My dad and I were at Starbucks about a year after he learned he had Alzheimer’s when he looked me up and down with a judge’s eye and said to the barista, “This young man—ahem— man He’ll have a latte.”
I laughed, not sure if he was joking. Up until that point, I had always been his daughter.
I was certainly never a typical daughter. Growing up, I was a tomboy—or what Larry David later called a “pre-gay.” I had short, coarse hair, and wore my older brother’s hands; People often thought I was his little brother.
As an adult, I kept being mistaken for a heterosexual man. I’ve been called “sir” more times than I can count, and that, frankly, I didn’t care. I was generally pleased with people reading me as male, even before my recent surgery and the low dose testosterone I started taking a few years ago.
It quickly became clear that my dad wasn’t joking four years ago when he referred to me as a guy. After that Starbucks moment, he used the pronouns “he/him” almost exclusively for me, and even began collectively referring to me and my brother as his children.
Of course, it was bittersweet. Although he was technically forgetting who I was, there was also something underscoring his honest assessment of my sexuality. It’s as if he was studying me every time with new eyes and taking me in all over again. Ironically, I felt seen.
The truth is, I always felt like seeing my parents, Teddy. As family lore goes, he was convinced I was a boy right after my birth. When he took 10 pounds off me, he immediately thought, “Our little football player!” And he shouted to everyone in the room, “It’s a boy!” (The doctor soon informed him otherwise.)
Sure, it was probably a little sexist that he assumed his new born baby had to be a boy, but I like to think he was catching feelings right through the womb.
When I was little, my dad and I were best friends. Like him – and unlike my brother – I was a player. We spent hours playing catch in the park, and he drove me to all my different sports. When I decided at seven years old to join the neighborhood boys’ hockey league, he supported me. As a judge, he would sometimes adjourn the court early in order to get me to the match in time.
He bought me Transformers and other so called “toys boys” that I wanted and didn’t even look at the ripped jeans and T-shirts I insisted I wear. Both of my parents were progressive, but considering they had no real understanding or roadmap for how to raise a gender nonconforming child in the ’80s (especially by today’s standards), they did a good job of not forcing “girl” stuff on me. And while my father was concerned when I first came out as gay at 19, it was only before that I had never felt his support. When I finally told him I had a girlfriend, he simply asked, “What’s her name?”
There were so many heartbreaking parts of losing my father to Alzheimer’s disease in his late 70’s and early 80’s. Watching him no longer be able to do all the things he loves so much – riding bikes, playing tennis, driving, traveling with partner Barbara – and watching his utter confusion and frustration as his world becomes unfamiliar is excruciating. But the only silver lining was the kick I got every time he referred to me as his son.
It was an adjustment for some friends and family members when I started using the pronouns “they/them” three years ago, but not him. We may have skipped the nuances of what it’s like to live on the gender spectrum, but he was unmistakable in his Alzheimer’s faithful embrace of my increasingly masculine presence. He quickly adapted to say,he this – ” “he This is what he are you talking about? “
Last fall, I asked my dad directly: “Do you see me more as a man or a woman?”
He looked at me closely and then waved his hand in a circular motion. “Both,” he said, looking at me. “Mostly, I only see you– alive. “
I laughed. He couldn’t have nailed it better. Far from being masculine or feminine, I wish we could see sex this way — as dynamic, lusty, vibrant, alive.
This past November, my dad was finally accepted into a memory nursing home — and I finally got my funding approved for a surgery in Ontario. I booked my breast masculinization procedure for two weeks after we planned to transfer it. But as things turned out, a covid outbreak on his home turf delayed his move in date to the same day I was scheduled to have his surgery. Now I’m joking that my dad and I moved in at the same time.
More than funny, it was his confession of my sexuality healing. My dad and I couldn’t have a real conversation about my current gender journey — how I started taking testosterone shortly after he signed me up as a man; How do I define now as “gay/non-binary” and “transascoline”; How I still go by “Rachel” but sometimes I use “Noah,” the name my parents would have called me if I were a boy.
But I joke that he’s the most sex-affirming dad I could ever hope for. Perhaps the ability to forget one’s gender is a positive lesson we can learn from the ravages that Alzheimer’s disease wreaks on people’s brains and their families.
When he met my new friend recently, he asked her: “How did you find him, she, He. She? “
In the mouth of another person, the word “she” may sound disgustingly fanatical. Yet, coming from this 83-year-old boy with dementia who never learned the new rules of contemporary pronouns, I could only hear it one way—as his earnest attempt to lovingly (and playfully) identify with who I am.
Not long ago, my father introduced me to one of his caretakers like this: “This is my cousin, my nephew, my niece,… Everything. He wasn’t sure anymore how we were related. Recently, he had also told me he loved me “as a brother”. But he recognized me, or at least knew intuitively that I was someone he was happy to see—his “human bread.” He often called me “smiley face,” noting how big a smile I had. Mostly, his face lit up when he saw me: You! ” would say.
The shock of death still comes even when you are preparing for it. Weeks ago, on July 6, my father was transferred to palliative care, where he died three days later.
I could barely process his death, but the heartbreaking irony of my father slowly losing his sense of self at the exact same time I was becoming more than I am was not lost on me, even as it unfolded.
I was very close to my mother, who passed away in July 2015 from medically untreated rectal cancer (it’s a long story, I wrote a book about it). In her teens, she began to develop more interests in art and culture, feminism, good food, hiking, and black humor. But in many ways, I’ve always gotten to know my dad better. We were more alike of anyone in our family (although I have more hair), and I inherited his super logical mind and old Jewish man’s approach to life.
As I watched him deteriorate and die, I felt like an extension of myself was dying, too. At his funeral, I talked about him being the closest I’ve ever been to a twin. But I take some comfort in knowing I’ll be carrying some of it forward. Among his many admirable traits—integrity, kindness, generosity, intelligence—he was a role model for the kind of masculinity I would like to embody: strong and soft, self-assured and self-deprecating, tough and affectionate, reliable and caring, obsessive and gentle.
While visiting with him last month, I experienced a familiar worry: There will only be more time until there will be no memory at all. He smiled when he saw me – a spark of appreciation! —but then he looked confused and said, “Remind me, how do we know each other?”
“I’m Rachel,” I said, smiling. “Your child”.
And though I continue to grow and get to know, I will continue to be.