As I walked out through the automatic glass doors of the hospital, grief came to me in gulps. The daughter I knew was gone.
We were a long way from home. Winter in Florida is moderate, neither hot nor cold. The fragrance of tropical plants made it surreal for a Northwesterner. A gentle breeze and the silence made me feel alone. I walked to my rental car punch-drunk, not wanting to appear weak in public. Once inside, waves of tears.
We had come to Florida, Emily and I, because we were told this was the best doctor in the country for top surgery. She was a senior at Berklee College this year and she wanted to get it done before she graduated. Start her life as the person she wanted to be. Her forever name on her diploma.
His name was Ethan now. Ethan Walker Smith. For his middle name he chose the maiden name of his sixth great grandmother, Emily Walker – the second time he had been named after her. A schoolteacher from Boston, she had died young, not far from where he was living now.
Emily’s early years were a joy. With wispy long brown hair, deep brown eyes and a happy disposition she made friends easily and did well in school. She was active in sports, and baseball was her first love. She started with softball, and then continued to hardball – playing in the same league with the boys.
On our first father-daughter trip, we were in Chicago visiting Wrigley Field. She asked me to bring our ball gloves and a baseball, just in case. The tour group we were with got to see the press box where Harry Cary still ruled, the outfield fence covered with ivy, and finally, from the locker room we walked through the tunnel through the dugout and then onto a sliver of the field. Barriers kept us to the dirt track, and the guide implored us to stay off the grass as he led the group toward home plate and the exit to the stands. We lingered. Emily pulled the two gloves and the ball out of her backpack quickly. She stepped onto the edge of the grass and motioned me to back up and do the same.
“Hurry up Dad.” She assumed the posture of a pitcher, so I squatted to make a catch. She wound up, uncoiled and threw a perfect strike. Immediately she ran toward me, I jumped up and we hustled to catch up with the group. When we stepped back into the bleachers, I said, “That was awesome, I can tell people I caught a pitch from you on Wrigley Field!” No Dad, she replied, “You can say you caught my FIRST pitch on Wrigley Field.”
In a slam poem she wrote and performed years later, the connection was clear.
Every time I watch baseball a voice
I no longer recognize whispers
“… do you remember?
When you were gonna be the first girl in the major leagues-
Seattle Mariners. Rally cap.”
In the spring of her fifth grade year, she represented her school in the all-city track meet. There were six girls running that day. Cori was always was the fastest girl in the fifth grade. She always won. Emily had never run the mile, but was as good an athlete as the remaining competitors. The starter’s pistol fired, and they were off. Emily jumped out to an early lead, at a very fast pace. Still ahead after one lap, she was still at a pace that I did not think could be sustained. I hoped she would not flame out soon.
Two laps in now, and she still had a big lead over Cori, who was far ahead of the rest of the pack by now. This is not going to end well I thought. After the third lap, Emily still had a big lead, but was clearly winded. Her pace slowed as she rounded the turn on the East side of the track and headed into the back stretch. She continued to lead with Cori now starting to cut the distance between them. Around the final turn she was laboring, with Cori now about 10 yards behind. The tension rose in the crowd of several hundred parents and kids, as they started to cheer for both girls. They headed into the homestretch and were now running side by side, when Emily abruptly stepped off the track onto the infield, put her hands on her knees and began to vomit. I moved quickly down the concrete steps to the track and jogged across to her.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “I swallowed my gum,” she said. She looked miserable. I stood with her while she regained her composure. The other runners were plodding by. One by one they passed and headed toward the finish line. She was exhausted and clearly embarrassed. She still had her hands on her knees when I said “can you finish?” “I can’t run Dad,” she said. “Can you walk? – I’ll go with you.” Our eyes met, and she understood. Slowly she stepped back onto the track. We walked toward the finish line – me on the grass, her on the track. At first no-one noticed, then about 50 yards from the end of the race people in the crowd began to clap, and then to cheer. As we crossed, the other participants and a group of kids mobbed her with congratulations. I stepped away and walked quietly back to the stands.
"But I know you had that drive,
didn’t let anyone tell you to wear shorts above your knees
didn’t care if boys thought your hair fell on your shoulders just right.”
The school counselor started with, “Well, Mr. Smith thank you for coming in today.” Since the Principal was also in the room I assumed that this was different from any meeting I had been to concerning my daughter.
“Emily came to school with a knife today, and told a friend that she was planning to hurt herself with it.”
My eyes were darting from the Counselor, to Emily who had her head down, to the Principal who sat upright in his chair, one eyebrow raised when he spoke. “We are going to have to suspend her for a week, we have a strict policy about students having weapons at school.” He produced a rusty pocket knife that he had kept from my view, “Does this look familiar to you?” “Yes,” I said, “that’s my Grandfather’s pocket knife, I keep in my desk drawer at home.” Hardly an assault weapon I thought, although it was clear he needed me to feel some guilt.
Emily never raised her head during the exchange. She had been a model student in grade school, but when middle school started she seemed to lose her way. I attributed it then and for years after to the divorce that her mother and I were in the middle of, and the fact that she had hit puberty in a big way at the same time. She had cut her hair short and was wearing the characteristically preteen baggy clothes to cover her curves, just like her sisters did at this age.
I was scared. I removed everything sharp from our apartment. I got her a counselor. I started reading her bible stories at bedtime. She joined a church and professed her love of God; praying intently every night for something she couldn’t tell me.
In the weeks that followed, the school treated her like public enemy number one. She was not allowed to walk the halls alone, every class change required her to sit until a teacher could escort her to the next class. She had to be supervised in the restroom. After several unsatisfactory discussions with the Principal, who prided himself in his unwavering focus on discipline, I moved her to another school.
"The year you turned eleven was the first time you said out loud
that you didn’t want to live anymore.”
Later that summer we took another father-daughter trip to visit the East Coast. In Boston we went to a game at Fenway Park, rode the T and walked the commons. She told me she thought she wanted to live there some day.
Emily rallied. In the eighth grade, the band director took her on as a TA. She decided to join the band to play the drums. I bought her a drum set. Then she told me that she might not be able to march in the parade that Spring. “Why not,” I asked. “Most of the kids in the band play the drum, and Mr. Simmons says he can’t hear the other instruments,” she said. One evening we were sitting on the porch of our house and she asked if she could try playing my saxophone (still around from high school). I told her to retrieve it from the garage. She promptly returned with my tool box. “It’s in a brown case, try again,” I said. Her second try succeeded, and we set up the horn and she learned to play a few notes. “I want to play the saxophone Dad,” she told me. I told her she could do whatever she wanted to do, but by now she was behind other kids who had been playing for a few years. She agreed to work hard, and we engaged a tutor to give us lessons together. After one lesson, Emily told me I was the best saxophone player she had ever heard. After the third lesson I couldn’t keep up with her and quit. A few weeks later she made the school’s new jazz band and played in her first concert. Three years later she successfully auditioned for admission to Berklee School of Music.
Her last year in high school, Emily came out as gay. Actually, she didn’t come out, she just was gay and I finally noticed. In our first discussion about it, she seemed mostly concerned about disappointing me. Since her older half-brother (my adopted son) had come out in a similar way a few years before, I knew that my reaction mattered.
LGBT youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. LGBT youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGBT peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
Where I grew up, we were not aware of gay people. There was not one gay person in my small town High School, as far as I knew. Years after graduation I heard that a couple of guys had “converted.” Kenny was one of them. He was a friend of mine from church growing up. One Sunday in the fifth grade, Kenny came over after church. After Sunday dinner we were in my room studying the CYC handbook. CYC stood for Christian Youth Crusaders. It was just like the Boy Scouts, just without the camping or anything else that could provide a foothold for sin. I was reading the requirements for the “Help at Home” badge for our sashes, when Kenny says “Let’s bump our butts together.” Kenny was a hyper little blond boy and I was unseasonably tall, freckled and redheaded. One ungainly bump made him giggle and we got back to our studies. The following year a well-meaning Sunday school teacher told our class that if we kissed a girl before we were married, we would go to hell. I decided then that hell was probably the place for me. Now in middle age, I am concerned that based solely on the timing of my transgressions, I may end up in the hell where guys are bumping butts and not the one where they are kissing girls.
With this deep insight into both biology and theology, my first reaction with finding out that I had a gay child was confusion and shame. Panic about what their life was going to be like, and how it would be different than what I hoped for them. Would they have someone to love them? Would they have children? Would they die of aids? What would people think about them? About me? It took a few weeks to sort out my thoughts; I educated myself through reading and speaking with a counselor. In the end it was simple. I had relationships with my son and my daughter. Relationships that mattered now more than ever. This change in circumstances was uncomfortable for me, but much more so for them. What we both needed was to know that the relationship would survive.
Freshman year of college is tough for every kid and for Emily her first year at Berklee was no exception.
“Let me out motherfucker, eeeeeeyyyyyyyaaaaahh, don’t touch me you fucker!” said January. The girl sitting next to Emily was wiry, black and very pissed off.
“What's her story?” I asked. “Bipolar,” Emily said. “She’ll be ok in a few minutes.” The squealing was muted after the orderly locked January in her room.
Emily and I were sitting in a room with two of her friends from college, Conor and Hannah. We were in the psych ward at Beth Israel Hospital. She described a new friend she had made in the ward, his name was Erik and he was a lawyer. “He has tried to kill himself three times,” she said. “Well he must not be any good at it,” I said. The girls laughed and Conor said, “Oh my god! Now I understand where Emily gets it, there are two of you!”
I had rushed from Kansas City to Boston to see my daughter. I was allowed to visit for three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, which I did for a week until they deemed her safe to release from captivity. I was told it was a breakdown/suicide attempt, but never got the details. I didn’t really want them, I just wanted to move on. We packed her up and we all went back to Kansas to sort it out.
At nineteen you started to fade.
I tried to cross you out like a line
in my memoir I wished I could erase completely.
A year later she was back in school in Boston when she requested a facetime call.
“Dad, I have something to tell you,” she said.
I looked at my wife, who looked concerned but not surprised.
“You don’t look happy, Dad,” Emily said.
“I have been traveling all week and I am very tired.”
“So what do you think?” she said.
“I think you should do whatever makes you happy.”
After the call I asked my wife what “trans” meant. She explained. “Well shit,” I said tearfully, “why can’t she just be gay like all the other kids.” Humor at a time of crises was a trademark response for me.
On his next visit home, Emily was Ethan. His uniform of choice was gym shorts and a t-shirt; with his cracking voice and hairy legs he appeared as a middle-school boy going through puberty - which he kind of was. The testosterone treatments were re-molding his body. There were times I felt pity for him, a changeling in mid-season - not what he was and not yet what he would be. At one point he admonished me for using she instead of he. “You’ve been a she for 18 years,” I said; “so it might take me a while.” I holed up in my bedroom the rest of the night. My wife delivered a letter Ethan had just written, which I read when I got up the next day. “I’m sorry Dad,” he wrote; “this must be very hard for you.”
We had another discussion during this visit. He wanted top surgery to complete his transition and allow him to stand up straight for the first time since puberty. He had been thinking about it for years, but it was new for me - and it was permanent. I made him wait until he was 21. An adult should be able to decide for themselves I thought.
We were the first people into the waiting room, Ethan and I. The other patients filtered in, some with girlfriends and some with family. It was Christmas week. This surgery was very specialized, and the doctor processed patients from all over the world, one group at time. I supported Ethan’s decision to have his breasts surgically removed, but now I was helping him do it. Conflicted with a father’s instincts to support, but also to protect - I looked around the room. There was a tall dark-haired transman in his 20’s from Australia who had traveled here alone. There was a young black transman with his mother and sister. Two other couples were also there, one with his mother. No-one there would have struck me as being of a gender other than what was obvious, if they weren’t gathered here. The room radiated tension and resolve, and for this group of people, at this moment, what was about to happen was normal and necessary. Ethan finished the paperwork and handed the clipboard back to the nurse. He sat down beside me. Our eyes met and I understood. We were walking together to the finish line - again.
In therapy you said you wouldn’t make it to 21.
On my 21st birthday I thought about you,
you were right.
And maybe I’m misunderstanding the definition of death
but even though parts of you still exist you are not here…
Ethan was a member of the Berklee College slam poetry team for three years. His senior year he recited his poem about the transition process, “A Letter to the Girl I Used to Be,” to a packed house at CUPSI, the collegiate national championships – a video soon went viral.
The crying had stopped. I was back in control. The surgery was a necessary milestone in his journey to be who he was. The sadness I felt for the loss of a daughter abated with the flow of emotion. Now it was time to go back in and be strong for my son. My new son.
For a week in a Holiday Inn north of Miami, Ethan and I started his new journey. We bought a small ‘tree-like” houseplant and set it next to the TV to commemorate Christmas. He read The Hobbit on my Kindle. Every morning and every evening I carefully emptied the drainage bags that hung from where his breasts had been. An intimate reminder that I was his support system.
At the one week check we sat in the surgeon’s office with all the others who had come for the same procedure. They looked like boys, just like they did last week. But there was no tension in the room. Just an aura of satisfaction.
It has been a couple of years, and there are still times when I say she instead of he. In the same sentence I will use Emily and then Ethan. Two decades of raising a daughter don’t go away for a father, but it’s ok. I have my own permission to talk about the girl I raised, and the man she became. A man who has courage. A man I am proud to call my son.
Ethan is doing well. He is an award winning poet, his transition poem still echoes on the internet and speaks for those like him. He is a graduate student at Harvard, has someone to love, and is respected by those he knows. He is his genuine self. And I am his Dad.
About the Author: Theodore Smith is a small-business owner and writer who lives in Echo Lake, Washington. He and his wife, Susan, have a blended family of six millennials and operate Glass Eye Studio in Seattle. Smith writes about fatherhood and family and holds an MBA from Washington State University and recently earned a Certificate in Non-Fiction Writing from the University of Washington.