Isn't Love Revision?
Brenda Shaughnessy's Real Question
By Wendy Bourgeois
“To see you again, isn’t love revision?” —Brenda Shaughnessy, “One Love Story, Eight Takes”
wo years ago my daughter told me she wanted to try out living as a boy for a while. We were talking in our tiny bathroom, me in the tub and her sitting on the toilet—ever since she was little, or rather just past big enough to take a bath with me, she would come and find me in the tub, where it was warm and private, to tell me important things. She winced through the confession as if she expected a balloon to pop, and the relief in her face and body and trembling voice shimmered in the air like gasoline. I cannot imagine how hard that must have been. She was, what, seventeen, eighteen?, and on her way out of our house, our bathroom, our everyday intimacies of dinners and chores. I felt a space open up next to me as vast as, well...space. I hope I was kind, and my face did not betray the vertigo I felt. I think I was glib. Not mean or hysterical, I said, “Maybe you should cut your hair short and get a girlfriend first.”
Of course I’d had short hair, and girlfriends, and gender confusion of various stripes—mostly about what kind of girl I would be—but I always knew I wanted to “become,” like Simone says, a woman. I wanted the clothes, the freedom of expression, the license to move with grace and to gesture, and to make babies like some kind of superhero, and no matter how routinely I saw its deficits, both material and spiritual, no matter (or perhaps because of) the violence and the compression, I still secretly believed adult women were supreme beings. How then to handle this decampment from grace by my very own flesh?
Intellectually, politically, socially and out loud I took the news in stride. I would will myself into the words I said and knew—though somewhere far away—to be true. Except that every time I talked about it, my eyes would fill with tears. I couldn’t feel it, quite. It felt like a nervous tic. What was I sad about? My gorgeous, funny, talented, kind, and exceptionally self-aware child was still around, still all those things. Her body belonged to her, something I told her as many times as I could remember to. I was only the guardian. Her body was hers to be his if he so desired, and this became my mantra in the coming weeks. Not my body not my choice not my body not my choice, over and over until the words began slowly to gain ground.
In the poem “One Love Story, Eight Takes,” Brenda Shaughnessy asks, “Isn’t love revision?” I like that she asks instead of tells and the question is not rhetorical. It’s a real, live question, a squirmy not-knowing. Is love revision? If it is, then I must learn to love my son as effortlessly and automatically as I loved my daughter. Loved. Is not love revision? When we lose love, through death or other cosmic rent in the universe, notlove becomes the space we must accommodate. I can’t love my daughter anymore, because she no longer exists except in memory. Now, two years after we first spoke of it, even the name I gave her is gone.
But the love remains. The love does not get revised. It envelops me and my newborn son and settles into the hole my daughter left like a missing tooth. He is very much like her; I am tempted to say exactly like her, but that is only wishful thinking. He is exactly like himself, except without the terrible burden of pretense. Somewhere, in the process of becoming what I dreamed for him, a new vision I could not have imagined took hold. I could not imagine it because he is not me, and this, the most simple and tragic lesson of motherhood, rewrites everything I thought I already knew. His body belongs to him now.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In the spring issue she wrote about a line from Mary Ruefle.