By Carla Imperial
I’m dropping off our newly-minted teenager at her friend Romi’s house. I say, “Ask her if she’s up for hanging out with you outside while I do some errands. I can pick you up in a half-hour.”
“Damnit. Them. Ask them. Sorry.”
Romi used to have a different name. They have been my daughter’s friend since second grade when we moved to the Valley. Kai shared with us a few months back that they were transitioning, very matter-of-factly. I hadn’t seen Romi, their long hair now a short, shaggy cut, until this morning. They had spent many a day at our home before their transition, and I needed to do a quick shift to catch up. Kai had made the switch, effortlessly, without blinking. In fact, two other friends of hers had also confided in her about their grappling with their identity. While Kai put ‘straight ally’ on a self-assessment poster, she’s more fluid in her ideas of identity in her thirteen years than I have ever been. And I have had the opportunity to work on myself for 58 years…
I have had many role models in my lifetime. However, none have made me want to work harder to be my best self than my daughter. She is, hands down, one of my greatest SHEroes, and it’s been most evident during this past year of sharing our work/school/family space, 24-7, isolated in our patch of COVID-free woods. There hasn’t been a day that I haven’t been struck by awe, witnessing her persevere, adapt, and even embrace the challenges thrown at her. While I acknowledge all of the heroes of this pandemic, including all of the other kids who have had to figure out new ways of learning and coping at a young age, I’d like to share how my daughter has changed me.
It was nineteen years ago that my mom (my other SHEro) passed away from a brain tumor. At the time, I could not begin to comprehend having a child of my own without my mother in my life. I was not at all confident that I could be a good parent. Fortunately for me, my wife (yet another SHEro of mine) had a vision and belief that our lives would be changed for the good, and I took a leap of faith with her. I thank God every day for her vision. Every step of the way, watching Kai grow up has been a lesson of profound love for me. While I haven’t finished the novel, written the musical, or continued my travelling obsession, I’ve been forever changed for the better.
It wasn’t easy for me, growing up, coming to terms with my own identity in a binary world. And now, thanks to the hard work of brave souls that came before her, Kai and her friends seem to effortlessly straddle the lines of identity, free to become whomever they want to be, especially with so many supportive progressive parents in our community. But even with that, peer pressure is a lurking beast that is present no matter what century or environment, and it takes a strong, confident mind to stay the course, no matter who or what might try to sway you. My daughter, so far, seems to take it all in stride.
As parents, it’s been easy for us to project every struggle or pain that our kid might be feeling. During this pandemic, like other parents, we’ve been worried how this isolation might be affecting her. While many of her friends are returning to a hybrid school model this month, Kai is remaining remote (for many reasons), and we worry about her feeling left out. She expresses disappointment, but then she moves on. Me—I have been known to dwell on my disappointments. She reminds me to accept what I can’t change and focus on what I can change, as if she authored the Serenity Prayer herself. She is self-motivated and disciplined like I’ve never known. She has come up with countless creative ways to expand her mind and stay fit indoors during this COVID time. Completely on her own, she decided to learn Spanish and French using Duolingo. She practices piano, sax, and guitar daily without being prompted. She rides our exercycle during her remote classes, does JustDance videos, and is learning Pilates and HipHop dancing on her own. She has checklists in her head and has never needed us to remind her to do her homework. Meanwhile, I’ve been scattered as all heck, especially during this pandemic. Even with all this time at home, I can’t seem to finish a thought or task. She reminds me that she’s doing okay, that I can let go and focus on me.
It hasn’t always come easy to her. As a kid, Kai had extreme anxiety, and I’ve witnessed how she’s managed to find a way to bridle that and turn it into impressive productiveness. She shows me how to turn disabilities into superpowers. She is my SuperSHEro.
I’m a big ol’ sap. I’ve been known to cry at McDonalds commercials and the like. Kai doesn’t shed a tear, even during the saddest scene of a movie. I tease her. “I’m going to break you yet. Just wait ‘til you watch The Champ with me.” But the other night, I heard her cry to herself in bed, after I expressed disappointment with her about something that was, in hindsight, trivial. It nearly broke my heart. I realized then that I don’t need her to be like me, a big ol’ sap. She’s strong, but she’s got heart. She doesn’t complain much, but she’s nursing some intense growing pains. As her parent, I want to take away all of her pain. But I believe that my job as her parent isn’t to protect her from everything, but to show her the tools to adapt, overcome, and find ways to find joy in the most challenging situations. Though this pandemic has been an extremely difficult time for everyone, I believe that our children will come out of this with so much more resilience. Nevertheless, they persisted.
Gratitude has always been my healing balm. I got that from my mother. When I’m broken in spirit, I try to find my way back to my blessings, of which I have many. After experiencing sustaining injuries and great loss in my life, there is one significant force that keeps me going strong, hopeful, and full of awe, profound love, and gratitude. She, my kind, impish, brave, resilient daughter, is my SHEro.
Carla Imperial is a writer, musician, budding woodworker, and reluctant techie living in Northampton, MA, with her wife, Megan, and their daughter, Kai. She and Megan were active members of the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network during their 30 years in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain before moving out to the “Valley,” and actually first met holding the BBWN banner during the 1994 Pride Parade.
Rosie the Riveter Statue, and Kai