SELF-MADE MAN #12: Holy, Holy


Before I stood beside my grandma’s ashes in my too-tight suit; before the cool hush of the service in the white church where my mom and her sisters were married; way before we drove down to Dickson City and the uncle who used to take me on rollercoasters reached out for a manly handshake and then pulled me in for a hug: before all that, I pictured myself in a deck chair at my grandparents’ single-room lake house after the service, thinking about men and grief.

I like to anticipate the narrative to offset disappointment or avoid getting ambushed by someone else’s story. I had no idea how my family would react to me, and maybe that’s what really clenched my chest. Every exchange I’ve had since I’ve taken a new name and a weekly shot of testosterone has been an exercise an echolocation, and it’s depressing how invisible we are to each other, most of the time. Maybe to them I was still a ragamuffin with an antenna for unspoken secrets, a disappeared dad, and a penchant for counting the adults’ drinks.

So that’s how I pictured it: I saw myself, sitting away from the deck and the bottomless beers, listening to crickets and considering the loss of a body in metaphorical terms, drinking out of my own, grown-up Solo cup, me and my many-gendered grief.

Later, I figured, I’d write it all out: the way the men shook hands and didn’t cry, the way we all lose our bodies in one way or another and some of us gain them back again. I’d leave you on a high note, though, because I’m afraid not to; because some nights the dark curtain of everything I don’t know gathers into a gloaming, and the foggy shadow of all that scares me looks like my father’s prying fingers crossed with the mugger aiming the gun at my head.

And the truth is, that first night I imagined my mugger and my father both, Frankensteined together with everything else that kept me from sleeping in a cold hotel room in Dickson City, remembering stories of my grandmother’s descent into dementia, the screaming, the way it might feel to be buried alive.

Like what’s lost could be located in a body.

How arrogant of me, I thought at the church the next morning, to think that grief is predictable. The sons spoke in cracked tones or cried, their faces twisted into wet facsimiles that spoke of skinned knees but also salamanders and earth worms, fishing and fighting long into summer nights. The three older daughters, meanwhile, sat scattershot, their tears hidden behind the curtain of Kleenex, their uncharacteristic quiet a vulnerable inverse, like bodies twisted inside out.

Grandma was a complicated woman; charismatic and judgmental. She could be distant and hilarious, but mostly I remember her as baffled, a sweet kind of wide-eyed surprise that characterized her later years, a prologue to her deterioration. She died not understanding that I’d named myself after her son, whose ashes were scattered at the lake house and who I’ve come to resemble with such eerie accuracy that my grandfather, seeing me from under his sun umbrella at the burial, did a double-take.

This is Thom, my mom told him. My son, she clarified. He nodded, and his baffled eyes returning to the tiny box that held my grandmother, as if seeking her ghost.

Later I agreed when my mom asked me to read people’s condolences as part of the ceremony. And as I stood at the pulpit, sweating and exposed before relatives who hadn’t seen me since testosterone had done its magic, I thought it might have been a mistake. But as I spoke I realized that people were rapt, focused wholly on their words in my mouth: Grandma and her glamour, Grandma and her parties, Grandma singing “You are My Sunshine,” Grandma and the smell of blackberries.

I was an instrument, and felt, in the twinkling light, that we are more than just our bodies or even our loss. Knowing that felt holy, and I offered each word carefully, my voice foreign and strong in my ears.

Only later did I think that my mom had set it up this way, that she’d reached across some divide between herself and her own mother, and asked her family to be gentle with me.

In the hotel lobby the next day, my mom absentmindedly touched my throat, feeling the bristle of it. She pulled her hand back, embarrassed at her trespass, but in her blush I saw a kind of childlike wonder.

That’s what I really thought about after the service at the lake house, when I was not watching the action studiously from a deck chair but, in fact, swimming with a rowdy group of second cousins. Sometimes the not-knowing isn’t a gloaming, it’s an opportunity to know the story beneath the one you tell yourself; it’s a family that reconciles its ghosts, a family that believes in forgiveness.

Because, it turns out, there is no ending but a good one. Sometimes bad men are just origin stories and lost moms can be found again; sometimes we grow up to be more than the sum of our losses, and the water we pruned in as children will still hold our shifting shapes; and sometimes twilight comes on cue and Grandpa can sit on the porch in his ballcap, drinking a beer with the lightening bugs, his love all of us, his love his own.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Thomas Page McBee’s Lambda award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. His new book, Amateur, a reported memoir about learning how to box in order to understand masculinity’s tie to violence, was published in August to wide acclaim. Thomas was the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden, a “masculinity expert” for VICE, and the author of the columns “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. His current column, "Amateur," is for Condé Nast's Them. A former senior editor at Quartz, his essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and Glamour. More from this author →