I’ve been best friends with a guy named Tharp for more than forty years. Decades ago, I began calling him ”Thap,” and it stuck. We met in Cedar Rapids on the first day of eighth grade when Thap walked up the aisle of our loud yellow bus. He had a fresh crew cut of jet black hair and wore brand-new blue jeans topped by a white button-down shirt. I saw a smile and an offered hand.
“Hi, I’m Dennis.”
In retrospect, it’s a wonder he was so friendly; with shaggy hair nearly to my shoulders, striped multicolored bell bottoms and a Nehru jacket, I was my own special mix of Iowa hippy and weirdo. A ten-inch silver medallion hung around my neck—Mom thought it made me look cool. I smiled at this new kid, flashed the peace sign, and replied, “Peace man.”
It was 1970, after all.
Somehow, some way, we clicked. Soon, we were nightly telephone junkies, sharing about girls, music and politics. Eventually, we both made the football team, with Thap as quarterback and me as front-line guard—making sure that he was safe from rushing linemen hellbent on taking him down.
Later—much later—I told him my secrets. That I loved all things feminine. That I fantasized about sex with women and men. That something wasn’t right with me. He listened as I confessed, held me when I wept, and was there for me as my marriage crumbled. All the while, he never asked, “Are you crazy?”
When I shifted from man to woman, he didn’t waver. I took a road trip to visit surgeons for gender reassignment surgery. “I’ll come with you,” Thap offered. And thus, we began a three thousand mile odyssey where I found myself listening as Thap interrogated sex change doctors. “So, what is your post-surgical rate for orgasms?” he asked. “What kind of follow up will you do after Ellie’s surgery?” At one point, I had to pull him back—I worried that his questioning was too aggressive.
“Ease up or this doctor won’t want me to be his patient.”
In the end, Thap’s opinion was crucial as to whom I’d choose for my surgeon. I couldn’t have made that decision without his good counsel.
Six months after I transitioned, now looking all female, I met Thap at the airport. I decided to play a trick on him. Sitting near the baggage claim, I acted disinterested. From the corner of my eye, I watched Thap walk past me. Ten seconds later, my cell phone buzzed. “Where r u?” the text read.
“Ten ft away,” I texted back.
I looked up and grinned. Thap smiled back, proof that my transition was a success.
For years, we’ve been telephone confidants, speaking four or five or six times a week—him in Boulder and me, now, in Minneapolis. His twenty-year-old daughter regularly calls for my advice: “Hi, Aunt Ellen.” My youngest daughter adores Thap. We’ve holidayed together and most recently, I spent Christmas—and shed tears—with him at a Phoenix hospice as his father headed toward death.
It is, in many ways, the most fulfilling—platonic—love affair one could ever want.
Two months ago, it was my turn to accompany Thap on a medical journey. This time, it was his heart—that wonderful body part that permitted Thap to love me for four decades.
We showed up at the Mayo clinic at 5:30 on a Friday morning, anxious. The night before, being the ever good lawyer and designee on his medical power of attorney, I clarified Thap’s final wishes. “If things go wrong,” he offered, “I don’t want a life where I’m bedridden.”
As I watched two nurses wheel Thap away, I sank. The procedure had a tremendously good success rate, but still, you never know. For a second, I imagined my life without him and saw only blackness.
Six hours later, I sat with a groggy and hurting Thap in his hospital room. “Things went remarkably well,” the nurse exclaimed. I breathed easier.
I took advantage of the leftover anesthesia and teased about him being both bossy and cranky. Then I waited on him hand and foot, and I stayed until it was night.
I drove to the hotel that evening, thankful. With luck, we’ll have another twenty five years together.
On the other hand, even that many years won’t be enough.