SELF-MADE MAN #32: Grief is the Price We Pay for Love


There is a story you know about me, the triumphant self-made man. I’ve been telling you it for years, mythologizing myself because my body is not the action hero of a hot movie in a cold theater, because in Rome last month I didn’t see any statues paying tribute to my nakedness, because I refuse to be an invisible man. And you conspired with me. You read me into being, so now I am hard-won and muscular, my center of gravity low enough to keep me steady when a guy hops off his bike on Canal to start some shit because I stepped into his narrow little path. Here I say, low and in his face, “Brother, you’re going the wrong way on a one-way street,” and I mean it as a threat, a fact, and a metaphor.

Here, I move through life like a ballet dancer and a monster truck and you see me. You know what I mean.

But that’s today. When Mom died last fall, as she died, I felt my trans-ness differently: my masculinity hairier and still-foreign to both of us. When she was between worlds, her brain crumbling, our narratives collapsed into each other: she called me by my brother’s name, told my girlfriend my brother’s stories, and though she never asked after the me I was before, I spent her last nights sleeping in the hospital bed a few feet away, listening to her labored death rattle and wondering if deep down she still located me precisely in what I was so happy to lose: the angular shape of my face, the reedy sound of my voice, the skinniness of my arms.

Before her morphine-induced coma, before my brother and sister and I played her “Graceland” and sang it like a dirge, out of our minds after so many days of waiting for Mom to decide to go, the nurses—those gorgeous, small-town mystics—all asked us to dig deep and try to figure out what she was waiting for. “She has to choose to die,” they said, squeezing my shoulder with their long nails. My mind went blank. Of course, I said to them. In my passing, I have always tried to be every self, combined, and have always failed.

Who was she waiting for? Was it me?

You know what I mean. You, with your divorces and miscarriages and blown knees and dashed dreams. Even you—yes, you with your meteoric rises and once-in-a-lifetime loves and cross-country new beginnings. When we risk everything, we change everything—and, no matter what anyone says, we lose everything, too.

My son, Mom said, even when it must have been so hard for her to rewrite the moment I was born, the one that belonged to her alone. Of all my new identities, that was the most fragile, the most important, and now it’s gone too. I’m nobody’s son; that word is ground up like her ashes, a transition that required so much of both of us. Don’t think I’m not grateful for its fleeting truth, the way who we are plays like shadows on each others’ bodies. These words aren’t meaningless but someday they will mean nothing and so what

for three years,

in my 30s,

I was my mother’s son.


I mapped myself here, beginning on my birthday three years ago. I was wobbly and newborn, a baby in his 30s, back when trans people were still “born in the wrong body.” I lived in New England then, a life full of salty old-timers and pregnant ladies and beery BBQs. Every neighbor and co-worker and old college friend found a way to connect to my werewolf body. So, I had a thesis. I thought you could meet me without translation. I knew if I could see myself in you, you could see yourself in me, too.

What makes a man? I asked. It seemed so important to be intentional with the answer. In a world where masculinity is impossible, harrowing, a power and a privilege used against bodies like mine and my mom’s and yours, I wanted to have all the right answers.


Mom died. And as Mom died, my aunt pulled me, the eldest boy, aside. We talked about lawyers, Mom’s estate, the landlady. We talked hospital bills and storage lockers and power of attorney and living wills. Her advice was solid, if unsolicited, but perhaps she saw the hunch of my shoulders and wanted me to buck up. I was thirty-three years old, not exactly an orphan, no matter what I thought. She looked at me hard and said: This is what makes a man.

There, after all these years, was the ugly, banal, spectacular answer. I have never been more myself than when I snuck Mom an egg and cheese sandwich and the doctor rolled her eyes at both of us, a mom and her son like a tableau: me lying next to her on the hospital bed, Mom holding my hand and maybe not knowing exactly who I was but knowing in an animal way that I was hers, Mom loving me more than any one body. Don’t you see? I wasn’t self-made to her.

I was so much more.


At Mom’s memorial, standing by the small lake in Pennsylvania where they’d scattered her baby brother thirty years before, the configuration of our family wasn’t the one she’d recognize. My sister-in-law, married to my brother after her passing and newly pregnant with her grandchild, became one of us when Mom wasn’t looking. My girlfriend, who once told me that she fell in love with me precisely because of who I revealed myself to be as Mom wasted away, only met her once. “I love you,” Mom told her that day in the terrible nursing home in Jonestown—such a startling blessing, and I think of it as my brother and sister and I, along with our partners, rowboat ourselves away from Mom’s tough, big family and release her remains into the water. She glides away in a shimmer like a movie version of a ghost. If she were here she’d explain the physics of water and bone but now all we have is our history and the way it makes magic when we can transcend the silliness of space and time and gender. I watch my little brother and sister each take a turn sending Mom on her way. I think: I am a man, and I am every name she ever called me. I was wrong to tell her to put my old pictures away. I am no less myself for all the selves I’ve been before.

This is the gnarly truth of reinvention. Someone smarter than me once said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” When Mom died, as Mom died, I talked to her with my mind. I told her who I was, and asked her to leave me. I couldn’t get the words right because the paradox is the real truth. I carry a pretty green urn and scatter her in Florence, in northern California, in the Hudson Valley where time collapses and I am eighteen and blue-haired as she drives us toward the Tappan Zee Bridge on our week-long college tour. She is saying we should come back sometime when the leaves are changing and I file it away but we never do. I leave her on a hill in Cold Spring on a cold day in winter and say I’m sorry and that I know she’s sorry, too.

I am trying to say goodbye, but goodbye is just a word. I am not self-made, after all. I am bone on water and all of my ghosts. I am a man. I am somebody’s son. I am never going anywhere.

I am already gone.

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 →