When you have a grandchild, the world changes. Most people say that they feel a genuine sense of awe that that new life has come from their own child. This was definitely true for us.
The day that my first grandchild was born changed my life.
Laila Willow Rodriguez was born in Kansas City, to my step-son, David, and his wife, Lennae. We heard from David after the event was completely over and Mother and baby were doing well. It was a very intimate birth—our first grandchild was delivered in a hot tub with the help of a midwife. An unconventional birth delivered an unconventional child.
I remember turning to Mario and asking, “What is today?”
We hugged and I whispered that we were now Grandparents, a title that filled me with new purpose. Not only was Laila’s birth unconventional, her name definitely was. “Laila Willow Rodriguez,” I kept saying to myself over and over and over. I was hoping that one day it would just roll off my tongue. One day it did –I learned to love her name.
|Laila's bold haircut last year|
Today, that grandchild of mine -the one who made me a grandmother in the first place, turns 13 years old. There have been a lot of changes this year—changes that have been private and almost protected.
On a trip to Kansas at the beginning of the year, David and Lennae told us, very carefully, that Laila confided to them that she was gay. We were a little surprised, but not too worried. After all, Laila was very young. Could she really know for sure if she was gay?
Almost instantly, I realized that the answer was yes. My gay friends tell me that knew they were gay from a young age. Why would Laila be different?
“What should we do?” I asked David. “What should we say?”
“I don’t know if the subject will come up,” he said. “I’m telling you just in case it does.”
Our New Year’s visit, like so many others, included spoiling our grandchildren. We took Laila, Lilli, and Lauren places that they wanted to go, bought them things they didn’t need, and celebrated with each other over large family dinners. As always, Laila was herself. She didn’t seem too different from the grandchild I related to before, and she never brought up the subject of sexual identity or preference.
During my spring semester, I called Lennae to check in. I wanted to see how the girls were doing and ask what Lauren wanted for her birthday. After some discussion, Lennae told me that Laila was going through a different kind of metamorphosis. She had cut off her hair, changed her name to Max, and told her parents that she identified more as a boy. I swallowed hard.
I had just learned that my granddaughter was gay. Now I would have to accept that Laila was uncomfortable in her assigned gender. This felt like a very large pill to swallow, and I prayed hard, asking God for direction. How can I reach out with His love? What do I do? What should I say?
It occurred to me that God is the same God for Laila as He is for Max. There is nothing that surprises God –because He knows this person intimately.
How would things be different between us if Laila became Max? Wouldn’t I always love my grandchild? Wouldn’t I always want relationship with this person? Wouldn’t there always be time for discussion and sharing –if I were safe enough to discuss this with?
I was able to spend some time with the kids last month when David and Lennae went on a cruise for their anniversary. Cathy and the kids picked me up at the airport, where Max –formerly Laila –looked different, but not so different that I didn’t recognize him.
|Cathy, Lauren and I last month|
I wanted a picture with all of us together, but Max yelled out, “No pictures! This is my awkward, transitional phase!”
There was a rustling in the back seats, and soon only Cathy, Lauren and I were in the frame. I shrugged, and snapped it.
Over the next few hours, I could see that things had definitely changed. Max was now wanting to be called Max – not Laila—with “him” and “he” – not “her” and “she”. I tried to remember his new name in my speech and change personal pronouns, but I kept forgetting. My brain knew only Laila, and as much as I wanted to support Max, I still had my habits and language that, I could tell, caused hurt.
I was ready to learn and Max was ready to help me. We did have a few private discussions, and many opportunities to affirm one another. I think that Max wanted to know that I was still Abuela, the grandmother that loved without condition, without limits, and without boundaries. For that reason, it was relatively easy to live up to what was expected of me.
|Max fanning the flame of the Smithy - Mahaffie Farm|
We visited the famous Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm while I was there, where the kids fanned the flame of the blacksmith, fed the pigs and goats, and took a stage coach ride with me. The working farm is meant to remind its visitors of a simpler time, when things were not so instant.
Things took time to process, and community was very important. Before we left, I wanted a picture of all of us in front of a delicious, irresistible boot that guarded the entrance.
“No pictures!” Max repeated. “I don’t want to remember this part of my life!” Max waved his hand in front of his face in a circle, summing up his appearance with dissatisfaction.
I turned to look into the beautiful face of my grandchild and smiled. “You are beautiful! Don’t you think that most thirteen-year-olds think this about themselves? Now I’m you’re Abuela and I want a picture with you!”
|Before the boot - Max, Lili, and Lauren (seated)|
The obliging docent snapped a few, with Max objecting and acquiescing at the same time. I am grateful we have them—it is my only snapshot with Max during my visit.
Before I left the house, Max and I spent some time picking out a birthday present from us. Max chose bow-ties, an accessory that he really wanted for the beginning of school. Just a few days ago, for the first day of school, Lennae snapped an action shot of Max getting ready to leave the house. Looking cool and collected, I could see the bow-tie around my grandchild’s neck. I smiled. He was finding his unique sense of fashion.
|1st Day of school- 2016|
“What am I going to write this year on your birthday?” I asked him, before I said goodbye. “For your birthday blog? Every year, it is my chance to tell your story….” My voice trailed off.
I didn’t say, “Every year I look forward to writing a blog about how unique and special you are. Every year I tell the story of how I grew to love your name, Laila Willow. Every year I talk about what a strong person you are and how important you are in our family…”
I didn’t say those things, but Max could hear me say them anyway. “This year, you’ll write a blog called Max.”
And so I did. I have permission to share these things (from everyone) and we hope it conveys love, especially for families who may be struggling.
This is the story of our family as we begin to navigate uncharted waters. Swimming way out ahead is my grandchild, Max, a unique and wonderful person with a heart that I have always admired. As scary as this life change is, Max feels confident. He also takes comfort that we have his back.
Today is a celebration. Thirteen years ago, this person came into the world and changed my life, a person who I love beyond measure. I still I have a genuine sense of awe that the baby who was born in a hot tub became this person – this unique, special, multi-faceted, complicated person.
Happy Birthday, Max! Today and always we love you.