Hey readers, just a heads up that this piece talks about suicide – some of you might want to save it for later.
I’m a man. I didn’t start out that way and who knows how I’ll end, but this has felt right for a while. As I’m welcomed into the brotherhood with a slap on the back or a firm handshake, I think about Daniel.
When my brother came home after living in the UK for a year and a half, my family piled into the station wagon to pick him up from the airport. I’d forgotten what being around him felt like. When I was with him I felt important; the way he listened and asked me questions made me feel like I mattered. I was seventeen and needed to feel like I mattered.
During the long drive home, he told us about a girl he had fallen in love with: how she was in Australia now, how he’d like us to meet her and how special she was. None of us knew how to react. We didn’t speak about our feelings like that or share them with each other. Sometimes they would come out in anger or tears or laughter – that’s how we shared them. Never in coherent sentences. Daniel was fresh and hopeful and we didn’t know how to respond. I wish we did. I wish we could’ve kept him talking.
Years ago, when we first got dial-up internet, he would quiz my brother, sister and I about what albums we wanted, and then download and burn them onto CDs for us. He’d start downloading late at night, when we wouldn’t get any phone calls, and check the computer in the morning. Sometimes the process would take days, but eventually he’d present us with CD cases covered in his slanted writing and track lists.
In high school he was small, but somehow managed to captain the football team for a season. His gentle, ever-supportive presence made up for his lack of size. I think mostly he flew under the radar in school; he was good enough at football not to draw too much attention for anything else.
Conventional and accepted masculinity didn’t kill my brother, but it didn’t make life easier for him. He moved back home, back to the country town where we lived, and worked at the local cannery to pay off his travel debt. A couple of his friends from high school were still around, but mostly he spent time alone. Within a couple of months, the girl he loved dumped him. He retreated into himself. He chain smoked, sitting on the same bench Mum used to sit and smoke before she got cancer. He was distant, but tried to become close. He won the family Easter table tennis tournament that year: there’s a picture of him holding the trophy, an empty ice-cream container decorated in Easter egg wrappers, with a faint smile on his face. He was nearing death then, but he always had time for us.
We had just moved into a new house in Shepparton, an expansive country town known for cows and fruit. Our old place was in town, close to friends and the mall. The new house was icy cold, with carpet that looked like brown moss and a cheap crystal mini chandelier in the lounge with only one working bulb. For the first time in my life I had a room to myself, and it was my haven. Later, I was grateful our new home was devoid of the memories of my childhood home. At the time it felt like a cruel severing.
Sometimes Daniel would hang out with my younger brother, watching movies or playing table tennis. Sometimes he would get drunk by himself in the lounge room, late at night with the TV on. I knew he was depressed, but I didn’t know what was going on in his head. He only spoke when he needed to, and I never asked any questions.
When Daniel was ten or eleven he was sexually assaulted by an older friend. He didn’t talk about it – I only know because my dad mentioned it to me once, on a car drive back from Melbourne. The car was Dad’s favourite location for heavy talks. I wonder if Daniel thought about it in the months leading up to his death, or if it was more of a feeling that lasted in his bones – surely a memory held tightly in a body for so long calcifies.
Dad gave me five grand when he found out I was struggling to pay for top surgery. He told me it was from Daniel – part of his superannuation payout. Ten years had passed since he died. Sometimes I imagine his last exhale, and his release from his body and the memories it held. I see a lot of him in me. I see the good things and I see the silence too. I’m trying to resist the many ways that masculinity wants to shape me: the way it wants to shut down my emotions before they get too big. I leave too much of this work to my girlfriend – she pries the emotions from me, makes me recognise what they are. Sometimes she helps me put them into coherent sentences. But I don’t want to perpetuate the kind of masculinity that needs women to soften it. I want softness to be a part of me.
I know there’s a masculinity that allows me to be open with my emotions, but I’m having trouble finding it. My friends appreciate it when I’m being nurturing in some way – cooking them dinner or being physically affectionate – but I want my nurturing to be less unexpected. I spend most of my time trying to conform to the conventions of masculinity, to be seen for who I am. Trying to subvert these conventions can be hard. I’ve been misgendered at different workplaces countless times, and each time I check myself afterwards. Maybe I should make friends with the guys at work instead of just the women. I should speak in a deeper voice; I need to be more assertive.
The most recent time I was misgendered – after over three years on testosterone – it was because of my name. Maybe I should change my name. And I make small changes to myself over time. I wonder when enough of these small changes will make me enough of a man. It helps that I don’t have to go outside wearing a binder across my chest anymore. I feel a little more normal in the world. I’m grateful for the money my brother didn’t realise he was leaving behind.
I was shit scared of getting top surgery. Scared of the scars and their prominence across my chest, of what they meant. The last deep scars I saw were those across Daniel’s arms. That wasn’t how he died, it was just one of the ways he tried. Eventually he found a way that worked best for him.
I was afraid I’d be reminded of him every time I looked at my chest, and I am. But I’m also reminded of him when I take a deep breath in and feel my lungs push my ribs out, no longer held in by a binder; when I pull my shoulders back and stand up straight in public; when I feel freedom in my body I haven’t felt before.
When I was out of it, recovering in the hospital room post-surgery, there were two owls on a branch outside my window. They stayed there the whole day and night. In the evening, one flew off for a while, but the other one stayed. The nurse looking after me said she’d never seen the owls before. Daniel died not long after my mum did, and I felt like it was the two of them: together and looking out for me.
Our scars represent very different things and I know that. When I massage mine, willing them to heal and disappear, I know they don’t represent hopelessness. They’ve thickened – hard as rock in places – some grapefruit-pink, others fading to white. Still tight. The surgeon says they’re “having trouble letting go.” I take good care of them.
Bridie Mills is a country boy who writes about masculinity, bisexuality and grief. He has been published in Lor Journal and was runner up in Plenitude Magazine’s Flash Writing competition.
Photo used under Creative Commons by Diana Garcia (via Flickr)