cw: family of origin, intimate partner abuse, queer identity, body pain
This post is cross-published here at my main writing home, the Infinite. It was originally written for Substack and cross-posted from there.
I should probably not be writing right now. I am trying not to squint at my dimmed screen as I type, because the haze of migraine pain gets worse if I squint.
I had a bad dream which was trying to be a good dream, but it was a bad dream because none of it is true.
A long time ago now, I grew up on a farm with a brother and a sister and a mom and a dad. My dad was abusive and scary, and when he drove off to work the four of us would relax a bit and exist in a different kind of day, a day where we disregarded his abusive and nonsensical rules, read books at the table while taking a very long time eating dinner, laughing absurdly at things we knew to be true about him but could never bring up in his presence. We made noises instead of creeping around the house in a cold fear.
Over time, my brother pulled away as he got older, and was a pretty reckless teenager. He set one of our fields on fire once and all he got was a stern lecture from dad. I still remember that. It was the first time I saw him spare his son the kind of punishments he would heap on his other two children. Whether or not this was the reason, my mom and sister and I bonded so closely that sometimes it was more like I had two sisters, not a sibling and a parent. For a while in my very early days of adulthood, we stopped being friends. My sister and I got on each other’s nerves and argued a lot. My mom was a frozen distant icicle of pain and anger while she slogged her way through the process of divorcing my dad. And I had no compassion for either of them, not until after my first husband left me and the only people I could trust were the two of them and probably my maternal grandparents.
Through relationships and new babies and raising kids and falling out of church (as if tumbling slowly down a long flight of stairs), somehow these two relationships remained with me. We had our disagreements and tread lightly around them, but mostly we made each other laugh and shared jokes that only people who had experienced intimate partner violence from the same person for more than a decade would understand. All the way up until my two oldest kids were teenagers, I still enjoyed talking and laughing with them about everything and nothing in particular.
But then, gender nonconformity in my children and Obergefell v. Hodges codifying same sex marriages as legal caused a catastrophic falling out with both of them, over the most ridiculous kind of thing: deadnaming (see footnote 1) and misgendering (see footnote 2) my kids, along with being homophobic in general. I had changed my name recently as well, and both my mom and sister blithely ignored it and continued to call me by a name that is not mine. I absorbed this unkindness in myself, but the cruelty and lack of love and the will to learn about what my children were asking for was a toe over my line in the sand.
One of the last things I can remember saying to my mom was in an email explaining things I thought were already clear, and giving her an ultimatum — either respect my kids’ and my name choices and pronouns, or don’t talk to me until you will.
Some context, maybe.
When my Mamow’s (see footnote 3) dementia got bad enough for Papow to hire a part-time aide to help him get some occasional space to rest or get some chores done, I started going out to their house once or twice a week to spend time with her and give him a bit of a break. I washed the dishes, I used their washer and dryer for my laundry, I sat with Mamow. I reminded her who the people in all the hanging photos were. I reminded her who I was, although when she thought I was her mother it made me oddly happy and I didn’t really want to explain that I wasn’t. I tried to tell her why her baby doll couldn’t actually eat the food she was trying so hard to spoon into its mouth. I washed her hair. I took her to get it dyed and cut, I got her favorite meal from McDonald’s, I made sure she took all the tablets she was supposed to take with her midday meal. One day she had an accident in the bathroom, and I cleaned her up. Taking care of her was a profound and holy experience for me.
Because of her failing health, and because once again capitalism failed her, my mom moved back home with her parents for a while. I took her to see her actively dying older sister in hospice, and watching her cry and touch her sister’s face gave me hope that she could let go of all the pain between them and just love her here at the end. I don’t know if she has. At my aunt’s funeral, just days after Christmas, I tried sharing a poem with her that I thought would be meaningful, but this was a mistake on my part — I should have asked first. She responded by angrily pushing me away with a catch in her throat, and walked off; something she rarely did. Grief is a wound that never heals, which sometimes opens again and bleeds as if it had just been inflicted. I did not understand how much she was hurting.
Some time after the funeral, I sent that email, and I never heard from her again. My sister texted me when my Mamow was in her last hours, and she died less than an hour after that text. I could never have gotten there on time. I was not invited to the funeral and I didn’t go. As of the writing of this piece, I have never visited her grave, even though I want to.
This is supposed to be about my mother. I guess it’s easy to talk about someone who has died, because there’s a finality and an ending to the trajectory of their mortal life. Someone who is still alive always has within them a possibility to change, to try again, even when it’s buried so far down it may as well not exist at all. Five years from now, maybe we’ll be friends again.
In my dream — I actually did have this dream last night after the migraine started — I was sat at a table with ten or so other people (although most of them had blurry faces and were just incidentally there for ambiance, I suppose) during what seemed to be some kind of family holiday. My mom was there and I could see her, across the table but not directly across from me. She knew I was there but did not speak to me. I was looking for the pages in her book that might be about me, and in my dream she had written pages and pages about me and expressed her sorrow that we were separated. I know this is not true because one of my partners read the book in order to tell me what was in it, if it seemed like I should know about it. Apparently, I, her eldest child, am barely mentioned, but in my dream she did talk about me and I had hope again that what we had could be rebuilt.
In my dream, I was crying and thinking through how to ask her if she would still love me. I couldn’t decide what to say; would you still love me if I was a boy? No, that’s binary for her sake, but wrong for me. Would you still love me if my gender has changed? Would you still love me if I am not a girl? I cried because I wanted it to be real that I could safely ask her and I wanted it to be real that she would say of course, and then love me in the way that I want my mother to love me.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, how do you end an impossible dream?), our three-year-old suddenly banged through my bedroom door and jumped on the bed, jumped back off the bed, and ran out of the room. And then he did it again, so I laid awake in a fog of migraine pain, worrying that he would do it more and that the volume of his response would hurt my head.
I cannot be the daughter you want, because I never was.
Mom, if you’re reading this, I guess this is an open letter to you. I do still love you. I am still connected to you by blood. I am still your oldest child, the one whose words you fear, the one that trusted you and supported you and would never leave unless you left me first. I wish you, as a person that changed her own name when I was thirteen because your birth name was just not what you wanted, could allow for other people to have changed their names as well, and to understand that a person can both be confused or sad about something and respond appropriately to a name change by using the new name. I wish you could understand why honoring our gender identities would mean so much to me, even if your grandkids don’t want to hear about it from you. I wish you could love me even though I my gender has changed, even though I am not a girl.
But I will continue to disappoint you, because I am unwilling to be other than who I am.
- deadnaming: to refer to or speak to someone by the name they were given at birth, if this differs from the name they go by presently. it is cruel and it is violent.
- misgendering: to use pronouns (that may have been assigned at birth) when referring to or speaking to a person who does not use those pronouns any more. it is cruel and it is violent.
- no I don’t know why we spell it like that and yes my grandparents were born and grew up in west virginia.