Editors' Note: Guest blogger Pam Daniels is a writer, activist, and a member of Garden State Equality's Board of Directors. She has 26 years of experience in broadcast news and media.
The digital display on my dashboard reads "7:41 PM, 67 degrees" as I leave the on-ramp and join the southbound traffic on the Garden State Parkway. I had planned on attending a PFLAG meeting in Toms River tonight but that will have to wait.
A dear friend of mine who is an airline pilot is a PFLAG volunteer. This group does awesome work to bridge the gap between parents and their LGBT kids. I wonder how many LGBT people of my generation would be alive today if PFLAG existed when we were kids.
I break free of a semi-hypnotic trance; I could, but won't drive the remaining 8 to 10 miles with my eyes closed, to the hospital intensive care unit where my 85 year old father lay close to death. Glancing up at the horizon above the highway as dusk drifts into darkness, the bottom of a large cloud formation glows yellowish gold from a setting sun directly above my destination. I'm not nervous. I'm at peace with myself.
This inner peace was unknown to me until these past four years after I had finally come out as a transgender lesbian woman. My father was certainly not at peace, forget comfortable, with my true nature as his eldest daughter; I was outed to him and my mother without my permission by a younger sibling who, in doing so, perpetrated a despicable, pernicious violation of my rights.
As expected during two or three phone conversations I had with dad after I was outed, he used all the bogus religious arguments in his arsenal to try to make me feel guilty, perverse and disgusting, but I was prepared for this by then. I knew better; I finally knew that his and all bigotry against LGBT people stems from ignorance.
So, now I'm driving to a hospital so my father can meet me, the real me, Pamela, in person, before he dies. We have two hours together, from 8 to 10 PM, to discuss the last 58 years of our shared time.
Driving Down Memory Lane
Snapshots appear and short video clips play in my mind as I relive moments with my dad from 40 to 50 years ago, like breaking in my first pair of hockey skates on the frozen lake in my North Jersey hometown as dad tries to show me how to turn and skate backward. Dad never played hockey but loved the sport even though he's an expert figure skater. Like everything in my life, I learned to skate very quickly, almost too easily; I still take this capability for granted.
I slow to drive through an EZ Pass toll lane and a related vision consumes me. Hockey... Dad and a ten year old me at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City circa 1965... The New York Rangers against the Chicago Black Hawks... Our seats were on either side of a huge vertical support beam that we had to crane our necks around to see the ice or each other. The game went into several overtimes and dad brought me home very, very late on a school night. Mom was pissed. It's so laughable now but was very serious back then.
Fast forward to high school and my hockey games. Dad drove me to school at 4 AM and took the bus with the team to a game in Haverstraw, New York - the first time he saw me play competitive hockey. Our team never lost, in fact we utterly dominated high school hockey for decades. Dad's proud to this day; so am I.
The sign ahead closes in and warns me to exit the highway in a half-mile but the next moment with dad is cued up in my mind's eye. It was five or six degrees above zero and snowing lightly as I cut the ends off fresh string beans by a roaring campfire that I'd started with flint and steel. I was making dinner for our scout patrol so I could pass my cooking merit badge. The menu was hamburger meat in a frying pan, boiled string beans and biscuits baked in a Dutch oven. I was hungry, so were all the boys in my platoon, who huddled close to the flames. I cooked the dinner and we all ate as dad and my scoutmaster dropped by sipping cups of hot coffee made on their propane stove inside their heated camper. I got my cooking merit badge and years later earned the rank of Eagle Scout.
I exit the Garden State Parkway with just one more mile to go before I reach dad's hospital when a newspaper article about Christine Jorgenson, the world's first transsexual woman, I read in October of 1969 flashes in my head. I knew I was really a girl when I was five or six years old but this newspaper story informed me at14 that it's possible to have an operation and actually live my life as a female. I hold this dream close to my heart - even now as I walk from the parking garage toward the hospital main entrance. I am beaming with joy and elation. I am very close now to knowing the exact date of my surgery.
A Woman to See You
I poke my head past the open sliding glass door into my dad's room to interrupt the night nurse who looks over the color flat screen readings above dad's head that itemize his very weakened status. "Hello," I whisper at this health care professional and he turns toward me immediately with a smile. After instructing me to don a sterile gown and gloves, the nurse introduces himself as Mike - and instantly brings a smile to my face since that used to be my name.
Dad's eye's blink open when Mike announces, "There's a woman here to see you, Sir!"
Mike smiles at me and he walks out of the room while I drag a visitor's chair up close to my father's bedside. I sit down and begin to gently stroke Dad's forehead with my gloved left hand. He makes direct eye contact with me and I'm relieved as I observe him looking over my made up face because I can sense he's mentally alert.
I know I now look a lot like my mother did when she was 40 or 50 years younger and I don't think Dad's ever seen a photo of me as a woman. I'm pretty sure this is the first time he's seeing at me as a woman.
I lean over him, softly kiss his forehead, just as I had always done over the past six or seven years that he'd been in the nursing home, before I whisper in his ear. "Dad, I used to be Mike, you and mom named me Michael, but you know now that I'm a woman and I changed my name to Pamela, remember?"
I lean back so he can see my face up close but I keep stroking his forehead and scalp softly. I know my dad; I know his subtle expressions as his left eyebrow rises ever so slightly. He's connecting the dots.
I lean into his left ear again and repeat, "Dad, we talked about this last year. You and mom named me Mike but I gave myself the name Pamela. Blink once for yes if you remember, blink twice for no if you don't remember."
As I lean back less than a foot from his face, my lips purse and form a closed mouth smile. Dad begins to smile and blinks once; my heart warms, but I need to confirm his lucidity. I lean into his ear and whisper, "I love you Pop!" then quickly move back to clearly read his lips say, "Love you" through his soft, infirmed smile.
Selfishly, I want to relive my cherished moments from the past with my Dad so I just begin spewing my memories to him - like how he painstakingly built a Hi Fidelity audio entertainment system for our home with an amplifier, FM radio tuner, reel to reel playback/record tape deck, and, most importantly, an extremely sensitive turntable for playing records. I tell dad that I remember being with him as he used his table saw in our basement to design and built the cabinets that held all this equipment - including the speaker cabinets that filled our living room with extraordinary "Hi Fi" sound.
Dad loves pipe organ music and drums. He had awesome recordings of Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich on drums and I could hear with crystal clarity everything those percussionists played. Mom had her records too. She loved Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and many other classical composers. Mom especially loved "Revel's Bolero."
I remind dad that I scavenged parts from old TV's and radios left by our neighbors for garbage and built an AM radio from all the parts and tubes I collected to win first prize in the school science fair. Dad taught me technical accuracy and acumen; mom taught me music appreciation.
As I describe these things to dad his smile glows and his eyes well very slightly with tears - as do mine. I warm to a feeling I'd always had - the feeling that I am in-between mom and dad, a complicated combination of them both but more than just a sum of the two of them.
Fun and funny memories keep queuing up in my head, so I keep telling dad these stories one after another.
Dad loves fireworks; he loved making his own from scratch - to the point of mixing his own gunpowder. I remind my father how he would make these weird cone shaped firecrackers and light them under coffee cans in our backyard. Occasionally the can would shoot up in the air several feet but mostly the loud explosion would send shrapnel flying in all directions - which inevitably resulted in a severe remonstration from my mother.
He loves electronics and bought several "Citizen's Band" radios in the early 60's. Our basement served as his design laboratory. Dad found the long telescoping steel antennas on CB walkie talkies annoying so he designed and built much shorter tuned coil antennas that clipped onto the original antennas. Four years later Motorola patented the same design, which became widely known as "rubber duck" antennas. The design was a basic patent, just like the light bulb and phonograph, but dad couldn't afford a patent attorney to represent him in Washington DC.
The Dark Side of the Moon
In 1970 dad bought a Winnebago motor home. In 1972 when I was 17 we took a family trip from New Jersey down to Florida. Dad let me drive the rig. I was shitting bricks; he kept asking me if I was okay. I was driving! I wasn't giving up the wheel for anything and Dad knew it. He grins from ear to ear in his bed as I retell this story for us both.
That Winnebago Motor Home had a kick ass AM/FM stereo cassette system in it. Dad didn't like most of my music back then - Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Who, Pink Floyd. Ah, Pink Floyd! I start to retell dad about "Dark Side of the Moon."
I taught myself to play guitar at eleven. Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album came out in '73 when I was 18 and like I always did, I learned to play along with my favorite artists. I was figuring out the first three tracks from the album on my electric guitar in our finished basement when Dad came down the stairs and listened in. I ask him if he remembers this; I tell him I remember like it was yesterday. Dad lifts his head slightly from his hospital bed pillow, still smiling, and nods yes.
Dad and I finished off our basement; it had a bar and an awesome stereo system. I kept my guitar and amp down there until I left for college in the fall of '73. After a period of listening to me play along with Pink Floyd, Dad asked me if I would make a cassette copy of the album for him and I did. He grins from ear to ear and nods his head as I remind him how he would sit out in the motor home and play the tape I made for him - cranking it up loud and listening. Unlike many rock albums back then, the lyrics to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" were clearly audible. I know dad liked the lyrics just as much as he liked the guitar.
I remind him that I interviewed Pink Floyd guitarist, vocalist and songwriter David Gilmore for my college radio station in '76. He beams and remembers that I brought home a tape of that interview from college. I lean over him to kiss his forehead as I recall the very apropos lyrics to Pink Floyd's "Breathe," "Time" and "Breathe Reprise" from that Dark Side of the Moon album and I feel myself holding back tears.
Dad is mouthing something so I lean in close and put my left ear right up to his mouth. He has no voice at all; he can barely attempt a whisper but he can control his lips and tongue. I hear "7" and what sounds like "E." He inhales as much air as he can and tries to repeat two or three more times. I think he's saying "'74" so I ask "1974?" Dad smiles bigger, nods and mouths yes. Dad is off by a year but I say to him, "Yeah, you and mom drove me to college in the motor home, moved me to Northeastern University in Boston, remember?" Dad mouths and nods yes again.
I Am Your Daughter
I bring dad back to present day, this moment in time. "Pop, I'm very happy now, I'm finally living as myself - my true nature - a woman. I told you last year that I'm an activist and writer and that I also go to Washington to lobby for full equality. I'm very happy now."
Only I call my father "Pop" as a term of endearment. Dad begins mouthing something and I can't read his lips so I pull my hair back and put my left ear barely an inch away from his lips. He wants to tell me something and I must know what it is.
Pop can barely push air out of his mouth; his vocal cords are totally dysfunctional, but, his tongue and lips still form syllables one at a time. I worry that this might be to stressful for him but I know when he's determined. After three or four minutes I think I hear him say, "I like" so I lift my head back so he can see my lips and hear my voice and ask, "Did you say 'I like'?"
Pop shakes his head yes so I quickly put my left ear back down by his mouth. The next word would take nearly ten minutes for me to understand. I check my watch and the wall clock; both read 9:48 and I am scared that I might not be able to understand him. I think I hear Pop saying "Your" so again I lift my face about a foot above his eyes and ask, "Did you say 'your'?"
Pop shakes his head yes so I ask him, "You said 'I like your'. Is that correct?" Pop's smiles and nods yes so I put my left ear directly over his lips again and listen carefully. Fortunately the syllables that follow involve his lips and tongue. Pop repeats what seems like four additional syllables again and again.
Finally I've got it, every fiber of my being is beaming love and positive energy as I ask Pop, "Did you say, 'name Pamela'?" Pop's smiles big and nods yes.
I ask, "Are you saying 'I like your name Pamela'?" Pop keeps nodding and mouths "Yes!"
Our Final Moments
I check my watch and the clock on the wall to my right opposite the foot of Pop's bed; it's 9:57. A hospital wide announcement is broadcast through the ceiling speakers that visiting hours are over. Tears of joy and sadness stream down my cheeks; Pop is smiling - but tearfully. We both know that we've experienced our final moments together in this lifetime.
I kiss his chapped, dry, cracked lips and cradle the back of his neck in both of my hands; my tears drip on his face but he's still smiling. I know Pop is giving me his last gift - his love and support even though it's difficult for him to understand why I'm really a woman even though I was born genetically male. The bottom line with Pop is that no matter if I'm his son or daughter, he loves me and wants me to be happy and I've always known this.
Over the past two years I've told him during phone conversations about the horrible depression I lived through from being forced to live as and act male. I feel during these final poignant moments together that Pop felt some of my mother's nature in me. Mom and I had many discussions about love, compassion and most importantly, empathy, decades ago. Mom has Alzheimer's now so all discussions between us have passed.
I attempt nonchalance with a warm but nervous smile as I stand up from Pop's bedside and declare, "Visiting hours are over Pop, they're kicking us out."
Dad mouths "Love you" so I lean down and kiss him once more but now I'm bawling uncontrollably. I turn away from Pop, walk to the foot of his bed, and we lock eyes one more time. I mouth, "I love you," and blow him a kiss. Pop mouths, "Love you" and purses his weak lips in a kiss then he turns his head to his right on his pillow and stares away from me.
I turn away from him, walk out of his room and down the hallway, removing the sterile gown and gloves along the way.