My father and I were in Starbucks about a year after he learned he had Alzheimer’s when he looked me up and down with his judge’s eye and said to the barista, “This young — ahem — man will have a latte.”
I laughed, not sure if he was joking. Until that moment, I had always been his daughter.
Granted, I was never a typical daughter. Growing up, I was a tomboy — or what Larry David would later call “pre-gay.” I had short, moppy hair and wore my older brother’s hand-me-downs; people often thought I was his little brother.
As an adult, I continued to be mistaken for a cisgender man. I have been called “sir” more times than I can count, which, frankly, I’ve never minded. I have generally been pleased with people reading me as male, even before my recent top surgery and the low-dose testosterone I started taking a few years back.
It soon became apparent that my father wasn’t joking four years ago when he referred to me as a young man. After that moment at Starbucks, he almost exclusively used “he/him” pronouns for me and even began referring collectively to me and my brother as his sons.
Of course, it has been bittersweet. Although he was technically forgetting who I am, there’s also something affirming about his honest assessment of my gender. It’s as if he’s been studying me each time with fresh eyes and taking me in anew. Paradoxically, I have felt seen.
The truth is that I have always felt seen by my father, Teddy. As the family lore goes, he was convinced I was a boy right after I was born. When he took in all 10 pounds of me, he immediately thought, “Our little football player!” and cried out to everyone in the room, “It’s a boy!” (The doctor quickly informed him otherwise.)
Sure, it was probably a bit sexist that he assumed his buff new baby must be a boy, but I like to think he was picking up on my straight-outta-the-womb transmasculine vibes.
When I was little, my father and I were best friends. Like him — and unlike my brother — I was a jock. We spent hours playing catch in the park, and he drove me to all my various sports games. When, at age 7, I decided to join the neighborhood boys’ hockey league, he supported me. As a judge, he would sometimes even adjourn court early to get me to a game in time.
He bought me Transformers and other so-called “boys’ toys” I wanted and never batted an eye at the ripped jeans and T-shirts I insisted on wearing. Both of my parents were progressive, but considering they had no real understanding or road map for how to raise a gender-nonconforming child in the 1980s (especially by today’s standards), they did a good job of not forcing “girl” stuff on me. And while my father was anxious when I first came out as gay at 19, I have only ever felt supported by him. When I finally told him that I had a girlfriend, he simply asked, “What’s her name?”
There have been so many painful parts of losing my father to Alzheimer’s in his late 70s and early 80s. Watching him no longer be able to do all the things he loves so much — biking, playing tennis, driving, traveling with his partner, Barbara — and witnessing his utter confusion and frustration as his world becomes unfamiliar has been gutting. But the one silver lining has been the kick I’ve gotten every time he has referred to me as his son.
It was an adjustment for certain friends and family members when I started using “they/them” pronouns three years ago, but not for him. Maybe we skipped over the nuances of what it means to live on the genderqueer spectrum, but he’s been unequivocal in his fullhearted, Alzheimer’s-induced embrace of my increasingly masculine presence. He quickly adjusted to saying, “He this — ” “He that — ” “What’s he talking about?”
Last fall, I asked my father directly: “Do you see me more as a man or a woman?”
He took a long look at me and then waved his hand in a circular motion. “Both,” he said, keeping his gaze on me. “Mostly, I just see you as — lively.”
I laughed. He couldn’t have nailed it better. Beyond masculine or feminine, I wish we all could see gender in that way — as dynamic, spirited, vibrant, alive.
This past November, my father finally got accepted into a memory care home — and I finally got my funding approved for top surgery in Ontario. I booked my chest masculinization procedure for a couple of weeks after we planned to move him. But as things turned out, a Covid outbreak on his floor delayed his move-in date to the same day I was scheduled for surgery. I now joke that my father and I transitioned at the same time.
More than funny, his recognition of my gender has been healing. My father and I were never able to have a real conversation about my present gender journey — how I started taking testosterone shortly after he clocked me as a man; how I now identify as “queer/nonbinary” and “transmasculine”; how I still go by “Rachel” but sometimes use “Noah,” the name my parents were going to give me if I was a boy.
But I joke that he’s the most gender-affirming father I could have ever wished for. Perhaps the ability to forget assigned gender is one positive lesson we can learn from the havoc Alzheimer’s otherwise wreaks on people’s brains and families.
When he met my new girlfriend recently, he asked her: “How did you find him, her, it?”
In someone else’s mouth, “it” would sound disgustingly bigoted. And yet, coming from this tenderhearted 83-year-old with dementia who never learned the new rules of contemporary pronouns, I could only hear it one way — as his earnest attempt to lovingly (and playfully) recognize who I am.
Not long ago, my father introduced me to one of his caregivers like this: “This is my cousin, my nephew, my niece, my — everything.” He wasn’t sure anymore how we were related. More recently, he also told me he loves me “like a brother.” But he recognized me, or at least intuitively knew I was someone he was happy to see — his human “everything bagel.” He often called me “smiley face,” remarking on what a big smile I have. Mostly, his face lit up when he saw me: “It’s you!” he’d say.
The shock of death still comes even when you’ve been preparing for it. Weeks ago, on July 6, my father was transferred to palliative care, where he died three days later.
I have barely been able to process his death, but the heartbreaking irony of my father slowly losing his sense of self at precisely the same time that I was becoming more of who I am was not lost on me, even as it was unfolding.
I was extremely close with my mother, who died in July 2015 because of medically untreated rectal cancer (it’s a long story, one which I wrote a book about). In my teens, I began to develop more of her interests in art and culture, feminism, good food, hiking, and dark humor. But in many ways, I have always identified more with my father. We looked the most alike out of anyone in our family (although I had more hair), and I inherited his super logical brain and old Jewish man approach to life.
Watching him deteriorate and die, I have felt like an extension of me has been dying too. At his funeral, I spoke about him being the closest thing I ever had to a twin. But I take some comfort in knowing that I’ll carry a part of him forward in me. Among his many admirable traits — integrity, kindness, generosity, wit — he has been a role model for the kind of masculinity I want to embody: strong and soft, self-assured and self-deprecating, tough and affectionate, reliable and caring, nerdy and cute.
While visiting with him last month, I experienced a familiar anxiety: There will only be a bit more time until there’s no remembrance whatsoever. He smiled when he saw me — a spark of recognition! — but then looked confused and said, “Remind me, how do we know each other?”
“I’m Rachel,” I said, smiling back. “Your child.”
And however I continue to grow and identify, I always will be.