period, grimly, and that is where it ended, any likeness to other girls, at least the girls you knew, the girl you once were, you who couldn’t wait to wear a bra, lipstick, or the navy blue mascara you bought with your friend Trudy in seventh grade, giggling as you admired each other’s iridescent lashes back at her house, Davy Jones crooning on her record player. For Casey now, at fourteen, there are no packs of girlfriends, no marathon phone calls or trips to the mall, no interest in boys or clothes, no perfumed bottles of personal care products on the bathroom counter.
She spends hours behind closed doors on the family computer. You know she is journaling; she has told you that much. One day when she is not home, you cannot help yourself. You sit down at the computer, click on the folder that is hers—so effortless, that simple click—and the door to her private world, a door that should be massive and heavy for all the weight within, swings open. You scan the list of documents, open and close one after another until a file name catches your eye, The Fire Beneath My Skin, and your right index finger hesitates over the mouse for only a second. It is a poem and you read it fast, its meaning clear and unmistakable, speaking the language of desire—for a female classmate.
A part of you is not surprised. You saw this coming though eyes clouded by denial. Her body, lean and athletic in childhood, has become thick and formless. She dresses in bulky jeans, blue work shirt shoved beneath a chunky belt, heavy black boots on her feet. When she doesn’t pull her thick hair back into a stubby ponytail, it hangs unkempt around her face. More than once, her stepfather has looked on her with contempt, called her dykey behind her back. It is a word that fills you with dread, a harsh, intolerable truth edging its way toward you.
Please God, you pray to the computer screen, don’t let her be gay.
You develop a habit, when she and her younger brother are away for the weekend at their father’s house, of going into her room. You go there not to search, but in search, and there is no way to describe what you are searching for except for her, this child who has become a mystery to you, this child you do not want to be gay. Long ago you vowed you would never be the kind of parent who snooped in her children’s rooms. Now you know things aren’t that simple when you are the mother of a child you cannot read, your hand homing to the hard pebble in your pocket that is rutted and worn by the circling of your anxious fingertips, as if the antennae of tiny nerve endings packed within their soft pads have detected some urgent message you cannot translate, try as you will.
You do not snoop, in the usual sense. You visit her space with a quiet expectancy, as if it has something to tell you, as if it is a holy shrine that will reveal answers to questions you don’t know how to ask, answers you pray do not include the word gay or dyke or lesbian. You stand before her bookcase scanning the spines of her childhood reading, titles you once took as proof she was like other girls: Little House on the Prairie; A Wrinkle in Time; Sarah, Plain and Tall; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe; Ann of Green Gables.
You move around the room slowly, looking for what, you are not sure. You stand before her dresser and stare at the items on top, picking them up one by one: a worn cigar box holding Red Cross swimming cards and paper clips; a small, turquoise deity figurine you brought her from Mexico; an old Coke bottle, thick and green; the shimmering blue lava lamp that long ago stopped working. Sometimes you open a drawer just to touch its contents, as if your fingers might read the folds of her faded t-shirts like tea leaves.
Please, you beg the cigar box, the Mexican deity, the T-shirts, the books, tell me my daughter is normal.
One Sunday afternoon, alone in the house, you find yourself drifting from room to room. Something is calling to you, pulling you up the stairs. Laundry, you think. I should do laundry before the kids come home. But instead of moving toward the hall closet that hides the washer and dryer, you gravitate toward your daughter’s bedroom door. It is closed, her signal for you to stay out. You hesitate, push the door open, slowly formulating a plan as your eyes come to rest on the navy blue footlocker against the far wall beside her unmade bed.
You turn and walk to your room at the other end of the hall. Inside your top dresser drawer, you find the key to your own footlocker, worn and army green, a relic from your father. Though it now holds precious items from your children’s past, years ago it traveled with you to summer camp, where you quickly learned what all summer campers figure out soon enough: the short, square keys which open these ubiquitous trunks are all the same, each able to unlock any of the other trunks lined up beside the bunks of your cabin mates.
You return to Casey’s room, go straight to her trunk, pop the lock, your hand shaking with regret and determination. You are tense with guilt as you lift the tray and pick through the contents beneath, looking for something, anything, that will tell you who your daughter is.
Layered on top are mementoes from childhood: a cloth book your mother made her, several albums of photos taken with her father’s family, middle school yearbooks. Buried beneath these you unearth a thin, gray spiral notebook, college ruled, the kind found among the school supplies at Wal-Mart. You leaf through it, disappointed to find the pages blank, offering nothing. You flip through it again just for good measure and something catches your eye, one single sentence penciled in your daughter’s small, neat print across the top of a page in the middle of the notebook, the sentence that will change your life as a mother forever:
“I am a transsexual man.”
You stare at the page, icy fingers slowly tracing the sides of your neck, clutching your shoulders, the tiny pebble in your pocket now a stone in your chest, your breathing shallow. Your eyes see the words—four simple, one horrifying—and the guard at the gate of your brain cries out, no, not here, wrong house, wrong family, wrong mother, wrong child.
You kneel, frozen. You have wanted answers for so long, and here, finally, lies the one explanation you have never, not once, admitted into conscious consideration. Now it stares up at you, that tiny penciled declaration, Casey’s words, her own hand telling you who she is, or at least who she believes herself to be.
You close the notebook. In slow motion, it goes back in the trunk, its fellow contents restored to their previous order, the lock pressed shut, your daughter’s bold statement re-buried in its dark, airless space. You move from the room, closing the door behind you, your body weightless, numb, floating itself back to your dresser, where you return the key to its drawer. You stand at the mirror, search your face as though it might tell you what to think, how to feel, who you are now, this you who is not the you who stood here only minutes before.
Now you are grateful there is laundry to do, grateful for the mindless sorting, the intimacy of familiar fabric in your hands, the clean smell of detergent, the efficient click of knobs setting load size, speed, and temperature, the rush of water in your ears like a sudden downpour, or the current of a swollen river after a violent storm, barreling downstream with its startled debris of splintered limbs and dead leaves, branches torn from their trunks, tender seedlings uprooted.
The four words swirl along the surface like innocent grains of silt: I am a transsexual man.
When your husband returns from his afternoon run, you do not confide in him. Your children return from their father’s house, cranky and tired. You make tacos for dinner, the four of you sitting down at the kitchen table. You are steady and even through the routine of last-minute homework, showers, and reluctant bedtimes as though it is any other Sunday evening.
In bed, your husband asleep, the silent darkness feels like comfort, relief, a hollow space that holds you, asks nothing of you, soothes you with its stillness. You do not know what you will do, how you will handle this discovery, how you will proceed from here. You pray it will come to you somehow in the night as you lie, suspended, in this dark, hollow space, poised between the day you are leaving behind and the one you will wake up to tomorrow.
Susan Grier writes memoir and personal essays. Her work has appeared in Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women; Shaking One; Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs; and Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones. Her latest essay can be found in the forthcoming YOU: An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person. She holds an MFA from Stonecoast/The University of Southern Maine, and is at work on a memoir about growing up southern and raising a transgender child. She lives and writes from her home in Southern Maryland.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece? In other words, why tell this story and why tell it now? Questions all memoirists have to ask themselves at some point….
A: I have a much larger story to tell that is slowly taking shape as a memoir—the story of being brought up very properly southern, raising a daughter who turns out to be a son, and, at midlife after two marriages, falling in love with a woman. There are so many layers to this story that I have been writing it in pieces, and this is one of the pieces. The entire story is timely, given the increasing openness and acceptance of non-traditional lifestyles, and especially important for parents of transgender children. But the motivation behind this particular piece is more personal. I’ve tended to write about the experience of having a transgender child in a voice I call “the good mother,” who rose to the occasion and bravely soldiered on, putting her emotions aside for the sake of her child. This essay, about the moment I discovered that my teen daughter identified as male, was an effort to dig deeper inside myself by slowing the story down, second by second, and accessing the devastated mother, who finds the discovery so abhorrent and unthinkable, she reacts with shock and numbness. Having found this connection, I’m hoping that now, rather than writing in the voice of the good mother, I can explore her and why she needed to bury her sorrow and grief in the months and years that followed, as if the loss of her daughter did not affect her.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: “It’s all about getting your ass in the chair every day.” That’s from Michael Steinberg, who led the very first workshop of my MFA program. I find it hard to sit down and write every day because I have a full-time job. Even though I am not a morning person, I did manage to get up early for several months and write for an hour and a half every morning. I actually enjoyed the time alone in the quiet of the house with my coffee and my words, and I was able to be fairly productive. Then my father died and I stopped getting up; I haven’t done it since.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: My best writing comes out of giving myself the freedom to first write without concern for anything except getting words on the page, just to see what comes up and where the story wants to go. I am often surprised by the things that emerge, especially if I have the patience and the discipline to keep at it rather than give in to the urge to agonize over word choices and sentence structure. I think that need for control is poison if it wins out too early in the process. Sometimes I even close my eyes or squint at the screen as I type, so as to block out my inner critic. When I allow myself to free-write liberally, I may end up with a lot of garbage, but I also have a lot more to work with as the piece begins to take shape and form, and sometimes it’s pretty amazing.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: Having recently moved, I have the opportunity to organize differently than I have in the past, and I’m not sure how things will end up. All I can say is that I like to keep my favorite books front and center, those near and dear to my heart for whatever reason regardless of genre, and they can change. After that, I tend to group by genre, with the most loved categories, such as memoir and poetry, more within reach than others.