“Aftermath” tends to have only a negative connotation, but I don’t want to use it like that here. Things with my father actually went pretty well — as well as I’d have expected once we were in the same space together.
What my father has been to me for most of my life is absent when I’ve needed him the most. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become clearer that for me to have him in my life, I have to ask him pretty directly to be a part of it. Otherwise, he never will step up of his own volition. I’m disappointed that he can’t volunteer himself without having to be proverbially bonked on the head to get his attention.
After my graduation, as he and I were walking to campus on a gloriously rare spring day of near-perfection, he relayed to me how his “ladyfriend” (in his sixties, he feels better calling his girlfriend this and not, well “girlfriend”, given its creepy connotations of age and the like) also chided him for hesitating on coming to my graduation. She told him, “When a girl says that something is not that big of a deal to her, it means that it’s a very big deal to her.” I’m not sure whether she said this to him before or after the guilt-inducing email (it was an email I didn’t enjoy writing at all, but it all came from the heart), or if it happened after the first time I wrote in early May after he said he’d botched the date I’d sent him back in February.
“She’s absolutely right, you know,” I said to him as we jaywalked across a side street.
He furrowed his brow and lightly said: “Well, don’t do that!”
“Sorry, Dad. That’s just how I roll. Get used to it.”
At some point later in that walk back to campus, I expressed doubt that he really was proud of me — not because I doubted him, but because I doubted myself. It was probably the lingering sense that here he was with his daughter — the one he “acquired” in the ’90s — which he hardly ever sees (his other daughter lives twenty minutes away). If tallying contiguously all the times he’s been in my presence since all those years ago — I am the daughter he has spent a total of about three weeks with in person. Over the span of about twenty years, that is.
[I recognize there’s still a benefit to having any time with him which other people don’t get to have with their fathers, much less their mothers. I acknowledge, even affirm that here. My talking about this is not an act of diminishing those experiences others may know. But frankly, this is my blog, and it isn’t even a blog I promote as existing. This is a kind of diary, I guess. If anyone reads this, then super. Moving along.]
When I expressed this doubt to him, he sort of surprised me. This was, after all, the daughter who was now better educated than he was. This was the daughter who he originally thought was his son just because she was assigned by some obstetrician to be a boy — not because he had held any expectations for her, gendered or not. (Truth: he really didn’t.) This was the daughter who was now the best and most educated of his four children. But this daughter was also the most estranged of his children, the child most abused by our mother by a country mile, the child who had faced institutional discrimination and violence, and the child who unquestionably has maintained the most steadfast self-doubt about herself or any of her capabilities (contrast this to my youngest brother with whom I have zero relationship, who is a correspondent for FOX News in some backwater town).
“Ententa, I’m ridiculously proud of you!” (Actually, he used my name, not my nom de plume, but the sentiment was still the same.)
Then he put his hand into mine and held it as we walked. This gave me the most unfamiliar feeling: of my daddy holding my hand in a protective kind of way, a way I hadn’t known since probably about age 5. I guess the context of him doing so was self-explanatory to passers-by: we now do look somewhat similar (it seems that as I get older, I’ve started looking more like I’m from his side of the family than no side at all; then again, he has no hair, and I have a head of short, thick, multi-coloured hair). We are about the same height when I’m wearing two-inch heels (he’s still taller than I was despite). I was still wearing the now-unzipped graduation gown and a dressy dress below that. He wore a pink tie. It was kind of amazing. For the first time, I could see the ageing of a man who is nearing his senior years. It was jarring. It showed in really subtle ways, ways which only a daughter or son might notice. It reminded me of his (and my) mortality, of how little time we relatively have left. I want to find a way to make the next many years count to their fullest.
How do you ask someone who is all but living the last quarter of his life to stay in your own life after a lifetime of him being away from it? I guess this question is more universal than just my being a trans kid once upon a time and now dealing with the cis parent of a trans woman. How would I want him to be in my life? It’s not like we’ll ever live anywhere close to one another (we won’t), and it’s not like I celebrate birthdays, or major secular or religious holidays (I don’t celebrate any holidays except the ones I invent on my own). It’s not like we share the same core interests (he’s a hard scientist by education and manager by profession, while I’m an interdisciplinary social scientist/humanities scholar and independent labourer).
Oddly, though, we do seem to share one inauspicious history, which came up during his visit. It happened in a pretty startling way. After reception with cohorts, faculty, and staff, he and my programme director were talking about music, to which my dad said he couldn’t hear very well during the graduation ceremony based on the way he was sitting. He openly remarked how his left ear had poor hearing. I asked him if there was a reason for this. “Yeah, my ex-wife hit me real hard there and damaged my eardrum.” He said this right in front of my director. I was sort of too stunned to click on the awkwardness of this, so I asked him by name if it was She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.
“No, the other ex-wife.”
I was agape. I didn’t know his second ex-wife had beaten him, much like my ex-mother had. I felt a compassion for him I’d never known before. Here was an adult, heterosexual man who had married twice and twice had married women who ended up being sociopathic in the most classic senses: they were nice when they wanted something for themselves. Like him, I’d been involved with girlfriends who ended up showing themselves to be sociopathic. My director seemed to take the diversion in stride; the two of them returned to talking about how both of them liked seeing Sting in concert (uhm).
It seems like my father and I both have a blind spot in this sense, and I don’t understand totally why. I mean, I might understand with my experiences: my ex-mother was a bona fide sociopath and probably was one long before he even met her in the late 1960s. Whether the case or not, there’s a thread of folk reasoning — in obviously the most vernacular of senses — that when you date people, you tend to be drawn to those who most resembled your parent of similar gendered social placement. This is really scary, because it means I may be unwittingly drawn to people who likewise are sociopathic like my ex-mother was.
So does that mean my dad’s late mother was also sociopathic? I don’t honestly believe so, but then again, she was quirky in ways which I still can’t yet figure out — namely, why she kept to herself after she became a widow; why I still know so little about her; how she was treated, possibly even abused while she was still an orphan in the 1910s and 1920s (she was eventually adopted); or why she once freaked out whilst going through shoeboxes of old photos with other family members, screening all photographs first and shredding the ones she didn’t want other family members to see. On the last, it especially makes me cringe given how I’m a photographer: what was lost forever in her destruction of so many photos? Then again, my dad was also once an active photographer. It’s one of the few things we unquestionably share in common.
My history seems to bear this out with ex-girlfriends at least twice during the last two decades, and possibly three times. Which, if this is the case, it makes me think that I might just be best off staying permanently single for the rest of my life. As it is, I’ve spent most of my adult life not really dating others. What’s a few more years or decades of being alone?
Worse, I’ve always, always feared that I might unwittingly pass along any of the programming I forcibly had to learn onto others, even when I’m cognizant of what that abuse was. This is why I long ago vowed to never become a mother (even though a really amazing young woman who lost her own mother when she was really young has since adopted me as her mother). It’s why I vowed to avoid opiates (unless in critical condition at hospital, such as the case was once) and why I keep liquor out of the house for most intents (my mother was/is alcoholic and a valium addict).
Increasingly, though, I’ve begun asking probably the scariest question of all: am I also a sociopath? Online references suggest that if you find yourself asking that question, then you’re definitely not one. But why can’t I shake the nagging feeling that, yes, I might be? If so, who have I abused? Who have I manipulated? Who have I hurt? Who have I used? Have I ever, per the same online references, approached life in a “ends justify the means” kind of way? Do I lack a conscience?
And the answer I arrive to each time, and to each question, is: “I don’t honestly know.” Which is why I worry further. I also don’t know what else may be wrong with me — beyond, that is, having a fractured brain of dissociation (brought on by specific traumas) and thirty years of clinical depression (brought on by both abuse and being forced silent for my being trans).
One of my best friends also came to visit me during graduation. During our week together, it became apparent during one of our talks that I’ve been in a kind of survival-defensive mode for about fifteen years. When she pointed this out to me, I dryly asked, “So at fifteen years, I guess it’s not much of a phase anymore, is it?” What our talks did produce was how in those fifteen years, my ability to be there for others has been compromised to some extent — some periods more so than others. In the three years since three very bad things happened in my life in short, rapid succession, she remarked that I’ve been especially unable to be there emotionally for others in a way that I’d like to be available. They were, she stressed, pretty significant incidents to work through — some with consequences continuing to the very present.
She also recognized that what happened to me recently with activism stuff was a classic act of the other girls ejecting me from their lunch table — whether out of social fear, out of being provoked to face things they weren’t ready to deal with, out of frustration that I didn’t play by their rules, or for some other reason not yet known. But everything about it, she observed, was a classic pattern amongst girls who expect rules of social protocol to be followed — and that failing to play by those rules results in being thrown out of the group. In short, she said, “They hurt you and they shouldn’t have done that.” It’s of little solace, because the pain is quite deeply in place.
Something I thought was uniquely special — a social movement I largely (and quietly) brought together in the first place — is now something to which I am no longer a part. She added, however, that I can’t expect to remain anonymous and decline attribution for anything useful I say while at the same time wanting the people I brought together to remember that I was the person who sort of ignited the spark that got this fire burning. If this is the case, then how did the four trans women who started Occupy Wall Street (of five people in all) manage to balance both of these? They haven’t really asked for name credit or cited attribution, yet the trans people who support the OWS movement don’t forget who those four women are — or at least know that it was four trans women — when its origins are brought up.
Moreover, of those in that circle, I’m still the only one who lacks an activist blog with my name (or nom de plume) on it. The only activist blog I produced — long before almost all of them started their current work — was designed from day one to be a multi-contributor, collaborative project where a plurality of voices could be heard by many. That I repeated this in an editorial commentary about avoiding cults of personality should have made it clear that this was supposed to be about our social plurality, not our solo egos. Apparently, that was soundly voted down and I was asked to leave the island.
She and I did arrive to one certainty: when personal passions between two people and work between two people get tangled — where the work (in this case, my being an editor, her the writer) becomes an unintended proxy for the relationship — when the working relationship failed, so too did the personal relationship. She said this is one of the biggest pitfalls about working with someone with whom you’re also romantically interested — especially if the personal relationship has not had a chance to grow, mature, and stabilize first.
That was a digression. What I’m trying to do in that social aftermath is to work through what was lost, how exposed I left myself to people who showed a capacity to harm, and to try to get my social life back into some sense of calm and stability. It did little to negate my longstanding fear that people automatically detest me the moment they get to know me.
My best friend who visited has the perspective to know this, I guess, given how long she’s been in my life and is aware, first-hand, of what I’ve survived. She’s been witness to really bad things that happened to me for which few of my other close friends were present. She said that I need to take the next while to try to recharge emotionally after the last three years of being in a kind of self-protective emergency mode.
Then again, she’s stuck by me since 1997, as have quite a few other friends over the years — some going back as far as 27 years ago. Sociopaths don’t keep friends like that for nearly so long, so this begs the question: am I or am I not sociopathic? Maybe I have a borderline personality? Maybe I’m just irrevocably broken?
Again, I’m reserving this blog to be a kind of personal diary where navel-gazing is to be expected. I hope that by doing this as an exercise — an inward, personal one — I can redirect my other writing to topics which have very little to do with me personally and more about what motivates, impassions, or provokes me to write generally. But even so, writing so frankly about my dirty laundry feels a bit vain, even narcissistic. Which is why I feel guilty when I do it (I also feel guilty about a lot of things).
I guess the short of it is my social calibration has been off for so long that I fear I won’t know what it’s like once it’s been calibrated properly. Maybe it already is and I just don’t recognize it?
Why can’t this be easier to understand?
When I dropped off my father at the airport, I really didn’t want to see him go. We only had about eight hours together. I gave him a long hug and probably had a look of sadness on my face. He said, “You know you’re always welcome to come and visit, even though you can’t stand that city” (he’s right: that city is pretty shitty). I said, “But you know I can’t afford to fly very often.” He replied, “I’ll fly you down when you’re ready.” He also said that he might have some time later this summer to visit me in my town, which I think would be a lot more fun. That way, I can kind of take him around my favourite places and maybe introduce him to more of the people locally who make a positive difference in my life.
Our visit was brief, but wonderful. I am glad I sat to write that letter to him, even if it was a wee bit guilt-inducing. I am relieved to know that he loves me and is even proud to be my dad, even if I need to hear this from him often in order to let it sink in.
In short, the daughter-dad aftermath went very well. It’s just a lot of hard work with uncertainty for how that effort will turn out.