Julie A. Swanson

Purer and Purer Streams… (of light, water, thought, consciousness)

“Seeing” a Child with Gender Dysphoria

As a kid who suffered gender dysphoria, I have some advice for adults who know kids who regularly appear to be uncomfortable with the clothes they’re being made to wear, their hair style, and/or the role they’re being asked to play. 

So many times growing up, I felt miserable in my clothes and long hair, especially on holidays and special days when I had to dress up. I’d have to wear florals and pink, lace and gathers and ruffles, puffed sleeves, Easter bonnets, thin white gloves, ribbons/barrettes in my hair, long wool dress coats, pointy-toed shoes, “snowball” hats with pom-pom balls that hung down on strings and tied under my chin… As a little one, I’d be given a little purse to carry that matched my patent leather shoes. On those days, while I was dolled up like that (even in anticipation of it, knowing that later that day I’d have to be), it was all I could think of—my discomfort, how un-me those trimmings and trappings were.

Other times it wasn’t how I was dressed but rather the type of activity I had to do as a girl (who thought she was mostly boy) grouped with other girls having to do decidedly girly things–hopscotch, jumprope, the “dress-up” corner in our kindergarten classroom, the movie in 6th grade the nurse came in to show us while the boys were taken away to another room to see their movie… Brownies, Girl Scouts, being an angel in a Christmas pageant, Boys Catch the Girls, Boys Against Girls games; I had no interest in any activity where we were grouped by gender.

Even though I was shy and had given up throwing the tantrums I once had as a toddler and preschooler, I was sure my displeasure must still show. Certainly everyone could see by the dead look on my face and the way I carried myself that I was not happy dressed as I was or doing what I was being made to do. But instead, it was as if I were invisible. Or maybe my face betrayed me and put on its good-girl look or at least a stoic one and my misery didn’t show. Could it possibly be, I wondered? Although I do remember a couple of girls in my class telling me, “Oh, why don’t you go play with the boys!”(when I suggested we play something different at recess) and a general feeling that they and others knew I was a “tomboy,” kids in school didn’t tease me or comment on my tomboy ways, and the adults in my life seemed blind to my resistance to being a girl and everything girlish.

Only once in my life did an adult say anything recognizing my discomfort or dislike of what I was being forced to do or wear (instead they would say the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear: how cute my outfit was, how pretty or beautiful I looked, how gorgeous my hair was… Words that made me cringe.) I remember that one time someone said something with such a soft spot for the person who said it. It endeared him to me.

I was 4 or 5 and it was Easter. My mom had me in my Easter outfit and we were gathered with lots of family members. I was beside myself, in my own little world of torment. My Uncle Bud came over and sat down beside me on a couch or a bench or maybe even a church pew (I don’t remember which it was, but it was a seat for more than one person). We were alone there or separated enough from the others so that it felt like it was just the two of us. He nudged me with his elbow, hitched his head to the side, and made eyes at my Easter bonnet. “Stupid bonnets, huh?” he said, rolling his eyes. That was all he said, but with those three words, I knew he knew how I felt. He’d recognized that he could tell I hated that bonnet. It meant so much to me. I felt seen. His words comforted me. Someone got me, understood me.

Uncle Bud wasn’t even my uncle by blood. He was married to my mom’s sister. I remember thinking this as a kid: How can it be that an uncle who isn’t even a blood relative is the one and only person who can tell how I feel? Why didn’t my mom or dad, my grandma, my aunts and uncles who were blood relatives and the closest people to me on earth? Why did they not see how I felt or say anything if they did? Were they just ignoring it because that wasn’t how I was supposed to feel? Because it scared or worried them?

(Uncle Bud died this year, and at his memorial this summer, this story came up. I shared it with his granddaughter as an example of what a kind and sensitive person he was, and why he was a favorite uncle.)

So if you notice a kid who often seems to be unhappy dressed the way he or she is, or doing what he or she is being made to do, you might quietly and privately say a little something to them about it, letting them know you can tell.

What could you say?

“Stupid bonnet/dress/skirt/tie/tea party/gun, huh?”

I say “gun” because I have a male friend who wanted an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas very badly as a child, and had asked for one. Instead of getting an Easy Bake Oven that year, he was given a gun, and his little sister got the Easy Bake Oven instead. When he told me that story, and how upset he was to have gotten a gun, I knew exactly how he felt. How many times had I gotten dolls or “girl” toys I didn’t want? And it seemed my family and friends should’ve known I wouldn’t like them.

You might say:

“You’d rather be doing something else, wouldn’t you?”

“Only another hour and you can take that thing off.” Or, “I bet you can’t wait until you can take that off, huh?”

I think questions are good, opening the door for the child to talk if he or she wants to.

A person doesn’t have to say much. In my case, I think less was better. It drew less attention to me and my stupid bonnet that I didn’t want anyone noticing any more than they might have already. I guess it depends how close you are to the child and whether or not you have the privacy to engage in a more in-depth conversation, whether they act receptive to discussing it further. I know I would have welcomed a longer conversation like this with my parents or grandma, if I knew it wasn’t going to result in a lecture/scolding/correction and if I felt they were truly concerned about the unhappiness they could see on my face and were interested in knowing my related thoughts and feelings. If I’d felt safe in opening up to them, if I knew my feelings were going to be accepted or at least treated gently as the precious and fragile things they were, I would’ve loved to tell them how I felt and what I thought. I never felt unsafe in the physical sense, but I didn’t feel like what I’d have to say would be taken seriously (all my tantrums hadn’t been), that it would make any difference, that it would be respected. No one wants to be told “You’re wrong,” “That’s ridiculous,” or “That’s not how it is” when that’s very much how it is, or seems, to you.

Maybe you can be that safe person for an unhappy child, show an openness, an interest, a genuine caring, ask gentle questions, listen without interrupting or shutting the child down or judging what’s said. If you’re a parent or guardian and you don’t know what to say or worry that you might say the wrong thing or you can never seem to find the right time, perhaps you can find someone who can be that safe person for the child, a trained therapist or counselor.

Yes, it can be awkward talking to gender-variant kids about something one might think very personal and private. But at the very least, like my Uncle Bud did for me, see if you can–in some small way–let them know you see them, the real them. 

Don’t just ignore their discomfort, hoping it goes away or that they’ll outgrow it. They might, or they might not. But while they’re suffering through it, however long that is, they will appreciate being seen and having their pain recognized. And I bet they’ll never forget your kindness.

The 3rd in a Series of Posts on My Gender Confusion as a Kid…

Me at 11 with my liberating new haircut, my resin-capped chipped tooth that always turned yellow (the dentist told me not to smile in the sun), and the plaid boy’s leisure suit my mom bought for me at Hamilton’s in Traverse City while shopping for my brothers (I didn’t even have to beg very hard! After the haircut, she gave up on making me wear dresses to school twice a week)

…where I go more in depth on the 4th and last question & answer from my previous two posts…

When I was a kid (1964 through 1978-ish), I aspired to be and identified so much more with being a boy that I convinced myself I was one. Or that I was at least part boy, mosty boy, some odd mixture of boy and girl. I used magical thinking and combined it with the evidence that was already obvious—a somewhat androgynous body and face—and truly thought I was meant to be a boy.

But did I really want to be a boy? 100% boy? No, even then I remember thinking that boys had it better than girls in every way except 1.) girls got to have babies [I loved babies] and 2.) they didn’t have to fight in the war. And as I got older and really started thinking about, looking back and trying to figure it all out—why I’d hated being a girl so much, why I wanted to be a boy so badly, why I’d thought I was more boy than girl—I realized that like unlike so many kids today who would want to transition and make actual physical changes to their bodies to become a boy, I would have had no interest in that. I did not want a penis. I did not want to grow up to be a man. I had no interest in ever kissing a girl or doing anything sexual with one. I did not want a penis any more than I wanted a vagina. I did not hate my vagina; I just totally ignored that it was there, …whatever it was that was there. It went unexplored. Never touched it (other to wipe going to the bathroom), never looked at it. Really, until the first time I tried a tampon in college, I had no interest in even checking if I really had one. The thing I dreaded was the idea that I might go through puberty and develop breasts. That for me, would be the true marker that I was meant to be a girl, a woman. As long as I stayed undeveloped, flat chested, narrow-hipped, androgynous looking in my body, then I could pass for a boy, then there was a chance I would not grow up to be a woman, and I could prove to the world that I was something different, not a real, normal girl, but some mixture of boy and girl, mostly boy, I’d show them. At bath time as a little kid, there was no denying that my older brothers and I looked different down there, that where they had penises, I had a little slit parting my flesh instead. We went pee differently. I wasn’t blind to that; that was the one thing I could not deny was “girl” about me. But it didn’t bother me; I didn’t dislike that part of me, didn’t covet what my brothers had instead. In fact, penises were kind of weird to me, gross even, worm-like, dangling there, in the way, in danger of being caught in zippers, obviously a great source of pain if you were to get hit there. My brothers could have their penises all to themselves.

But when I felt the hard, tender stones of a breast bud on my chest one day late in my 6th grade year, and looked in the mirror and saw my ever so slightly swollen nipple, panic set in. I slept on my stomach with my pillow hugged to my chest to keep it from growing. But then the same thing happened on the other side, that sore lump on top my rib cage. I kept hugging my pillow to my chest, wore woven shirts instead of knit shirts. Clingy, stretchy materials showed things that crisper drapey material did not. Thicker knits like sweatshirts or sweaters were OK. T-shirts with rubberized, ironed-on things printed across the chest were OK. But I preferred button up shirts, flannel shirts, western shirts, jean jackets; the thicker and stiffer the material, the better. The bib overalls that were in style were great, gave me another layer over my chest. If necessary, I slouched my shoulders forward so the material over my chest would hang rather than touch my chest and show that there was anything but flatness there. These ‘things’ (mentally, I couldn’t even use a word for them) were ruining my plan, my proof that I would never grow up to look like a normal teenage girl, that I wasn’t a girl and never would be!

If someone had presented me then with the idea that I could take a pill that would make it so that those breast buds would stop growing dead in their tracks, or even better yet go away, I would’ve wanted to take those pills. Right away. I would’ve tried to convince my mom that I NEEDED to. 

I often think about that, how if I were a kid now and had access to the internet and cell phone and all the books and TV shows and magazines where stories and information about transgender kids are available, I definitely would have wanted to do whatever it was that could be done to stop puberty, to stop my body from changing. My 7th and 8th grade years were awkward ones filled with fraught over this one issue—getting “boobs.” I fought wearing the bras my mom bought me as long as I could. She’d rub my back hugging me goodbye as I left the house to go to the bus stop in the morning, and if she didn’t feel bra straps, she’d point me back to my bedroom. I’d trudge back there, put the stretchy little thing with the irritating straps (it was always riding up or the straps were falling off), and then once I got to school, I’d slip into the bathroom and take it off, put it in my backpack. I did that until the summer before 9th grade. 

I had a favorite navy blue shirt I liked to play basketball in, an old mesh v-neck soccer jersey my brother had outgrown, made of a stiff, thick polyester material you never see in athletic attire anymore. It showed nothing. But it was rough and chaffed my nipples, and then when I’d sweat, the salt in my sweat would make them sting. The sting was worth it for me; I’d gladly pay that price. I thought I was successfully hiding things until one day that summer before 9th grade when I was at a basketball camp at my high school, in a gym full of girls warming up first thing in the morning before camp started. We were all shooting around and I didn’t notice what was going on, that the girls must’ve been slipping out to go to the bathroom or locker room one-by-one. But then one of the girls, a tall, assertive girl a year older than me (who believe it or not became one of my best friends despite what she was about to do), called out, “Hey, everybody, it’s JP day!” and she held her arms out wide and wiggled her shoulders back and forth to make her boobs shake. And she was braless. All the other girls then did the same, and the gym full of girls laughed; they were all braless and jiggling, had somehow conspired and gone and taken their bras off without my being aware of any of it. My face felt like it was on fire. There was no doubt their joke was directed at me—I was the only one in the gym whose initials were JP and I was the only one who’d come into that gym braless, who regularly went braless (unless her mom was around). After that, I wore a bra every day. I wasn’t fooling anyone with my stiff #14 soccer jersey.

But from the time I first felt the hard soreness of a developing breast bud in the winter of my 6th grade year until that day the summer before 9th grade, I was tortured by what was happening to my chest, obsessed with hiding it from the world. For those two-and-a-half years, I wore big baggy tops, or tops made of thick or stiff material, t-shirts with thick things printed across the chest. When I couldn’t, I slouched my shoulders forward, stretched out knit shirts. I don’t know how many times my mom would tell me, “Stand up straight, …Stop slouching, …Put your shoulders back.” I would tell her, “I can’t! See? This is as far as they’ll go…” She’d come over and grab my shoulders and say, “No, look. Relax, loosen up…” and try to pull them back. And of course, I’d stiffen to “prove” her wrong. Ridiculous. So, yes, I would’ve been very interested in puberty blockers, little magic pills that would make it so I never got boobs.

But thank God, I didn’t know about them then. What a mistake it would’ve been for me to take them. I like my “boobs” now (can even think of them and say the more mature word “breasts” sometimes!). How much more confusing it would have made things. How much I would have missed.

It’s been a long road, my coming to understand why I didn’t like being a girl, why I did not want to be one, thought I wasn’t a normal one, that I was more boy than girl, that I was meant to be a boy. In the end, maybe I wasn’t a “normal” girl, whatever that means. I didn’t fit the stereotype of a girl that was presented to me by everything I saw in my family and culture. I was built strong. I liked doing “boy” things, was good at them. Didn’t mind getting dirty, touching worms, frogs, spiders, and snakes. Liked to wrestle around and play rough-and-tumble. I was tough, didn’t cry when I got hurt, wasn’t (outwardly) emotional or sensitive. I didn’t like girly clothes, most girl toys, or playing with girls at school. I hated having long hair, begged to get my hair cut short like a boy. To this day, I like to do things I don’t see most girls and women doing. I like to do manual labor, use a chainsaw, push big rocks around, dig with a shovel, plant shrubs and trees, build things, fix things. I feel good when I do hard work and sweat. I’m a solidly built person, my shoulders are broad, my hips are narrow, and I have “guns” for arms, as many have commented. People often ask if I lift weights (I don’t; I wouldn’t want my arms getting even bigger). As a preschooler I remember overhearing an uncle say I looked like a “little football player.” So there’s no doubt there has always been something androgynous looking about my body. And the way I like to dress. And my preferences and physical abilities.

But I never wanted to actually/physically be 100% boy. I was happy to be something in between, would’ve been happy to stay that way, so long as I looked more boy than girl, could pass for a boy. What I really wanted was to be able to DO what boys could do, to be regarded as highly as boys, to have the opportunities and freedoms they had. In my mind/culture/family, girls were weak, silly, foolishly emotional and sentimental. Girls were to serve and take a back seat to boys and men, to pacify. Girls were to look pretty, for boys/men. Girls were eye candy and meat. Girls were to say quiet and not speak their minds if it was going to conflict with what the boys and men thought. Girls were servants and maids. Boys were strong, powerful, could do what they wanted, have fun. They could sit back and be fed and cleaned up after and then go have more fun. Boys could say whatever was on their mind. Boys made the rules, the decisions. THAT’s what I wanted.

It took me years to understand that I could be a different kind of girl than what my early years had taught me a girl was supposed to be. It took me even longer to realize that instead of aiming for some gray middle area between “boy” and “girl” and staying there, I could bop around between the “boy” end of the masculine/feminine spectrum (as if there is such a thing) and the “girl” end of it, that I could sometimes be very girly if I wanted to, and then the next moment put on my high, steel-toed rubber work boots and go muck around out in the cedar swamp woods cutting down dead but not yet rotten trees to build a fence. In fact, I could bop wildly around between “boy” and “girl,” and it didn’t have to make sense to anybody else, or even myself!

If I had taken those puberty delaying/stopping drugs, little late-blooming me would’ve never known that I would one day be attracted to a boy who I would marry and have three beautiful children with, and that I’d love being a mom and celebrate over 30 years of marriage with my best friend and sometimes even like wearing dresses. When I hear of women who have to have mastectomies due to breast cancer, I always think how awful it would be to lose my breasts, how much I’d miss them, and how ironic that is given how much I hated the idea of having breasts when I was younger. Young me would never believe that I’d come to like that part of my body.

I was so confused about what it was to be a girl, and I was androgynous, which made everything even more confusing, but I was and am a girl, female. A female who likes a lot of things the world thinks of as masculine. A female whose body still isn’t as curvy and soft as most women’s bodies are. A female who sometimes still feels like she is a “boy.” But a female who is glad to be female. 

What a shame it would have been if I’d taken puberty blockers and missed out on being the female I am, and the parts of being female I’ve enjoyed so much.

I am not saying that it is wrong for a person to transition. I can only speak from my experience and how it was for me. Although I was SURE I was not meant to be a girl when I was young (from birth to maybe 13 or 14) but then came to see some psychological reasons for my denial of being girl (my misogyny, denial, magical thinking), I can never forget the certainty I felt then, how convinced I was that I would never grow up like other girls did and that time would tell, would prove to the world that I was different. If I could feel that certain I was meant to be a boy (or more exactly a “not-girl”), what do others feel who are even more androgynous than I was, those “girls” who reach puberty only to find out they have a micro-penis and are really a boy, those born with sex organs of both genders, those whose brains and hearts have never matched up with the gender assigned to them at birth? A person can only judge for his or her self what their gender is. No one knows what it feels like to be inside another person’s body or mind. We are all on our own journey. It takes time. We have to struggle through and wrestle with things, figure them out in our own time, go for guidance from people we trust, not be told what to do, not be forced to do things. It is a very difficult issue–not being comfortable identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth (that’s how it felt to me, like someone put the wrong label on me), not being comfortable in your own skin, your clothes, your hair, the group of kids they put you with at school… It’s difficult for kids and for parents, for grandparents and teachers… I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Just my own, which I’ve only come to as an adult.

I know there is a spectrum and we are all on different places on it. I am not speaking for anyone else’s situation. I’m just glad I am a woman, something I could’ve never imagined as the kid who did not want to be a girl so badly that she convinced herself she was more boy than girl.

ANSWERS

I’m the one standing, age 12.

In my previous post, I wrote about how I hated being a girl growing up and identified more with being “boy.” And about how as an adult I’ve wrestled with some questions as to why I was that way, and how I’ve finally come to answers that have helped me understand it all better. But I really only went into one of those questions and its answer in my last post and wanted to go over the others as well.

Here are the questions and the answers to them I’ve come to:

  • 1. Did I really think I was meant to be a boy, that I was part or even mostly boy? 

Yes. From early on until maybe 13, I was convinced of this. I never felt like I was 100% girl. It seemed some mistake had been made, and I’d been born with this one girl part (this one unfortunately defining part), but all the rest of me was boy. When I first felt the soreness and saw the slight swelling of breast buds the winter of my sixth grade year at 11-and-three-quarters, I freaked out. I wore clothes that hid what was happening. I slept on my stomach and hugged my pillow to my chest hoping I could stop or even reverse what was going on there. In addition to being a late-bloomer, I was a slow-bloomer, and it wasn’t until long after all the other girls my age had started wearing bras that I could no longer deny what was there. I was 14 when I gave into wearing a bra. That is about when I finally gave up on trying to fool the world into thinking I was a boy, meant to be a boy.  But age 13 is when I secretly gave up on the notion that I wouldn’t/couldn’t grow up like other girls did. After age 14, I just felt like I really didn’t like being a girl and that my heart/soul/brain was maybe more boy than girl.

  • 2. Was it that I didn’t feel like I was a girl or that I actually felt like I was a boy?

Well, I definitely didn’t feel like a girl, and I would’ve sworn on the Bible as a kid that I felt like I was a boy, but this one is tricky because I have to distinguish between gender and sex here. I never felt the sexual urges of a boy, was never attracted to a girl, never wanted a girlfriend, never dreamed of growing up and dating or marrying a girl. All of that would’ve been as yucky or even yuckier than the notion of growing up and kissing or marrying a man was to me then! I loved babies and little kids, wanted to have kids when I grew up, but tried hard not to think of what I might have to do to make that happen (my mom told us early on how babies were made). When I say I felt like a boy as a kid, I’m not talking about anything sexual; I’m talking strictly about gender. I thought that I saw the world as a boy, that I thought like a boy, wanted to do and play the things boys did, that I interpreted and reacted to things like most boys did. The way girls were seemed very foreign to me, even repulsive. I very much had misogynistic tendencies. I inwardly rolled my eyes and shook my head over the things girls and women said and did, they way they looked and dressed.

  • 3. Or was it that I didn’t want to be a girl or that I wanted to be a boy? (Question 2 and 3 may seem the same, but I think there is a difference between wanting to be a boy or a girl and feeling like you’re one or the other, which leads to my next question, #4 below…)

I very definitely did NOT want to be a girl, and at the time I may have thought I wanted to be a boy, but I see now that I was being selective about that, turning a blind eye to things about being a boy that I did not like. For example, even as a young kid, I remember thinking that everything about being a boy was better than being a girl except for two things—1.) boys had to fight in the war and 2.) they couldn’t have babies. The idea of having to fight in the war and kill another person terrified me; I was not one bit jealous of boys for having to face the draft. I was certain I would not be able to pull the trigger and kill another person. And although I didn’t like even imagining myself doing what you had to do to have a baby, I very much wanted to have a baby someday. My very own baby that was mine and had come from me. Boys couldn’t do that. They had to trust that the baby that had come out of someone else was theirs. The other thing is that I never wanted to have a penis. I never disliked that girl part of me down there that my clothes so conveniently hid, and that I was glad they hid. While I was glad it was hidden, and I had no desire in exploring it (I was more than content to simply look down and see what there was to see with a quick look), I felt no aversion to it like I did other girly things. And I did feel some aversion to penises. They seemed weird, even gross, this squishy, wormy, snaky thing hanging down between your legs. And those wrinkly ball sacks? Eew. Yes, my brothers could more easily take a pee outside, got to pee behind trees in some pretty public places when I’d get in trouble for trying to do the same, but otherwise I saw no benefit in having one. It seemed to get in the way. I saw my brothers get hit there by balls or knees, and the excruciating pain that resulted. Nothing ever hurt me that bad! I saw the fragile skin of them get caught in the zippers of their flies when they tried to go without wearing underwear. A penis? No thank you. You can have it. So I did not actually physically 100% want to be a boy. The answer to this question is that it was far more that I didn’t want to be a girl than it was that I actually wanted to be a boy; that is, the underlying reason for my being the way I was was that I did not want to be a girl.

  • 4. Can you want something so badly that you convince yourself it’s true, that it really 100% actually feels like it’s true? (Or, likewise, can you not want something so badly that you convince yourself it’s not true?)

Yes, definitely. I did that. I realize that now. I hated being a girl, wanted to be the opposite of that, and in my mind, the opposite of girl was boy, so I thought that’s what I must be, at least mostly. I couldn’t deny the one girl part I knew I had (I knew I was at least a smidgen girl), but I was convinced that I was largely, mostly boy, and that some mistake had been made in my creation/birth, some mix-up, that had resulted in my having this girl part. Of course, this was a lot of dualistic, binary, magical thinking, and when I reached my teen years, I saw that I was mistaken—there was more girl to me than I’d known or wanted to believe possible.

Underneath it all, it was that I didn’t want to be a girl. I wanted to be a boy only in a childish nonsexual notion of boy (ignoring the idea that being a boy means having a penis, also not thinking beyond to the idea that a boy grew up to be a man, and all that comes with being a sexually mature man). I wanted to be able to do what boys did, to be as highly regarded as boys seemed to be (compared to girls, women), to have the opportunities to play sports that boys had. I wanted to be strong and powerful. I wanted to be able to wear boys’ clothes and have short hair, mostly because then people would think I was a boy and see me as strong/powerful/smart. SO… I’ve come to see that my whole gender issue really stemmed from my not wanting to be a girl, because I saw girls as weak/trivial/emotional/sentimental/subservient and not deserving of the freedoms and opportunities boys were.

#30 on the 7th Grade Boys Basketball team (with my first best friend who was a girl, #32; our class was so small they needed the two of us to field a team)

BUT, there can be no denying that I’m somewhat androgynous physically. I’ve always had wide shoulders, big muscles, been larger-boned/narrower-hipped/smaller-breasted than most females. I’m built strong and straight. I was the last girl in my school my age to develop, got my first period at 17, had fewer and lighter menstrual periods than most females, often would go for months without a period (but had no problem getting pregnant each time?), went through menopause at 47… So my hormones levels must be a bit different than what’s normal for a female. I must have, or have had, lower levels of estrogen or higher levels of testosterone or both. 

My preferences (though some of them may have been culturally influenced to an extent) and tendencies could be said to be androgynous as well. I enjoy physical activity, exertion, doing manual labor. Always have; from baby on, I enjoyed rough-and-tumble play, being active, being outside, running, jumping, climbing, sawing, pounding… I have a high pain tolerance and was stoic as a kid. Nicknamed Toughie by my dad, I played through bloody stubbed toes and the pain of injuries that should have hurt me more than they did and prevented me from competing (playing college basketball, my feet hurt me mildly for several months, and then one day my foot broke—a bone scan showed 4 other stress fractures that should’ve been causing me great pain). Again, things like being stoic may be seen as being more masculine than feminine but may be a learned thing and not something you’re inherently born as/with, but my point is that many might judge my preferences or my “look” to be androgynous, then and even now still. And some things, like having a high pain tolerance or wide shoulders or big muscles, well, they just are. That’s undeniably just the way I am, the way I came out.

So, to summarize, if I can group all my related questions into one, it would be, Why was I such an extreme tomboy who hated being a girl so much she was convinced she was mostly boy?And if I had to condense my answers above and put them together into one answer, it would be, Because I did not want to be a girl as I saw ‘girl’ defined in my world–I did not want to be that, did not identify with that, didn’t think I could be that–AND because the fact of my having been born somewhat androgynous made things all the more confusing.”

A Girl Like AJ

When I was a kid, I hated being a girl. But it was even more than that. I didn’t think I was meant to be a girl, felt I was meant to be a boy. While I couldn’t deny there was a key difference between my two older brothers’ bodies and mine (that piece of anatomy doctors look at to determine if a baby is a boy or a girl), to me that was just one small part, one easily-hidden-by-your clothes part. The rest of me looked exactly like a boy (or could have, if my mom just dressed me right and let me get hair cut how I wanted it!), and I felt like I was a boy. From very early on, as far back as I can remember, I was convinced a large part of me, most of me, was boy. There are stories from even further back than I can remember; one of my aunts tells how I’d be happy as a lark playing in my diaper as a baby, but then when it came time to be dressed and my mom would go to put something decidedly girly on me, I’d throw a fit, start crying and thrashing about, fighting her, fighting being stuffed in that frilly clothing. I’d try to tear things off afterwards. It didn’t surprise me to hear that even before I could walk, I disliked dresses and being put in anything different than what my brothers were wearing. I hated lace and ric rac, florals, pink, ruffles, gathers, ribbons, bows, hair barrettes, princess or ballerina stuff, tea party—almost everything girly (the exception was baby dolls, but I only played with baby dolls that looked like they could be boys). I liked doing boy things. I wanted to be seen as a boy, to wear boys’ clothes, get my hair cut short like a boy. If only I could wear boys’ clothes and have short hair, I knew people would think I was a boy! 

Once I was finally allowed to get that haircut and wear more nearly what I wanted (not until the end of 5th grade) I delighted in being mistaken for a boy. I remember one time I was running down a stairwell in a hotel and I bumped into an older man going around a corner. He grabbed me by the arms and said, “Slow down, young fellow!” Another time, in 7th grade, I stood outside knocking on a window trying to get the attention of a girl classmate/teammate on the other side of it; a man inside tapped her and then pointed to me, saying, “That boy wants you.” (I couldn’t hear it; she told me what he said afterwards.) ‘See?!’ I thought, ‘See! I knew it. And now, when I don’t grow up like normal girls do, they’ll see even more how I’m not a girl, how I was meant to be a boy, how I’m part boy.’ 

I couldn’t possibly grow up to be a girl, a woman. It was inconceivable to me that I was physically capable of becoming THAT. It would kill me! My body would shrivel up and die before anything like that could happen to it. I might get bigger, taller, but my proportions would stay the same. I’d stay flat-chested and straight in the hips, no curves for me. I’d just be a larger version of my androgynous-looking childhood self. And then the world would see that I wasn’t really a normal girl after all, that I was something different, something more boy-like.

What happened when I did start to develop and grow up like a “normal” girl is a whole ‘nother blog post!

But there are some key questions that have popped up for me as an adult, in trying to come to understand why I was like this at this age (birth through 11, 12, 13) in regard to my gender, why I felt the way I did. The questions surprised me. For example, had I really thought I was a boy or even that I wanted to be a boy? Or had I just not wanted to be a girl so badly, that in my simple, dualistic, binary, black-and-white thinking, I just thought if you’re not a girl, you must be a boy? Or that if you don’t want to be a girl, you must want to be a boy? I mean what other options are there in a kid’s mind, what other options did I see? None. Everyone else I knew seemed happy to be a girl, or a boy, whatever they’d been born as and the world saw them as. I was the only one I knew who seemed not to like the category they’d been put in, the gender they’d been assigned at birth.

The questions I’ve struggled to answer are:

  1. Did I really think I was meant to be a boy, or that I was part or even mostly boy?
  2. Was it that I didn’t feel like I was a girl or that I actually felt like I was a boy?
  3. Or was it that I didn’t want to be a girl or that I wanted to be a boy? (Questions 2 and 3 may seem the same, but I think there’s a difference between wanting to be a boy or a girl and feeling like you’re one or the other, which leads to my next question…)
  4. Can you want something so badly that you convince yourself it’s true, that it really 100% actually feels like it’s true? (Or, can you not want something so badly that you convince yourself it’s not true?)

These questions may seem redundant. They’re about subtle differences. When they first occurred to me, it seemed they were ridiculously trivial. “What does it matter?” I’d think. “They’re practically the same thing, aren’t they?” But they did matter, they weren’t the same thing! I kept coming back to them in my head, or they kept coming back to me, as it seemed, and I realized how key they were, how I needed to wrestle with them and come up with the answers, if I could. These were mind-bending questions; they made my brain hurt. I could barely even put them into words. It was hard to think on them for very long at a time. They confused me. Sometimes they still do. Journaling about them, I would need to take a break and come back to it. Wrestling with these questions has taken years! But I think I know the answers now, and the answers are important, help me make sense of things.

One thing that really struck a chord with me and helped confirm one of my answers recently was a show I watched on a plane this summer. The movie and TV choices didn’t seem good at first, and there weren’t many to pick from, but there was one that featured a kid, and I enjoy stories with kids in them, so I decided to try it. It’s a Netflix series called AJ and the Queen, starring RuPaul Charles and child actor Izzy G (aka Izzy Gaspersz). The ten-year-old character AJ, played by Izzy G, looks like a boy and everyone in the show assumes AJ’s a boy at first, including the main character, Ruby Red, played by RuPaul. AJ is a tough talking, street-wise, smart-alec little thief, a ragamuffin orphan type who always wears a white wife-beater tank top with a zip-up hoodie and a knit hat. (Yes, AJ has a pretty face and always wears the knit hat, which begs the question “Why?” but some boys do have pretty faces and like to wear hats even when it’s warm out…).

But at the end of the first episode, Ruby discovers AJ is a girl when he accidently steps on her where she lies stowed away in the back of his RV; AJ’s hat comes off, revealing long hair. 

Then, at the beginning of episode 2, while Ruby’s getting AJ something to eat for breakfast in a diner, there’s some amazing dialogue (to me, at least!):

Ruby asks AJ, “Why do you dress like a boy?”

“Why do you dress like a girl?” AJ throws the question right back at drag queen Ruby.

“Well, …I’m a performer and that’s how I make my living. That’s why I do it. Why do you do it? Do you want to be a boy?”

“Do you want to be a girl?” Again, AJ deflects the question.

“No. No, I don’t want to be a girl,” says Ruby.

AJ shrugs. “I don’t want to be a girl either.”

“Oh, OK.” Ruby is tender with AJ. “Well, kiddo, you can be whoever you want to be around me, because I’ve been told my whole life who I can’t be…”

AJ interrupts rudely and changes the subject and Ruby tells AJ she’s being rude, to which AJ says, “Don’t tell me what to do. You’re not my mother.”

“Correct, I’m not your mother. I’m a drag queen on a cross country tour…” Ruby goes on to say some things suggesting how inappropriate it is for AJ to be tagging along on his tour as a stowaway, ending with, “…you really don’t belong in the back of my RV.”

AJ straightens up a bit after the scolding, and Ruby asks AJ what her real name is. AJ says AJ stands for Amber Jasmine, that her mom named her after, “her stripper friend and a racist Disney cartoon.”

Later, when Ruby’s in his RV looking through AJ’s backpack for his phone (AJ has a habit of stealing from him), he discovers a Barbie-type Princess Jasmine doll hidden in a white athletic sock in AJ’s backpack. AJ walks in the RV, catches Ruby pulling the doll out, and yells, “Don’t touch my stuff!” Ruby explains he was looking for his phone. AJ shouts that she doesn’t have it. Ruby gestures toward the doll and says, “Princess Jasmine, right? …Do you have a Princess Jasmine doll because your name is Jasmine?”

AJ doesn’t answer.

Ruby says, “OK, one more question, and feel free not to answer it as well.”

AJ shakes her head. “Just go. Ask it. Jesus…”

So Ruby does, “Why are you always saying you want to be a boy, but then hiding a doll in a sweat sock?”

“I never said I wanted to be a boy,” says AJ.

“In the diner you said you wanted to be a boy,” says Ruby.

“No. I said I didn’t want to be a girl.” (***this is where it hit me, YES! The answer to my question #3 above… This is what/how it was for me, not so much that I wanted to be a boy, but that I didn’t want to be a girl. That was the key thing: I did not want to be a girl. Being a girl, as I knew and understood ‘girl,’ was not-me. No way, no thank you.)

“So if you don’t want to be a boy,” asks Ruby, “why are you pretending to be one?”

“’Cuz people leave boys alone.” AJ says, holding the Princess Jasmine doll. “And I wasn’t hiding this; I was protecting it.”

“Huh, it’s funny,” says Ruby. “I made my whole life about not letting people put me in a box, and I go and put you into one. A forward thinking, politically correct one, but, still a box nonetheless.” 

Ruby goes on to ask AJ, “What’s wrong with being a girl?”

“Everything.”

“Uh, can you narrow it down for me?” says Ruby.

“Girls always do what people ask them to,” says AJ, “even if they don’t wanna.”

Ruby nods. “I see. Well, not all girls do that, you know. Some girls learn how to draw boundaries.”

AJ sighs. “Hhhh. OK, here we go… Thanks, Oatmeal. (AJ always teases Ruby for his fondness for Oprah and the Oprah videos he watches and finds inspirational).”

“Well, I can tell you one thing about being a girl,” says Ruby. “You grow up to be a woman. And these days women can be whatever they want to.”

“Yeah,” says AJ, “like a stripper, or a hooker, or drug addict.” (her mother is a stripper/hooker/addict)

“Well, for every stripper, there’s a …a woman doctor. For every drug addict there’s a Marie Curie, Justice  Sotomayor, Beyonce, Serena Williams, and…” Ruby lists a bunch of accomplished women. “…yes, AJ, and Oprah.”

“That’s some crazy shit right there,” says AJ as she turns and leaves, stepping out of the RV.

Ruby goes after her, calling out the RV door, “Hey, I’m just saying, that little girls, no matter how they start out, can grow up to be strong, amazing, wonder-women!”

“Wonder Woman’s not real, yo,” says AJ.

“…OK, well, I tried,’ says Ruby.

I wish someone had tried to have this conversation with me when I was a kid AJ’s age. Not the girls-can-be-anything talk. I heard that from the adults in my life and believed it, but a conversation where someone actually recognized what I thought was obvious (that I did not like being a girl, was boy-like and trying to be even more boy-like) and asked me why, a safe conversation where I might explore my thoughts and feelings on it and bounce things off a caring older person. But of course people didn’t talk about these things back then, and I don’t know that I’d have been able to articulate things as AJ did, either. Unlike her, I was shy, slow and careful putting things into words. It’s taken me years to realize what exactly it was–not so much that I wanted to be a boy, but that I didn’t want to be a girl. Given a black-and-white choice between Boy and Girl (as I knew Girl), yes, Boy was the more appealing choice. But now we know Girls can be all sorts of things, in all sorts of different ways!

More about the answers to my other questions in two upcoming posts…

Up North Summer; the end of a chapter, the beginning of a new one…

The sun coming up over the lake a little before 7 am.

This is the view I wake up to from the deck of our place up here in Michigan’s pinky. Most days I’m greeted by this sunrise and the reddish light of it stretching in across the floor. Some mornings, many mornings, it gets so bright there’s no way you can sleep in.

I’ve been able to spend more time up here this summer than I have in years, and I’m really enjoying being able to get in everything I always want to but can never usually squeeze in, even good alone time and writing time. Usually there’s so much family and friend time–reunions of siblings, nieces, nephews, kids, old friends we grew up with–that I don’t get enough alone time. And not even Steve is here with me most of this summer, so I truly am alone in our little humble, crumbling (literally) abode here. Although we have dreams of building a new house on this site (next door to my mom’s and the house where I grew up) and what’s here is nothing special and not worth putting anything into to make it any better, I kind of like having a place where you don’t care if people spill things or track stuff in on their feet or put a dent in the wall. It makes summer feel more carefree. I just kind of shrug when it comes to cleaning like I might otherwise clean our house. We spend most of our time outside anyway…

My mom’s husband D died in late June (I never called him my stepdad because my dad died when I was an adult, so D didn’t really take over for us in a dad sort of way), so I’m using her as an excuse for why I need to be here so much. I can’t leave her alone! I/we have to help her through her grieving! But seriously, it is that kind of summer to an extent. And I think the picture above reflects the mood: peaceful, a sense of relief (that D’s no longer lying in bed, dying and leading the frustrating, boring existence he was in his last months), pensive, and yet with lots of beauty and gratitude mixed in there, too. D was a guy who appreciated and even tried to capture beauty, a photographer and painter. He was a guy who liked to have fun. So he would’ve wanted us to move on and and enjoy things, notice and celebrate the sunrises and sunsets.

But it is a new chapter in my mom’s life, and change is always scary (or at least it can be, is for me and most I know), so I do want to be here with her, to help her however I can. My siblings and I (and our kids) have been feeling very protective of her. She’s had a lot to do the last month (as if she doesn’t always anyway, living on a lake and being such a do-it-yourselfer). She can use some help going through things, maintaining things, mowing the lawn, etc. And she’s thinking ahead and preparing for a new way of life, doing things to make herself feel more secure, since she’ll be living in a house in a remote place all alone. Like me, Mom doesn’t mind her alone time, even enjoys it, and she keeps busy with all her plants and flowers, sewing and reading and cleaning, walking and swimming. Her Mahjong group meets every Monday, she has a Bible study group and a book club she belongs to, goes to church on Sunday… She has good, long-time friends, a sister-in-law who lives nearby, a niece and nephew. She’s not alone in this community, loves this area and her home here. I know she will be OK. Even better than OK. She’ll be able to travel again, visit us, see places she’s always wanted to see, do things she hasn’t been able to while caring for D through his last years of dementia and health issues. And Mom’s just about the most optimistic person I’ve ever met, and her faith is strong. So she will be OK, no matter what. In Julian of Norwich’s words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every kind/all manner of thing shall be well.”

I finally have the last pictures I wanted for my first post on my dad’s transformation…

This is Dad in the middle of the summer (he died October 18th) looking thinner than he ever had but still with his playful spirit, able to enjoy his “replacement.”

And it’s funny because I notice in this first one, above, that he’s holding my nephew’s hand, or at least two fingers of it. Which reminds me of the title of my book that’s based on his dying–Going for the Record. I love that title. Wasn’t sure they were going to let me keep it. There was a suggestion during the editing process that maybe I should try thinking up another one, and I remembering brainstorming with Eerdmans on that awhile, but then they agreed we weren’t coming up with anything better.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, the title refers to the main character’s dad’s habit of holding her hand when they’re driving somewhere in the car–something she doesn’t like, but which he does as a joke. Leah is a star soccer player whose dad drives her all over for travel soccer, soccer camps, games, practices… Often when they’re driving, he plays this game of reaching for her hand when she’s not looking and holding it (tight; she has a hard time pulling away). Leah finds the game irritating–it gets so old; she’s not a little girl anymore. It’s just not funny. When she objects, her dad says, “What? You like setting records. Let’s go for the record and see how long we can hold hands. Maybe we can make it all the way home…” Later in the story, as her dad’s dying and she’s sitting at the side of his hospital bed holding his hand while he sleeps, she thinks how she and her dad are “going for the record” and she feels bad about all the times she pulled away from him and wishes they could keep on going for the record as they used to.

This hand-holding, hand-trapping game of “going for the record” is something my dad used to do with me on the way home from my basketball practices or games. I found it so infuriating! Did he never get tired of it?! But of course, like Leah in my story, I came to see it as a father just not quite knowing how to show affection to his teenage daughter anymore, and being creative and funny about it, trying to show and/or get affection somehow. And looking back, I, too, wish I’d had more of a sense of humor about his always wanting to “go for the record.” I wish I’d shown him more affection during that period of my life, and I can appreciate the awkwardness of the position he was in.

Having had my own kids, I understand that now. I remember when they went from the cute baby-and-little-child thing of telling me they loved me and how much, hugging and kissing me and holding my hand all the time, to not really doing that as much but still wanting to sit on my lap at times or hold my hand and kiss me goodnight or slump up against my shoulder sitting in church or reading stories or wherever, to that first time they pulled their hand away from mind, to that time when they no longer wanted me to even kiss them goodbye or goodnight because I was going to mess up their makeup or get my cooties on their perfectly cleaned faces. I remember feeling so much love for them at times when they were teenagers and early 20-somethings and not being able to show them the affection I felt and wanted to show them. It wasn’t just for me, a need I had; I worried that without the usual expressions of love they’d grown up receiving, they might not know how much I loved them, that I still loved them as much as ever. …My poor dad, he was just starved for affection, and bursting with it, maybe even thought I didn’t know how much he loved me. I did. Which makes me feel better about my own kids. Besides, they’re coming out of that period of their lives now. I can show them affection again, and they show it to me!

This is Dad a couple months later, nearing the end (but still looking good, much better than he did at the very end, when he’d stopped eating), in his hospital bed in the sunroom. His face looks a lot like I remember him looking healthy–in terms of fullness and coloring. But you can see by his expression, by the sort of vacant look in his eyes, how he feels.

Thank you to my sister for finding these pictures while cleaning out her closets!

On Becoming/Being a Grandparent

Dad in his last months with his “replacement,” the last of his grandchildren he was to meet (7th of what would one day be 11)

In my previous blog post (about my dad’s suffering and dying of cancer and how it transformed him, or how he let it transform him), I posted various pictures of my dad that I thought really reflected who he was. In looking for photos to include in that post, I’d wanted to find one of him during his final couple months, one that showed his physical decline, but that also showed how at peace he was. Ideally, I hoped my sister or Mom would have one of him in his hospital bed in the sunroom. I didn’t take any pictures of Dad at that time because I didn’t want to remember him that way, wasting away. I wanted to remember him as the healthy, strong, and vibrant man he’d always been. While we have home videos of him (that someone else took) in his hospital bed and hobbling around playing with grandchildren in those final months, I have no photos of him from that time.

But today my nephew texted a group message to a bunch of family members sharing a few photos he found that he considers “keepers,” and among them was the above, a picture of my dad 3-4 months before he died, looking thin and threadbare–and peaceful and happy (how he loved babies and little kids!). The baby in that picture is the grandson I wrote of in my previous post, the grandson we weren’t sure my dad was going to get to meet, the reason my mom chose to have a life-prolonging procedure done on my dad (he wasn’t lucid to decide for himself; he’d signed papers saying no life-prolonging procedures were to be done, but this procedure was in a gray area and Mom was sure he’d want to meet this grandchild, due any day). This baby was a delight to my dad. Knowing he didn’t have long to live, Dad referred to his newest grandson as his “replacement.” So this picture is the missing piece that completes my last post, and it’s also the perfect springboard into what I want to write about today–becoming/being a grandparent.

Almost exactly a month ago today, I became a grandparent (I say almost because February only has 28 days. And exactly what constitutes a month, 28, 29, 30, or 31 days? Close enough). I should probably specify that I became a grandma, because I suspect it can be quite different, becoming a grandma versus becoming a grandpa. As different as it is to be the mother of a newborn as opposed to the father of a newborn. Why? Well, because of the nine months mothers spend incubating a little human inside their bodies, the physical labor and hormones they go through giving birth, and, for breastfeeding moms, that whole experience (while some love breastfeeding, I felt like a cow, a feeding machine on call 24/7). So some of the things I’m about to write about as a new grandma who just got the privilege of spending 16 days with her newborn granddaughter, well, some of those feelings may be more specifically grandmother-ish. Not every grandparent/grandpa may be able to relate. I don’t think my husband can. While he was excited to become a grandpa and excited for my daughter and her husband, he didn’t seem quite as gonzo as I was about the whole thing! I started getting excited the minute my daughter told us she was pregnant, knowing what she was and would be going through. While she was in labor for hours on end in the hospital, I was so nervous and excited for her and her husband (and myself!). And when our son-in-law texted us the first picture of that healthy baby (we’ll call her V), I was so happy I cried and I thought she was the most beautiful, miraculous thing. I stared and stared at that picture, studied each new picture texted to us.

My daughter and her husband invited me to come stay with them when V was just five days old. I’d been quarantining for a month so there was no way I could have the coronavirus and possibly bring it to them. Never had I been so happy to drive the 9.5 hours from Virginia to Michigan. I’d started packing my suitcase weeks before. Each day I’d consult the extended forecast for the states along my route and see when there would snowstorm-free days I’d be safe to travel.

On the drive there, I kept thinking how this baby was half her mom and half her dad, but also part me and my husband, part my son-in-law’s mom and dad, part of all of our parents and grandparents and great-parents… and back and back and back. It just really struck me that each and every one of us is a great big WE, with so many people that went into making us who we are. We are all like thousands of tendrils springing from the roots (or the branches) of this great big tree. How can anyone not see we are all one, connected, tracing back and back to the same roots…

People often say the best part of being a grandparent is that when the baby cries, you can just hand it back to its mom or dad. That wasn’t my experience, isn’t how I feel about it. I was there to help. When that baby cried and her parents were frazzled or exhausted, I wanted to try my hand at comforting her, relieve them. Give her to me, let me try what worked with you! And they gave her to me. And I loved it. And often, through a process of trial and error, I found something that worked!

V’s crying didn’t get to me the way my own newborns’ had, the way her crying obviously distressed my daughter and her husband when they were exhausted and didn’t know why she was crying and had tried everything and were ready to hand her over to me. Of course I wanted to stop V’s crying so that she wasn’t upset, so her parents could relax, but her crying was almost comical to me, tragical like it was the end of world when I knew all it would take was the passage of a bubble of gas or a replenished milk supply and in an instant she’d be fine again. And yet I remember how helpless I felt as the mother of a seemingly unconsolable newborn, how mothers are hardwired biologically to be very bothered by that crying. But as a grandparent, that crying isn’t stressful to me; it’s cute. The red distorted face, the trembling lips, the little tongue and gums, the strident squawk they make when they suck in for air mid-cry. It’s adorable. It’s a newborn baby. It takes you back.

Same with dirty diapers. Newborn poop smells sweet, seems clean. Don’t mind changing diapers at all. Let me do it.

Now of course it helps that I was well-rested, unlike V’s parents. I’d hear V squawk a couple times each night, but it didn’t keep me up. Evidently I slept through quite a bit; I’d find out in the morning there’d been more than a couple squawks and they’d lasted longer than I knew. So you have more of a sense of humor about these taxing things like crying and dirty diapers when you aren’t a sleep deprived young parent.

Most of the time V did not cry and we just sat around staring at her and marveling at the miracle of her, how cute she is, how soft, how perfectly formed. You forget how tiny and delicate, the slow-motion movements they make, waving their arms and hands about, curling and uncurling their fingers, arching into an S, making all sorts of faces with serious eyebrows and ever-changing mouth/lip shapes, the long yawns, the dream smiles, the disturbing little twisted looks with eyes half open, eyeballs flipping back into their heads. One minute she would look like a wise sage studying the universe out the window with her mouth in a perfect O, they next minute she seemed to be staring deep into my soul, a split second later she’d sneeze or fart or spit up on us and then go right back into her eerily quiet slow-mo awareness. It was like a form of meditation holding her and looking at her–such calm and peace and beauty, simplicity, newness, possibility/potential, mystery, no regard for time.

It was an unforgetable sixteen days for me, getting to spend that time with my daughter and new granddaughter. I’ll always treasure it. I wished my husband could have been there to see our amazing grandchild and what a great mom our daughter is, but he had to stay home and work. I wondered if he’d be a bit bored with all our baby-gazing, anyway. V’s dad did his share of baby-gazing, as my husband had with our babies, but it seemed my daughter and I could’ve done it all day, where they’d have had their fill after only an hour or so. My husband will have to wait a month or two to meet V. I can’t wait to see her again. I’m smitten. Our daughter sends me a picture every day. I don’t know how long that will last, but I’m grateful and enjoying it for now.

PS. I read this to my husband and he disagrees that he was any less excited than I was!

Going for the Record

I’m excited to announce that my young adult novel Going for the Record is coming out. Again! Originally published by Eerdmans Book for Young Readers in 2004, it had a very good run before going out of print about 12 years ago (I can’t remember when since it continued to be available online after that, and still is). But then Eerdmans contacted me last spring saying that they wanted to reprint Going for the Record and hoped to have it come out on their Spring 2021 list, slated for February (tomorrow?!). 

This news made me really happy, because Going for the Record, a novel loosely based on my dad’s dying of cancer, is a story I wanted to share with others so they could at least vicariously experience what I was lucky enough to experience first-hand. And now I get to share Going for the Record with a whole new group of young people.

How can I say losing my dad to cancer was an experience I was lucky to have? Well, I understand the reader can never really know who my real-life dad was, so my book can’t fully convey his incredible transformation. The experience of witnessing that and enjoying his new-and-improved person was what I was lucky to have. He set an amazing example of bravery, hope, faith, and selflessness. Being around him at the end, well, words that come to mind are sacred, awe, holy… And those are words that some people who knew my dad would laugh at!

I love this picture because it shows how much my dad and I enjoyed each other–you can just see it by the looks on our faces in this simple exchange. In this photo from 1969, I was 5, he was 36, and my cousin Alex and sister Marie were 2. I also like this picture because my dad LOVED little kids, and I think that’s quite clear in this picture, too.

My dad was a complex guy.

He was funny, warm, affectionate, spent a lot of time playing with us as kids: throwing a baseball or football around, shooting baskets, taking us swimming and water-skiiing and sledding, skiing and snowmobiling and skating, going on walks, playing cards with us, wrestling around on the floor, tickling, telling stories. I was the apple of his eye and I knew it–I’m sure my siblings felt they were each the apple of eye, too! He was so proud of everything we did. The way he looked at us, you just knew how much he loved us. And we loved him right back, thought he was so funny and cool.

I admired many things about him—his honesty and humility (you couldn’t find a more down-to-earth guy), how hardworking he was, how important family was to him (his mom and five brothers, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, my mom, us kids), his physical strength and athleticism, his creativity and cleverness as a builder, his ability to figure out complex things despite his lack of education. 

Dad being the funny character he so often was, working outside in his rural “open air” shop in his underwear.

But I didn’t always respect him (I don’t mean to his face–we always respected him to his face–but inwardly). I remember thinking that even as a kid.

I’d see my friends’ dads, a couple of them in particular, and think, “Now there’s a man I respect…” There were things my dad did that I knew were wrong, and others that I just didn’t admire. On the most trivial end of things, when he got sick with a cold or the flu, he was a baby. He’d come shuffling out from his bedroom and down the hall in his powder blue pajamas with white piping that he never wore otherwise. He’d look sad and mopey, act like he was to be pitied and lay on the couch. When my mom was equally or more sick, she’d smile through her sniffles, fever, and/or cough and soldier on as if nothing was different. She cooked, cleaned, and tended to us and the house like it was any other day. My dad had a bit of a cruel, teasing streak to him, too. He loved to get a rise out of people, poke in their tender spots. He’d tell cutting jokes with just enough truth in them to hurt a person, yet they were funny, so people had to laugh, while the poor person they were directed at stood or sat there, blushing in embarrassment. He liked to steal things, little things, candy at the grocery store, drill bits from ACE Hardware, way more fruit than we needed from the artistic cornucopia display in the hotel lobby. It was like a game to him. He had the money in his pocket to pay for the drill bit, but it was like he wanted to show that he could still do it, get away with it, prove that the store wasn’t doing enough to deter shop lifting. He’d chuckle and laugh and show you what he got, proud of his stealth. In many ways, he was a kid at heart, always a kid, not much older than 12 or 13 deep inside. He was a mischievous Robin Hood type. It was like he just hadn’t matured fully, like he was a wounded, charming pre-teen who thought it would always be cool to show you what he could get away with, that once a hellion always a hellion.

1976?

But my dad had a darker side, too. He lacked confidence, felt very uncomfortable when he was out of his element. He was highly irritable, had no patience, got in dark moods. So many mealtimes, he seemed like a tornado trapped in a Ball Mason jar, rattling around at the other end of the table; he never got out but there was always the worry he might. His bad moods would get triggered by who knows what, by things that seemed way too small to warrant such orneriness. When he was in such a mood, he was prone to yelling and his temper would flare. He’d get so angry he became irrational in his line of arguing. He’d blame things on people in ridiculous ways, contradict himself from one minute to the next, get things all mixed up and misspeak, just in general be out-of-control in his yelling. I often cringed when he was like that, not just cringing out of fear (he wasn’t violent, never hurt us or broke anything, but his yelling was scary enough for me) but cringing because I was embarrassed for him.

I love this picture of our family (1973), although you can see some of Dad’s “orneriness” on his face here. It may just be the sun in his eyes, but that’s what it looked like!

Dad was proud to have been a “hell-raiser” as a kid. His ONLY advice to us growing up was, “I don’t care what you do, just don’t get caught.” He said it quite often. He might smile while saying it, but he seemed to really mean it, too! Even as a young kid, I’d think to myself how strange it was that this was THE only verbal guidance he ever gave us. I’d think how wrong it was, for him not to care what we did, if we did bad things, but that what was important to him was that we not get caught. Great parenting, Dad!

Of course, now I see that there was some dry humor in that—of course he cared what we did, wanted us to be good people. He took us to church every Sunday and he tried hard to be a good person, went to confession regularly, wouldn’t take communion if he’d sworn or done something he hadn’t had a chance to confess yet. I wouldn’t doubt it if he swore around the men he worked with, or when he was around just my uncles, but at home, other than shit/hell/damn, we rarely heard him swear (which to me means using the Lord’s name in vain–God, Jesus, Jesus Christ), and I never heard him use the F-word. When he got so angry that “goddammit” slipped out, I could tell by his face that he would need to go to confession again before he could take communion.

But his faith (in my growing up years) seemed to be something engrained in him by his upbringing, not something genuine and heartfelt. He’d gone to Catholic school and been a altar boy, but he and my grandma told stories about how he terrorized the nuns and priests and picked on kids. [In his dying days, he had a recurring dreams about a circle of fire closing in around our house, threatening to consume us, and he said the only person in the dreams who could put the fire out was some kid he’d picked on in high school. He would tell my mom about the dreams. Finally, she said to him, “Why don’t you try telling the kid you’re sorry in the dream?” He did, and the dreams stopped. So he obviously felt guilty, obviously had quite a conscience, for those high school transgressions to be haunting him so many years later on his deathbed. Although, who knows what he did to the poor kid!] But at church, and at home when we lit our Advent candles and said the prayers that went with the lighting of each one, when we put Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas and said the prayer that went with that, when we went to church on holy days and got ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, when we didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent…, he seemed to just be going through the motions. He often nodded off in church, or told us beforehand we were going to skip out early after communion so he could get to his Sunday morning round of golf. I never heard him say a prayer that wasn’t rote. He never said our bedtime prayers with us when we were little (my mom did that).

Before his diagnosis of cancer, I never saw him read the Bible or talk about God or Jesus, never heard him discuss anything spiritual or religious with his friends, brothers, mom, even with my mom. I never saw him say the Rosary once, when my Grandma said it daily. The only thing Dad did that touched me and let me know he might truly believe in God was that every night before he went to bed, he’d come in our rooms while he thought we were asleep and draw the sign of the cross over our foreheads with his thumb. I saw that through my eyelashes on enough nights, saw him do it to my sister and me, that I knew it was a regular thing he did and that he no doubt did it to my brothers in their room, too. But his faith was a very private thing to him, and from what I could see, his church-going and our prayers before meals were more of a habit guilted into him from his strict Catholic upbringing.

It didn’t escape me that he chose not to send us to Catholic school, even though there were two Catholic schools as close or closer to us than the public school we attended, both associated with local churches we attended. And neither of my brothers became altar boys as my dad had. If he’d thought a Catholic education valuable, or being an altar boy, wouldn’t he have had us follow in his footsteps? Yes, a public education is free and Catholic schools are not, but tuition at the Catholic schools near us wasn’t expensive, and I doubt that would’ve been the reason he chose not to give us the Catholic education he received. I felt my dad’s continued church-going was something he did mostly because he knew he was supposed to, because my grandma who was the strong matriarch of the family was still alive (and living with us from the time I was 9 until after I graduated from high school) and watching and wanting all her boys to be good Catholics. His faith and religious practices seemed to be based more on a fear of not doing those things than on any true belief or yearning to be close to God. No one knows what’s in another person’s heart, so I knew it wasn’t fair to judge him for that even then, but that was my take-away as his daughter, who was watching him closely and hoping to see more than that for 20-some years.

Dad at our wedding in 1987, three years before his initial diagnosis of cancer

When he was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer (he was 58, I was 27) and I heard he’d need surgery and probably radiation and chemotherapy after that, I thought, Oh, no, poor Mom; he’s such a baby when he doesn’t feel well. She would be the one playing nurse to him and I was sure he wouldn’t be an easy patient. Though Dad had mellowed a lot since we were kids, he could still be difficult, get so ornery! Months of chemotherapy and radiation?

But I went to visit him shortly after his surgery, took our eighteen-month-old up there to be with him and my mom for a week or so, and I was surprised by what I saw. At least in front of me, he was a good patient! And his diagnosis was not so rosy that he had reason to be overly relieved or hopeful. The doctors said they got all the cancer but they had to remove so much of his rectum (and anus) that he’d permanently need the bag they’d attached to him via a port, a bag that collected him bowel movements. In addition, they found cancer cells in the lymph nodes in his groin, so they knew cancer cells had gotten out into his bloodstream and there was a chance it might spread or already have done so in undetectable ways. As many people do given such a diagnosis, my dad turned toward his faith in a more personal way. I saw the Bible lying around, devotional and religious books like The Imitation of Christ. Even if my mom hadn’t told me about their discussions, I could see he was thinking about God and Jesus more than just when he was in church, just when he felt he had to in order to fulfill his obligations as a good practicing Catholic. And there was none of the “pity me” or “why me” attitude I might’ve expected, no anger. It was more like, Why not me? His dad had died of cancer at 58, his grandpa and grandma had died of cancer, so I think it sort of made sense to him that he might’ve gotten it, too.

At first I thought, OK, maybe for now he’s just overjoyed to still be alive, he’s glad they haven’t said he only has a couple of months or years to live, he’s really appreciating all my mom’s doing for him, he’s grateful for her care, he feels too weak to make a fuss or get angry or yell. But when he starts feeling stronger, or when the chemotherapy starts making him feel really crappy, the stuff will hit the fan. But that never happened. He suffered through the treatments in a way that amazed my mom, bearing it all bravely and without much complaint. 

He got better and endured the bag that made him have to wear his pants either way too high or way too low (he chose high), the bag that sometimes stunk like a charcoal filter disguising you-know-what, the bag he had to empty. He was able to return to golfing and enjoying life, traveling.

Dad at my sister’s wedding in June 1993.

He had two-and-a-half good years before the blood tests he periodically got showed cancer was again growing somewhere in his body, that it had indeed spread and taken root in a new area. More tests, more worry, not feeling as well, not as much energy, finding out the cancer was in his lower back, tentacles reaching around his bones/nerves there, intertwined and too close to the spinal cord to try removing it, which meant all he could do is try to hold it at bay with more chemotherapy. 

Dad was still an amazing patient. He seemed almost saintly to me. He acted hopeful. After we left from our summer visit, all the reports from home were good.

We lived in New Hampshire at the time and had two little girls, so we made the long trip to Michigan and back only a couple times per year, maybe a few times now that Dad was sick. So we’d see him in the summer, over the holidays, maybe at a family celebration in between then. Not often enough.

When I saw him in November at a wedding, it had only been maybe three months since we last saw him, but I instantly knew things were not good. That my mom had either underreported things, not wanting us to worry, or that because she saw him every day and saw things happening gradually, she didn’t notice the difference in him like we did, in stark contrast to how he’d looked in the summer. He was thinner than I’d ever seen him, his face had a gray pallor to it, his giant fingers had shrunken and felt soft in my hand (Dad had always prided himself in his calloused hands, said you could tell a lot about a man and how hard he worked by shaking his hand; he poked fun of men who “pushed papers” for a living and had hands “as soft as a woman’s”). Dad just looked weak and old, the first time in the three years since he found out he had cancer that he looked sick and like he might be dying. I think we all knew. And yet he was only getting sweeter and gentler, more patient, more selfless. He was so into his grandchildren (preschoolers and babies then), smiling at them and talking with them, wanting to hold them and play with them, watching them with that “beam gleam” he’d always watched us with. It broke my heart to see my strong dad looking feeble at the wedding. But Dad seemed strangely happy and peaceful, glad to be alive and with his family. I marveled at that. No worry, no stress, no sign of pain, no orneriness? Was he hiding it or had things happened gradually enough for him, too, that he truly couldn’t see it in the mirror, like we all could? Surely he could tell it in how his clothes fit?

We all went home to be with him for Christmas that year. He seemed tired, looked even grayer, but not really any thinner. It was a great Christmas. We all watched Little Women (Dad was actually watching a movie like Little Women, sitting through the whole thing?!) together on TV one night, tears streaming down our faces at the scenes of Beth dying, even Dad. It was poignant and awkward—I wanted to look over at Dad and smile, to watch him crying (I’d only seen him cry one other time; the night he got home from taking my oldest brother to college, he came into our room to do his sign-of-the-cross thing over our foreheads. After he did it to me, he sat on the end of my bed and cried for a while.), to go over and hug him. I’m sure everybody did, but we just sat there and watched. 

Dad really went downhill that spring. The growing tumor was putting pressure on the vessels in the lower part of his body, making his legs swell and his kidneys not be able to drain the urea out of his body. In May his thinking grew cloudy as his brain got affected by that. It was alarming for my mom; he began to hallucinate and have periods time where he wasn’t lucid or didn’t make sense. There were difficult decisions to be made. Bring in hospice or not? Do this procedure or not? He’d been deemed terminal at this point and didn’t want life-prolonging procedures that would just string along his suffering and buy him time where his quality of life wouldn’t be good anyway. He’d signed papers saying that. If he has this procedure, he’d be able to urinate again and his mind would clear, he’d be able to see another grandchild born, my sister’s first child, he’d live a couple to a few more months than he might, but he’d no doubt suffer longer, worse. Maybe it was best to let nature take its course, let there be an end to his suffering. Dad’s mind was not clear enough to say for himself if wanted to do the procedure and see this new grandchild or not. It fell to Mom to make the decision. It was hard for her, for all of us, but she decided to do it, to have the stent put in so that he’d no longer be poisoned by the urea building up in his body and affecting his brain.

Dad got to meet and enjoy his new grandson born at the end of the month. Instead of focusing on his own suffering and what would happen to him, he continued to think about Mom and how she would manage once he was gone. He asked us to help him get quotes on a new automatic garage door opener to replace the garage door they had that wasn’t working well. He’d sold off the spare lot next door to give her more of a nest egg. He tried to put everything in order to make things easier for her. He made it through the summer and into the fall… He was suffering, more and more, much in the way detailed in Going for the Record. His pain looked excruciating. We watched him battle it. Mom sometimes regretted her decision to do the procedure in May.

But Dad had began to lose all self-consciousness when it came to his faith. Whether that faith was always in there like that but had been kept private, or whether it had grown due to his illness and suffering, he was very open about it. He talked about being ready to die, being at peace about it, how he looked forward to getting to see his “pa” again and that he’d be the first of his brothers to get to do so. He had favorite Bible passages that brought him comfort. He prayed out loud, not just at mealtimes and not only rote memorized prayers or prayers read out of books, but heartfelt prayers he made up in his own simple words. At first it was awkward to walk in on him when he was in the middle of a prayer, but then when he didn’t seem embarrassed and continued, I figured either he wasn’t entirely lucid, or he just didn’t care if I heard, maybe even wanted me to. When he asked me to pray with him, I knew. He bought my sister and I matching gold pendants like he’d already given Mom, a modern art Jesus on an invisible cross, his arm outstretched with the necklace passing through his hands. He talked to us about how God is the most important thing, our faith in God. He wanted us to know that. For the man whose only parental advice to us before this was the irreverent, “I don’t care what you do, just don’t get caught,” this was uncharacteristically serious! He suddenly seemed like a wise old sage.

When I said goodbye to him for what I knew might be the last time at the end of September, I broke down crying over him while hugging him in his hospital bed in the sunroom. I didn’t know what to say besides I love you and goodbye, but it seemed like something way bigger and better was called for, was in me wanting to come out. Just saying the word “goodbye” seemed so big, though, in that moment. I finally managed to say it and broke down crying even harder, but Dad just chuckled and said, “Don’t say goodbye, say, ‘See you later.’” Then I laughed and said, “Ok, Dad, see you later then!” I liked that so much better than goodbye, and it was funny how Dad had said something so simple and down-to-earth yet so profound and other-worldly, as he was trying to get me to see the situation. 

Those were our last words. After that I only spoke to him through Mom over the phone, or I wrote him letters (yes, old-fashioned handwritten letters). Priests were often at the house, and Dad’s friends. They prayed over him and with him. Less than a month after I’d last seen him, on October 18th, a bunch of people were gathered around him saying the Our Father out loud together as my mom held his hand and tried to comfort him while he struggled. She said he wasn’t lucid but had become restless that day, would startle and grab the sidebars of his hospital bed, rattling them, so she knew he was fighting it, in pain or scared and struggling to breathe. While they all prayed, she told him it was OK to let go, and he did.

The amazing thing about my dad’s death was not so much the realization of the depth of our love for each other—his and mine, his and my mom’s, his and my siblings’—but it was the awe of watching him take his suffering and let it transform him (and those around him). He became a better man, the best version of himself, an inspiring example to us all. We watched him go from a man who had a hard time seeing past his own frustrations to appreciate the feelings and needs of others, to a man who put his own suffering on the backburner to think of those around him and how he could make what they were going through easier. His acceptance of his fate, his bravery, his hope and faith, his newfound patience, the peace he exuded in that last year… I fear I’m making it sound like he gave up. He didn’t. But he fought a quiet fight, unlike the loud and yelling one he waged so much of his life that made others suffer with him. And he knew when it was time to stop fighting. In fact, one of his favorite Bible passages at that time was:

2 Timothy 4:6-8

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 

8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

When I remember Dad from that last half year, I see him lying there peacefully in his hospital bed in the sunroom, smiling, listening to beautiful music as he stared up at the skylight, his eyes moving back and forth in an edgy way like people’s do when they’re listening to someone speaking on the phone, only it was like he was listening to God (and seeing something invisible to us: a stone staircase into the sky, I imagined, hanging down from the sky to him, lower and lower each day), getting encouragement and instructions from Him on what was next, what he was to do, what was going to happen, how it was going to go… 

I can’t believe it’s been over 25 years since he left us. His memory is so fresh, our love for him just as strong. Even stronger than it might have been had he not set the amazing example for us that he did in his dying.

Ronald Jude Polakowski (1933-1995)

Misogynist Tomboy

Just wanted to share an article I could really relate to and that I thought was very good.

Me Peonies!

Just had to share these before they are done (unfortunately, they don’t last long). The color is so vivid.IMG_1094