Before the phone call, it was an ordinary Sunday morning at our home in Los Angeles. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my youngest son, Felix, who had come shuffling out of bed at the crack of dawn. I poured a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and we made calls on speakerphone. We started with family on the East Coast, where the hour was less ungodly. I expected my sister Faith to be up with her daughter, but on this particular morning she wasn’t answering the phone. We tried Grandma next, in Chicago, but she was already out and about. So we were left calling Grandpa.
My dad also lived in Chicago, our home town, and was saddled with a pervasive melancholy not uncommon among Jewish men of his generation. The kind of guy who, if it started to lightly drizzle outside, would raise both arms to the sky like Tevye and cry out, “Why me?!” When Faith and I were kids, he was hiding out, depressed, or working. We spent most of our lives swerving out of his lane to let him pass. I remember his long working hours, getting home grumpy, the drawn curtains, the Don’t wake your father, the Oh, shit, I think you woke your father, rages followed by tearful apologies. One of my greatest inheritances felt like it could be that sadness that lived somewhere inside him, unexpressed and untended. After Faith and I left home, he and my mom got divorced. She let him go, and it was easy enough for us to let him go, too, because this is what we had always done.
Over the years, Dad and I had found our way into an easygoing détente of benign weather talk. It was in that spirit that Felix and I dialled. I put the phone on speaker, like I always do. Felix ate his cereal, and my dad, the six-foot-tall Jewish bear, said, “Hi, Jilly,” just like he always did. We talked for a few minutes, and then I asked how his weekend had gone. My dad said he had gone to a holiday party and I asked, “Whose party?” “Do you really want to know?” he said, and I said, “Of course.” “Jilly?” he said. “Are you sitting down?”
I realized that if I needed to be sitting down then I should probably turn off speakerphone so that Felix wouldn’t hear. Both of my parents could be counted on to casually blurt out a report of a gruesome death of someone on the news, a local kidnapping or Amber Alert, or the description of a bowel movement. I snatched the phone off the table and held it to my ear.
“Jilly?” my dad said. “I’m coming out to you. I’m trans.”
His voice was gentle. My chest went hollow.
“Um, Dad, I love you, um, could ya—could ya—hold on one second?”
I marshalled Felix to the TV room, put on “Dinosaur Train,” and raced back to the kitchen table. My dad started by telling me about a group called Chi Chapter that he’d been a part of for years, a support group that sometimes had conferences. I Googled it as we spoke, thinking that the Internet could help me understand. I encountered a Web site with strong Angelfire vibes, “Victor/Victoria” clip-art graphics, and descriptions of yearly daylong boat events called FantaSea. My dad told me about a Hyatt in the Chicago suburbs where the girls (What girls?) would get rooms, change into femme clothes, then head to the restaurant for Caesar salads and Chardonnay.
All of these people did this in secret, he said. Most were married and straight. He gabbed on excitedly while I dropped in and out, listening and Googling and spinning. There was a nice woman at Nordstrom, he said, who had been helping him pick outfits for years. (Nordstrom? Did I remember him going to Nordstrom?)
That morning, I thought my dad was telling me about his odd hobby, but now I know that he was introducing me to a woman who had been living in our house throughout my entire childhood. I had the wrong pronouns then and have only some of the right pronouns now, but I’ll use the wrong ones so you can see how wrong I had it.
Even though my brain was trying to jump out of my skull, I knew to listen and be present, to speak with reassuring words: “I hope you know that I love you forever, unconditionally.”
I took some deep breaths. “Do you have a new name?” I asked.
“Carrie,” she said. “Carrie London.”
“Why a new last name?” I asked.
“Carrie London because, you know, I’m English.”
“Of course,” I said.
“What about Mom and Faith?” I asked. “Do they know?”
“No. And please don’t tell them. Let me do it.”
I texted Faith an urgent message: Call Dad.
When the call ended, I ran upstairs. My husband, Bruce, was sound asleep. I ran at him, pushed him awake, then did an OH MY GOD dance.
“My dad is—my dad is—O.K., so my dad just said he’s—well—I think he meant he—um, sometimes wears women’s clothing.”
“He’s trans,” I said. “Or, I guess more like cross-dressing, which is different than transsexual or transgender, I mean, he said he’s part of a group. . . .”
“Does your mom know?” Bruce asked.
“Does Faith know?”
“She’s calling him now.”
Bruce finally got out of bed. He tried to collect me in his arms, but neither of us was sure if I needed comforting. What had just happened? I paced, trying to figure out what to do. Whom to call. Did Faith know by now? What about my mom? Everything would get more real once they knew.
“So I should just go downstairs and act normal?” This is what we do, right, get on with our Sunday? Is this what a parent is, one face for your kids, to hide your inside face from them?
“Of course,” Bruce said. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
I went downstairs to check on Felix. I texted my therapist: Can you talk later? When Bruce finally came downstairs, he was wearing a dress from my closet. He didn’t say anything, just acted all natural and talked about whether we were going to the farmers’ market. We cracked up.