“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?”
“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.