PHOTO ESSAY: A Father & Son's Journey

 

I've spent my whole adult life crushing the desire to forgive my father for destroying my mother.

 

It was one of those spectacular 80’s divorces. And my impossible fury over it has not be extinguished since then. It was him who shattered my mom into a million pieces. It was him who pushed her off the precipice of sanity into the dark abyss of depression and hoarding. At 15, I watched her disintegrate right before my very eyes as we were slowly overtaken by a growing hoard of dogs, filth, and cockroaches. She blamed him, and so did I.

 

I was also afraid of his extreme conservative thinking and his demand for everything and everyone to be just a certain way. Mostly, though, for his need for me to be just a certain way. Straight. Conservative. Christian. A woman.

 

But, I am none of those things. I'm a bleeding-heart liberal, who believes in Love, not God. Who's more queer than "straight" and more MAN than The Woman I never was. I'm an artist and activist. And, I'm transgender. Not exactly what my right-wing, father would order off the menu.

 

Trying to navigate through his limited spectrum, caused me to become a shapeshifter. As I grew up, more and more I knew I wasn't what my father wanted. And those were the thoughts I could bear the least. I wanted his love so badly, but I didn’t think I could have it the way I was. I couldn’t have it unless I could change on the fly.

 

Like lightning, I would reorganize my molecules into some bizarre, distorted version of myself. Not an artist. Not tender-hearted and sure as shit, not a "tranny" freak. Which is all I knew to call it back then. I would become a sort of featureless mound of flesh. Without opinions. Always agreeable. In need of nothing. And quiet most of the time. But on the inside, my rage would boil, condensing my feelings of despair into life-killing acid.

 

My inauthenticity, this dishonest way of being with him, was intolerable. So, I avoided it. It would be a year, two years or more between visits with my father. And when I did make the time, it was out of obligation not want. It was about the appearance of being a good "daughter." Not since my parents’ divorce, had I ever spent one single second with him because I wanted to be there. And every moment I spent with him was torture because I couldn’t be myself. And I couldn't stop lying about who I was.

So, earlier this year, when he invited me to go on a two-week road trip through Utah, I immediately said...“Yes.”

 

For the months leading up to this trip, I imagined what it was going to be like trapped in a car. Driving through endless horizons of beige, listening to Fox News without end, and enduring hours upon hours of exhausting shapeshifting between monotonous, family-friendly destinations.

 

But wait! There's more! While I had already come out as trans with my father, this trip would mark the first time he’d seen me in person since I started my transition. Many physical changes had taken place in the two and a half years it had been since I last saw him. Since someone, he knew as his daughter began looking like his son.

 

As the time approached, I decided a few things.

 

One. I would not let myself shapeshift no matter how hard the urge was. I would be authentic. NOT perfect, but authentic. I would give him the opportunity to know the real me. I hoped we could see each other anew for who we actually are. Who I am. Who he is. More than anything I wanted to achieve that. To reclaim the fun and understanding, we seemed to share when I was a child. Before all those heaps of emotional garbage got in the way.  I wanted to go in free from my story about him. "He's a Trump supporter. He watches Fox News. He's blah blah blah.".

 

Two. I decided I would give him a wide birth with my pronouns. I got myself settled and emotionally prepared to hear the wrong ones from him. Something I wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. And if he misgendered me in front of potentially dangerous people? I planned to lean in and whisper, “He thinks I’m my sister.” It was important to me to give him room to journey through the transition that had been two and a half years for me, but for him would become real in an instant.

 

And, three. I prepared myself to hear my old name over and over again. And while hearing that name makes me shudder, I wanted to extend him kindness. I wanted to guide him along the path I’ve taken with a gentle hand. And I wanted to give him room to mourn the loss of the daughter he thought I had been and to meet his son for the first time.

The plan is to meet in Salt Lake City, rent a car and start driving. I arrive first and go to the hotel with three full hours to wait. I'm anxious, so to keep from spinning out, I take a nap.

 

Off the plane he calls me, cussing in the old familiar way. He can't get the GPS to work, and can't find the hotel. He sounds angry to me, and now I'm nervous. What have I agreed to? Can I change my mind? Change my flight? Pick a different person to be my father?

 

He arrives and wants to meet in the lobby. It's Go Time. The moment of truth. I suck all the air in the room into my lungs and slowly blow it out. I look at myself in the mirror. It's new for me to recognize myself. Before, all I could see were female traits covering me over. Now, I finally see someone who looks like me. Bearded, broadened, boobless.

As I get off the elevator, I can see him outside smoking a cigarette. He looks up, and we lock eyes. At that moment, in that very first instant, an acknowledgment happens. So, subtle as to not be noticed by another living soul. But powerfully present, like blue electricity arcing between electrodes. It is a moment of seeing and being seen. For the first time in over 30 years, I feel suddenly normal. Not distorted. Not like a shapeless mound of flesh. I feel tall and confident in my body and perfectly okay with being me. For the first time in his presence, I wasn't trying to figure out who to be.

It is beautiful, this trip. Sitting in this car while my father drives us through Utah's deserts. Riding for hours watching the landscape roll by. And it is magnificent. Not beige. It's painted in intensities of red and purple and orange, blue and sage green. And it is majestic with huge rocks and boulders clamoring out of the hard clay, reaching for the sky. I have my camera and all my lenses, and I'm like, "Pull over here," and he's like missing the mark by 20 feet. And I'm like, "That's okay." I'm gonna get out and take a picture of this poorly composed photograph anyway.

When the sun is setting, it's time again to seek out the perfect chicken fried steak and budget motel rooms. Sharing a room with your dad who's not wearing underwear at night is maybe a little unfavorable, but then we're just a couple dudes splitting a cheap motel room til daylight.

I ask if any part of seeing me appear so differently has been hard for him and he says, "It really hasn't been as hard as he thought it might be." And I say, "I was so afraid that when I told you I was transgender, you wouldn't want to be my father anymore."  And he said, "Hon, there's nothing in the world you could ever do that would cause me not to love you."

It occurs to me how a trip like this could seem so boring. Like, oh god, we're gonna sit in a car for two weeks? Listen to 50's Doo Wop songs all day, every day. How could that not be dull? But there wasn't a single fucking breath of it that was boring. You know what I mean? Every moment was profound. Having the privilege to make this relationship journey with my dad, to know my dad again. To get back to where we started from, from the dark places we've been. That's a miracle.

 Because I chose to transition, people like to talk with me about "my journey" a lot. All I can really say is that we're all on a journey in life. All of us are. I think that my father was an unaccepting aggressive kind of person. But he's on a journey too. And while I know I've evolved, I don't think I allowed him to change also. I'm not saying every person develops who can to accept their child as being transgender cause some people don't. But, he did. And he showed me.

The trip is almost through. We are hanging out at the airport when he turns to me and says, "I wanted to ask you when the time comes do you want to take my medals?" And I get that those medals are his life's highest achievements. His identity. His whole life has been in service to this country. And I'm suddenly struck with thoughts of his mortality. Thoughts about losing him all over again. I look at him and confirm in my head that yes, he seems old to me now. And now I'm trying not to sob in the middle of the airport. We just got here. You know? We just got here. We just fucking got here. How sad that's going to be one day.

I'm walking him to the gate and thank god there are TVs and phones to distract us while I'm trying to keep myself from bawling. They call for his flight to start boarding and I just turned to him, hugged him and started crying and repeating, "I just love you. I just I love you. I just love you. I'm so glad we got to go on this trip." He seemed stunned. And at that moment all the mountains of crap that I'd been wading through were finally gone and replaced by true forgiveness.

 

Getting absorbed by people swarming to board the plane, he lost sight of me. I could see him looking for me. And when we found each other again, we just said something dumb like, “Text me when you get home.”

I really had felt all my life that if he knew certain things or if I was a certain way, he wouldn't want to be my father anymore. That belief was obliterated and there's no residual of it left. I know one million percent that he's there no matter what. He's just my fucking dad. He's not ashamed of me. He's not the person I believed couldn't handle it. And I'm so glad I get to have my dad in my life.

 

I love you, Dad.

©  T. Chick McClure. All Rights Reserved.

©  T. Chick McClure. All Rights Reserved.