I was calling out the exercises for our basic obedience class. 8 dogs and handlers trotting around the room. There was a father and son handling an excitable young female shepherd mix. The son, 10 years old, held the leash so loosely that the dog was able to ram into other dogs’ rear ends. The father tried to keep them both in line, “That’s it Henry. Keep her close.”
That was the first time I’d heard the boy’s name, Henry. The kindredness of a common name registered and I almost said, “I have a Henry at home, too.” And then I remembered I didn’t.
And for the first time, I felt the abysmal pang of loss. I felt the wind get sucked out of my lungs. Henry. H is for Henry is what we taught his baby sister, Violet, when she learned the alphabet. I felt my heart twist as if wrung out by two cruel hands. Henry. I felt the room narrow and flood with excruciating anguish. Henry. My Henry was gone. It had only been a few months since Henry ceased to exist. And I didn’t even know if I was allowed to mourn the loss.
How can you mourn the loss, when the body is still there- breathing, living, occupying space in your home?
In 6th grade, our second born, Henry, became more anxious. He was plagued by migraines. He began to pull away from us. The following year, we transferred schools in the hopes that the workload would be more manageable in a more nurturing environment. He bristled at affection, which I attributed to becoming an adolescent boy. He seemed constantly conflicted. He began to bear the face of a child who had been tortured. He said there was something that he could not change and it plagued him. No doctors. No counselors. No medicine. No healing. Henry rejected it all. But there was still the suggestion of him- of my exquisitely sensitive child- my loving and altruistic boy. And we wouldn’t stop trying to find a way to help him find peace.
He would test me, “Why do you love me? Because I’m your son? Maybe you love who I used to be and you don’t want to let go.”
I gave him a list of adjectives describing the qualities I admire and enjoy about him. But he threw them back- doubtful of their verity. And then, remembering how he used to comb the shoreline as a child in that hunched over shuffle, looking for the best pieces of beach glass – holding each piece up to the sun - admiring the way the color was further illuminated, I told him, ‘You are going through a rough time- it’s unsettling for you right now. But just like the jagged pieces of a broken bottle on the beach- after you get drawn into the water, tossed around a bit- smoothed out by experience, time, understanding- you are going to be an amazing piece of beach glass.’
And then in freshman year, Henry confided that he had always felt different; that he’d never known how to be a boy. He modelled himself after his older brother who was ALL boy. And he felt he could never keep up. He couldn’t be a boy because he wasn’t a boy.
Nature – biology – can be cruel.
To hear my child express the struggle of acknowledging their authentic self was heartbreaking; but, it was also a relief. I foolishly thought it meant the we would simply adopt new pronouns, a new name; we would buy her women’s clothing, and I’d help her with her make up and get her hair styled and she would just live as a girl and she could finally be at peace and that we would just move forward together.
We would accept our child fully and completely. We had only ever known love and acceptance. We could navigate the path of self- awareness together. But that’s not how it worked- parental love and acceptance was not enough.
Henry, now Erica, lives in a body that betrays her true identity. And the path to living an authentic life is muddled by limited access to the things she needs to transition: the hormones, the counseling, finding shoes in her size, gender reassignment surgery, and courage. There is no quick fix.
She was infinitely angry. She lashed out at us because we could never truly be in her shoes. Fixing her problems no longer meant providing a distraction, a present, a carrot to lure her away from places of self-doubt. It no longer meant that my words were gospel- just because I had been on the earth longer. Honestly- though I struggled in my youth, in my own way- I had never had to scrutinize my intrinsic identity as she needed to do in order to arrive at a place of self-acceptance. How could I really know what she is feeling? My empathy did not inspire her trust that I knew what the hell was talking about when I tried to assure her, It gets better. Her acceptance of and peace with her identity, with her awareness had to come from within. But, oh how I wished there was a magic wand.
She shrouded herself in her suffering and barely left the house. To release the pain, she drew sharp objects against her skin. The lines, like rings of a tree, mark how many days, weeks, months of agony she endured. She was suicidal and was out of school on medical leave for half a year because the depression destroyed her body. She was seeing a psychiatrist, a gender counselor and was loaded up on medication for anxiety and depression. We lived with the threat of death in our home 24/7.
She could not eat, could not sleep. She lost so much weight that her bones jutted out at sharp angles. She was so fragile. She began to depersonalize and disassociate. She became more obstinate, combative. The loving, tenderhearted child I had lived with for 14 years had become a shell filled with resentment and blame. We had exhausted our emotional reserves. If there was a light at the end of the tunnel it threatened to burn out daily. She declared that Henry was dead and we were never allowed to reference the past because it only brought more pain. I carried the conflict of trying to be respectful while also drowning in achingly beautiful memories of years with Henry.
Henry. It is just a name. But that is not entirely true. Henry was a child actor with stunning auburn hair and dark, soulful eyes who was given complicated roles to play. He was brilliant, empathetic and generous. He was creative and innovative. He was different- his emotional depth was unfathomable. He loved beautiful things- crystals and geodes and landscapes and sunsets. He valued all creatures, rescued wildlife, and mourned their extinction from our yard when the neighbors decimated the 10 foot tall bushes where the cardinals and rabbits lived. Henry was a good brother, a soulmate for his younger sister, Annalee. Henry was a faithful friend. Henry was a respectful and helpful neighbor. Henry was a diligent student. Henry was my constant companion.
We have lived with Erica for a full year now. We try our best to love her wholly-embrace, celebrate, encourage and champion her in spite of her insufferable prickliness. She still keeps us at arm’s length. That distance is often unbearable. So close but not close enough to hold, to comfort, to connect with. With a year left in high school, I feel an urgency to help her get right with herself- to give her the best chance for independence and success in college. More importantly- to set her up to bloom into the person she feels that she is inside despite the imperfection of her biology. She has made small strides learning to cope. She jokes with us in her cynical way. Occasionally she smiles. And when I say, “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about,” she answers, “That may be true. But I have to experience things for myself to confirm that you know what you are talking about.”
I knew when I brought my children into the world that I could not place them in a mold and expect them to stay put. I knew I had to be open to their perspective, their interests, their sense of self. When she is ready to let us in, I will relish the opportunity to get to know who Erica is. Henry is just a name. H is no longer for Henry. H is for hope. And, I have hope enough for both of us that she is going to be the most glorious piece of beach glass.