Poutūterangi / March 2016
I watch for D in the sea, waiting for them to surface, stealthily swimming towards them as they come up for air. The clump of seaweed and mud in my hand is ready to throw at their head. When we are both in the water, we play like our future is inseparable. The sea invites our waters to mingle. I float silently, close enough to watch our marbled reflections squirm on oily swells, undulating into one and then separating in the moonlight at Karaka Bay.
Hakihea / 27 December 2020
Isaac is my oldest child. A few days before New Year's Eve 2020, they planned to cycle on their bike to Te Poi, which is a few kilometres out of Matamata. Riri, Isaac's mum, would take them by car to the bottom of the Bombay Hills so they could avoid the motorway. They would only have 130 kilometres to go from there, but most of the way was flat and straight, and the bike was electric. They were twenty-five, but I was still worried about them, more so that the plan was to drop acid when they got there. Isaac was seeking respite from identity, the incessant demand to defend our being. Acid offers a dissolve-in-ego death, to sensorily seep from the self, and if all goes well, they will dissipate into an effervescence, suspended between energy and matter. If all goes well. Isaac's supply was not reliable. But my anxiety about Isaac taking acid would not trouble them. I hear them in my head saying “it's too late to care now”. But even before their first breath I had never stopped worrying about them.
I lost Isaac in the roulette of chromosomal exchange. And it is only now at twenty-six that they have been diagnosed with autism, and I must invent memories all over again. From puberty, Isaac deflected any conversation that pierced deeper than necessity. A glitched traffic light signals the intersection of their inner and outer life. I admit defeat; I cannot penetrate social justice Isaac, the binary Isaac, the psychobabble Isaac, the effusive and emphatically didactic Isaac. The laughing, cough-croaking, lust-laden Isaac. The night swimming Isaac. The pīwakawaka Isaac. Te Pō Isaac.
Not that Isaac is alone, my chromosomes procrastinate as ancestors argue about recessive Hana, dominant Hana, ambivalent Hana; turn-the-lights-on-and-the-oven-blows Hana. I only wanted Nana Joyce, tuck me in, kahawai pie, smiling eyes Hana. But in this we have no say.
Isaac gave me Ritalin for my birthday
We share similar neuro complexities
The inner voice
from the spare room
Isaac is a Libra, the scales, the only inanimate object in the zodiac. Isaac is also Ngāpuhi. For Māori, a similar principle is ea, finding or restoring balance when one person is aggrieved by the other (Mead 35, 36). But this does not always equate to peace; sometimes, kin are redefined outside of family. Pākehā call it estrangement, and a new balance is formed.
Hakihea / 31 December 2020
On the night before New Year's Day, Riri got the call from Isaac to ask if we could pick the bike up since it would not fit in their partner's car. They had to leave that evening to go to Ahipara and thought it would get stolen. Planning was not their strong point; it is genetic. I was relieved, a phone call meant they had made it, they were alive. Isaac knew Mum would never say no, as they had always communicated their needs through Riri, and we rarely disagreed. I was happy that by driving down, I might get to see Isaac's face.
I often wonder what Isaac makes of my face because we are a mirror of each other. Why does our DNA make a point of repeating some things and not others? Sometimes our children seem bereft of ancestors and decades might pass until the crease of their eye reveals a grandfather. But Isaac is cast in my image as I am the image of my mother, less a curse than a recurring question.
Isaac's face was teenage unblemished until their mid-twenties—it is now scarred and scabbed. I would catch them sometimes in the bathroom scrutinising their skin for imagined ruptures, their nails tearing them into reality. Riri tells me it is anxiety. I know its history. I had found the scars on Riri's legs several years ago, a line of lips where the skin had separated and healed. She said it was from the weed-eater. I ran my finger across them, resting on each, as if to say quiet. Not now.
Isaac believes in intergenerational trauma. Epigenetic scarring. These facial excavations are archaeology—pits of emptiness. They disfigure a face that in its likeness promised affection, whanaungatanga, a deep connection. I have passed on what I also received. I never picked up my mother’s ashes. I am always looking for absolution.
After dinner, Riri asked me to clear out the Volvo so we could fit the bike in when we got to Te Poi. The next day, being New Year’s Day, would be a quiet drive. I would still be worried. It was the drugs; dirty acid was not unheard of, and Isaac's supplier was unreliable. Last year, Isaac gave Riri and me an edible from their supplier, and Riri landed in the hospital. We had taken a bite-sized piece after dinner to wind down, to swap our chattering minds for a comforting static. Rapidly the edible unraveled, my head was boiling within half an hour, and the steam circulating under my skull couldn't escape. Riri was worse and fell unconscious. I panicked and slapped her hard across the face, and she sat up, eyes crazed and popping. I was surprisingly coherent, even if it felt like my brain was molten and sliding into my puku. If Riri died, if it all ended in this pointless, pathetic way, my guilt would kill me, but not before I killed Isaac. It was only my rage that kept me from pooling on the floor.
Riri kept slipping into unconsciousness until I slapped her face again. She would then rise from the waist out of bed, looking beyond the bedroom wall into some unseen space. After a while, she started to speak: "You're not coming?" and "ice cream", followed by a low toneless groan and a sharp intake of breath, before her eyes rolled back, and she slumped back in bed. And I would scream "Riri" and slap her again. We were locked in this nightmare loop, and all I could think was, what is this doing to her brain? Isobel, my youngest, called an ambulance. At the same time, I kept slapping Riri while I spat down the phone at Isaac.
“What have you done? What the fuck is this shit?"
"It'll be alright, Dad, calm down. I'm on my way. It's just a green haze."
Isaac turned up around one a.m., eyes bulging in sunken sockets with orbiting red welts—stoned. The paramedics arrived, and even though Riri had no conception of the now, her vitals were fine. It was all happening in her brain, not to her brain. She had to go into observation at Auckland Hospital. We all went with her until she got discharged at five in the morning. As we were leaving, I asked if she wanted ice cream.
"What? You know I hate ice cream."
She felt nauseous, but apart from that, she didn't remember a thing.
When we got home, I made us coffee. My eyes begged for sleep, but part of my mind was still metabolising the drug, grasping and glitching at the night before. Riri cradled the cup so the warmth and caffeine might make her whole again. I sunk into the couch and tried to relax, but all I could see was Riri unconscious in bed, her eyes fixed open but blind to me. Before her, the universe had unfurled its tentacles, whorls within whorls. Lives within lives. And each time I slapped her, I knew she had been to a future where I did not exist. The words "You're not coming", uttered repeatedly, were not a question. They were a fact. Isaac afterwards was remote, as if the events of last night had been staged. As if they had knowingly spun a cosmic comedy into prophecy.
Kohitātea / 1 January 2021
That morning, I woke up early, which is easy when you’re sleeping on a mattress on the floor. I made us each a coffee before we drove down to pick up the bike. I was staying at Riri’s place while I looked for somewhere to live. Riri had left me over FaceTime several weeks earlier. It was an unspectacular end to 32 years of marriage, no screaming, no furniture threatened. It was strategic, because at the time I was 400 kilometres away in Ohakune. I remember leaning on the island bench, with my arms cradling the top of my head, and crying so hard that I dribbled on the floor. Monty, my dog, licked the pool of saliva dry. It was only six months since I had come out as a Trans Woman.
Life eventually overtakes our ability to deny mounting contradictions—those we place on ourselves and those imposed on us. And yes, we drank a lot, and took antidepressants and cannabis, which enabled us to tread water as we destroyed ourselves from the inside. And eventually, the inside rose to the outside, and we would be saved and lost again. Life is perverse and beautiful.
I don't use cannabis anymore, because I have nothing left to keep in.
When I came out, Riri was anxious, she wanted reassurance that I was not going to leave her. I said no, of course not. And I meant it. But at some point she realised I had never been hers. And that was also true as much as it was not.
When we parted, Riri wanted to hang on to something to ease the vacuum of decades. And so did I.
Riri placed the pounamu necklace
in my palm
It means our whanaungatanga
It was cool to hold
my body heat migrated
It had room for me
Riri and I fell in love at high school and we knew no other until we separated three decades later. We were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses, which we didn't escape until our early thirties. Riri had missed the one opportunity that could have made a meaningful life for her. When she was seven, she was to be whāngaied north to her rohe at Omapere. There she would have had hapū in the birthplace of her tīpuna. But her mother wouldn't allow it; she would rather teach the dog te reo than Riri. I was to save her from her abusive mother and septic father. And I did, racing to her place when her mother had beaten her and wouldn't let her use the phone. I stole her away in my Valiant, and we were married a few weeks later. We were twenty. But the word “transgender” by 1988 was a whisper; for me, it was not even a word. But it had swum in me since I was eight. I didn't save Riri for long.
And this I wanted my family to know. How much I manipulated myself internally to present as a man. And how much every day made it harder for me to feel. They appear at first like minute increments of entropy. But over decades, that tiny hole, the wear and grind, becomes a cavern. But there were other forces tearing us apart. Isaac in their mid-teens began to gather distance between us. I was tauiwi. They were Ngāpuhi.
I want Isaac to know my family was complicated, brittle, and even tender. But we became a family of strangers. Over generations, we forget the places we were and why we left, and our origins fade. To be kin is lineage, but ultimately, affinity and connection. But we withdrew from each other. For Māori, the principle of kanohi kitea, or a face seen, is essential for whanaungatanga (Mead 31, 32). To be a relative is to relate, to correspond in the flesh. Yet it seemed each parcel of land and each mortgage had become a debt of anonymity. And I can understand Isaac's anger; we migrated for a reason.
My small family is European, Irish, and English, and beneath the ideology of colonialism was a desire to live differently, because we were ordinary people who lived in poverty. My ancestors were labourers, and nothing was exceptional about them except their humanness and potential. On the boat over here, as the sea presented a landless horizon, neither past nor future in view, I can imagine how our hearts and minds could have imagined a new way of living. A new way of being. The opportunity to willingly allow Māori to generate our identity and our relationship to the land. The word “Pākehā” would encapsulate that receptivity to be remade. But predictably we participated in replicating our past, as Ani Mikaere reveals, the problem is "our obsession with control" and as such “Pākehā” is an unfulfilled promise (Mikaere, 1324). I understand Isaac's rage, and that as a father and a European, I am the repository of that anger. I am a queer tauiwi. Foreigner.
But the globalisation of culture entangles us all, and we are involuntarily porous. Nature reveals endless cultural possibilities, and we are generative as much as we are generated.
Soon after they started Elam at Auckland University, D came out as Isaac—trans-masc-gender-putty. I had not come out by then, and we both stepped back from each other, out of words’ reach. There was no awkward conversation at dinner time or anytime. An unspoken transformation of shorts and a Huffer tee, Converse and socks. The words “Abject” and “Misery” were soon tattooed on each knee. A number one hid the receding hairline as injections of T plugged into the male directory. Compensatory skirmishes of bronze facial hair, a front of twiggy cyclones, settled and knitted into a beard. Then masculinising chest reconstruction. Top surgery. Then.
I watched from my bunker. It scared me intensely. The possibilities.
Isaac came out at 17. I came out at 51. Isaac asked me why I didn't come out earlier. I didn't know I could. In 1985 I was 17, the homosexual law reform was a year away, and society would still drag indiscriminately for decades. Worse, I was a Jehovah's Witness, born and raised. I was hiding from God's wrath. How I felt about the queer refugee staining me was ripping me apart. Shortly after my second child, Isobel, was born, I was empty, my queerness a tumour of the heart.
The drive was boring, and I forgot how long the road to Matamata is. Mathematically the quickest trip is a straight line between two points, but the Hauraki Plains do not appear to end. Driving for an hour strips out the cadence of life. Milk sheds, grain silos, ancient wrecks, hedgerows and irrigators—I have entered the world of my nameless ancestors. Tiny one-bedroom houses, weatherboard clones, water-trough green and stale salmon leapfrog one another. Behind the netted curtains, the plains people shuffle in place, shades of ink receding from the dawn. And perhaps it makes sense to do acid here, a million miles away from the hospital, as the world shuts down on New Year’s Day, where the blue sky and plains compete endlessly in the on and on.
The dashed line between two lanes and intermittent gaps suggests openings.
"What are you thinking?"
"Why did you deceive me?" said Riri, "What was I to you all those years?"
"I never deceived you. I had no way to explain the way I felt. You forget how we were raised, the times we lived in. I never knew someone like me."
"But I always asked you to talk to me. I knew something was not right."
"What could I say? That I was a pervert wearing women's dresses, that every sign in the universe said I was wrong? You could see what I was doing. I was pretty poor at hiding it."
"Perhaps that was a start, telling me how you felt. You were never the same after Isobel."
"Shall we stop at Matamata for a feed?"
"There you go, changing the subject. It's the same thing as saying nothing."
“What can I change now? I did want to get married, have children, and own a house. I loved you, none of those things is a lie. I wanted the things both our families fucked up. And I wanted to be a woman too, but there was no room for that. Tell me, would you have loved me as a woman? I came out, and you left me in a breath. And yes, you were kind, like you always are."
"No, I wouldn't. It's not who I am. At least I was honest. I had the courage to leave."
"You left me over FaceTime! That's not courage."
"You don't get it. I lost my life too. If you had come out earlier and had some mana, we both could have made choices."
"I always felt like our choices were made for us."
But if you go at just the right speed, the dashed lines converge; they become an impermeable division of two halves. And our words slipped out to fill the gap.
"What are you thinking?"
"Nothing," said Riri.
"Do you want some music on? I can put on 91ZM?"
"No, it's OK," Riri said.
"Thanks for letting me drive."
"That's OK. I know you get car sick."
"Are you hungry?"
"Starving." A grin fractured her face.
"Shall we stop at Matamata for a feed?"
"OK, is anything open on New Year’s Day? Even a Big Ben will do."
I let out a mock groan.
"OK, next dairy or roadkill and we feast."
I put the heater on and set the fan to three. The vents spat fine dust on her face. We hadn't used the Volvo for a while. Riri was sweating, but she put the window up.
"Don't put your window up for me. Sorry, I'm just cold," I said.
Riri said nothing and left her window up.
Riri placed each hand in the valley of her thighs, an inverted prayer. Her head nodded involuntarily to the undulating road, to the unwavering line, the one she had said her vows to. She's a pagan now, No one anything, No true anyone. An incantation to driveways, side roads and stream crossings, to bridge 654n and sheep spewing on the road. The straight road was not to be trusted.
I got onto hormones quickly, estrogen and cyproterone to block testosterone. And surgery to come, piece by piece. Riri was supportive, to begin with, and she was thinking about how our connection might stay in place. For a while, I felt I was whanaungatanga. But the word was a fragile thing. The gift of the pounamu was meant to reach for a new way for us to relate to one another. But like whanaungatanga, it had only come to us recently; we had lived in a Pākehā world, and it had nothing to cling to. I soon became unrecognisable. Alongside the biological reconfiguration, you rapidly and madly shed the pretenses of masculinity, and you hold your body differently, awkwardly at first. You give up ways of thinking and believing that kept you in place for years. And it makes sense that your partner mourns the death of you. The person, the husband, and the lover no longer exist; even the memories are suspect. Why was I there at all?
It means family and kin, even if we don't whakapapa
But all things have their opposites
The pounamu resting on my ribcage
feels like plastic
Riri let out a relieved sigh, as Matamata broke the spell of the interminable road. It only took thirty minutes and one U-turn to find the address that Isaac had given us, the little cottage in Te Poi. We drove up the metal driveway but did not see the chain hanging across the entrance. It clawed up our bonnet, hungering for our heads. There was just enough slack to grind up the windscreen and shred its way across the roof. Then the chain's release snapped back, shattering the rear windscreen.
As the window broke, we watched the iridescent shards crash, bounce and collide. A thousand tiny causes, a thousand tiny effects. Then it collapsed, inert on the floor of the car. I thought of Riri, her nails piercing thighs, how she scrolled Netflix but never watched anything. She turned to me at that moment, a small cut on her cheek, flecks of glass in her hair, and a smile on her face.
I didn't slam the brakes on. I just glided to a stop. The ancient farm dog barked like he had been reborn. Riri and I looked at each other. If this was the afterlife it looked surprisingly like ordinary life. We phoned Isaac to find out what was going on. They had left out the "b" from 168 Caraway Road.
We found them quickly enough, turning into a dirt driveway with a small cabin at the end. Isaac stood waiting for us by the chicken coop, a face emanating sunburn and dehydration as tiny blood vessels laced their eyes. That we nearly died elicited a shrug of the shoulders. They were coming down, and we only appeared in focus for seconds, if at all.
I had made a resolution to become a vegetarian, but I broke it on that first day, New Year’s Day. We headed for the KFC at Matamata, as it was the only thing open. Near-death experiences make you ravenous, and my stomach felt like it was eating its lining. I had decided to become a vegetarian because I know what it is like to live a life that is not your own. Isaac rolled their eyes when they found out. "You're not going to start pestering me with your militant white guilt." More a threat than a question. Isaac is grappling with their whakapapa. As part of their honours, they assiduously researched Riri's family, who are richly woven Māori, Croatian and English. My family was excluded. Isaac is finding what they are looking for—nothing more. Whakapapa is about choices, as are kin, whanaungatanga and friendship. Coming out. Te ao Māori. Reconfigured biology. They all demand new ways of relating. Sometimes to connect, we must disconnect.
Huitānguru / February 2019
We were on holiday up north and went swimming at Puheke, on the Karikari Peninsula. The pipi still nibbled your toes there, but the water was threaded with icy currents when we swam that day. At the bach, late at night, Isaac got up to go to the toilet and fell down and stayed down. I rushed them to Kaitaia Hospital, as they laid across the back seat of the car. They had to explain to the doctor their medication and that they were on PrEP. The doctor learned about HIV, and I looked on as if I knew, so proud of their nauseous anger. The cold water from swimming had moved the crystals in Isaac's inner ear to the semicircular canal. In this tiny cavern these micro compasses that enable us to orient ourselves in space, to stand upright, become blind, causing Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. There was no medication, only time and exercises to move the crystals back. For a week, I cradled their body, rocked them, rocked them back to the start. To the smell of warm milk, the open fontanelle, their swollen breath. Happy to be in their suffering, not part of it.
I believe the sea gathered our waters together again. If I could grasp for a taonga it would be this.
Not being able to penetrate my family's inner lives is not unexpected for someone who lived at the surface. I thought coming out might give them answers as to why I only ever approximated being a father, husband, a lover. Someone who never wanted to be those things and had to be those things and wanted to be those things.
And Isaac, it is difficult for them to transcend the life I led because it was their life too. How do you make sense of Vincent becoming Hana or D becoming Isaac? Of your father becoming? Of your daughter becoming? We didn't suddenly turn into mothers or sons, even if it appeared we had leapt to the other side. Queerness is not a spectrum that reconfigures our place on the board. It is entanglement, a seething mess. But forty years is a long time to hide, and it carved me out in ways I don't understand even now. And perhaps it is inevitable that my family stepped away from me. I have not seen them for over eight months, and I suspect that will become years. I made a mistake. The act of coming out is a confession and I believed forgiveness would follow. For the moment, that's what I tell myself.
I sometimes think if I had not come out, we still might be strangers together again.
The drive home from Matamata was quicker. Riri was quiet. Occasionally, the wash of a streetlight would flash across her as if she were flickering in and out. The dark folded in, erased the horizon, the car lights feeling the way. The warm air of the plains swum in, a fine incandescent mist concealing its past, the dense throngs of kahikatea and tī kōuka, bickering weka and matuku; the dead scent of ghosts and phosphate fertiliser lingered. The following morning, I swept the shattered glass into a bucket. It was surprisingly heavy. I poured it into the recycling bin and closed the lid.
Mead, Hirini Moko. Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori Values (Revised Edition). Huia Publishers, Wellington, 2016.
Mikaere, Ani. Colonising Myths—Māori Realities: He Rukuruku Whakaaro. eBook, Huia Publishers and Te Tākupu, Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Wellington, 2011.