“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
–Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
Over the last three years, I’ve begun to see my life as one long thru-hike, but with the wrong shoes. I imagine it to be a bit like hiking the Appalachian Trail in red heels. Sure, I’ve had to stop and sit for a while here and there, but wow! Look at these red heels!
Despite that, with the help of a wonderful therapist, I’ve come to the top of a hill that’s high and clear enough for me to look back and see the path on which I’ve traveled.
I’ve had one life. One wild and precious life. Just like everyone else.
What strikes me now is that it has been precious, in the true sense of that word. As I weigh the time, I feel how light it is in my hand. I can see clearly where my path began — how I quickly wandered off the beaten path into harder climbing, when keeping to the trail would have been much easier. I see that there were roadblocks that required me to veer off into dangerous swamps and deep waters, but I always somehow found the path again, and trudged on, even though my feet hurt.
We all do this. Time is short, and the road is long if you’re lucky.
Around this time twenty years ago, March of 1999, I was thinking about having a child. I read all the literature about human conception, how it all worked. I mean, I KNEW how, but until then, I didn’t really think about how miraculous it was that sperm would meet egg inside such a tiny window of time and space. Later that summer, once I did finally succeed at that part, I realized how fragile a pregnancy was, how so many things could go terribly wrong. What soothed my fears about that fragility was driving to work every day and looking at ALL THE PEOPLE. Every single person had arrived at this world in just this same way. Every single person had a mother that had succeeded in bringing them forth whole and solid enough to be driving that Toyota in front of me, reading that newspaper while waiting for the bus, or slumped on the sidewalk. I thought: If their mother did it, I can do it. It’s going to be okay.
And it was. I did bring a new person into the world — on St. Patrick’s Day in 2000. The doctor and the midwife told me I had a little girl, and we named this child accordingly. That name became my favorite word. I had painted the nursery to look like a garden — light blue walls with clouds, a picket fence, daffodils and morning glories, green carpet. This child had a lot of books, blocks, stuffed animals, dress-up clothes, computers, trucks and dolls. There were dresses of every color in the closet, shorts and pants and t-shirts in the drawers. This child could be whomever they liked. I was aware that a little girl needed to be well-rounded and strong, just by nature of being female in this male-dominated world, so I created a space for growing up playful, creative, wise,and ready. This was a female child, I thought. My one precious life, I said to myself. Like me, I thought. Wild and precious.
In the early 2000s, I was not conscious of anyone who was transgender. This was not represented in my little world. I was always mindful that my child’s sexuality might be different than my own, but I was not aware of the concept of gender identity at all.
So, when Sam realized that he was transgender at 15, I was in shock, and I became extremely confused and lost. When he needed to choose his own name (Samson was the name he chose for himself), and had us use he/him/his pronouns, I was devastated. The name I gave him was my most favorite word! All of the memories I had of my child was signified by that one word. It was the name we chose for a child we thought was a girl, and I could never use that word again. He called it his dead name, and I can’t describe how much that hurt. It seemed to be a personal affront to me. In my confusion and shock, I didn’t understand why he was doing this to me. Perhaps it’s a mom thing to do that — to take all things as our own fault, to treat our children as an extension of ourselves, as belonging to us. My child, we always say — even though this is not a person who belongs to us. They have their own precious life.
I wish I had felt that way back then.
Unfortunately, I was concerned about how I would explain this to people around us — our family, our friends. My identity, my one precious life, was tangled up with his, and I didn’t know how to free him from that knot. I didn’t even see that there WAS a knot. All I ever wanted for my child was to be happy and kind, and he couldn’t be either of those things unless I helped him. But I didn’t know how, and I was wounded and broken myself.
Sam was suffering and afraid, and he was in danger. For him, the dysphoria, the depression, the anxiety was endangering his very life. The knowledge that he was not allowed to be his true self without dire consequences at school, in society at-large, and even at his own home, was killing him quite literally.
He acted out; he wouldn’t participate; he withdrew; my funny, social, gregarious child was sullen and wouldn’t speak to us. He couldn’t sleep, and because we had to work, we couldn’t stay up with him. He had horrible nightmares that he suffered through alone.
I knew what that felt like, but I was at a loss as to how to help him, and this frustrated and frightened me most of all, and made me angry at myself. I felt that I had failed, that I was failing every moment with him, and this made me a miserable person to be around.
What I didn’t realize then was that I had to truly help myself first. I was my own problem. And I couldn’t help Sam in that state.
Because I couldn’t separate my own ego from my idea of him, I was just as lost as he was — only for different reasons. He had to go out into the world and BE HIMSELF every day, which was a huge struggle that I didn’t have to bear. As a cisgender female, I fit in (mostly), but he does not. He has to say to his teacher and class on the first day of college, in a very feminine voice, with a very feminine face: Hi! I’m Samson! and not blink. That’s something I’ve never had to do. He has to maintain a 4.0 average to keep his scholarship, and do it all day with a full bladder because there’s no safe place for him to go. I’ve never had to do that. I can’t imagine the heft of these things.
He is the most courageous person I know.
It was only after spending time with a truly kind and affirming therapist to whom I could ask the scary questions, and say the truly hurtful things I felt out loud — who would hold those things for me and then take them away for me — that I began to become strong enough to help Sam. It was only after she helped to see Sam clearly that I could stand firmly and fiercely at his side and protect him. It was only after Sam was given a therapist of his own to speak his own truths to that he began to stand on his own and walk out into the world in the best shoes for him.
It’s been three years of therapy — weekly, for us both — which translates to a lot of inner growth and muscles for climbing. Now, I see how strong he is. I see his true spirit. I understand his path, and I know that it is HIS one life, not mine. I’m just here to help, and I like that role.
He and I have learned how to work together to respect the path of the other and not to confuse them as one life. We each have our own wild and precious way. When we are together, we laugh, cry, tell stories, help each other, respect each other. We are good together.
Through these past three years — 20 years after I thought about bringing a child into this world — I’ve come to this hill where I can stand in red, Mary Jane flats and look back on my own life and see that each person has this one life, too. ONE LIFE. Just one. And it is my job to be a guide, an usher, a protector, a mentor, a teacher– but ultimately, a student of this person I brought into this place.
He teaches me how utterly unique and beautiful we each can become when we’re seen clearly, and are allowed to see and respect ourselves for who we truly are, for the winding and varying paths we all tread. We are all wild and precious.
Ginny & Sam
Ginny Grimsley is a freelance writer, poet & mom who lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Her son Samson is a sophomore psychology student.
If you are seeking transgender care or are interested in learning more about how to become an ally, the Gender & Sexual Diversity Initiative is a MindPath Care Centers supported program that offers affirming care, resources, and trainings to other clinicians and professionals in an effort to create safe-spaces and raise awareness for a traditionally marginalized community.