I’d like to share a story with you, a story of tragedy intertwined with incredible generosity. It proved to me once again the power the universe has to surprise even the most cynical.
My name is Rachel, but it hasn’t always been so, that is, when I was born, the doctor took a quick look, slapped me on the butt and proclaimed “It’s a boy” as he handed me to my mother. When asked, “what’s his name?”, she replied, “Richard”, a name that she and my father had put a great deal of thought into, but one that had never quite fit as far as I was concerned.
I suppose a little background would be in order at this point. You see, I am transgender and that is no small admission, especially at my age. I have been aware of my personality having been wired as a woman’s since I was very young. I have no idea why I was born this way, and at this point it doesn’t really matter, all I know for certain is that I have felt this way as long as I can remember. I will say that after having spoken to a number of people that suffer from this, I have it worse than some but not as bad as others. In my case, I think I could best describe it like having a toothache, sometimes it hurts like hell, but mostly it takes on the character of a dull ache, rarely so bad as to be debilitating. On most days it simply colors my outlook on life and although I acknowledge its’ existence, I press on through the discomfort. The problem arose for me as it does for most transgender people, that the older I became the more insistent the feelings.
Even though I was aware that solutions existed for my situation, I still held back and remained in hiding, afraid of what would happen if I said out loud what I had said secretly to myself my whole life. After a lifetime of fear and denial the inevitable arrival of my 60th birthday produced an overwhelming sense of mortality. Accompanying that fear was the knowledge that if I did nothing, the regret I would experience would be of epic proportions.
That is the reason that I started down this path, having decided that I had denied myself as long as I could, I began taking hormones to transition from male to female. In truth, I don’t believe that I had actually thought it through to a final conclusion. In hindsight, I think I began taking hormones as an experiment just to see what would happen. Would I feel any better? Would I feel any different? When the effects became obvious as they surely would, would it finally force me to admit to the world who the real me was. This was the only way to find out and I’ll have to say the answer became obvious so quickly as to be almost frightening. The hormones made me feel so wonderful that any thought of giving them up was unthinkable, but to actually go all the way and change my gender, that was another story entirely.
I set about contemplating where I wanted this journey to go, although thinking about surgery as the ultimate goal was simply an intellectual exercise, and one that was so far down the road as to be almost invisible. The fact remained that although it seemed quite impossible, that didn’t quell the desire. The desire to live the balance of my life as a woman was simply too strong to resist.
I continued to take the hormones as I considered all my options. It was such a complicated affair, taking into account how it would affect my family and friends, my work, and most importantly my health. Balanced against all these considerations were my desires and what I stood to gain and what I stood to lose. If I did want to take this to the ultimate end, the number of things that I would have to do before I could reach that goal was daunting, not the least of which was to find the $20,000 necessary. That was the first time I had given any thought as to how much this adventure might end up costing me. A cost not only in lost friends and a dissolved marriage but in actual cold hard cash. I came to the conclusion that no matter what I decided I wanted to do, the sheer size of the bill that would come due would keep me from making surgery the goal.
Which brings me to the point of this story.
All during my transition, whenever I have hit a roadblock or suffered a setback, I have comforted myself with the knowledge that the universe seems to know when it’s time for things to happen. Since acknowledging my gender dysphoria, my life has been quite amazing, so many people have opened up to me about their own lives and struggles. I have drawn strength from their courage and have found that the honesty and openness I have shared with each of them is being returned in kind. Each of these individuals has taught me a fundamental lesson in what it truly means to be human, with some of the most moving and poignant stories coming from the most unexpected sources.
My first roommate was one such individual, Bruce and I were both about 21 at the time and had absolutely nothing in common other than we each needed someone to ease the burden of the monthly rent. We agreed to the details of a lease, paid our deposits and proceeded to move in. Our sorry collection of personal property making a sad statement as it was unloaded into a pile at the curb awaiting its trip up to the second floor.
It didn’t take long for us to settle in. We spent the next year being totally self-indulgent and self-absorbed. We weren’t part of the neighborhood around us, so we weren’t compelled to make time for them, we came home from work, went upstairs and cloistered ourselves in our shabby little abode. Thus passed our year together and although we became friends, as it came to an end we each went our separate ways. I remember thinking that after the riotous nature of the preceding year the ending seemed to arrive with a whimper. There were no promises of continued friendship and as our lives moved on in different directions we slowly lost touch with each other, but the stories from that year lived on.
At any gathering of the casual participants in that social experiment the results were predictable. Someone would mention of any one of a dozen code words and the stories would begin. Do you remember the cat? How about the neighbors downstairs? The fish tank? The list had been recited countless times. Each story would be accompanied by its appropriate sound effects and would generate howls of laughter. Each story sparking the next until the entire litany had been recited.
Inevitably the question, “what ever happened to so and so” would bring us back to the present and remind us of how long ago that really was.
It is now so many years later; it takes too much time to do the math, suffice it to say a whole lifetime has slowly slipped by while we weren’t looking. I have stayed in touch with several friends from that time and although I never spoke to Bruce I always asked about him. There was never much to report until he dropped from sight unexpectedly. It wasn’t until I inquired about him through his sister that I learned the tragic nature of the turn his life had taken. It seems that his wife of many years had suddenly taken her own life, leaving him lost, alone, and without hope.
I tried to write him a letter, both to explain how my life had changed as well as to express to him my sorrow for the way his had gone, but I just could not find the words.
I knew that I could not let this moment pass, I felt that talking to him might help us both deal with the trials life had thrown at us. Once I had resolved to call him, all it took were a few key strokes and the power of the internet to track him down.
I must say that I was a bit nervous as I tapped his number into my phone, after all it had been at least 30 years since we had spoken, but the instant that I heard his voice I knew I had made the right decision. His surprise when he answered the phone lasted only a few moments, then he launched into “do you remember the cat?” Yes I replied with a laugh, “but do you remember the neighbors down stairs?”
It was remarkable that even though we hadn’t spoken for so long, it seemed like we had been together in that dumpy apartment only yesterday.
The hours slipped by as we talked, laughed and talked some more, the remembrances of our time together interspersed with the parts of our lives that we had missed. He was intrigued with the story of my gender dysphoria, and as he told me about his wife he seemed to draw comfort from telling me about her. In the end we both felt better having shared with each other the most difficult parts of our lives. We apologized for having let so much time pass and closed with promises of staying in touch this time. I spent the weekend replaying the conversation in my mind, I thought about how difficult it would be to move on from a tragedy like that. I made a vow to myself that I would call him again in a couple of weeks to see how he was doing.
I never got the chance.
As the phone rang three days later, I looked at it but didn’t recognize the number. I answered it expecting some type of solicitation. When I heard his voice I broke out into a big smile.
It was Bruce, and before I could even say hello he started right in; “I thought about you the entire weekend and wanted to talk some more and maybe ask you some questions.”
I told him “ask whatever questions you want.” I continued to explain that I was far beyond being embarrassed by any question he could ask. This is definitely a good skill to have when one is changing their gender.
So we talked, he had spent some time investigating some of what was involved with being transgender but wanted to hear my version.
I said to him, “What would you like to know? I could feel him sorting out the questions he had, distilling them down to the essentials.
“I wanted to know where you are going with this, he stated, “what’s the ultimate goal, is it surgery?”
“The practical answer is no,” I replied, “At my age, and with what it would cost, I don’t think surgery is a realistic option.” but I’m still a long way from having to decide about that.”
He paused briefly then said, “I can’t see you at the moment, but I can hear the disappointment in your voice. If I could see you, I’m sure I would see a look of lingering sadness in your face.”
“But what I want to know is, would having that surgery make you happy?”
“I’ve always believed that it would make me happy.” I said. I can’t deny that it has been something that I have thought about and even dreamed about since the first time I had heard that it was possible, but wanting it and being able to afford it are two different things.
“How much does it cost?”
In round numbers, about 20,000 dollars.
If money wasn’t an issue would you go through with it?
Yes, I’d have to say that if I could afford it I would do it. I think I use the age excuse because it hurts less than saying it is just money standing between me and happiness.
“I tell you what,” he said “I’ll give you $20,000 dollars to have the surgery.”
I was totally speechless but I heard myself making all manner of unintelligible noises while my brain whirled, trying to think of something to say. I finally settled on “Thank You.”
When I had finally managed to say something, he continued. I have been thinking about my life and what would I do differently. I have been up and down, I’ve been bankrupt, and I’ve got children I’ll never know. During all those trying times, no one ever reached out to me. I have realized that I can’t change the past but I’m going to live the rest of my life differently, I’m not going to be that kind of person anymore, so I’m reaching out to you.
I have money in the bank, but the only thing I want is to have my wife back with me, but she is gone. All the money in the world will not change that. I not sure I’ll ever be happy again but perhaps if I share some of it with you, the happiness it brings to you will color my world as well.
The ending to this story hasn’t been written yet. I continue to work through the long list of steps and requirements that are part of the transition process, but I am very much closer to the end than I am to the beginning. Whether or not I actually end up having surgery is beside the point, what my roommate unselfishly offered me is the greatest gift one human can offer another.
Acceptance and hope.