Things You Don’t Think Of – Judith Pond
I’m sitting in the impossibly white waiting area of South Campus, Calgary’s new state-of-the-art hospital. My husband of two years, himself a doctor, has canceled his office for the day, to be beside me. On my other side is my child’s transgender partner, a dapper young dude in a striped T-shirt bright with the queer rainbow, and red Converse. I am old. I don’t know whether you’re supposed to say Converses or just Converse. It doesn’t matter. We’ve been here for hours, drinking vending machine coffee and eating hospital fare. My face feels like paper and my mouth is sour. I can’t stop peeing. My child’s partner gets it. “My mom was nervous too.” Then he grins. “It’s a good thing Sophie’s not here. They’ll only drink good drip coffee made from espresso beans.”
My husband gets up and strolls to the monitor that shows the operating schedule. “There she is, he points, Sophie Avery N.”
I nod, but I can’t quit thinking, Where are you? Do you need me? Could I keep this from happening even now, if I could find you? I have to stop myself imagining running down the halls screaming their name until I find the right door, hauling them (I’m not allowed to say ‘her’any more) off the gurney or stretcher or whatever, the two of us walking out of here intact and together, the whole thing just a bad dream, only a nightmare.
Instead, somewhere deep within the gleaming maze of this urgent place, the person who was born my daughter is being stripped and prepped, or is possibly already asleep, a surgeon’s cutting map emblazoned across their not-yet-twenty-year-old chest. The surgeon, who is young and good and knowledgeable, is confident in his skill; he has made the map so that after the tissue is removed and the fat sucked out, he’ll be able to get the nipples right.
I think of the ones Sophie was named for, my mother’s people, the Averys of Baxter’s Harbor, who lived out their hardscrabble long-ago lives in the mists of Nova Scotia’s north shore. For them it was important to get enough to eat. What would Barney and Roland and Maddie and Lucy have thought about the importance of getting the nipples right?
Everybody knows about mothers and regret. But here’s one I never expected to have: that I didn’t ask my daughter to let me see her breasts before they were gone for good. Why didn’t I think of it? And I wonder, now that it’s too late, whether I should have arranged somehow for a proper burial for the breasts, the way people sometimes do after other amputations, of mangled hands, say, or diabetic feet.
I didn’t think of that either, until it was too late.
Sophie refuses to budge. She’s trapped in a toddlers’ movement class, whose goal is to ‘shake, shake, shake your sillies out.’ Two feet tall, with an acorn cap of shining auburn hair, she’s wearing red corduroy overalls, her favorite ‘cowboy’ socks, a little green sweater. It’s the one I still have, tucked away in a box somewhere, hand knit for her by my mother, and kept in case of grandchildren. All the other toddlers are busy shaking their sillies out on the primary-colored rubber mat with numbers and letters on it, but my daughter is devoid of sillies. She stands quietly apart, observing, withholding judgment, her shiny head tilted with stern interest.
She is an introvert, like me, I think.
But that’s not what the teacher thinks. At the end of the class she calls me over, expresses confidential concern about Sophie’s difference from the others, about her lack of engagement, her ‘resistance.’ I should do something. Get her assessed, therapized, categorized, integrated. Sophie is two. The teacher is about twenty, practical and perky, and—I look down—wearing impeccable jazz shoes just like the ones I lost in some long-ago transition from one life to another.
I think, Screw you.
Later though, when the lack of sillies is replaced by the food issues, the compulsions, the evasions and the self-harm, I will think back to that movement class and realize: the annoying young teacher was onto something. I was working full-time; I was single; I’d never done mothering before.
But I should have done it better, asked more questions, paid harder.
There’s a photo of Sophie at around age nine. It’s Hallowe’en, and she’s a kangaroo. I bought the costume in a kids’ second-hand store I worked in for a while, between careers. There she stands in someone’s foyer with a perfect Disney princess and a swell Mattel Barbie, my small marsupial, gray and furry, a plastic Jack-o-lantern clutched in her small hand, on her still faintly babyish face a bemused expression: I am not like them. This is not what I’m about.
Nothing I hadn’t thought at nine, and so many other times.
We’d go to Nova Scotia in the summers, to visit my mother. A favorite destination was ‘Frenchy’s,’ a vast and dusty warehouse of price-slashed clothes and household articles and accessories (braces, boas, water shoes and shamrock hats) unsold elsewhere. A year or so after the Hallowe’en photo is taken, we spent part of a vacation afternoon there, tossing T-shirts and jeans and belts we didn’t need and would probably never wear into the plastic baskets provided by the store. Sophie disappeared down one stale aisle, while I idly trolled another. When we met up at the counter, she was carrying a pair of boys’ Oxfords. “Can I get these?”
I was on holiday and naive (see above). I figured the shoes would go great with that little pleated skirt I had for her in my own basket. Plus, at Frenchy’s, the shoes cost only two bucks.
What did I have to lose?
When Sophie is approaching puberty, I am teaching in a college, and—at an embarrassing age— I contract mono. It’s the dead end of the winter semester, and until the body-aches and migraines start, I think I’m just tired.
But I get tireder. The ache gets worse. A rash develops, and I lose my appetite. It’s July, and the screeching of magpies in my trees takes my head apart. Before long, all I can do is stumble around trying to saw through a banana with a spatula (Sophie will later tell me), and then sleep. And sleep.
The two of us spend that whole summer on the kitty-corner couches in our living room, me flat-out on one couch, Sophie ensconced on the other, cruising the internet on her laptop. She is lonely this summer, lonelier than I have any idea of, and I am asleep, with no seven dwarves to wake me up. This is when my daughter, scrolling through YouTube videos and Twitter, discovers the queer and trans communities. They are warm, flamboyant, funny, protective of each other: a family, in other words, a kind of ready-made, soup-in-a-cup clan. As I dream away the days, Sophie gradually gains membership in this family comprised of electronic signals and a cursor on a screen. Unbeknownst to me, her newfound belonging begins to take on the energy of a religion or a political campaign. Words acquire specialized meanings. Pronouns become fighting words. I learn that you can be anything from Cis to Two-Spirit, and forty-eight other genders in between.
And for me, an average person from another era, there is scant mercy. At moments when discipline or clarification is required, I am termed ‘privileged.’ When I stumble over pronouns, I am told to “Do your research.”
I begin to understand that, by virtue of having been born earlier, I am to blame.
If your child wishes to transition before they are ‘of age,’ parental authorization is required.
I’m seated in the examining room of a doctor whose practice is dedicated to the needs of the transgender community. The doc looks about two years older than Sophie. Her small round feet puff up like rising dinner rolls over the straps of her black Mary Janes. She’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt featuring the Simpsons, and she regards me (old, straight, uncool and desperate) with palpable scorn. Throughout the consultation, she subtly eye-rolls and smirks, her gaze sliding sideways toward Sophie when I ask a question, express a concern. The two of them seem clearly to enjoy my ineptitude, my lack of preparation.
Is there anything that could have prepared me for the religion of testosterone?
I’m here because I’ve been warned. “You know about my mental health. If you don’t sign the forms, I might kill myself, lots of us do. And even if I don’t kill myself, I’ll never speak to you again unless you sign.” As the words arrow into me, I start to sweat—it’s not safe enough here to cry. The tears will have to wait until tonight, when I’m alone in my study, with a glass—or two—of wine.
What I don’t and can’t know yet: transitioning will do nothing to fix the mental and emotional issues flagged long ago by the young dance teacher. In fact, that part of things will only worsen after the operation.
But that’s another story.
As I prepare to sign the permission form, my eye catches a small rainbow banner on the doctor’s computer monitor. Its caption: This is a safe space for everyone.
I’m sitting on a folding chair in a United Church vestry, my name Sharpied to my sweater. 1940s paneling; Styrofoam coffee, Girl Guide cookies, a ticking parking meter, and hot water for tea. At the front of the wood-paneled room is one of those frames they drape big sheets of paper over, for instructive demonstrations. The facilitator, an enthusiastic young person from a sexual health center, has drawn a kid’s version of a human shape on the paper, with arrows pointing to the various organs. According to the drawing, the heart is the most important organ.
I think this must be so. My heart is what brought me here.
Tonight’s demo is about new ways of understanding sexuality. Gender isn’t a given; it’s assigned. Since gender is assigned, it’s optional. Since it’s optional, everything is possible.
I so terribly hope this is true.
The other parents at the session are intelligent, dignified, progressive, positive. I admire them; they’re the kind of people I would hang out with, be pleased to work with. They also seem not only to be accepting of their children’s choice to transition, but to celebrate their new sons or daughters, with their reinvented bodies and facial hair, or lack thereof. They can even joke.
We go around the room, introducing ourselves. We are teachers, doctors, businesspeople. The man beside me, a runner like myself, flies regularly to Toronto, to see his trans son’s drag shows. The woman on my other side travels east regularly too. That is because she has a child who has transitioned three times—M to F, F to M, and back again—and the post-op medical care in Toronto is better. Each time the child transitions, they change their gender marker, and choose a new name. “You should see the paperwork!” the woman laughs.
I hadn’t thought of the name-change part. I wonder what Sophie’s new name will be. If only it could be a name from our family.
When it’s my turn, I say I’m a single mother, a teacher, a wistful and ineffectual gardener. And then I drop the bomb. The bomb of not buying in. “I’m struggling,” I admit, bowing under their collective sympathetic gaze. Various fellow parents in the circle contribute that it was a shock for them too, that at first it is for everyone, but that it gets easier.
I am assured that, “After a while, it’ll just be the new normal.”
I’m sitting in the office of a Calgary fertility specialist. I’m thirty-seven years old, and have just been informed that, “After forty, it’s hard to getcha pregnant.” Oh, it does happen, the specialist adds cheerfully, but “nobody over forty ever takes home a live baby.” My husband is studying the floor.
Two years later, having long-since given up on parenthood and on each other, we discover we are pregnant. The way things have been going, we can’t imagine when that happened.
After a normal pregnancy and a nightmare two-day labor, I am holding my daughter. She is downy, dreamy, her long fingers arrayed in a tiny pink fan over her baby blanket. I kiss her, and something like relief seems to pass through her. I have always dreamed of having a daughter.
We did it, I smile down at her. You’re here.
We’ve been camped out in the waiting area for seven hours. My husband is nodding off; Sophie’s partner has gone down to the hospital coffee shop yet again, to pick up a bowl of soup and a stiffening bun. As I drowse waiting for news, a picture returns to my mind, one I have always kept on my phone, but which has somehow, over time, gone away.
Was that a sign? Another one?
It’s the evening of graduation from grade nine. Parents are dressed up and celebrating. The school is decorated, the students triumphant. My daughter, bright as a firefly in a svelte orange dress, her long auburn hair flowing over her bare shoulders, stands smiling with her fellow-graduands, diploma in hand. Her beauty belies the confusion within.
What have I got to lose, I thought naively that time at Frenchy’s, as I paid the two bucks for the boys’ shoes.
Which takes me back to the Hallowe’en photo from so long ago. I’m not the same as them, Sophie’s expression said, this is not what I am. I guess they come by it honestly, Sophie does. Because I have to confess that I am not like those intelligent, progressive, positive folks at the parenting group, either. I wish I could be. I wish that, like those decent people, I could see Sophie’s transition not as the loss of a daughter, but as the gaining of a son, and simply move on. And don’t get me wrong: I love the complicated young person who has replaced my daughter. I can’t do otherwise; I’m in for the long haul, whatever that looks like.
At the same time, I can’t stop knowing that Sophie is gone, and that she vanished without rite, ceremony, or mourning. That she disappeared piecemeal, metamorphosing before my eyes until there was nothing of her left. I’ll never see her grow up, never hear her adult voice. Most likely there won’t be grandchildren. I’ll always wonder who she was. Who she would have been, become.
And how I failed her. If I hadn’t worked so hard. If I’d stayed married. If I hadn’t gone back to school. If I hadn’t gotten sick that summer.
Would I have lost her if I’d done better?
The sliding doors to the recovery corridor finally swish open, and I am allowed to go in. The nurses and doctors are busy and abstracted; arcane medical equipment blinks a narrative of emergency. Wheelchairs line the wall; there’s the usual stale hospital smell.
I’m terrified, half-nauseous, stubbornly hopeful. We’ve been through so much, the two of us. Maybe with this unimaginable milestone accomplished, today of all days, Sophie will suffer me. One more door and there at last, behind a half-drawn curtain, lies my son, weary and triumphant, tubes sticking out every which way, telling me in a croaking voice that, despite all that’s been done to him today, he’s hungry. Could I go down to the café, and get him a bite and a coffee?
“And could you make that an Americano?”
I smile. “On it.”
The café’s selection is limited at this time of day, but I manage to find a wedge of heatable kale-and-pesto flatbread—Sophie was always partial to kale—and I order an Americano to go with it. The server wants to know what name to write on the cup, for when the order is ready.
I tell her to please write ‘Avery.’
Judith Pond was born and raised in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, and later studied in Ontario, West Germany (Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms Universität Bonn), and British Columbia. She holds an M.A. in German Literature from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. She has published both literary fiction and poetry in a wide range of Canadian literary magazines, including Prism International, Fiddlehead Magazine (forthcoming), Prairie Fire, Event, and Ryga, A Journal of Provocations, the Malahat Review, in whose 2021 Far Horizons Short Fiction competition she was shortlisted, and Grain Magazine, in whose 2021 Short Grain competition she received an honorable mention. With Oberon Press of Ottawa, she has published fiction (Coming Attractions) and four collections of poetry (An Early Day, Dance of Death, Lovers and Other Monsters, A Shape of Breath). Her first novel, The Signs of No, is forthcoming with the University of Calgary’s Brave and Brilliant literary fiction series. Her work has appeared in Combats Magazine (Seine-Saint-Denis, France, The Globe and Mail, and on CBC Radio. She recently (winter 2020) completed a term as Writer in Residence at the Alexandra Writers’ Society Centre in Calgary. She is currently at work on a second novel.