Why I’ll never call it your dead name

We were sitting at hibachi last week, a late celebration of Zoe’s birthday, and when the server asked her her name (for the obligatory and annual corny song by the staff ), she visibly bristled. We should have known this would happen as this birthday year, dinner included her good (hmmm….) friend (you know, friend…), Jacob. She never bristles when it is just ‘us,’ the family squad. But when you add a friend to the mix, a rare event, there is an underlying awkwardness as to how we address her. Zoe has spent much of the past five years being with two personas: at home, she is Zoe; at school, she is Cecil. She was among the first to jump onto this – what is it…trend? bandwagon? expression of wanting to be someone else? – and from the start, we passed. It’s been basically fine (it seemed) for those years – but as she has just reached the ever exciting year of adulthood, I’m predicting the ‘fine’ will wear out and perhaps make way for a second discussion. And yes, I said second. Our first talk was in eighth grade – a very strange, very quick, mish-mash of words from a barely-teen that neither Rich nor I really understood, and, therefore, asked her to better explain and then, well, the explanation never occurred and here we are. So, yes, before you finish dialing CPS (did I just read that a child wasn’t given exactly what she wanted?!?!?), let me explain.

Zoe began going by a (we thought) nickname at school at the beginning of her eighth grade year. It followed what Rich and I like to call ‘that pointed moment that we would absolutely give anything to do over.’ Towards the end of seventh grade, when it was time to submit for the following year’s schedule, Zoe came home already decided on two things – first, to drop out of advanced math and, second, to switch from orchestra to art. We were still very much in the figuring-it-all-out part of team parenting with a new stepmom (me) and a set of divorced parents (Rich and his ex). This occurred right in the middle of the final lap to the wedding, our brains were more focused on that (probably) than what a drastic change in classes could mean. Oh, also, it didn’t register that changing a few classes would be a drastic change. Whatever, sounds good, we agreed to it – a bit miffed that she was leaving advanced math and the deliverers of a speak indicating that she dang well earn top marks in grade level math.

We feel like we’ve been paying for that decision ever since.

To this day, we are driven bananas with the ‘I can’t do math,’ ‘I’m not good at math,’ ‘I’m not a math kid,’ declarations. Driven bananas because it’s actually not true. The reality is – Zoe could do very well in math were she to commit to learning it. But, that’s not Zoe – she’s just not the kid who wants to spend a whole lot of time on any subject. That works for most of her classes, not so much for math. We gave up on trying to get her to spend a reasonable amount of time on any homework at all – tired of saying ‘but if you’d spent more than five minutes on x, y, or z…you could have had an A.’ It’s been a bit of a bummer this year as she’s fielded the results of her academic (non)actions and she admits to having some regrets at trying to make high school as non-laborious as possible. Which is great – but doesn’t take away the small pit of regret in our minds that giving up on math had forced her to give up on other things. She was and is an avid all-things-biology lover. That was to be her future in some way – most likely marine – but even as she started researching the college curriculum requirements, she’d go ‘oh, look, math…’ and so long Finding Nemo. It’s a bummer to see her ooh and aah at aquariums up and down the east coat or to have watched her have a deep discussion with a tour guide at Rio Secreto in Cozumel or basically sign up to return to the Sea Lion Sanctuary in St. Thomas – only to know that once she realized it will entail a biology degree (and math), that these futures will be pushed aside. So yes, we wish we’d left her in advanced math and been more willing to sacrificing our time to pulling her confidence up.

Right – still – that wasn’t the biggest consequence. Because she dropped both advanced math and orchestra – her friend group *poof* disappeared. We had know idea that those tweaks would catapult her away from the close, close group of friends she’d had from the first day of kindergarten on. We kick ourselves for not investigating the fall out – but we didn’t know it was a question to ask. If my child does this…what will happen to her social group? It was devastating. Zoe spent the first week of eighth grade crying and expressing such sadness that she didn’t have anyone to sit with at the lunch table, that she didn’t know anyone in any of her classes and that she certainly wasn’t ever going back to school. Again, right there, we wish we’d rung up the school and switched it back – landing her again with her posse – the ones that pushed each other to work harder and learn more and expect more. We had no idea how important that was until it was gone and we could see the ramifications of it. Don’t get me wrong – we are very proud of Zoe. Her course schedule remained sprinkled with ‘the hard stuff’ of AP this and IB that – not an easy task at all – and, after a crazy senior year, she wrapped it up on a high note. We’re also very excited for the next chapter (holy moly, that starts in like three weeks….). We just have a bit of the ‘in hindsight’ going on.

Right – still – not the biggest consequence. I really am getting there. Those tear filled returns from school each day? The ones where we’d try to talk her into being brave enough to sit with someone new at lunch? That was the biggest consequence. Eight grade, week two, success – Zoe found a new lunch table and new friends that she seemed excited about. Great, high five!, we did it! Order the parenting trophy! Except for the part where Zoe left for school one morning as Zoe and returned to announce that at lunch, her new friends helped her realize she was actually a boy named Cecil. Come again? What happened to square pizzas and tater tots? Well, that’s a lot to unpack – most of which isn’t going to happen today. Although I do write about it all the time, it’s not something I really want to share as I suspect we’ll lose our stature in the Hey, It Looks Like They Have It Together club. I’m sure I’ve already written enough (you read the title right?) that at least one reader is currently cracking their knuckles in order to loosen up their clickity-clackity, shots fired, typing hands.

So, I’m just going to fast-foward five years to a video I caught on Instagram earlier this month. Zoe was proudly showing off her huge collection of Mountain Goats goodies (her favorite band). When she got to the signed album that her father had worked so hard to get for her sixteenth birthday, she skipped right over it – quickly saying she’d taped over the signed part because ”this one has my dead name.” I’ve heard this term before (thought never quite as direct from her mouth) and it’s made me cringe a little. This time it made me cringe a lot, likely because it was very directly from her mouth. What? Your dead name? The name your parents spend nine months picking out? I hopped on Google (why had I not done this before?) and filled the search bar. I suppose the results should have made me feel better – You may also hear it described as referring to someone by their “birth name” or their “given name.” It did for a split second – like ‘dead’ was synonymous with ‘given’ or ‘birth’ – or another entry that referenced a ‘chosen’ name or a ‘nickname.’

I started remembering all the times I’d seen texts to her friends referencing her dead name or apologies from her brother for saying ‘that name’ (also in text). I started trying to pinpoint the last time I’d heard her say her given name (pre-Hibachi) or the last time she didn’t mentally leave the room when we reminisced about her pre-8th-grade life. I started reviewing conversations that Rich and I had had about what it really means to her when she talks about that pre-8th-grade person being someone else and how we naively brushed over what she actually meant. Which (what it means to her) is that we are just supposed to erase that name from our memories – along with the person. What? No. Hard stop. As a refresher – the only time Zoe had ever asked us to call her Cecil was at the beginning of eighth grade. In a conversation that was confusing – not to just us, but clearly to her 14-year-old self – and our request was that she do a little research and better explain what she was asking. As it never came up again, we really just moved on. We knew she was going by Cecil at school (whatever – just teach her math), we knew she was going by Zoe at home. No, I don’t know whose fault the lack of follow up should land on. You could point to us (the parents) for not digging in further and for not raising our arms in a triumph of we’re-the-do-whatever-you-want accepting parents. But we felt (maybe unwisely) that if she was old enough to ask for such a big thing, then she was old enough to dig into it further herself and educate us. We’ve always been the do-the-work parents…no free passes…this didn’t seem the time to make an exception. And here we are, five years later. Look awkward over rice and shrimp.

No. I won’t ever call it your dead name. That person – Zoe – that person is important to me. That past is important to me. Those memories are important to me. I cannot erase them by labeling that name and that person dead, as of the second week of eighth grade. We have albums of Zoe and stories of Zoe and friends of Zoe – I won’t just box them all up and drive them to the dump because in one twist, you decided she never existed. I see you roll your eyes when your father talks about how you were his little girl and how you used to follow him everywhere and sit on this shoulders and hold his hand. I see the disdain you have when hearing those stories – it makes me so, so sad. That little girl was real. Those moments were real. Special. Shaping. No. I won’t consider it as a lie you were living without knowing it until one random day at lunch. And I don’t understand why you try so hard to convince yourself and everyone around you that you were miserable (until that random day) when all the adults around you say and remember otherwise. What will it cost you to have had a happy childhood? I see how you avoid our wedding pictures – you looking as happy as we’d ever seen you, breaking down in the ceremony with unabated joy. You will never convince me that it was a miserable day for you – as you tell your friends – embarrassed to walk them through our house and past the stunning sparkle in your eyes, the grin so wide it hurts my chin to look at it. No. I won’t push that aside as a day that didn’t happen with you because that girl is dead.

Months ago, I sat digging through photos in another attempt to make the perfect gift for graduation. This one was to be an album chronicling Zoe’s life – pictures from her childhood matched with pictures we took around town while she wore in cap and gown. I actually gave up on the album, finding it too exhausting [sidebar…as a stepmother…I discovered how emotionally difficult it is to look through hundreds of pictures of a past that you weren’t actually a part of. You reach a point of mom-ming where you’ve done it for so long that you forget that there is someone else in the pictures with the infants and toddlers. It’s even creepier because I often open up those pictures and skip a beat before realizing the blonde lady sitting on the floor next to a diapered Zoe or Zack is not me. I go from ‘oh cute!’ to ‘do I have amnesia?’ to ‘oh, that’s not me,’ to ‘I can’t do this.’ in approximately seven seconds. Sidebar over]. I think about the albums my mother gave me when I moved out – a collection of pictures from the first day of my existence to that current year. I prepared myself to do the same for you – knowing it would be hard, digging through a past that didn’t include me. But as I weighed that emotionally difficult piece with the strong inkling that you’d be mortified to see a collection of that brown-haired, gray-eyed child in dresses and pinks and purples – looking every bit the happiest ever in every shot – I stopped.

You may want to erase her.

But I can’t.

And to that person cracking their knuckles and prepping to explode into your keyboard – no need. We’ve likely heard it all. What you aren’t is here. What you haven’t lived is our life. What you don’t know is our story.

Especially the one that we want to preserve.

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