There’s a beautiful picture propped on a dresser in my bedroom, a reminder of my former life. It’s a large pastel drawing of two young black-haired girls, who are holding big sticks of chalk—yellow, blue, and orange—coloring the words, “Welcome Home,” on a driveway. The scene is speckled with gray and white, dappled sunlight filtering through a tuft of leaves from an unseen looming tree.
Lydia, my ex-wife, gave me that picture years ago, when I was secretly struggling over whether to leave for my own life as a woman. On the surface, the picture was about our daughters, who often drew messages—“Love you Daddy”—or pictures on our driveway. Sometimes, I joined in, chalking crude rainbows or silly looking animals.
But underneath, the dappled sunlight picture represented something else, the idea of home, a place where I belonged, even if in the wrong gender. We loved each other as we made our respective ways through the world, together. In the house connected to the chalked-on driveway, we nurtured and played and giggled until eventually—at the very end—we cried.
In the time since I left to begin my gender journey, I’ve not felt a sense of home. Yes, I have a place of my own, but it hasn’t been a home. Instead, it’s simply been where I live.
I don’t think my feeling of lost home is much different than what anyone else feels when they’ve experienced a major life change. Whether its transitioning genders or divorce or losing a partner or suffering a career crush, all of us move from before to after.
What I understand now is that I need to pivot from what was—the loss of home and family—to what is now, a new life where I get to breathe as Ellen. Home has to be is wherever I choose to be.
My enlightenment was triggered by a trip back to my old hometown, Cedar Rapids. I was there for the wedding of a friend’s daughter, where I saw not only Lydia, but dozens of people I had once been close to. Most people had no clue who the smiling blonde woman in the black dress was. Eventually, word spread and people began approaching me at the reception. “Ellen, how great to see you!” several people said earnestly. Even Lydia, with whom I’ve again become good friends, was extremely welcoming. “I want you at our table,” she said, motioning to where her boyfriend was sitting.
A happily ever after ending, right? Not quite. As I watched my friend give his beautiful daughter away, it began to sink in—yes, I’m slow—that things really are different now. Neither of my daughters will ever have me walk them down an aisle.
And then there was Lydia, who I’ll admit, I miss dearly. It was hard enough seeing her happy with someone else, let alone hearing wedding toasts to the bride and groom’s parents’ longevity in each reaching 30 years of marriage. I’ll never have that, I thought. Throw in that I’m the reason why my marriage ended, and well, let’s just say I was crying me a river by night’s end.
But then it occurred to me: I had gotten my body ready for Ellen but not my head. For sure, I’ve spent years in therapy (I lost track at year 12), but that was aimed at getting me to accept myself as female, and I’m there, for sure. This isn’t about regrets or wanting to go back.
Hell, there’s no way I’d ever return to being a man.
Instead, it’s about embracing life and what it has offered me—a chance to start over, to live as me. How many people get to do that? It’s a gift that I won’t squander—not anymore.
As if needing further confirmation, I ran into one more person before leaving Cedar Rapids—the artist of my dappled sunlight painting. When told that her picture was central to my soon-to-be-finished memoir, she began to tear, saying she appreciated my words. Then I remarked that my trip home had been bittersweet. The artist answered, “Yes, but you can’t have dappled sunlight without shadows.”
I thought for a second, and then something clicked. “So true,” I said, just as I found my smile again.