As Father’s Day approaches, millions of fathers around the country begin to wonder, “Will they remember?” Personally, I do not get upset if my children forget my birthday or send a not-so-great gift for Christmas. But Father’s Day? That’s important.
I have been a father since 1965. Over 47 years (and three marriages), I have accrued a few stellar stepchildren. But my son, Ellsworth Rundlett IV — “Nick” for short — was the first.
As a child, Nick seldom forgot my special day in June. When he was little, he gave me handmade cards. As he grew older, Nick would often surprise me with some neat gift. I recall a beautiful Australian lighter that I cherished for its special wind screen. Then there was the running shirt that said, “Born to Run.” (I run senior track, and I still wear it almost every time I compete.)
When the Nintendo Game Boy was first introduced, Nick gave me one for Father’s Day. As a young boy, I had fashioned primitive “robots” with dials and gauges drawn on bits of cardboard. As an adult, I was fascinated by newfangled electronic games, yet I had hesitated to buy one for myself. Nick’s gift brought me right back to my boyhood.
There is no greater gift than a child. Another great gift is when someone gives you yourself. Over the years, Nick gave me gifts that seemed to reflect the depths of my soul. I foolishly believed that this recognition was mutual, that I knew Nick inside and out, just as he knew me. However, fatherhood has a way of teaching us exactly how much we do not know.
When he was 40 years old, Nick revealed that he had been struggling with gender issues. I was shocked. Unbeknownst to me, my son had lived his entire life with the sense that he was really a daughter. Now the burden of resisting this inner knowledge had become too heavy. Nick planned to transition and become Nicole. I was frightened. I feared for Nicole’s future, and that of my grandchildren. What would happen to her job? Her marriage? Her social life? Most of all, what was going to happen to my best friend?
I wasn’t sure how I should react. Was I supposed to try to change my child’s mind? If I didn’t, what would people think? Luckily, guidance arrived in the form of a pep talk from my stepdaughter Shelby, a clinical social worker. “Your job,” she informed me, “is to be the most supportive father you can be.” Shelby’s comment was the best thing I could hear from someone I loved so much. She was the poster child of the reaction I was looking for in most people.
After Nicole confided in me, she embarked on a creative process of self-actualization and physical transformation. At times it was difficult, but many people went out of their way to tell us how much they admired Nicole’s bravery and honesty. Now, despite my fears, she is happy and successful. Most importantly, she is my daughter and she is still my best friend.
Last Father’s Day, I opened my mail to find a small black box. Inside was a beautiful miniature silver robot with moving arms, moving legs, and a head that turned. It looked almost exactly like the little ones I had made out of cardboard. I couldn’t believe the similarity between the gauges and dials on his chest and the ones I drew by hand 60 years ago. I cannot tell you how much I cherish that little robot.
A couple of months later, I received another package. Inside was an even smaller silver robot. This little friend also has movable arms and legs. When they are side by side, the two robots look like parent and child. They remind me of my daughter and me, how we have been side by side for 47 years and through her journey as a transgender woman.
Over the years Nicole has given me many gifts. The handmade cards, the running shirt, and the little robots are symbols of love, caring and devotion. Those are the things we seek from each other in life, and when a child delivers them, year after year, day after day, it makes Father’s Day really just another day.
Ellsworth “Derry” Rundlett is a Portland attorney and proud father. He is writing a book about his experience as the father of a transgender child.