Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Both Sides Now

The minibus winds through the forests outside of Chisinau.  My Bucharest friend Patrick and I are heading back towards the River Prut and the border that separates Moldova from Romania.  I have been to Moldova three times – four if you count my brief visit in 1978 – and now know something about life on both sides of the River Prut.  Romania, a full-fledged member of the European Union, has oriented itself completely towards Europe despite a long Communist period and a bizarre dictatorship under Ceausescu.  Moldova, with a shared language and culture, does not know yet which way to turn, to Russia or to the West.  The Soviet occupation of over 45 years has left its imprint.  Life here is different than in Bucharest, in some ways simpler and less hurried.

It will be no surprise to readers of my previous post (On Losing a Daughter) that these have been a rough three weeks for my emotions.  I do not exaggerate when I say that it has been the most difficult time I have been through since the death of my mother in 2007.

But how do I write about it without disclosing details that I know the other person involved – someone for whom I care deeply – would not want to see disclosed?  Although the circumstances are very different, I find myself in the same position that I am in with respect to my divorce and ex-spouse, a position in which I walk the fine line of writing about my own feelings and actions without referring to the feelings and actions of the other person.  It is only half of the story.  It is likely to remain that way for quite some time in regard to the events of the past three weeks.

Both sides now.  I have a better emotional understanding today than I did three weeks ago of what a parent or significant other goes through when a child or spouse announces that he/she is transgender and intends to transition.  Even the most intellectually supportive spouse or parent finds the announcement emotionally confusing.  Does this change in gender say something about me?  What does this mean for the relationship I have had with my child/spouse for these past months or years?  What does it mean for the future of that relationship?  After all, gender is expressed not only in and by an individual person but also in and by that person's relationship with others.

I have read accounts of supportive spouses who feel that their partner boards a transition express and begins to change and readjust rapidly with support from therapists and transgender groups.  The spouse, with little support, feels left at the station.  Friends have little understanding of the grieving process that the spouse goes through.  

One of the worst things a friend could say to a person whose parent or spouse has died is, "It was God's will; he/she is at peace."  In the case of gender transition or detransition, an equivalent statement is, "It is his/her decision; he/she is still the same person."  One might just as well say to a woman whose husband has run off with someone else, "It was his decision."  Although the intellect may realistically accept such statements, the heart is in grief.  Far better for the friend to say, "I am here for you if you need anything, someone to be with, a shoulder to cry on."  Over the past three weeks I have heard both types of statements.  You can guess which ones have helped me most.

Grief is a process.  I have been going through all five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  I have already cycled through several of the phases more than once and know that I will continue to do so for many weeks or months to come.  It is a process I have been through before.  It is familiar.  I know it will have its end or, at least, will slowly fade.

I have a question for the reader.  Is a person who transitions still the same person?  The obvious answer is yes, but I have begun to wonder.  If we are really the same person before and after transition, then why transition?  How we behave and want to be perceived in this still largely bi-gender world has a great deal to do with gender.  I behave and express myself far differently today than I did four years ago.  Some of this change is intentional, the product of studying how women of my age dress, talk, walk, and interact with other women and men.  Part of the change has been a matter of bringing to the surface parts of my personality that were long submerged.  Hormones have played a significant role both physically and emotionally.  The shell behind which I lived my male life is gone.  I believe that people who meet me for the first time today would have had a very different experience of me four years ago. 

I posit for discussion my thesis that a person who transitions both is and is not entirely the same person.  If this is the case, we must give credit to the reactions of parents and spouses who report that they must experience the death of their partner or child in order to embrace that person again on the other side of transition.  I have found myself in just that position over these past three weeks.  The good news is that I have made progress on that path even as the path stretches far out ahead of me.  It is my first post-transition relationship crisis in which I am learning with heart and head how my own reactions to relationship issues are different from what they were four years ago.

One sign of that progress is the fact that Patrick and I crossed the River Prut last Friday to visit OD and her partner D.  Saturday brought another transgender picnic in one of the parks near the edge of Chisinau.  For six lazy hours we enjoyed yet again the best shashlyk I have ever tasted.  Moldovan wine was passed around, and we talked of life and its challenges while simply enjoying a day that was picture perfect for a picnic.

Sunday was a national holiday in Moldova.  On this day it is the custom for families to go to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones.  We followed the custom, going to Chisinau's oldest and largest cemetery and walking slowly through all sections from newest to oldest.  From there we walked back to the city center and sat for a long time in the city's central park.  In the evening we gorged ourselves on strawberries and conversation.

OD and D hugged us as we said our goodbyes an hour ago.  I don't know when I will see them again.  By necessity, I am beginning to say my goodbyes and to unplug from the home I have known for the past two years and eight months.  Only a month remains of the time that once seemed limitless to me in my Romanian home.

Both sides now.  The landscape is changing from forest to fields of vineyards as we approach the border and the River Prut.  The landscape of my own life continues to change.  Life post-transition both surprises and educates with its highs and lows.  It is different from the landscape I used to know but one that is becoming increasingly my own.  It is the home that I do not need to say goodbye to, the home that I take with me with love wherever I go.

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That this early Joni Mitchell song is on my mind should come as no surprise to readers of a certain generation.

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