Are you a boy or a girl?

“Are you a boy or a girl?” my mom whispers into the phone, afraid her roommate might hear her question.

“A girl,” I say.

“You ARE?” she asks, as if she can’t believe it, as if it’s deeply upsetting for her.


“How long have you been a girl?”

“I’ve always been a girl, Mom.”

“I never knew all this time that you were a girl,” she says, a note of shock in her voice. “Does it bother you to be a girl?”

“No, Mom.”

“Does everyone else in the family know you’re a girl?”


“No one ever told me.”

I don’t know what to say to that.

“Do you look like a girl?” she asks.

“I guess so.”

“Do you have long hair?”

“No, I have short hair.”

“Do you dress like a girl?”

“Umm … yes.”

“Do you get your period and that kind of stuff?”


“Oh, well I guess you are a girl.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Did the rest of the family just accept it?”

“Yes.… I would think so.”

“It’s a shock to me. All along I thought you were a boy, and it turns out you’re a girl,” she says. “I still love you, though, no matter what you are.”

“I love you, too, Mom.”

This conversation, in some form or another, has been happening almost every day this week. Not only is it pointless for me to try to figure out what it means, but it’s also probably a bad idea. Still, I can’t stop myself.

Sometimes, I know she’s mistaking me for her brother Bud, and she’ll actually say, “I always thought you were my brother.”

Other times, I wonder if she’s returning to my childhood, when I dressed like a boy, acted like a boy, and played with boys’ toys. It did bother me that I was girl, and I preferred being perceived as a boy. Was there a part of her, more than 35 years ago, that sympathized with me, respected my wishes, and wanted to empower me to choose my own identity as a boy? And is she returning to that time now?

Or, have I always been a boy to her, in some deep, subconscious part of her brain as, in my teenage years, I took on the role she wished my father had adopted — comforting her, supporting her emotionally, and doing the things a good husband does (minus the sex part, thank God)?

Or maybe she’s reliving the conversation we had over 20 years ago, when I came out as a lesbian. She was shocked, but after a night of thinking about it, she was extremely supportive. I don’t remember her asking how others felt, if I was ok with it, or if the family accepted it. She seemed much less troubled by it than she is by my current identity as a girl, which is apparently a huge loss for her. Maybe, in the fogginess of Alzheimer’s, she’s finally giving herself the chance to ask the questions she didn’t feel she could ask then, to grieve what she couldn’t grieve then.

Or maybe she’s just confused.

About daughter3

My mom has Alzheimer's disease. She's 91 and lives in a nursing home. She has three daughters. I'm her youngest.
This entry was posted in Alzheimer's and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to Are you a boy or a girl?

  1. The mind is an amazing animal. We don’t always know what goes on in there or what it all means. I do know that reading your posts does give me hope though. I know it is extremely painful territory. Still, your matter of fact address of the small moments in this life we all share seem reassuring in a way. Things may still be murky, but at least they are acknowledged and they matter.

    • daughter3 says:

      Thanks so much, Heather. Sometimes I wonder why I write these posts — what benefit could they offer for anyone other than me? Especially since they’re so full of grim things, but I guess I do them because I want to acknowledge what is happening. So thanks for saying that. It’s very affirming. I hope you are well.

  2. Mark Lilakos says:

    Thanks, once again, for sharing this experience with all of us. I understand that this whole journey is difficult, but these moments you share with your mom seem so tender and special. Your connection with your mom seems strong and reminds me of my experience with my brother as he developed dementia when he was dying.

    • daughter3 says:

      Thanks so much, Mark. Yes, you’re right. The moments my mom and I share are really special. I don’t ever want to say that a horrible illness is a gift, but it has brought us closer together, whether she realizes it or not. I didn’t know Chris developed dementia when he was dying. I’m sorry. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  3. Kayjai says:

    This is a very moving piece. Thanks so much for sharing and best wishes in supporting your mom.

  4. It does sound like something from the past is maybe clouding her thoughts a little bit. We used to have an elderly man who would periodically knock on the door to a house in a pretty rough area of town (I’m a police officer) demanding to talk to his mother. The first time we found him there we didn’t know what to do with him since he didn’t have any ID. Finally, another elderly neighbor saw us with him and she was able to tell us that he had lived there as a child and that his mother died when he was very young. He couldn’t tell us where he currently lived, but he remembered his childhood home and wondered there fairly frequently from his current house about 7 miles away.

  5. It’s “all of the above”. You have the right kind of attitude toward the condition. I worked as a medication aide and caregiver in a residents home for dementia for a year. Despite the sadness of bidding farewell to the way loved ones used to be, it’s still fascinating to study the process of how the brain proceeds with the gradual deconstruction of a personality. Conversation does become an increasing challenge to your creativity. In a way it encourages compassionate, essential relationships, because tenderness and affection are maintainable right to the end, even after words lose all meaning, even if the patient continues living into muteness and immobility. Love is knowable and known to the last breath.

  6. Wow, really thought provoking. Thanks for sharing. Maybe all of the thoughts and feelings that she had in the past and stuffed down are coming to the forefront.

  7. finalends says:

    I really like your post, my grandma has dementia and always mistakes me for a boy asking my mum how the boys are and just generally thinking me and my sister are boys. I can understand why for myself as I have short hair and a little of a tomboy – more so as a child but my sister is very much a girl with all the girly characteristics. The mind is such an amazing thing and with even a little disturbance can leave things ‘missing’, But you write a good portrayal of the event, it is very interesting. I wish you and your mother well 🙂

  8. I think your mother is a little confused. But perhaps just by talking to her every day and reliving this conversation, you’re alleviating the fog in her mind for a little while and giving her some happiness in her day. That’s a gift that can’t be erased with other memories.

  9. bernasvibe says:

    This is incredibly touching..It is often difficult to discern what is truly on someone’s mind..Especially if they don’t communicate effectively..You’ll probably never know what actually went through your Mom’s mind years prior when her mind processed your coming out..The beautiful thing is she exercised what comes naturally for many of us mothers @ Unconditional love and acceptance. The relationship between mother and daughter is so, so, so special/important; especially in the primary years..or so that is my belief and experience. You gave me an inside peek at a topic I’ve no experience with…Doing so has to be painful for you & highly difficult..I thank you for sharing the insight. Never do I tire of reading of beautiful & so real interactions between people. I’ll lift you in positive thought today ..Stay blessed. Hugs!

  10. gleninasia says:

    Powerful reading.
    Can’t say I know anyone with Alzheimer’s, or even know anyone who has a loved one with Alzheimer’s. …until now. This post I just read now was an eye opener for me.
    Strengths to you.

  11. dalo2013 says:

    Beautiful story and insight… Your mom sounds absolutely precious. Your writing shows what a strong and positive relationship you have shared with her growing up, and in developing this new relationship you both are coming to grips with. While it sounds a bit out of place, best of luck to you both moving forward.

  12. franhunne4u says:

    It is sad to see a woman decline you have, up to her disease, always loved as your elder, as the “wise woman” – and now she is not superior, not the stronger one, not the one you once ran to – and I think (just my thoughts) you write these posts to deal with the confusion you feel now, that roles are reversed.
    I can only add, yes, it is good for all of those who have parents in comparable situations to read how you deal with it, that they are not alone, that somebody else is going through the same and surviving.

  13. M.L. Swift says:

    I just lost my Mom in June after seven years of caregiving. She had physical problems, too, and the only reason I thank God for taking her (way too soon for me) is so she wouldn’t have to experience much of this, although it was in its beginnings.

  14. iasmina14 says:

    I like very much this post. I can understand what you feel. I have a grandmother witch have this illness, and like Mark says this connection with your mother is so special. Good work.

  15. holdenlyric says:

    My grandmother always thought I was the neighbor and that I was going to help her escape back to Los Angeles. (We were in Los Angeles.)

    To answer your question (that was probably rhetorical. I think she’s just confused. I always tried to put myself in her shoes. Just knowing that her brain was deteriorating and her memories were starting to erode is scary. I can’t imagine how I’d act without my memories.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Not quite 40 says:

    You know, the sweetest thing is her love and acceptance of you as you. Even though you being a girl is a shock to her, she still wants you to know that she loves you.

  17. awax1217 says:

    A true hitting piece. My counterpart, my daughter-in-laws foster father is going through this problem and my son and daughter-in-law had to put him into a home to care for him. He was in their words “losing it.” Now he is eighty two and we, my wife and myself, are both 67. Every time we see them they look at us and although it is unsaid they think when is it going to happen to my wife and myself. We do not talk about it but I can see it in their faces.

  18. Randee says:

    I loved this piece. That’s all I have to say.

  19. Thanks for sharing so honestly. Stay strong! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  20. Nickel B says:

    Alzheimer’s is so hard. My Oma suffered. She lived in Germany, so not only could I not be there to support, but it was extremely hard for my Opa to call with her being in hysterics because she thinks we are missing.

    Thank you for sharing this. It was a beautiful, yet sad, story.

  21. This may not have been your mother’s intention, but it really makes me question how one “knows” what gender they are. Just because one is in a male or female body does not mean that they feel they are in their true body.

    • daughter3 says:

      Thanks, JW. I totally agree. Gender is so complicated. I’ve been thinking about gender questions my whole life, so it’s kind of amazing to have my mom, in mid-stage Alzheimer’s, present it to me in a new way.

  22. I hope you enjoy these types of conversations with your mother and find a little bit of humor in them. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and dementia and the entire family has a collection of similar stories (such as the day she introduced my cousin to her new best friend, with whom she had a lot of common in with – if you haven’t guessed yet, this new best friend lived in her bathroom, specifically in the mirror). We treasure and fondly remember 100s of these stories. It made a difficult situation easier to live through – and instead of remembering the rough moments, we remember these humorous moments. I consider it her final gift to us. Many hugs & good thoughts through a challenging time – from someone who has been there.

    • daughter3 says:

      Thank you. Yes, I too am grateful that we have lots of humorous stories associated with my mom, and that she has been amazingly graceful and gracious in her approach to this disease. She still says, “It could always be worse,” or “Lots of people have it worse than me.” She can still laugh — at herself and at the situation, at least sometimes.

  23. Tanya says:

    I cried. I cried for you and for her. I hope that one day you will recall these moments and find the humor in them. I wish you and her the best.

    Give her a hug from me.

  24. annjay5958 says:

    Personally, I feel in spirit you have always been a “boy”! This is something that a mother would feel, but unfortunately at this time in the human development, these innate understandings can often be lost, But with the removal of conditioned thinking, through Alzheimer’s, your mother is able to (repeatedly) affirm this in her own mind and in yours as well! Actually the recognition is awesome, sadly the ugliness of the disease lessens the beauty of it!
    Most of the women in my family were afflicted with this devastating disease! But many of the revelations were/are truly full of wonder! Thanks for sharing,A

    • daughter3 says:

      Thanks for your comment. I have mixed feelings about this. Sometimes I do think my mom’s Alzheimer’s is stripping away the bullshit (or as you said, conditioned thinking) and revealing what she truly believes and feels (or her innate understandings, as you said). Other times, I think that’s just my way of trying to come to terms with a disease that creates nonsensical chaos and ultimately destroys everything. I don’t know. As to my being a boy in spirit, that’s another thing I’m conflicted about. Gender is so complicated. What does it really mean to be a boy in spirit if you’re living as a woman? Still, your comment resonated with me; there is a part of me that does at times consider myself a boy in spirit. It’s all very confusing. Thank you for connecting.

      • annjay5958 says:

        Yes, I know how confusing this horrible disease can be. At different stages in the process, my mother thought I was her mother and her sister, never actually thinking or remembering that I was the daughter. But after reflecting back on our life together, I realized that I had, as far back as I could remember, I had been the older soul. Always protecting! On this plain of understanding what we experience is total loss and confusion when dealing with the stages of Alzheimer’s. We are only focused on what we don’t have anymore from our parent, sibling or friend. But there are glimpses of true understanding, whether recognized or not, that shine through. This is evident, no-matter how repetitive, in your mother recognizing your true spirit.
        We all have both aspects of male and female. The actually physical bodies that we inhabit often have very little to do with the thought processes we carry concerning our life, gender, personality, sexuality. Sadly we live in a judgmental world and even more sadly we are the most judgmental on ourselves. “Did I do that well enough, Should I be thinking that way, What does the world think of me” These are all restrictions that we are conditioned to believe we need to “fit in”. You are a beautiful soul of energy! This is reality. Once we stop looking at ourselves as “lacking” or “inferior” or “sinners” and needing acceptance from others, and start truly, unconditionally accepting and loving ourselves, then the turmoil and chaos we have in our minds will evaporate!

  25. xmfclick says:

    Just found your blog. My mother is 87, living in care, and has dementia/Alzheimer’s (no-one has ever given me a diagnosis, and there really doesn’t seem much point). I completely understand the conversation you quoted; and have the deepest sympathy for you and (if you’re like me) the mixed emotions you must have. Every time I phone I have, at the back of my mind, the tiny hope that suddenly, miraculously, she will be back to how she was ten years ago — lively, happy and with a razor-sharp memory. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet, but every time I always have that hope.

    I also agree that the mind is an amazing animal. Although she takes a while to tune in to who I am when I phone, my mother’s social skills are still so strong that even I often can’t tell whether she really knows who she’s talking to. It’s usually just little things that eventually give the game away, like, “How’s your job going?” (I haven’t worked for a long time); or, “How are the children?” (we don’t have any). I’ve been told of her talking to people she used to know (but now doesn’t recognise) for an hour before they realise she doesn’t actually know them any more.

    I really don’t know what point I’m trying to make, other than to let you know that you’re not alone (though you knew that anyway). I wish you all the best, and hope that your blog helps you to cope with the situation better than you might otherwise.

  26. lauren03 says:

    This is so sad, I feel very bad for you. On a happier note, this has given me an idea for my story on my wordpress. Thank you, and god bless you 🙂

  27. I love you insight, and thank you for sharing your story. My grandmother is currently fighting the same battle and it sounds like you’re a very patient person… Something I need to constantly remind myself to be. To not take everything to heart to not take it personal, it’s quite a struggle for everyone involved. Thank you for inspiration, that You don’t have to participate in every argument or feel the need to defend myself or others she may have issues with that day. That it’s a rough situation but that good days are more than possible.

  28. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s….

    My thoughts are with you. I bet you have already read the excellent book, “The 36 Hour Day”..Gives specific suggestions and ideas and lots of info about AD.

    My heart goes out to you,

  29. valecat14 says:

    Alzheimers is really horrible, having to say goodbye to the person they were without the body leaving. It is not only a big lose to the family but also to the person themselves. They know deep down that they are losing themselves, at least in the beginning they do.

    I wish you strenght and wisdom.

  30. This has just become one of my favorite pieces of writing on wordpress…congrats!

  31. Roselinde says:

    One of my biggest fears is one of my parents developing Alzheimer’s when they’re older, just thinking of that makes me incredibly sad. Much respect to you for being able to confront your situation and share your writings. Great post!

  32. peaxo says:

    My Grandma has Alzheimers, and has had it since I was born. She’s only just in her 60’s. She’s had it for 20 years. It’s horrible, it really is. She got it very early on. But personally, sometimes I am happy for her because she is not aware of what is going on, and as much as it’s difficult to watch and extremely difficult for my dad to watch, I think it’s better to go in a way where you don’t understand that you’re going. Sometimes you have to laugh at their expense or else you’ll cry. That’s what they probably would have wanted.

    • daughter3 says:

      I really appreciate your comment. Wow, so you’ve never known your grandma without Alzheimer’s. That must be hard. I like what you say about laughing, even if it’s at their expense, because it’s better than crying, and that they would want it that way. That’s true about my mom.

      • peaxo says:

        No, I haven’t, I used to be scared of her when I was younger because before I knew she would sometimes just turn during the early stages, and I was so afraid I wouldn’t see her. Only now do I understand. It’s not a nice thing to see, but at least they’re in a place where they are ignorant. xx

  33. Awe so sad, the effects of Alzheimer’s. And maybe you’re right about her wanting to deep down sympathize with you, so that she will allow you to be whatever gender you want.

  34. Amelia says:

    Kudos to you for this piece! Wonderfully written–one can hear the dialogue, your mom’s whispering. Love the irony. I’ve read that infants/children need someone to mirror their emotions, as a form of affirmation. (Unfortunately, I think most parents are often too preoccupied with their own issues to do so, being more interested in having their children behave properly.) Perhaps now, stripped of some emotional baggage and fear, your mother is finally revealing her reflection of your early gender ambivalence. Maybe she didn’t miss it; maybe she was paying attention. Unless, of course, she’s truly surprised that her brother is really her sister.

  35. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and it affected my dad so much. Thank you for writing such a great post.

  36. ozsge says:

    I’ve spent the last year fundraising for Alzheimer’s Research UK and in four days time I will be heading off to Vietnam to do a sponsored cycle challenge – I am hoping to blog my journey (
    I’ve not been directly affected by anyone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but it is the fear of it which has made me want to raise much needed funds for the research. Your posts have been a great insight and gives me that much more motivation to cycle on! I do hope we can find a cure!

    Stay strong and keep sharing! x

  37. JodiMelsness says:

    Beautiful…love to read your posts. It’s a struggle, isn’t it? Both of our Moms going through it. You have my support. 🙂

  38. nulcrb says:

    A very moving post. As a 57-year-old straight male, I am acutely aware of how much I don’t know and have still to learn about other people’s lives. One thing seems clear however, if there is a common thread which links all humanity, it has to be love, and if anything shines out of your words it is love.

  39. Pingback: Are You A Boy Or A Girl (reaction) | After I'm Published

  40. lgorganics says:

    This beautiful story gave the the chills. Thank you for sharing.

  41. Thanks for sharing. I remember when my great grandmother was still alive and alzheimers was slowly taking her away from us. She’d be lucid at time, and others almost child like or confused. It was hard to watch, though also give me a greater appreciate for the women who’d made me and my sisters dinner on Monday nights as children while my mom worked late; the women who was always concerned with whether or not you were wearing enough clothes to keep warm; the women who’d made us banana-chocolate chip muffins and was always happy for us to come over and sit with her. Alzheimers is a terrible disease that I hope one day nobody has to go through, though all hardship makes us stronger and provides an opportunity for us to learn something, and become better people.

    I wish you well and thank you again for sharing your story.

  42. heyitsclarence says:

    Reblogged this on Klairens and commented:
    I stumbled upon this blog post on WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed” column and immediately thought of my uncle who has dementia/AD, living in Indonesia. Back in December last year my sister and I went there to visit him and my aunt. A lot of times he’d be repeating to us the stories about his past, just like how the conversation whether Beth (the blogger) is a boy or girl between she and her mom repeats itself for almost every day for (at least) a week. A really interesting and beautiful piece which shows how it’s like to interact with people who are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.

  43. I love reading your blog. I lost my my to Alzheimer’s Disease 2 1/2 years ago. Enjoy each moment that she is lucid. It is not all downhill. My Mom had good moments even after she had progressed to not knowing who I was.

    Please surround yourself with support and love; you will need it.

    The nursing home decision was very difficult. There are no great ones but once she is there, visit often and at different times of day. She will get better care if they know you visit and if they don’t know when to expect you.

    I grew up in Roselle too . My maiden name was Polito. If I can ever support you in any way, please just ask.

  44. masondan says:

    Reblogged this on Disciple's Perspective and commented:
    This is a terribly sad and tragic thing. My heart goes out to everyone who is lost in all this confusion….

  45. Uncomnme says:

    Well written. I thought u were referring to something else at first. I like that you didn’t give it away….yes the disease is very sad. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be unrecognized that way.

  46. abbasgirlme says:

    It is an insidious disease, and hard on the one who has it and for those who love them, watching them disappear into the fog. My own mom has it, and I feel for you and for your mom…and am keeping your family in prayer. It is like having to grieve the loss of our loved one over and over again, until they are finally gone. A continual death of sorts….May the God of all comfort be with you and your own dear mom as you face each day together, and love her to the end. As she becomes “little-er”, the Lord helps you become “bigger” for her…The blessing is that we get to be there for them as they were for us when we were little. And that is a wonderful and lovely thing.

  47. theresa says:

    Alzheimers is a strange disease. It basically takes the person suffering back to being a child. Children are often curious about the gender of new people.

    The pitiful part is she will eventually forget everything including your name and that you are related. Ask her why she thinks you are a “boy” before she forgets.

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