The Story I Like To Tell About My Father

My father died last spring. We think he had covid, but we'll never know for sure. I didn't talk about it much at the time, because I didn't feel up to having to mourn publicly, or responding to everyone’s condolences. This has been a tough year for all of us, and I needed some space to grieve in my own way.

I used to talk to my father all the time, and he shaped me as a storyteller and as a person. We would geek out about the meaning of life, writing, religion, the nature of time and consciousness. My dad was a philosophy professor for 50 years, and his work ranged from moral philosophy (like Chidi on The Good Place) to questions about human nature and what it actually means to have a good life.

For the last several years of his life my father had severe dementia, and we couldn't really talk about much of anything at all.

The last real conversation I ever had with him was in 2013, when I was working on finishing All the Birds in the Sky. My father was already struggling a lot mentally, and you never knew if you would get him on a good day or a bad day. So one time, I called him up and just talked to him about the book I was working on: the scientists, the Ten Percent Project, the Unraveling, and the different characters’ contrasting views about nature and our place in it. My father listened, and because this was a good day, he had some thoughts to offer about nature and what it means to save the world. His ideas helped me to think about what I was trying to say—but more than that, it was just really good to have that kind of conversation with him one last time.

My earliest memories are mostly of my dad picking me up from school (because my mom was in grad school and my dad was the parent who was around.) He would buy me candy and hold my hand as he walked me home, chattering to me about little things he had noticed about the world. Later, I spent hours at my dad’s office on campus, drinking grape soda from the vending machine and watching the ducks wander past while my dad read Immanuel Kant.

Here’s a picture my mom sent me recently, of my dad and me from when I was a teenager:

My mom said, “This is how I want to remember him, and it’s heart-breaking.” I felt both of those things so deeply.

My father burned a bunch of CDs of classical music for me, ranging from Heinrich Schütz to Couperin and Haydn, and I maybe listened to them once before tossing them in a pile somewhere. I finally just dug them out and they’re so beautiful, they shred my heart. My dad wanted to share with me this thing that was so important to him, and he carefully wrote down all of the salient information about composers and movements and conductors, and I just sort of lost the CDs in a clutter-swamp. Lately I listen to his music, or read his writings about what it means to lead a good life, and weep in the least operatic way imaginable.

There are lots of stories that I could tell about my dad: his weird childhood, my weird childhood, all of his attempts to turn me into a classical music buff (which ultimately backfired and led to me becoming a lifelong devotee of old-school funk instead.) And there are plenty of possible endings to the story of my father, including his long struggle with dementia, and his final years in a care facility.

But the story I like to tell about my father doesn’t end with his death.

When I told my parents about my first, fumbling steps toward transitioning from male to female, my mom didn’t miss a beat. She marched into her bedroom and came out with half a dozen of her old dresses that she no longer wanted, which might fit me. After that, every time I saw my parents, my mom gave me a big bag of her old clothing, plus a lot of really groovy 1970s jewelry and accessories. My father, on the other hand? Just could not handle my transition at all.

He had been so close to me, and had seen me so much as a kindred spirit, that he couldn’t stand seeing me turn into someone he couldn’t recognize. I felt as if I was still the same person, and I was just doing a better job of bringing that person in the world — but by rejecting manhood, my father felt as if I was rejecting him.

For a few years, I had a tense relationship with my dad. We never stopped talking to each other, but we didn’t talk the way we used to—and when we did, it turned into arguments. As a philosopher by trade, my father marshaled a lot of complex arguments about identity: how do we know who we really are? What if everyone in the world just decided to identify however they wanted? He tried to convince me my transness was a form of false consciousness, or an externally-imposed framework over my true identity. If my dad had been aware of TERF ideology, he might even have subscribed to it, a little.

Eventually, my dad saw that my transness was not going away, and that it wasn’t some kind of passing phase. At some point, he realized that I was identifying as a woman in professional contexts, and he heard me the umpteenth time I said, “this is who I am.” And he started to let go of some of his preconceived notions about identity and embodiment, especially after we talked endlessly about Judith Butler. After a few years, my father came around and embraced my transition wholeheartedly, to the point where he and I were able to rebuild the friendship we used to have, and start having long intense conversations about life and meaning again.

We were lucky to have five or six more years of being close, before his mind started going.

One early clue that my father’s cognitive impairment was becoming more severe was when he started to insist that he had been the first to embrace my transition. He had, in fact, been my staunchest supporter all along. He wasn’t just trying to pretend that we hadn’t suffered that rift—he really remembered things differently now. Everyone in my family felt as though maybe my dad was subconsciously trying to forget the things he regretted most. As the past became hazier, he chose to bury the things that he felt ashamed of. If anyone had tried to remind him that he had pushed back against my transition in any way, he would have been appalled and dead certain that it wasn’t true.

My dad had a lot of unexplained health problems which we thought might be exacerbating his dementia, so I accompanied my mom and my dad to dozens of doctor’s appointments. I tried to find a companion for my dad, and then I helped my mom get set up with home health care, and finally I helped to search for a facility where my dad could live. During the long period when my mom was still trying to live with my father, there were a few terrifying occasions when he wandered off and went missing for hours at a time. So I helped my mom set him up with a phone, strapped to his belt, that had Find My iPhone enabled—so as long as he didn't lose that phone, we could find him. And I kept trying to talk to my dad about philosophy, Asian culture, classical music, and human nature. I found places where he could play chess and Go, two games he’d always loved, in hopes of doing something to slow down the deterioration of his faculties. Nothing really helped that much.

This went on for years, and there were more heartbreaking moments than I care to remember. But the story that I keep in my head about my father ends six years before he actually died.

In the summer of 2014, I went to London for WorldCon, and I was planning on staying in the UK for a week or so afterward to catch up with old friends. The night of the Hugo Awards, I got an email from my mom that said my father had had a bad health scare, and he was in the hospital. This might really be the end, and she really needed me there. So I canceled all my post-WorldCon plans, changed my plane ticket, and flew straight to my parents.

When I got there, my dad was in a hospital room with another patient, and he was really out of it—even by his standards at the time. His fever had really taken a lot out of him, and he was hardly even there. I stood by his bedside for hours with my mom, leaving only for the occasional meal.

At one point, a nurse or social worker came and asked my father some routine questions.

“What year is it?”

“I think it’s 1965.”

“Where are we?”

“Some kind of school… Maybe an auditorium.”

“Who’s the president?”

“I’m not sure exactly.”

And then she pointed at me, and asked: “Who’s that?”

My father glanced at me, and he didn’t hesitate for even a second. “That’s my daughter.”

Something I love this week:

I read Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger a while back, and I’m still thinking about it. The main character, Ellie, is a delightful adventurer who can bring creatures back from the dead (including her adorable dog, and a trilobite!) With the help of her best friend and her mom, she solves a murder where she already knows who the murderer was. I don’t want to give too much away, but this book is a delightful adventure (that would make a wonderful TV show) and there’s so much that I adore about it. I love that we get to have a YA with a plucky hero whose mom is supportive of her adventures, and also that she’s interested in science as well as ghost stuff. And the clash between indigenous magic and European magic also feels really fresh and exciting—Elatsoe felt like a great companion piece to Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn. Oh, and the illustrations by Rovina Cai are heartbreakingly good.

My stuff:

I haven’t done any more public appearances lately—but here’s a chance to remind you that Our Opinions Are Correct, the podcast I co-host with Annalee Newitz, is still putting out new episodes every other week. I’ve been extra-proud of our recent run of episodes, including the latest one about cuteness.

Also, I have three books coming out in 2021 which you can pre-order: my YA debut, Victories Greater Than Death, comes out in April. Then there’s my collection of essays about creative writing in hard times, Never Say You Can’t Survive. And finally November… there’s my first full-length short-story collection, Even Greater Mistakes.