When words of acceptance can change everything
One day, when Cillian was 13, he asked me if he could buy something online.
I wasn’t surprised. He was learning about trust and reliability and a bunch of other things, so he knew it was ok to ask. It was usually some electronic game.
We’d go through our standard questions and I’d get to hear about what it was, and why we really needed it.
This time was different, though. This time, he wouldn’t tell me anything, even after we went round and round about it. So I said, “Until you can tell me, the answer is no.”
This developed into a daily event for a few weeks until one day, when he asked, he also volunteered, “It’s a flag, Dad… and it’s about $5. Can I get it?”
Have you ever had one of those moments when things seem to click into place? This was one of those moments for me. Don’t ask how, or why I knew, I just knew.
Cillian had been suffering from really bad stomach aches all day, every day, for months — the sort of stomach aches which require doctors and pain management.
The doctors said they might be stress-related, but there was no clear answer, and Cillian always said, “Everything’s fine, I’m not worried about anything,” whenever asked about it.
So when he said, “It’s a flag, Dad…” for some reason, I knew, or at least I thought knew what the stress was and what he was afraid to tell me.
So I said, "If I guess, will you tell me?"
He got this sly smile and said, “Yes.”
First I suggested a few flags I knew were not it. They all got a “No, Dad,” with a heavy sigh or giggle mixed in. Until we looked at a rainbow flag.
“Is this it?”
He got quiet and, as I knew he would, said, “Yes.”
I looked at him and asked, “Is this for you or in support of your friends?” He had friends who I knew who were struggling with this too.
“Me,” he said.
I stopped and took a breath, then asked if he wanted a hug. He nodded yes, so I pulled him in close, held him tight and rocked a bit. Then, teary eyed, I said, “It’s OK ...I love you and there isn’t anything you can do to change that…”
He’d heard that from me before, and usually gave me a massive eye-roll. I don’t know if he’d ever really understood or believed it. Love was like water or air… something you might take for granted because it’s always supposed to be there. Until you're afraid it isn’t, and then you don’t know what to do. I don’t think he believed that a "no-matter-what" kind of love was a real thing, because until then, he’d never needed to.
But this time was different. This time, he needed those words and they changed everything. He didn’t need to be afraid anymore.
We looked at the $5 flag he'd wanted, and decided to spend a little more to get a really nice one. The flag arrived a few days later, and together, we hung it in his room.
About a month later, I went into his room to gather dirty laundry. Cillian wasn’t there, and I noticed something hanging under that flag. Something we hadn’t hung there: A different flag. One with pink, white and blue stripes.
I didn’t know anything about it, so like anyone, I Googled it.
A transgender pride flag. I was confused.
Later I asked, “Is this for you, or in support of your friends?”
“Me,” he said. We talked for a while about how he was still learning who he was and what it meant to be transgender. Mostly, he told me how he’d felt different for a long time.
As we spoke, memories of Cillian’s childhood flooded back. Events which hadn’t made sense at the time took on new meaning.
When we finished talking, there were more hugs and more tears, and those magic, transformative words again: ”I love you…”
The chronic stomach aches stopped soon after all this took place. They were an unwelcome daily companion for almost 18 months. We were glad to be rid of them.
We were just at the beginning of our journey, with a long way to go, but Cillian learned he can say anything to me, and we've all learned that knowing that makes all the difference.
George and his son Cillian both live in Connecticut. Just first names are being used for this commentary to protect privacy.