Today is my adoptive father’s funeral. An accident on an icy stoop felled the man whose powerful fists took down so many perceived enemies. The man I called father by fate died in the exact spot where (as a frightened child) I had hoped to kill him.
A miserable man, who adopted my brother and I as infants and beat the pulp out of our family for twelve years, Jo lived his early life in fearful, homophobic agony. The secret in his soul stuck to everything he touched, like a spider web dipped in poison, the sinewy string of being his child was agony. My brother and I lived every day of our childhood as if it would be our last. The Suffolk County police knew us by name.
One night as his heavy work boots sounded on the front steps, I sat with his rifle in my hands, thinking of giving him a final bloody greeting at the front door where he ultimately died. I was eleven years old and although prayers had failed to save us, I could not kill him.
Ultimately, our freedom came from begging our mother to leave. Jo said he would kill us if we left, and so we fled to a shelter for battered families. At the time, I had no idea what fueled the monster’s rage.
Later, as an adult, I discovered that he was gender tortured. He was a woman trapped in a man’s body. Rather than deal with this conundrum, he punished others for his maleness. He beat unwary salesmen and process servers on that same stoop where he died. His big calloused work hands and boots beat everyone down. Broken inside, he sought to destroy the world that had delivered him damaged into its unfair folds.
The man that I was assigned as father kept our childhood house, while my mother worked three jobs to keep us housed in one crumbling apartment after another. When Welfare questioned his ability to pay more than $30 a month for his two children, he would quit his job as an iron worker, so he could claim he was unemployed. After the investigation, he would return to work.
As occasional weekend guests in our childhood home (part of his legal visitations) we eyed his well-stocked pantry with hungry envy. In our apartment, food was sparse, and often donated for our consumption. When questioned, Jo claimed our mother was spending too much. It was not his problem.
His first wife and child escaped too, leaving behind a upstate house, running far away and changing their names due to abuse. Once it was revealed that the ex-wife would get half the money for a co-owned property, he sold it for taxes so she would not profit.
This week, as I sought to do what I felt was honorable, I reached out to his family to inform them of the death, only to discover that Jo had sizzled every connection. His demeanor left a legacy of disgust. No one could find a kind word to say about her.
Yes, her. Jo underwent the knife and became a woman during the last decade. By all accounts becoming a kind, lonely old woman. He attended American Legion events and based on the few comments on his death announcement ended life as a “nice” person.
She befriended a lovely woman named Grace, who she left as executor of our childhood home and his precious things. Grace grieves a sensitive and kind woman.
While Jo’s gender change was a surprise, most of his family accepted it. It was not his/her gender, but personality that pushed everyone away. Today’s funeral will be filled by people who never knew the iron worker, the system cheater, the child abuser, the man who beat my mother until she bled.
The lesson of Jo’s life is acceptance without punishment.
Embrace who you are meant to be, early, before you hurt anyone.
Accept yourself, so you can live in peace with others.
I hope you have found peace “kind woman”.
I forgive you.
Waving Backwards, a Savannah novel (SYP Publishing)
Imagine not knowing who you are,
until you find yourself in a statue 800-miles from home.
COMING TO A BOOKSTORE NEAR YOU JULY 2015