Tucked in the front pocket of my jeans was the list handwritten in purple ink, the color chosen specifically because it always made me feel better. A completely mundane list by anyone’s standards — the kind most shoppers entering Target that day might be carrying. But mine was different for a reason no one would have ever guessed, and only a few people — mostly those who had walked in my shoes — might truly understand.
Toothpaste. Shampoo. Cat litter. Storage containers. Paper towels. Laundry detergent. The most basic of items, but in reality, five of these were decoys. Diversions in the form of innocuous sundries, to convince me this excursion was not out of the ordinary; that what I was purchasing was routine. But it wasn’t what I was buying that made this shopping trip seem so surreal. It was the why. The reason I was there was what pulled at my heartstrings as I grabbed the red cart with one rattling wheel and headed deliberately into the store.
Proceeding down the main aisle, the flashbacks began almost immediately. Like a made-for-television-movie, each memory corresponding with a department of the store, the only thing missing being a melodramatic soundtrack to accompany the scenes playing at a dizzying pace in my head. Passing child-size mannequins holding bedazzled miniature purses and wearing girl’s clothing in varying shades of pink, I swallow hard to dislodge the lump that has formed in my throat. It was here, just a few years earlier, that I remember receiving some of the first clues from our gender nonconforming child, that there was a disconnect between her mind and body. Simple conversations that always led to arguments followed by tears as Sam rejected wearing anything feminine the store had to offer. “Boys don’t wear dresses,” she would explain matter-of-factly, while I tried in vain to convince my five year-old daughter otherwise.
Accelerating the pace to escape the discomfort the innocent attire elicited, I come upon racks of boy’s apparel. The rough and tumble wear always a magnet for my little girl who knew she was really a boy. “But I want Spiderman underpants,” her young voice echoed in my mind, the words evoking feelings of sadness even after all this time. “Can I wear swim trunks like Dad this summer?” Sam would ask, holding the boy’s swimsuit bottoms up to her waist for me to approve. But that approval did not come easily. Instead, I averted the gaze of those eager, puppy dog eyes, which accompanied her naïve requests to wear the boy’s clothes featuring footballs and hockey pucks- the only type of clothes that made this child feel whole. Rationalizing it was my job to stand firm, to remind her she was really a girl.
Fast forward six years– after extensive research, and doctor’s visits and counseling sessions — I am now on a shopping trip that represents the start of a journey down a different path for my child, and the beginning of a new chapter for our family. “Here in Aisle 22, of all places,” I laugh nervously to myself at how strangely funny that seems. I am here to buy a container that will be used to store the last remnants of proof that our first child was born biologically female. A hoarder by nature, all the mementos I had accumulated over the years were nothing but painful reminders to Sam that his mind and body did not match. And it was time for them to go, or at least be hidden from view, as he began to truly live his life as a boy.
“Throw them all away,” Sam instructed, but I could not bear the thought of discarding my child’s history. The Girl Scout Brownie vest adorned with Cookie Super Seller patches. A framed birth announcement proudly proclaiming Samantha Carole’s arrival. Sports trophies with girl figurines bouncing basketballs and holding bats. Art projects emblazoned with her feminine given name, carefully created by tiny fingers wrapped around a favorite green crayon. An “I’m The Big Sis,” tee shirt worn to the hospital on the day our second child was born. And the photos…oh yes, the photos. Gathering them from the fireplace mantel, taking them down from our refrigerator door, and removing them from all the nooks, crannies and bookshelves where they had resided throughout our home for the last ten years, probably hurt the most. But I knew these artifacts needed to be packed away so that Sam’s true identity could not only survive, but also thrive.
“It’s hard to decide when you have this many options,” a young mother standing next to me amongst the sea of plastic containers offers, breaking my train of thought. A little girl no more than four years of age sits in her cart, tenderly holding a faded brown bear that has obviously been loved. I smile and nod, remembering once more those early days of Sam’s childhood and I am suddenly overcome with a sense of relief. Relief because I finally recognize this trip does not represent a loss, but rather another step in the direction we must travel together to help him become whole. In that instant I understand the magnitude of his sense of self and my heart wells with pride knowing he has already achieved something many people will spend a lifetime trying to accomplish. At about the same tender age as the child before me in that cart, Sam already knew who he was and has never wavered from being true to himself. Indeed, this was not a good-bye, but rather a long-awaited acknowledgement of the person my beautiful child has always been. His whole life ahead of him, he will now continue on with his head held high and his family proudly by his side. As a parent, I could not wish for more.
Editor’s Note: This essay was a finalist in the second annual Notes & Words Essay Contest and was chosen to be published in the upcoming anthology, Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions, which will be in bookstores on May 3rd, 2014.