When I first entered the trans community, I heard a story about a medically transitioned trans guy who had to pretend to be his former female self when he went to visit his elderly father. I don’t remember the details behind the situation, but I do recall thinking, “Wow, that must be tough.”
Little did I know that a few years later, I would be in the same situation.
My father is 84 years old. His health issues over the past decade or so have included four mild strokes, quadruple by-pass surgery and, currently, dementia.
We have been able to help him remain in his own home, with my sister and brother taking turns staying with him on the caregiver’s days off. When I can, I go home to the Midwest and stay with Dad to give the other two a short break.
Physically, Dad is able to get around slowly with the aid of a cane. There was a period of time when he would fall somewhat regularly, but he seems to be a bit steadier now and the railings we installed in the bathrooms and on his bed have helped.
Dad’s long-term memory is still in fairly decent shape. He remembers the members of his immediate family, some of the more distant relatives, former co-workers who still visit or call from time to time, and old friends.
His short-term memory is another story. Sometimes he can hold onto more recent events, but other times, not so much. We never know what he will or will not be able to recall. He’s not so good with time – knowing what day, month or year it is – but he knows who’s in the White House. I learned the hard way how to respond when Dad makes statements like, “I wonder how John has been doing. I haven’t seen him in a while.” Rather than say, “Dad, John died five years ago,” and force him to relive yet again his good friend’s death, I just say, “I think he’s doing okay.”
On the bad days, he becomes disoriented, perhaps even forgetting how to find the bathroom in a home he built in the 1960s and has lived in ever since. Those moments both frustrate the hell out of him and scare him. I remember one day when he awoke from an afternoon nap while I was preparing dinner. My brother called and Dad answered the phone, asking him if he was coming over for breakfast. Even though the sun had set and it was dark outside, Dad thought he had slept through the night and it was morning. When I said, “Dad, we’re not going to have breakfast, we’re going to have dinner. It’s dinner time,” he first looked confused, and then he became very upset because he couldn’t keep these simple things straight in his mind.
There are other times, though, when he has moments of such clarity that he’s just like the dad of my youth. Like the time we were watching Johnny Depp as the notorious gangster John Dillinger in the movie “Public Enemies.” Dad had been mostly quiet throughout the DVD but then all of a sudden he turned toward me and asked, “Do you know what happened in Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934?” I blinked. I’m not sure how long it had been since Dad even knew what day it was without help, and here he was quoting a date from over 70 years ago.
I shrugged. He said, “You don’t know what happened in Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934??” as though he couldn’t believe that I didn’t know the answer. I asked him what happened but he didn’t reply, turning his attention back to the movie instead. Several minutes later came the scene where John Dillinger escaped from the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934 using a fake gun he had whittled out of a piece of wood. Dad blew me away with that one.
It’s his poor memory and dementia that have contributed to the current situation. I’ve actually come out to Dad twice, and he hasn’t retained the information either time, or at least he hasn’t seemed to. I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether some denial on his part has also been part of the equation.
And so when I call Dad or go home to visit him, we all pretend that I’m still his oldest daughter. Everyone uses my female name and refers to me with feminine pronouns. It’s a burden for me, and I wonder if it’s difficult for my family, asking them to repeatedly switch back and forth from the former to the true me.
For a month or so before each visit home, I let my hair grow out a bit, although overall I’ve been cutting it shorter and shorter with time. When I walk in the door, Dad might make a comment, “Hey, you got a haircut,” but he doesn’t seem to realize that my hairline is receding.
There are so many times when I ache to try to come out to him again. I think about telling him that I’m not his oldest daughter, that I am his oldest son. I imagine him acknowledging my true self and calling me by my real name. On the days when he’s on his game, at his most lucid, I sit with him, the words on my tongue, my heart rate climbing as I contemplate breaking it to him one more time, telling myself, “This will be the time when he remembers, when he sees me.”
Of course, I don’t follow through. How can I? How can I try to force him through something he is clearly incapable of understanding?
Instead, I decide that what I have is enough. It’s enough to have my father in my life when so many people do not.
And so, happy Father’s Day, Dad. From your oldest daughter…with love.