Four Years Since My Trans Adoptive Dad’s Death

Today is the four-year anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve been dreading the day for the way it reminds me of our shortcomings. He died a woman and left a daughter who could never accept the anomaly. Gender was one more dysfunction to add to the avalanche waiting to bury me, and so I refused to see Joann when she drove from her home in New York to Hilton Head, South Carolina for a surprise visit.

No longer a child rolling with the punches, kicks, and angry outbursts, I needed some warning to help me see Joann. Perhaps, had she let me know she was coming, I might have witnessed her bent posture in the old lady frock, as she limped along with a cane. Truth says, “Not so.” I would not have seen her. No matter how long one considers a coming tsunami, it will never be welcome.

Once, we danced, my tiny shoes atop his feet to Daddy’s Little Girl, and I was whole. Then it was crap. A battle fought too hard by a child too small. I could not get him to be the man I needed, for she lurked there under the calloused skin and hard edges. She did not love me for the daughter I became, but for my girlish things and female life. She wanted to be me.

Writing this today is so different than writing my memoir The Killing Closet. Our story is tragic and yet I have painted a thousand mental pictures of it in heroic beams of survival. Turning beatings into strength-building, honor. Truth says, “No. The character-building benefits do not surpass the suffering.”

It was a childhood no one would choose.

Joe was the father no one wanted.

Joann was a secret and we all suffered for her existence.

What have I learned in these four years since Dad’s death? I have learned that I loved my father. I have learned that he did not exist. I have learned that forgiveness comes with a price. One must pay with regret. I can’t forgive a man that never was but have come to forgive the woman tucked beneath the cloak of masculinity.

I have learned that the madness that was my childhood was born of a broken adoption process. That too requires a heavy mask of introspection. Love your captors. Love your saviors. Love the system. The adoption message bleeds for the childless. Forgiving them is distant, remote, untouched, as were the infants they placed in hell. Our fate makers were social worker Helen Steinman, Children’s Aid Society, money, income, the barren womb.

Four years and tears still run at the loss of innocence. My brother’s and mine. My father, miscast in a gender strict world, had no escape for Joann. They were beaten before he took a breath, or twirled in a sister’s skirt, or underwent the knife to make the gender correction.

I have learned that who we are inside often collides with exterior appearance. That we can never really know the heart of another human, and that to assume heartlessness is to deny the human condition. Joe’s heart was born with Joann’s being, or so I have heard.

I gave my father an opportunity to admit the way gender devastated our lives. She declined, blaming my mother for the violence instead. Joe spoke then, in defense of Joann. I did not know it was the last time. I got no closure, no admittance, no apology.

I have learned that Joann and Joe melded into one and that in the end, the angry man took up the cloak once worn by the woman. Hiding, blaming, hurting internally and externally was my father’s life fate.

I have learned that no relative has visited Joann’s grave.

I have learned to move forward, tip-toeing around Father’s day and the lucky ones born to men who put them first.

I have learned to breath when the thought of my father tries to steal my air.

Rest, Dad. I am still learning.

V.L. Brunskill

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Santini Shrugs- My Wound is Paternity

My wound is paternity. Southern author Pat Conroy wrote in Prince of Tides, “My wound is geography.” I disagree. Pat’s life in our low country became a healing irrigation for the legacy left by his sulfur-veined father. I believe, paternity is our mutual wound.

I once shared my life story on a Southern writer’s panel, and a fellow panelist proclaimed, “Whoa, That beats Conroy.” No one will ever beat Conroy. That’s a given. But when I tell you that my Daddy died a woman on the steps where I hoped to kill her, you might have to take a breath. I do. Living with something so true and outside, robs me of clarity, self-definition. I can hardly believe it is my story.

Hating my father was easy. A New York City iron-worker, he was a tall drink of water with a leathered, fists-up attitude and a penchant for killing cats, dogs, and (if rumors hold true) men. Kids ran from him, coworkers fell from bridges he worked on. His size twelve work boot left an indelible mark in my mother’s ribcage. He was that ugly, domestic monster you hear about and pray your daughter does not marry. I came to my father’s home in the arms of a social worker.

To exit the womb on Christmas Eve and fight jaundice without a parent’s love was easy because it transpired before language. In the fleshy dialogue exchanged since I found my biological family, the reality of my given home singes. I spread roots in assigned cement, only to watch it crack under the constant pummeling of my adoptive family. So went adoptions in the 1960s. In the best interest of the child, they sealed me from familiarity and set my feet on fire.

Dad could not love the families he decimated. There were two. Ours and another secret clan, which ran from him changing their names for safety. Dad could not stop his angry tornado from pounding us into a shelter for battered families. His storm formed in the windswept years of his youth, while stealing women’s underwear from a laundry line in College Point. Gender was a given, so German mamas punished with rank sternness, and German papas crushed any hint of girlishness from their sons.

Act like a man, I told my ten-year-old self as I sat in the hall closet, clutching my father’s weapon.  Risking death if discovered, I reminded myself that Dad wouldn’t hesitate. Just kill him, I thought. Faith and femininity ordained my failure that day. I chickened out at the sight of the marble crucifix in the hall. Did Jesus move? Dad’s malevolent masculinity would always win in my teary eternal truth.

The truth, not beholden to scared little girls or damaged women, held its tongue for five decades. Dad died in 2015, on the stoop of the three-bedroom prison I once called home. He wore rouge and the full form of a female. The vile man who spun to toss my baby brother against the dining room wall died a woman.

Hyper-masculine behavior? Madness born of hiding her truth?
A risk too painful to take until it was too late?

My wound is paternity.  Daddy’s was her gender.
My forthcoming memoir explores both.

Blessings for healing of all wounds,
V.L.

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