I searched the internet for a comprehensive list of things I’d need before flying to San Francisco for the beginning of the last phase of my transition – phalloplasty. I found one in a Facebook group after watching so many YouTube videos that I almost talked myself out of even doing it. It’s the way I cope with anxiety- plan for every single catastrophe known to man and mentally rehearse the moves through them.
Over and over and over.
I ordered $100 worth of bandages, and assorted ointments, bought 3 extra large pairs of sweatpants. It said I needed things I hadn’t heard of which conflicted with things other lists recommended, so I researched every ointment. The last thing on the list was “1 cheap hand mirror.”
I expected this. I would need to see places I don’t normally look. Places that, in their current configuration, were the source of much pain. Pain I couldn’t really describe except for to describe what would not be painful.
And I was no stranger to the feminist movement to use hand mirrors to examine one’s own vagina, to take control, to look at what was patriarchal taboo, to own one’s own healthcare. One of my friends even used to deliver sperm in a cooler to women so they could self inseminate. In theory, I was down.
In practice though…
I got pregnant when I was 19. At the time I was thrilled because I was underweight, and for the prior 5 years I’d erased myself, vagina included, by obscuring traces of me behind a fog of vodka, weed and whatever else I could get my hands on. At 18 I was a connoisseur of Maalox flavors and was working on a beauty of an ulcer. I figured my body had stopped even trying. Finding out I was pregnant was like hearing it say, “not yet motherfucker.” I was not as ruined as I felt.
It was complicated.
I could rewrite history and say I knew I was a man and being pregnant was torture, but that would be a lie. What I knew then, without having met a trans person or even copping to my attraction to women in addition to my then boyfriend, was that pregnancy gave me legitimacy. It justified my existence. It was also surreal. It felt like it was happening to someone else and I was watching that person – with those parts- do something normal.
Holding a hand mirror down there was absolutely out of the question. I was separate from that body. I wouldn’t be looking at myself.
Now though, a mirror made sense. I was going to look at *myself.* I put it off. It was a minor detail. There were $10 models at Target, even more expensive at Walgreens. It was a toss off, and I had already spent a metric shit ton of money on every other part of this surgery, so I went to the dollar store and bought one along with a 10 foot charger for my phone and miscellaneous nothings. I walked out having spent $11 dollars total. That was what I thought would be the least of my worries.
I started transitioning when my son was 10. My partner was going through menopause. I simultaneously went through puberty with my son and menopause with my partner. We all bumped blindly through our changes. We figured it out.
Of course there were layers and years and mistakes. I was (am) an imperfect parent. I only saw my son every other weekend and every Wednesday. His dad was infinitely more stable, which was why I loved him in the first place.
In the short bursts of time we had together I tried to cram all of my love into his heart. When I started to transition I told him I would always be his mother. He could call me whatever he wanted. My voice deepened, my hair changed, then fell out. I started growing a beard. When I had my top surgery I explained it to him. Nothing would change, I said. And really, between us, it didn’t.
For the past 10 years I have been quietly screaming, though. My relationship with my body degenerated to the point where now, pretty sober and reasonably successful, I could not ignore the disconnect anymore. Forget hand mirrors, I couldn’t even let someone else look at me without hours of agony.
I told my now 25 year old married son that I was having this surgery in a conversation over the phone. He was grieving the loss of his daughter, and after an hour or so of sharing and crying about that, I told him I was thinking about this. We made a deal that we would both make decisions – he would decide on a plan for his life and I would make a plan for mine. We’d meet again same time next year for a summit to see if we were more fucked up or less.
So I micromanaged. I planned and plotted. I prepared. And here I was, post-op, propped on pillows in a hospital bed in San Francisco. My arm was bandaged, my leg was bandaged. I had two catheters, one coming out of a hole in my abdomen. But I was happy. I wanted to look at myself.
In some dark, drugged recess of my mind I remembered the plastic hand mirror. Kris (now my wife) had forgotten to bring it to the hospital. I was undeterred. We improvised with her phone. We scooted, angled, tilted until I could see myself.
There I was. My genitals looked approximate to what I needed to see, stitches and swelling aside. But there, where I had been afraid to look before, where I had refused to let anyone come near, was a landscape of closed incisions, and stitches, red an irritated, but healthy. They already hinted at what they would look like.
I felt like a black hole had formed in my bed and was sucking me through the floor. Grief. Powerful and sudden. Unexpected. Indescribable.
I started to cry. Kris tried to comfort an inconsolable me. I could not describe what was painful except to describe what wasn’t painful.
I stayed awake trying to pinpoint it. My lost girl? Yes, sort of. My lost mission? Yes, mission accomplished, sort of.
Then I thought of my son. Yes. It was there somewhere. The grief of weekend drop offs at the mall, the trips in snowstorms to see him, the birthday parties with Superman cakes, the first step he took, the nights in the hospital holding his wrecked and grieving body over the body of his own lost girl.
I can say with conviction that grief is complicated and it is so tangled with love that neither can exist without the other. Regret is for mistakes. I regret a lot. This grief that I’m feeling is tangled in love. I grieve the loss of the one thing that physically made me his mom. I grieve for all the ways I could never be a mom in the way moms usually are.
I grieve the loss of the connection with my sisters and mother, girlfriends and wife.
I mourn for the little boy who had to wait 45 years for this.
But as a friend said as we talked about how everything that has ever been still is, every time there ever was or will be exists now – this physical part exists. It is a layer upon which motherhood and sisterhood was planted. Though it isn’t visible now, it still exists in the form of all that it created.
My son and his wife moved a few states away and started over. His plan is in motion and it’s a good one. Between skin grafts, bathing debacles and catheter woes, I’m growing into myself. My plan is in motion and it’s a good one.
I still, as I write this, grieve. I will probably grieve infinitely because I love that way too.
Regret? No. That is for mistakes.
The hand mirror is still in a drawer for now, though.