Aftermath: Silent no more

img_4438I’ve been saying for a while now, when anyone asks, that savagemama is on sabbatical. I took a break a while back because I was writing a lot about Eliza, my daughter who identifies as half half, and after writing gut wrenching essay after gut wrenching essay I started to realize that her story isn’t my own. Her story isn’t mine to tell. (Note: She and her are her preferred pronouns.)

I also came face to face with what I’ve know since I could hold a pencil, writing from the gut is exhaustive business. It’s the only way I know how to do it, though, and somedays I have been so exhausted from other things that I don’t have much left to spill out onto the page.

But the past few days, I’ve come to see it is from a place of quiet privilege that one can take a break. Or stop speaking out. Or stop speaking up. Or stop engaging. Or stop using the platform, the talent, the tenacity one may possess to do good in the world. So I am taking a break no longer.

Eliza, Lucille and I pantsuited up election day with 100 or so other women in our town. With about 24 hours notice, we dusted off suit jackets and gathered on a chilly hillside in the morning sun. We were with her. We stood together to take a photo to mark the day. I kept both girls out of school to go so they would remember the day their country elected a woman to white house. I wanted them to have a story a tell their granddaughters. I wanted them to remember that group of women, in their hometown, on that day. We left after the photo shoot with so much hope, giddy we’d soon be calling someone madame president.

That night, Eliza and I were nervous because that is our nature. Somedays I think she is extension of me. She has my eyes, the shape of my body and, unfortunately for her, my anxieties. As the night began to creep along and election returns were not what we were hoping for in Florida and North Carolina, she curled next to me.

“Mama, what’s going to happen?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. It’s all I had.

Her class had been studying the election for weeks. The electoral college, the polls.

“But the polls said she had a 70% chance of winning,” she said.

As we ushered our daughters to bed with pits in our stomachs and a prayer for a miracle in the winds, Eliza was ever hopeful.

“They haven’t counted all the votes yet, mama. They are still counting,” she said.

That sweet, tender hope is who she is. And I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the writing seemed to be on the wall. I never thought seeing eternal hope in my child’s eyes would stab me in the gut like a razor sharp knife but it did, and I may never forget the way it felt.

My grandmother once told me that I “caught” being a liberal from college. She said it like I had contracted an STD. I had just let slip that I had voted for Bill Clinton the second time around and she could barely contain her disgust.

“Jennifer, how could you?” she said with a cigarette balanced between her first two fingers before bringing it to her lips and inhaling deeply.

I am the daughter of two high school graduates who grew up in a textile town in North Carolina. Their parents worked in the mills from the time they were old enough, sort of. Two of my grandparents lied about their ages so they could go to work before they were legally allowed to. It was common practice then. Quit school, alter your birthday in the family bible and go to work. We still have the family bible where my grandfather changed the last number of his birth year from an eight to a six so it would appear he was two years older than he was. He showed it to the overseer who said he was hired. That was in 1943. He would spend the next forty five years in that mill.

My other grandfather was a preacher. We’d call him an evangelical today but back then he was just another hard scrabble, Appalachian-born Southern Baptist man who felt the calling of the Lord and tried to live by his word. He taught others the word of his God and sometimes wouldn’t take paycheck from the church because he knew his parishioners were poor and didn’t have the money to pay him.

I don’t know if I heard it from him or remember it from my own church-going youth but one phrase kept rolling around in my head on election night. “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus said it from the cross.

When my parents, who married young, divorced, I lived with my dad. It was 1983. No one did that. But somehow between all of my parents and the grandmother who would later snarl her lips at me because I voted for Bill Clinton, I was well loved. If my dad struggled to pay the mortgage, I never knew it. My grandfather used to tell me my grandmother would fight a wildcat for me. Since he died, her mind is slipping but two things are still true: she would still lay down her life for me and she still loves Jesus.

So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this feminist as fuck, left of left liberal was walking around on election night with the words of Jesus in my head. It’s the kind of juxtaposition that is emblematic of the way I’ve been feeling the past few days. I’m terrified for my children. I feel disconnected from the family that raised me.

I wish I could tell you I have sorted all of these feelings out but the truth is, I don’t understand lots of things and I may not for a long, long time. I have a lot to work through and so does this country.

The day after the election, after a distraught morning, I wanted to put some good energy out into the world. I bought flowers and took them to women who everyday hold the hands of women as those women exercise their right to choose, they provide medical care to people who are turned away by other clinics because those low-income folks can’t pay the bill and they help trans people in our state access, with dignity, the healthcare they deserve.

What is it, exactly, that I do every day, I thought? What have I done over these past eight Obama years to fight for people of color, the LGBTQ community, the woman who sleeps on the footbridge two blocks from my house?

I am a white, college educated, heterosexual, cisgendered woman. There is so much privilege in that sentence. My daughter is white. She may go to college. We do not know her sexual orientation or her gender identity as those things are still unfolding. What have I done to fight for her the past year while I’ve been taking a break? What have I done to fight for her sister who is white, cisgendered but still a little girl moving through a harsh-to-girls world.

My apathy and naiveté are shocking even to me. Almost as shocking as the fact that Donald fucking Trump is going to be our president. Almost.

When I picked Eliza up from school that day, I was a sobbing mess, again.

“I am so, so sorry,” I said as I hugged her tight. “I am so sorry.”

“Mama, it’s not your fault,” she said.

Oh, but, honey, it kind of is.

The one bad thing I do

It seems I am a potty mouth. It only took the princess of potty talk to tell me so. Lucille thinks everything fart, butt and crack are hilarious. She can go from diary to diarrhea in a gleeful matter of seconds. So when she told me that I said “a lot of bad words,” I listened. Sort of.

“Do I really say bad words a lot?” I asked knowing I can curse like a sailor but having thought that I kept it between the lines for the sake of my children.

Evidently not.

“A lot,” she said.

“Well maybe I’ll try to work on that,” I said. “Maybe I need a potty talk jar that I pay every time I say a bad word.”

“Mama,” she said looking straight at me with her big blue eyes. “I think you’ll need a bucket.”

And with that I have tried to curb my language. Tried is the key word here.

It seems that now, after a few months, I truly do need a bucket. I have amassed a bill so high in 25 and 50-cent violations (25 cents for minor infractions, 50 cents for the big ones) that I owe my daughters the a small villa in the south of France.

For so long my cursing didn’t matter. They didn’t know the difference between “what the heck” and whatever else might have come out of my mouth. Now, it seems, they do and it is with a deep sigh in my heart that I have to reign it in.

The problem is this: I love the way it feels to say what I really want to say, to have just the right words fall off my lips and land right on point. I wish I could say that I am a better mother in the sense that I know my daughters are listening and I should just watch what I say but, to be honest, it’s not how I feel. I don’t want them to say the words I say, it’s just that I want to say them. I feel a bit like a defiant teenager with my heels silently dug in, saying what I want to when they are out of earshot. But they have elephant ears of late and they catch me in the act more than I’d like to admit.

This whole scenario reminds me of me trying to get my mother to quit smoking when I was a kid. It was the 80s, everyone smoked. But I hated it. Hated it. I still do. I would bring her brochures with ghastly pictures of smoker’s lungs, I would threaten to pour her cigarettes down the toilet. I reminded her every time I could that she was going to get cancer and how awful that was going to be. It never did any good. She continued to smoke. Then she didn’t. Then she did again. I don’t think she is a smoker today but I don’t think my nagging had anything to do with her quitting. Not even seeing my grandmother cracked wide and put back together with her chest wired shut after a valve replacement did my mother quit smoking. I think she just got tired of it one day and quit when she was ready.

My grandmother once told me after my harassing her about her own smoking, “It’s the one bad thing I do, Jennifer. I don’t drink. I don’t eat too much. I’m kind. I go to church. So… leave me alone!” Her tone was light but I got the point. She eventually quit but not until she had open heart surgery, twice. I’m sure my constant nagging had nothing to do with her decision to quit either.

For so long I didn’t understand why my mother or her mother continued to smoke but now, in light of my own inability to completely give in to the nagging of my daughters, I think back on my grandmother’s words. It’s the only bad thing I do. I think about how as mothers we give everything over the existence of our children and how it is hard to let the one bad thing we do go. It’s hard to hand over that last piece of ourselves even if we know we should, even if we know there is other ground we should trade it for.

So I’m trying to do both of those things: take back space that is just mine and trade it for cursing, at least around my children.

“Mom! Did you say the sh word?” Lucille yelled from the bathroom the other day.

“I did! I said shoot!” I said.

“That’s twenty-five cents!” she said.

“Nope,” I said “shoot isn’t a bad word. It’s legal!”

“Are you sure?” she said.

“Oh, I’m sure,” I said holding on to at least the shell of my cursing former existence.

Then I walked over to see the picture she was drawing. It was a stick figure with a bubble butt and the word “toot” coming out of the crack. She threw her head back in delight and cackled. I sternly told her it was inappropriate but my consternation was thinly veiled behind my own amusement because I know what feels like to have just the right word and, as far as I could tell from the glimmer in her eye, I’m pretty sure she does too.

I'm half half and it's okay


The therapist present told us she understood our need to rescue. But don’t, she said.

“Walk me through it, then” one mom in the room said. “Tell me exactly what to say to my kid when he comes home crying because he is being teased. Because when I hear someone on the bus is picking on him I want to the be the one waiting at the bus stop with a baseball bat.”

She’d said what we all were thinking.

Almost every one of us nodded in agreement. Collectively, we’d heard it all. The teasing, the taunts, the bullying. Some had heard it way worse than others. Some lived with the fear of what might lie around the next bend for their children. Their small, vulnerable children. We were parents of gender nonconforming children, at least 80 strong, in a meeting room in Seattle. We did not know each other. But we knew each other’s experience and we laid bare our fears in a room full of strangers. Within the span of the first retelling of injustice hurled at one of our children, the room broke into tears. For most of us a deep well of emotion was lying just under a tenuous surface.

The therapist walked us through how to listen to hard stories from our children. She said it was easier said than done. We all agreed and laughed.

“I never thought I could be a person that would hurt a child,” another mother said, “until that kid hurt my child.” We nodded again. On that level it becomes primal, animalistic and raw. We all knew this too.

If we go straight into rescue mode, the therapist said, we might miss actually being present for our child. And what they need most is for us to be present. To feel this pain of exclusion, difference, other than with them. And it is a tall order, she said. We all nodded again as we passed a box of tissues between us.

We had driven through the night to get to Seattle that weekend in August. We’d landed late and rose early. Coffee in hand, we navigated our way to the convention center and up escalator after escalator to arrive at the conference for gender nonconforming children and their parents.

Off the last escalator, someone stopped Eliza.

“I love your outfit,” he said. “You look amazing.”

Eliza beamed in her tails suit jacket and cowboy boots. She’d chosen to wear this outfit because it was a half, half conference, she said. Any lingering hesitation I had about what the hell we were doing at this conference slipped away in that moment. And from then on we were welcomed by a whole lot of people who seemed to understand our kid. By the time I made it to my first workshop at the conference a few minutes later, I knew the trip had been worth it if for no other reason than the relief I felt hearing that mother talk about her kid and the bus stop. I’m not crazy or violent, I thought. I am just Eliza’s mother.

At lunch the first day, we tried to encourage Eliza and Lucille to go to the kid’s camp. They had been hesitant that morning to walk into a room of bouncing children.

“Looks like they are having a lot of fun in there. Sure you don’t want to go. The grown ups are just talking…” I said.

“But the boys are dressed like boys and the girls are dressed like girls, Mom,” Eliza said. “I didn’t see any other half halfs.”

I realized I had some explaining to do.

“Babe, I think most of the kids in the camp are either half half or transgender,” I said.

“But the boys don’t look like girls dressing like boys, they just look like boys,” she said.

“I know,” I said. She thought about this for a minute then flashed me a look of sudden understanding.

“So the boy in front of us in the Subway line was born a girl?” Eliza said.

“Yes,” I said. I knew because I’d been in a workshop with his mother.

“He really looked like a boy,” she said with a goofy grin.

“I know,” I said. “He is a boy.” I hoped she was following me and she was.

“What about the girl with the gold sparkly purse?” she said.

“Born a boy,” I said.

“Really?” she said. “She’s a girl.”

“Really,” I said. She was getting it.

That was the moment I think she was glad we’d made the trip. That’s when something shifted for her. And so began the peeling back the layers that would go on all weekend. In a matter of days we reconfigured what we knew about gender. We unpacked it, we picked it apart. Half the time Eliza was coloring in the back of the room but when I’d catch her eye I knew by the look on her face that she was listening. She was soaking in words she’d never heard, taking in everything in front of her. We all were. Even Lucille who was as invested as the rest of us asking questions with her heart wide open from a beautiful place of non-judgment.

“Mommy, so that girl with long blond hair, she sounded like boy,” Lucille said at one point.

So we explained puberty and blockers.

“Well, she’s a girl because she knows she’s a girl,” Lucille said. “That’s all that matters.”

It seems she was listening too.

The last session was a teen panel. I was interested to see what these teens had to say and it seemed everyone else at the conference was too because it was packed. Standing room only. There were maybe seven kids on the panel. Some were trans men, some trans women, some on hormones, some questioning. They were shades of gray in their appearance and experience. They were badasses of the first order. Eliza sat in the front row and listened as these kids talked. I saw her in each of them and I think she saw herself.

On our way back to Montana later that night, about an hour from Missoula when all the electronics had run out of batteries and things were getting a little feral the way road trips will, Eliza and Lucille took to writing all over their bodies with markers. Lucille drew strange little people with long arms and legs that usually had only one eye. I looked to see what Eliza had drawn and realized she was writing words instead.

“What’s that say EJ,” I said as I leaned closer to her arm.

And there it was like a tattoo, a badge proudly won.

“I’m half half and it’s okay.”


2015-01-01 13.53.25

I have driven across landscapes looking for him. In the middle of the night, across two states, that boy was waiting in the early morning to open the door for me, to pull back the sheets and lay beside me. These through-the-night drives happened over a handful of years a long time ago. I often wondered what compelled me to get in my car at midnight, what propelled me to his eventual doorstep, what kept me awake through the dark hours before the sun would rise over a Southern forest, vast and lush.

Was it lust? Was it love? Was it escape? The only kind I knew. Mostly, looking back, I think it was longing. For him, maybe, and for other things I didn’t or couldn’t yet know.

These cross state drives turned into cross country flights. Last minute, desperate in our yearning, one of us would board a plane to find the other in an apartment somewhere in Dallas, on the wet side of the Cascades, in a Boston brownstone. This, too, went on for years.

And then it didn’t anymore.

The weaning was gradual and, in the end, not as dramatic as I would have guessed or, at one time, would have liked. We each filled a void in the other, or at least we tried to. When that gaping hole in each of us began to fill with other things, things like healing, maturity, life experience, we were done.

And when it was over there was really nothing left to hold onto. When I think of him I remember moments warm and 20s tender but I do not long for him anymore.

A few weeks ago I was driving west across Montana. As I looked out the window that old sense of longing rose in my throat. This time it wasn’t for long lost lover but it was longing just the same. James Galvin writes about “aspens chattering like nervous girls” and I thought of it as yellow leaves trembled in the wind as I drove past long stretches of trees along the river. At the crest of the divide and at every bend in the road, Montana took me in, tucked me in its wing and said look. Feel. I settled in behind the steering wheel, a place that is so familiar and comforting, and let stretch before me the time to figure out where this feeling was coming from.

I missed the smell of Eliza’s hair, the feel of Lucille’s hand on my face first thing in the morning. The curl of her little body wedged into me as she tries to get warm in the cold dark. I missed Seth’s carpenter hands around my waist as he pulls me close.

These are things I long for now. And deeply that day.

I had been away. Back East for a 10 days without any of them. My grandfather had died with little warning. I had to go, I told them. Seth understood for the reasons adults do: money, time, logistics. But Eliza and Lucille know nothing of those things and all they understood was that I was leaving without them.

“I have to go be with my family,” I told Eliza as a way to try and explain why I was going on my own.

“But we are your family,” she said looking at me with unwavering eyes.

“It’s true, baby, you are,” I said and pulled her close.

Even so, I went without them and wished they had come every minute I was away. A few days after I got home I had to drive across Montana for a meeting for work. It felt deeply wrong to be driving away from them again and on the way home I touched a place I thought was filled in me. No matter how fast I drove I couldn’t get to them fast enough. No matter how I tried to rationalize the past few weeks, the desperation was rising in me and I could feel it in my fingertips.

I drove straight to their school in the middle of the day.

“What are you doing here?” Eliza said when she spotted me.

“I just needed to see you,” I said as I put my cheek to the top of her head. Somehow those words sounds vaguely familiar, like I had spoken them twenty years ago.

“Well here I am!” she said as she flitted off to the playground.

In that moment I put it all together. Life can leave us with empty places and we try to fill them with whatever is closest to us. That boy was the closest thing to me for along time. Now I have two little girls and their dad who gets in my ways no one else ever has. Instead of driving across a few states, I drive across town to a playground tucked in the trees. I pull them close and wait for healing and understanding to fill this latest empty space knowing that my family will fill it in the meantime.


Dear College Boy

Dear College Boy,

Yes, you. In your basketball shorts with your earbuds in, walking across campus. It seems that you are in a hurry, perhaps you are late for class. You probably don’t see me, this lady who is old enough (just barely) to be your mother. Not noticing and not seeing are two different things. And, honestly, I need you to see me. I need you see that you are walking too close. I need you to see that you are taller by at least a foot and bigger by at least 100 pounds. I need you to see that you are in my dance space, whether you mean to be or not. I need you to see it for me and I need you to see it for you.

I’m assuming you are not menacing. I’m assuming you are not up to no good. I am assuming you have a mother somewhere, back in Havre perhaps, back in Kalispell. I am assuming you have a sister or a brother, that you hung out in the grocery store parking lot in your friend’s car on Saturday nights back home. I am assuming you are new to town, new to this college thing. I am assuming you are a kid with people who love you waiting for you to come home for the holidays wherever it is you are from.

I am assuming the best. And I am assuming these things with my brain. My nearly 40-year-old brain that can remember college, that talked my body into doing stupid things like running alone after dark without telling anyone where I was going. There are girls who never came back from those kinds of things. But I did with my nearly 40-year-old brain intact. My brain that knows that you are male and big and I am female and small and that we have a power dynamic going on here whether either of us wants to admit it or not.

My brain that is trying to tell my body to quiet every fight or flight impulse it is having right now because I can feel you breathing over my shoulder and I can hear you mumbling the words to the song you are listening to. On primal level, my body senses that you are a threat because you have violated customary rules of space and privacy. My heart beats faster as you get closer and my brain stops my body from turning around and telling you to back the fuck off. Instead I take a quick step to the side. In my side step you see me for the first time and you sense, as animals will, that I am scared. You look a little confused and walk on.

I stop and think about all I want to say to you in that moment. I want to tell you that my brain said you were not trying to hurt me in broad daylight but my body felt something very different because of your proximity. I do not know you, you do not know me so there is no reason you should be that close to me especially if we are simply sharing the same sidewalk. It is up to you to be aware of your surroundings, it is up to you to see people in your path.

Take your earbuds out you young, big, goofy boy and learn this lesson now. See me. See the girl you’ll take out on Friday night. Know that there is privilege and power in every step you take and that my brain gave you the benefit of the doubt over and over until it just couldn’t anymore and I stepped aside. Know that there are men that hurt women and know that I know you are probably not one of them. So step back a few steps. Give me some space as a woman moving through this world. Think about what it would be like to the smaller of the two of us, the scared of the two of us. Think for just one second what that would be like. And then go to class. Fill that big, beautiful brain with everything real and imagined and change this world. Change it so no one has to be afraid to walk alone. Ever.

With all the hope and love I can muster,


Remembering my grandfather


Saturday morning I cracked two eggs into a pan an instinctively broke the yolks. I let them cook for a few minutes and could hear my grandfather’s voice in my head.

“Bust the yellow and let it cook a minute. You want the whites cooked, the yellow a little bit runny,”

If I had had liver mush, I would have fried it crispy around the edges the way he used to cook it for me. If I had had a biscuit I would have buttered it hot like he used to at Sunday dinner. He knew, as all good Southerners do, that you can’t sweeten tea after it’s cold and you better butter your biscuits while they’re hot.

In high school I’d come over to my grandparent’s house on weekend mornings. In college I’d show up a little closer to dark. It didn’t matter though because he always asked if I was hungry and when I was he’d cook me an egg. Or make me a liver mush sandwich with mustard. He’d pour me a glass of tea or coke over ice and ask me where I’d come from. Your daddy’s? Columbia? He’d sit with me while I ate then go find the Braves on TV.

When I was a little girl I spent every Friday night at my grandparent’s house. My grandmother, I call her Flossy for some reason I can’t even remember, and I would watch Bo and Luke Duke ride around in the General Lee on the Dukes of Hazard, then worry over JR and Sue Ellen on Dallas. I’d wear my grandfather’s t-shirt to sleep in. He worked the third shift at the mill, then, and somewhere between Uncle Jessie and Southfork he’d leave us to it and go to work. In the mornings I’d wake up to a peppermint patty, a bag of plain m&ms or some other treat he’d gotten out of the vending machine and left for me on the kitchen table along with a note that said “Dula, wake me up at 2 o’clock.”

One day when I’d gotten a little older he told me it was about time I learned how to drive. He took me over to the Mayo Methodist Church parking lot and let me practice my left turn, my parking, my reversing. He never seemed nervous, though maybe he should have been as I was only about 14. He sat cross legged with his arm over the back of the seat. He whistled. On those countless spins around the parking lot he’d tell me about when he was younger, how he had tried to enlist during WW II and how the recruiter sent him home telling him his mother already had one son overseas and he wasn’t going send another. He told me about his sister who had been hit by car and about his dad who was never around much. He told me about his mother because she was a saint. At least to him. He told about working in the mill and I developed a vocabulary for things I’d never seen: bobbins and the spinning room. These were exotic, otherworldly to me and I held them in high esteem mostly because he had told me about them.

He used to have a whisp of black hair in front. A holdover from his youth and I used to tell him he looked like Phil Donahue. In the 90s, as Phil gave way to Oprah and the height of the tell all talk show, my grandfather formed the opinion that these people on talk shows were just complaining and he didn’t really see the point.

You can’t blame everybody else for your troubles, he’d say.

Even at 14 I knew he had a point. His childhood wasn’t perfect, neither was my grandmother’s but they never dwelled on it. Instead they walked in the direction of the kind of life they wanted: a warm house with heat you didn’t have to coax out of a stove, a home filled with respect and plenty of laughter.

One time I asked him why he didn’t go to church. Over the years my grandmother had strongly, and I mean strongly, encouraged me to attend so I kind of wanted to know how he gotten a pass on the Sunday services.

“Me and the Lord, we worked it out,” he said. “I worship him in here.” He pointed to his heart.

His tender, loving heart.

There is no one, church going or not, who walked closer to Christ than my grandfather. He fed the beggar, he clothed the children, he comforted the lonely. He eased the pain of the suffering just by sitting with them in their living rooms or at the nursing home. He talked to the people who needed a friend, he took them milk and bread. He lived by deed and he served the Lord by doing his work everyday. And he did it all while making a joyful noise, by singing a gospel tune out loud and to no one in particular.

There are no words to describe the depth of his kindness, his gentle, smiling way or his capacity to give to all of us who were lucky enough to be his family. He was a fine man. The best, actually. He showed me early on what it meant to be a devoted husband, a loving father and a patient, fearless grandfather who didn’t mind circling the church parking lot 4,982 times with his 14-year-old granddaughter. My grandfather was a bright spot in a sometimes gray world and it simply will not be the same without him.

As I was fumbling around Saturday morning, trying to imagine how to move through a world without my grandfather in it, my youngest daughter Lucille said, “It is sad mama but he had a good, long life.” She’s six and a fierce little package with a one tiny hand holding tightly to an invisible tether straight to my soul. My eyes filled with tears.

I know she’s right.

But I also know I’ll be crying over my fried eggs for a long time to come because no matter how true her sweet words are, I’m going to miss him terribly and I know I’m not the only one.

It’s been five years


A few mornings a month I wake to a familiar throbbing at the base of my skull. I toss and turn, sometimes writhe, until I peel back the covers and go in search of ibuprofen. Four pills, lots of water and an hour or so later and things start to feel close to normal. Most mornings I catch these headaches in time. But some mornings I don’t and they morph into a full-blown migraine, which can mean days of shielding my eyes from light and my ears from a thousand tiny noises.

It’s been five years since the first of these headaches sent me to the emergency room on a June night. I’d spent the day in dark rooms, first at my house then at an urgent care center hooked up to an IV receiving fluids. The doctor thought I might be dehydrated. She thought I was having a migraine. But when she asked me to sit up and bend my neck forward and I couldn’t, she had a nagging suspicion.

“But you haven’t had a fever…” she said, thinking out loud. “Take this and go to bed. If you wake up with a fever or you still have this headache, go straight to the ER.”

I didn’t quite understand the urgency. I just knew my head was pounding. I did as she said and woke up a few hours later with a fever and a relentless headache. I found my husband outside with our two tiny daughters. Eliza was three and it was Lucille’s first birthday. I had bought her red shoes and made cupcakes a few days before. I told him I was going to the hospital, that I thought something was really wrong. We both knew it wasn’t the best idea for me to drive the 25 minutes to the hospital alone but we didn’t think we had another choice. So he stayed home and I set off for town.

It was the first warm night in Montana that year. The sun cast long shadows and it occurred to me that it was finally summer. I turned left onto the main road that was ripped up due to construction. The throbbing where my skull met my spine matched the jackhammer that was breaking up sections of road as I drove past.

As I drove, Seth called the urgent care center where I’d spent the better part of the day.

“She has meningitis,” the doctor said. “She needs to go to the ER. I’ll call them and tell them she’s on her way.”

I walked through the sliding doors of the emergency room and told the receptionist my name and that my doctor thought I had meningitis on her recommendation.

“I’ll wait in my car,” I said. “I can’t handle the loud TV in the waiting room or the fan.”

“Honey, if you think you have meningitis, you’re not going back to your car or to the waiting room. We knew you were coming, follow me.”

She took me to a dimly lit room with a bed covered in white sheets. I collapsed onto the bed, hopeful that somewhere in this hospital, there was a drug that could quiet my excruciating headache.

A doctor came in and said he knew Carol, the urgent care doctor who’d sent me to the hospital.

“She’s a great doctor,” he said. “We need to do a spinal tap.”

As I leaned over a table, this doctor put a needle in my spine and the fluid he pulled out was cloudy. Not a good sign, he said.

“That wasn’t too bad, I hope,” he said of the puncture. “Probably just like an epidural when you had your babies.”

By this time my husband had come to the hospital and was standing in the room with our one-year-old. Somehow I was able to mumble to the doctor that I’d had natural births, no drugs, no spinal punctures.

“That’s badass,” he said.

I remember thinking through the fog of the pain medicine that was finally starting to kick in, that even natural birth didn’t hurt as bad this headache. I didn’t know humans could survive pain as bad as this.

A few minutes later, lab reports confirmed meningitis and things went black. I was admitted to the hospital and drug after drug slid though my IV and into my arm to save my life. I was in the hospital for four days during which time doctors cultured my spinal fluid and realized I had bacterial meningitis. The tone in my hospital room turned more serious after that. One doctor ordered tests to make sure my hearing was intact and another inspected my children to make sure they showed no signs of this illness. Thankfully, my daughters were fine. But still, the doctors were curious and they quizzed me about dental work, about trauma to my head, about anything that might have given them a clue as to how I might have gotten meningitis. And they never figured it out. It was a fluke, a non-explanation that never rested well with any of us.

I came home from the hospital with a bag full of syringes and 10 days worth of medicine that I was to inject twice a day. The drugs were powerful and left me feeling weak, nauseous and exhausted.

The next three months were the hardest of my life. My body was fragile, my emotions were raw, and my girls were so little. Some days I couldn’t push back the thought that we were potentially hours away from them growing up without me. It took a long time to untangle that and even longer to make peace with it.

This year, in late June, as the sun tilted toward a Montana summer, my daughter Lucille turned six. She dressed as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books and cast spells on her eight-year-old sister with her new light up wand. That day, I thought only of her birthday. It was a few days later that I remembered it had been five years since I had meningitis. It was the first of her birthdays since getting sick that I didn’t think of it at least once, that the memory of it all wasn’t so close to the surface.

These days, when I wake up with a dull ache at the back of my skull, I don’t worry, as I did once, that meningitis has come back. But the fact that my headaches are reminiscent of the one I had five years ago isn’t lost on me. My doctor’s say it’s muscle memory but I think it’s something deeper than that. Tucked somewhere between trauma and the clear, bright realizations that come from it, these headaches remind me that I could have died but I didn’t. They remind me that I’m still here and that my daughters are still beautiful. Because of meningitis, I carry these things with me every day.

Someone’s mother

I work at a university. For my day job, that is. So I spend lots of time around undergraduates. When I first started working on campus I commented to my boss that that day must have been the day of tours for middle school students.

“They’re everywhere,” I said.

“Yeah, those are freshmen,” he said.

“Oh, not the group I saw,” I said. “They had to be in middle school.”

“Look again. Probably freshmen,” he said in his normal deadpan.

I ventured back out to get a cup of coffee and turns out he was right. They were freshmen at orientation with their terrified parents. And they looked so painfully young. Did I look that young at 18? With boy-short hair and weighing in around 100 pounds, I’m sure I did. I’m sure I looked even younger.

Sometimes, working on a college campus, I get all dazed and confused, all I get is older and they stay the same age and not in a leching-Matthew-McConaughey kind of way but in a I-really-do-get-older-and-they-really-do-stay-between-18-and-22 kind of way. It’s taken me two years of working on campus to realize that if most traditionally aged undergrads look 13 to me, I must look to them like just another middle-aged lady. To them, I could be 30, I could be 50.

I was in the post office on campus recently mailing a package and I used a credit card. The boy behind the counter asked to see my ID. I showed him and he studied it, then me, then it again as though I was a 19-year-old trying to buy beer on a Saturday night.

He knew I was old enough to buy beer it seemed from his next question.

“Are you Cody Savage’s mom?”

“Um, no,” I said. “There are a few of us with this last name in Missoula.”

I should have left it there. I should have walked away thinking that Cody was 10 and that this guy, who could only have been 16, at best, was his soccer coach or something.

“Is Cody a friend of yours?” I said knowing I was walking into dangerous territory.

“Yeah, well, he’s my brother’s best friend,” he said as he continued to process my package.

This is the next point at which I should have left well enough alone and let myself go on thinking Cody was not a college student. But I didn’t, I couldn’t.

“How old is Cody,” I said trying to seem casual.

“Oh, he’s 22,” he said.

Um. 22?


I took my receipt and walked away. How could he possibly think I could have a 22 year-old kid, I thought? I mean…and then I did the math. I am 39. And it is biologically possible that I could have a 22 year-old child. I let that sink in a bit as I walked back to my office.

Later that day I walked back across campus and decided to start treating these college students as the young adults they are instead of constantly being amazed at how young they seem. It has been MORE THAN 20 years since I stood where they stand in my flip-flops and patchouli, the biggest decisions in front of me revolving around what I should eat for lunch or when I should go for a run.

Somehow, I suppose, it’s a little shocking to me that it has been that long but when I look in the mirror, I know I am so much closer to being Cody Savage’s mom than I am to being the college student I once was. I worry about my own kids who happen to be 6 and 8 years old just as I’m sure Cody’s mom worries about him. I do mom things: go to the grocery store, fold the laundry, pay the bills. I say the things moms say: wear shoes or take off your socks outside, you need to make a protein choice, leave your sister alone. I fret over the lunches I pack for my daughters, then forget to pack my own. I run, still, a little slower these days but maybe a little smarter than I did when I was 19 and would head out alone at night in the city. Truth is, in every way, I am someone’s mother.

And that’s what I’m going to choose to believe the kid at the counter at the post office saw. Maybe he saw in me someone he could trust, someone who would tell him to wear his jacket, and someone who might scold him for staying out too late. Just as I chose to change my image of college students, I am also changing in my mind the image they have of me. To them, I’m not just some middle-aged lady roaming campus. I am someone’s mother, somewhere between 30 and 50, who must project some small air of looking like I know what I’m doing. Like I said, this is what I’m choosing to believe. I’m also choosing to take it as the big compliment that it is.

I wish you weren’t my sister


“You have been bad children today.”

I uttered these words through gritted teeth tonight after Lucille and Eliza started fighting for the 10,000th time since the sun came up. I say 10,000th time as though there were breaks in the bickering. There were no breaks, really, all day, so maybe it was the 10,000th time I heard my name or the 10,000th time Lucille squealed Eliza’s name or may it was the 10,000th time Eliza snatched something precious from Lucille or maybe it was the other way around. Who knows.

I do know that bad children sounded a little harsh as soon as it left my lips and at the same time I very much meant it.

They stopped in their tracks and looked at me as though I had said the unthinkable.

“Well it’s true!” I said. My indigent attitude failing to make up for being crappy to my children.

“We’re not bad childs!” Lucille said as she ran across the room to bury her face in a pillow.

What century are we living in, I thought. Bad children? Have you been reading to much Dickens? Bad children? Try, mama. Just try a little.

But I was at the end of long day of sibling fighting. Injustices hurled one from the other. A car ride turned tense. The threat of a harmful blow with a pocket swiss army knife. A yoga mat to the head purposefully. Constant negotiation. “Use your words” went out the window around 10 a.m. only to be replaced with “don’t hit your sister again!”

They hurled I hate yous at each other, they stuck their tongues out at each other, they kicked, spit and hollered I wish you weren’t my sister. They didn’t reserve their venom for just each other. At one point Eliza looked me square in the eye and said, “Mom, you know, sometimes I don’t like you very much.”

To be clear this was before I told her and her sister they were being bad children. The words “right back at ya kid” rolled into my mouth but I kept them there. I washed the dishes and realized that Eliza had truly hurt my feelings.

I told her so and she assured me that she loved me but that she just didn’t like me very much sometimes. This was clearly supposed to make me feel better.

I went for a run. And I dreamed of a house. With four bedrooms, three bathrooms and walk-in closets. Oh, and a full finished basement. With a giant television that I could plop them in front of on days like today. I also dreamed of a leaving my give-a-damn at the door so I could embrace all of these things and flip through a magazine while sipping whiskey as they watched a movie on a Sunday afternoon and left each other the hell alone.

It was nice, my fantasy.

Then I rounded the corner on the final approach to our tiny house only to see Seth as frustrated and at the end of his rope as I had been earlier. Lucille pulled her bike to the end of the alley.

“Eliza’s at Coopers. We’re going to play in the water,” she said.

I escorted her to Cooper’s house, said hello to his parents and headed home without saying much else.

As I rode away I composed a text to Cooper’s mom in my mind. Here they are. They are far happier here with you than they have been with me all day. I’ll be back in an hour, after a shower and an attitude adjustment. Oh, and thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

An hour later I had showered and taken a deep breath. I met the girls at the intersection of the “big” road and ours in our neighborhood. Lucille had on a rainbow tie dye swim shirt, blue and gray tie die bike shorts, her sister’s old checkerboard Vans and her light-up helmet tipped back on her head. Eliza had on a pair of boxer briefs, cowboy boots and a headband around her head Willie Nelson style. My ragamuffins, but they seemed happy for the break from two grumpy parents. I know I was pretty grateful for a little time without them and for my people who will take my kids and a few words without asking me to explain. I was even grateful for bad children in that moment as I watched them approach on their bikes, for Eliza’s honesty and for the chance to get up tomorrow and try again.

In search of other half halfs


I am a little nervous.

I’ve asked Eliza several times and she has said yes, without hesitation, every time. But still, I’m nervous. No one in our family knows what to expect but, as of last week, we are all expected.

I signed us up after applying for a scholarship. I put the reduced registration fee on a credit card, arranged to stay with family and that was that.

“Are you sure?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said. “They’ll be half half’s there?”

“Yes,” I said. I think. That’s what the website said. I don’t know but I think.

We are going to a conference for gender non-conforming kids and their parents. We are going in search of other half half kids. Half half is the way Eliza describes herself. Half boy. Half girl. Last winter another parent of a gender non-conforming kid I know in our town (I only know two others) raved about this conference. If you have a transgender kid, a gender creative kid, you will find other kids like them at this conference, she said. I so desperately want to believe it. You will find other parents asking the same questions you ask yourself every night before you fall asleep, she said. She knows that I do that, I thought.

“I know there are other kids like me,” she says. And I know she’s right. In a few weeks we’ll set out to find them. Like settlers, we’ll go west on a little myth and a little hope. We don’t know what we’ll find. I want to believe a supportive group exists, a safe place where my child can be who she is completely because lately I worry that she’s trying to fit in, trying to fly under the radar and, honestly, that scares more than anything.

Eliza looks more like a girl these days that she has since I put her hair in buns on the sides of her head at two years old. She has long tangled hair, wears spaghetti strap tank tops and to-the-knee jean shorts by choice. She blends in. She passes. She’s conforming in some ways but underneath it all she wears boxer briefs even when they bunch up under her shorts. No matter what, she will not wear panties, she says. There is something so telling in this detail and when I think of this conference I’m hoping to find a person or two who understands.

In the last six months, Eliza’s anxiety and need for control have hit a fever pitch. And it was about six months ago that she asked to go shopping in the girls department. I can’t help but think the two are related. If she’s pushing something underground, it has to come out in some way, I suppose. I’m not going looking for trouble, I swear, just noticing what’s in front of me.

I want to find a place where she can let her shoulders relax, where she can just be. I want her to find kids like her, to feel some sense of belonging in a room full of children who move along the gender spectrum like she does. I hope this conference can provide space for her even if it’s only for a weekend. I am nervous because I know I will be deeply disappointed if it doesn’t.

So, in a few weeks we go. Off to find our destiny? I can only hope.

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