Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Not Just Transgender

When my children were small, I was part of an online liberal community of (primarily) mothers. One day, a woman who went by laurustina showed up with a funny, delightful little vignette about looking out the window to find her husband and landlord chatting, oblivious to the fact that her transgender daughter Alice's prosthetic breast was on the lawn. While she and Alice watched, her son, Max, rescued the boobie. The whole family was delightful. Read it. You'll smile.

I didn't realize Alice had since died. I missed it somehow, or maybe she didn't tell us. When she posted another story, it was heart wrenching rather than funny. This time, she was consenting to donate her daughter's organs. I've been waiting to get my hands on her memoir ever since.

I finally finished Jules Vilmer's The Complicated Geography of Alice  yesterday, and I encourage you to read it. Probably. Unless, maybe, you're in a similar situation. If you're in the belly of the whale, if you have a depressed, transgender, drug-addicted child, you have enough to deal with. Not that you shouldn't read it, but I won't be the one to tell you to. This book is terrifying, and you may not need any more terrifying right now.

Terrifying because Jules Vilmer and her husband Jay did everything right. They were perfect parents, at least when it came to dealing with Alice being transgender. They would argue, of course. After all, they were there. It's easier to credit someone with perfection when you only have a vague idea of what actually happened. For me, literally perfect wasn't important, just that they'd risen to the occasion. Things turned out badly anyway, because Alice had other problems. That became oh-so-important to me as I read.

When you read about terrible things happening to people, it's tempting - irresistible, even - to figure out all the ways in which they're different from you. If you can figure out where they went wrong, you can figure out how to avoid their fate. But what if they're Jules, Jay, Max and Alice? What if you like them to much to criticize? What if that made you realize, once again, what a tremendous unkindness dissecting every little choice they made would be?

So instead, I tried desperately to tell myself that Alice didn't die because she was transgender. That one can't die of being transgender, because transgender isn't sick. She died because she was mentally ill. Because she was a drug addict. I can't say her parents handled those things perfectly, because I don't know what perfect would look like. I already know I'll be in over my head if one of my children is as tortured as Alice was.

But a transgender child....that's something I thought I could do. It wouldn't be easy, it would be an adjustment, and I'll even confess I'd probably have some grief about it. I'd get over it, though. If I'm a good mother, my transgender child will be insulated from a hateful world. No need to turn to drugs or self-hatred. A transgender child is no tragedy. No tragedy is all I ask.

No, it's not. I want my kids to be happy people with fulfilling lives. No, I don't, I want them to be kids who stay right here with me forever. No, I don't. I want them to grow up. Because it's that or die.

What Valmir wishes for now is so simple.

Sometimes I tell people my daughter ran off to Tangier. If they ask what she's doing there, I roll my eyes and say, "That's what I'd like to know." But oh, how I love the idea of her traipsing across the globe, having adventures so grand she keeps forgetting to call home. 
No, no, no. Alice could not have been depressed or addicted to drugs because she was transgender. It must have been in addition to being transgender. She was a tortured soul, and even if she'd been perfectly content to stay in a male body, she would have struggled just as much. Because being as mentally ill as she was sucks, and Alice was severely mentally ill. It was in the cards; written on her DNA.

Nobody's fault; certainly not her parents. I'll even let the transphobic's world off the hook, because I can't have the transphobic world be the culprit here. Alice's parents did everything in their power to protect her from it. If they were only moderately successful, because most of the world is beyond their control, other gender non-conforming folks have faced much worse. They lived to tell about it. Alice's depression, on the other hand, was unique to her. She's the only person who has ever had it. It's fatal, 100% of the time. Maybe someday, we'll know how to treat severe mental illness, to manage or even cure it. But for now, I have accepted that even parents who do everything right simply might not have enough to work with.

I don't believe either of my children is transgender. If they were, I would know. Right? Anyway, it doesn't matter, because if I'm wrong, I can handle it. Right?

I should take this opportunity to ask myself just who the hell I think I am. Do I think I'm immune to having a child with severe depression? A child with a drug problem? No, I don't, of course not! Yes, I do. No, I don't. Yes, I do.

My children are probably more likely to struggle with depression or addiction than gender identity. The truth is, some degree of addiction or mental illness isn't unlikely. But I already know I'll be lost dealing with either of them. I'd have no map. I never hoped or expected I would know how to be Perfect Enlightened Mommy on the day my 14-year-old was expelled for the second time because we just couldn't figure out how to keep them sober.

Life could throw me a million unexpected loops. These are only three of them. I already knew I'd be at life's mercy with two of them. But I thought I had some control over the third. I could accept. I could protect. If I did that, it would all be okay.

Of course, if one of my children is transgender, and I do handle it well, it will be because I didn't have to go first. The worst of that path has already been cleared. I'll have models like Jules and her husband to light the way. And yes, I'll follow their example, even knowing they didn't get a happy ending. I will never have to be a hero here. The title of pioneer won't be available to me, thank GOD. I'd rather be the mother of two living children.

There are some particularly loathsome individuals ("loathsome" referring not to people who waver, but people who feel sure) who might say Alice died because her parents indulged her. "Let" her be a girl. Didn't employ enough tough love. Talk to some transgender people whose parents didn't indulge them, and get back to me. Longevity may never have been possible for Alice, but because of the life her parents created for her, her time on earth contained joy and happiness as well as torment. Alice's good times happened because she was seen, accepted and understood. While Alice was here, she got to live.

After I finished working yesterday, I had some time to kill, but not enough to go home. I could grocery shop, but that would leave frozen goods melting in my trunk. So I went to a coffee shop to finish the book I was reading.

I knew how it was going to end, but even so, I read the book hoping there had been some sort of mistake, that things would turn out differently. But there was no mistake. Alice is gone. She'll never grow up. Her parents will never get to remember how hard things were for a while, before their daughter settled into her skin, into the world. They'll never get to shake their heads at that poor, dramatic couple who didn't know everything was going to be alright.

When Alice died, her mother took me there. My eyes welled up with tears, and I wanted to sob. But I was surrounded by college and high school students, so I didn't. I finished the book, and went to pick up my kids.

To have a child is to have your heart walking around outside your body for the rest of your life.  A cliche' we all know, and all know is true....ish. I'll have my heart, split in half, walking around outside my body for the rest of my life, unless I don't.

Many years ago, before I had kids, I knew a mother who said of her children, "She is my strength, and he is my joy."

I've felt the same way. My first born, my love for you is fierce. Intense. Unbreakable.

My second born, my love for you is joyful, buoyant, light as a feather. Unsinkable.

But neither of you is unbreakable or unsinkable. My love for you is here for the rest of my life, but I have no guarantee that the objects of it are. I'd have quibbled over that bit, but the contract was non-negotiable. There was no one with whom to negotiate.

Figuring out all the ways in which the victim is different from you is a response to learning about tragedy, but it's not the response. There are others we can fall back on. One is even more cliche', but at least doesn't rob you of compassion or empathy. At least it won't steal your soul. Another response says, there but for the grace of God go I. It says, hug your kids. 

When I walked through the playground gates to pick up my children, I spotted my son right away. Seconds later, he spotted me. I got one of those running-jump hugs that he'll be too big to pull off soon. No matter what tomorrow may bring, I won't have those for much longer.

I may not have him forever. My luminous, happy, friendly, social, astute, quirky and witty son may or may not live a long life. But at that moment, he was there, arms around my neck. Solid gold.