I understand the importance of taking chances. Growing up in suburban Ohio in the ’80s felt like I was living in somebody else’s after-school special. Nothing felt right, and all I could do was dream of escaping and recasting myself. I held on long enough to finish my degree and fell madly in love with a wild and free woman.
After we graduated, we packed our cat, dog, baby, and the sum of our worldly possessions into a dilapidated minivan and drove west until we hit the ocean in Seattle. That move put me on the path to become an aerospace engineer. I left my Ohio self behind and absorbed the west coast spirit. In so many ways, I was reborn.
Fast forward 20 years. My rebellious school-age romance suffered a bitter breakup that fractured our family. My ex-wife returned to Ohio with our kids, while I stayed out west and to continue to provide. Even without the pain of purposeful parental alienation, it’s hard to maintain a long-distance relationship. By the time my firstborn was in college, we hardly talked.
I missed my baby more than words can say. They were the person I wanted to protect from pain and suffering with all my might. I missed the times when they would look up to me with eyes full of adoration and unbridled love.
“I looked at the number and said hello, calling them by the name they were born with. Their response shocked me.”
As the weeks and months wore on, not hearing their voice, my heart broke more and more with each passing day. I didn’t know when we would speak again until, one day, out of the blue, I received a call. I looked at the number and said hello, calling them by the name they were born with.
Their response shocked me: a deep baritone I hardly recognised said that was no longer their name. They said they wanted to be called Rodney, and that they identified as male.
I felt waves of shock through my body. After a moment of contemplation, I asked if Rodney needed anything. That’s when he told me about his plans for him and his partner to get top surgery in San Francisco. It felt like a profoundly bad idea – I feared it was a permanent solution to what might be a temporary problem – and at best, they were setting themselves up for a long and painful fight. But no matter how scary this all seemed, the idea of them doing it alone seemed far worse.
I arranged for a leave from work, flew to the Bay Area, and rented from a budget hotel in Alameda with a kitchenette. After meeting the boys at the airport, for the next couple of weeks, I was their driver for consultation, surgery, and post-surgery visits.
Everything still didn’t seem real during the surgical consultation in a swanky art deco high-rise in the middle of San Francisco’s Financial District. When surgery came, everything suddenly got very real. Rodney and his partner couldn’t fly until the doctor could clear them, so for two weeks I was there for prescription refills and late-night bandage runs. Some days were smooth, and we remembered the good times. Other days, we tried to dodge the landmines of our past through a fog of pain barely masked by prescription narcotics.
“The trans people in our lives are still the same people we have always loved, and they need our help and support to find their true identity”
The path wasn’t simple, and probably not the textbook way to reconcile a relationship. It certainly wasn’t how I imagined our first trip to the Bay Area – I had always envisioned exploring Haight Ashbury, discussing Jack Kerouac and beat philosophy. But this wasn’t my journey. It was theirs.
We continued our reborn connection when the boys returned home. It wasn’t always perfect, but all relationships take work. I am thankful that it’s real, and I have them in my life. I’ve learned it’s my role as father to shelter my children from pain, but rather to help them grow and face their challenges, to become the person they dream of being. Rodney knows I am there for him whenever times get tough, or even if he just wants to get a cup of coffee. Like every child, he doesn’t call me as often as I would like, but at least he calls. And when he says “I love you,” I know he means it.
Every life transition takes work and allies. I implore parents and family in my position to remember the transitions they have made in their own lives, when they chose to break the mould and seek the life they wanted on their own terms. The trans people in our lives are still the same people we have always loved, and they need our help and support to find their true identity. No matter how many letters you prefer to use to describe the LGBT+ community, never lose sight that they are people first.
Growth isn’t stagnating in safety and conformity. It’s striking out to find yourself on a voyage of self-discovery. Perhaps that looks like a beatnik road trip, or perhaps it looks like hormones and surgery. If you truly love someone, all you want is for them to be happy and whole. Make sure you are there for them when they need you the most.
Ed Coleman is an aerospace engineer and travel writer
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