The month of July easily slipped into August, which made Mark ponder his upcoming travel schedule.Dan was at the hospital every day, and their lives had fallen into a routine.The kids frolicked in the bay in front of the house each day, went to the bazaar with the aunts at least weekly, and learned Arabic and Hebrew from Uncle Samuel.The languages were incredibly difficult as the kids had to learn new alphabets, spelling, and word meanings.They were intent on mastering these new languages as Uncle Samuel arrived three mornings a week to teach them the language and Jewish history.He laughed and said it was his own personal Hebrew School.Belinda and Robert loved him and drew out his caring and fun personality. He was a natural teacher and had eager students.Erin excused herself from the lessons, saying that she was too old to learn a new language.She believed that her Christian God gave the Celtic language to the world after the Fall of the Tower of Babel and that all people should be speaking the language of St. Patrick and the leprechauns.
Mark worried about how bizarre it felt settling in as a family and into this strange new land, which was so different from North Carolina. Mark had to remind himself that he and Dan had only been married a few months and had been dating for less than a year.The children were acclimating much easier than their father.Mark often found himself contemplating the fact that over the past year, he had fallen in love with a man, accepted and supported his trans child, had moved halfway around the world, and was starting work in places where he didn’t know the people or their languages.He could have easily been bowled over by the extent of changes in his life, but he somehow managed to meet each day afresh and deal with its opportunities.He was ever the optimist but spent considerable time wandering in the mental land of what-ifs.
In some ways, Mark rationalized he had been satisfied with his life in Hillsborough until Belinda presented with gender issues.He then would think further and realize that wasn’t right.His moments of disquiet weren’t just about Belinda though he was frightened about the fact that he truly believed that she was more than human.He would often constrain his brain from thinking what else there might be.When he allowed the wholeness of the universe free reign in his mind, the notion that Belinda might be a divine spirit challenged him at a fundamental level.He was a Christian, after all.Then he opened himself to the possibilities and could only smile.Why Belinda?Again, Mark tried not to be egocentric and wonder why God had presented his family with this challenge.He started reframing the idea of it being a challenge to thinking of their lives as a gift and an opportunity.
Some nights, Dan would arrive home from the hospital and find Mark sitting on the patio staring out to the sea.Mark would be in his own head as he tried to make sense of the world.Dan knew Mark was struggling with all of the upheavals in his life, and Dan allowed his husband the space to explore and be muddled.Dan embraced the world as it came to him; he didn’t spend time in the world of philosophy and wondering about the whys and why-fors.He dealt with patients who presented with medical problems, and he figured out how to deliver the necessary medical care.He didn’t need to be existential and think about life's meaning at the hospital; it would have paralyzed him.He saw life and death every day.He believed it the cycle of existence from the beginning of time: it was simple as that.
Dan hadn’t anticipated falling in love while working at Duke Hospital and having a ready-made family.He fooled himself into thinking that everything had happened so easily though it was not easy when they were in the throes of fighting Mark’s family.It was not easy when Mark walked away from their relationship; it had almost killed him.They made major life decisions in a short time frame because the choices were ungirded by absolute trust and love.They were now in Algiers, and none of those ghosts needed to inhabit their minds.Dan was thankful that he could not see the future; he accepted what life gave him and was infinitely thankful for the bounty in his life.He knew with every fiber of his being that he had found his life mate.Dan thought that Mark was godlike and had two children, one, a child, who bridged the gap between human and divine, seemed only natural.
Dan knew exactly how to make Mark happy when his husband was deep into his own head.The first was very easy:both Mark and Dan were very sexual beings and were easily plugged into each other.Dan would give Mark a certain cue, and they would both be aroused.A look, a touch, or nod of the head would have them rushing to their bedroom.It was easy and natural lovemaking.Each was open to exploration, and Dan was delighted when he realized how far Mark would travel down the pathway of the erotic.Dan was more sure of his role as the more passive partner though there was nothing docile about his physicality.Sometimes Dan would see a look in Mark’s eyes and know his husband needed for him to take charge sexually.Dan explored that side of his sexual life in a more cerebral way.In the hospital, he was in charge and gave directions to people and expected them to perform as he demanded.He brought that same mindset to the bedroom when Mark’s needs arose.It surprised him how Mark became very centered in life when Dan took control and put him through a rigorous workout.Mark would re-emerge as the lion of the family after being plunged into the deepness of physical conquest.It was as if he understood the parameters of the world, especially the ground where he firmly planted himself; after Dan had handled him and made him whimper with need and desire, he was ready to re-engage.Dan was a neurosurgeon and didn’t understand the psychology at play and decided he didn’t want to explore it any further.Each time Mark came back stronger and more loving, and that was all that mattered.They would be satisfied, fulfilled, and ready to tackle the world again.
The second way to make Mark happy was more of a challenge because Mark needed talk therapy.Mark would want to talk and talk, ad infinitum, about esoteric ideas.Dan would patiently listen as Mark worked his way through tautological discussions that had no answers.Dan knew how to stop the talking by kissing Mark.Mark would still try to talk when Dan started kissing him, but by the time they ended up in bed, more essential needs demanded attention.Mark would be swept up in lust.Dan finally told Mark that he should see a therapist who could help him process his thoughts.Mark went once, and the therapist couldn’t comprehend the idea of two gay men having children, a transsexual child, and the fact that they felt no shame.He didn’t go again.Mark finally understood that he was trying to make sense of gratitude and the gifts he had been given in life.He didn’t feel worthy.Once he said that Dan told him to watch Oprah on television, and she would help him solve all of his gratitude problems.They both laughed, but Mark started watching Oprah on the internet.Through Oprah, he discovered the work of Brene Brown, and from there, he started learning the language of gratitude.From gratitude came the daily work of constructing blessings. Mark stopped worrying about the unsolvable parts of life.He also had faith that everything would all fall into place one day, and he would stop worrying.
Unsurprisingly, Erin was struggling with assimilating into this novel family.She had fought against her reactions when she realized these men were married and had two children. She got over that.She was caught by surprise to learn that her adopted family was Jewish when it was revealed during the first visit from the aunts.Erin had grown up learning the church’s teachings about Jews and how they had killed her beloved Jesus.She was hesitant to question what she had always been taught but listened to Uncle Samuel talk about Jewish history and the many myths and lies told about Jewish people.Uncle Samuel had few nice words about the nascent theology of the early church and how they had created stories that castigated his people and caused endless suffering throughout centuries because of these fabrications.Erin was beginning to process this new information and was frustrated that she had so readily accepted church dogma.
One day, Erin was sitting on the patio when Belinda came out of the water.It was the first time that she had seen her granddaughter naked.Erin caught her breath and then was confused.How could her granddaughter have a penis?It wasn’t possible.She felt that the people she loved had lied to her.The venial sin of lying was one thing, but what they were doing to Belinda was something she could not accept.Never!This was a mortal sin.
She was angry but didn’t want to show her discomfort to Belinda, so she waited until that night until the children were in bed.She didn’t know how to approach Mark and Dan through a rational conversation, so she blurted it out.She accused Mark and Dan of wicked things, said they were of the devil, and that she would return to Ireland.
Dan had been waiting for the conversation.He calmly explained, from a medical perspective, what was happening.Mark recounted the life of his younger child.Mark then raised the most specious idea of all:that Belinda was divine.Erin pondered that for a few minutes, and like Sufiyan and Cecilia, accepted that as fact.She believed in the thin places of life where the human and divine co-existed.It was a widely accepted belief in Ireland.She told the men she needed to pray about what they had said.The men were astounded that she was willing to accept Belinda's possible divinity more easily than tolerating transsexualism, which she saw as sinful.Dan made clear how important it was for them to keep their conversations confidential.
“We do not live in an accepting society, and we do not want harm to come to Belinda.You know something special about her, and you are in a privileged position.Please honor that.I encourage you to talk with Belinda and listen closely to what she has to say.”
“Are you going to make her have an operation?”
“Erin, she is way too young for anything surgical.Mark spent a lot of time meeting with the doctors in North Carolina to understand what was happening with Belinda.The doctors laid out all options.We are approaching this one day at a time and letting Belinda lead us.She is a happy child, and that is all we wish for at this time.She is very intuitive and knows when people disapprove of her.She gives love freely when it is first offered to her.”
“I won’t tell her about this conversation.I want to talk with her but don’t know what to say.”
“I suggest you start by asking her where she got her beautiful name.She chose the name and may tell you the story of her life.If she does, that will mean that she trusts you completely.Honor that trust.If you cannot honor that trust, Mark and I will pay for your plane ticket to return to Ireland.We hope you stay here because you have become part of our lives, and we love you.”
Erin thanked the men and told them that she had a lot to ruminate on and needed to go to bed.After kissing the men on their cheeks, Erin walked to her cottage.Mark and Dan sat without talking.Dan could sense how afraid Mark was and so he reached out and held his husband’s hand.Finally, Mark stood and Dan joined him and held him.They hadn’t figured out how to tell the world about their daughter.Certainly, Dan’s initial conversation with Sufiyan and Cecilia had not gone well.Dan regretted telling them to leave if they couldn’t live with the children.He threatened them by saying if they told anyone about Belinda, he would have them brought up on charges of stealing from his house, which would put them in jail.Dan knew they could not live their lives by threatening people into silence.
Both men were wrapped around each other as they slept that night.They needed the physical touch and love of the other.Morning brought a resolve between the men to make the house a safe haven for their family and a home where they could talk openly.Dan spoke with Belinda at length that day and told her what he wanted to do.He then called a meeting of the household.His approach was that they were blessed because they had a goddess in their midst, and they had been given the life challenge to protect her.He didn’t talk about whether Belinda was male or female; rather, he spoke of her being a goddess.Mark was astounded at Belinda’s poise while they talked with her and about her.Robert was sitting beside his sister and was holding her hand.At several points in the conversation, he looked at Belinda and then hugged her.He was her St. George.Mark thought about how much she had matured in the prior year.She had come into herself.Even Mark started believing the conceit that his child was a goddess.
Erin decided that she was going to stay and protect her granddaughter.After lots of conversations, she decided she trusted Mark and Dan, and accepted the idea that they were singled out to raise this child.Erin knew she was Belinda’s nan and was going to be part of the child’s raising, also.If Belinda was a goddess, then she was going to be an Irish Catholic Goddess.
Mark felt that just as one crisis was handled, another one arose.He was on the telephone and computer each day as he tried to manage the various university sites across Europe where students would be starting school in a few weeks.He knew that he would have to travel but wanted to wait until his children were in school full-time.Plus, Mark was trying to work out a schedule aligned with Dan’s at the hospital in Paris.Mark knew that once he was in the European Union, he could travel around more freely than flying in and out of Algeria.He and Dan decided that even with a resident visa for Algeria, Mark would not go through Algerian customs alone.
Both men acknowledged that Erin had turned into a godsend as it allowed them to both work in Algiers and Europe.She was always ready to step in and help when needed.Erin was also a useful buffer between the children and the aunts.She had no problem stalling the aunts when they would show up unexpectedly, wanting to take the children on an outing.The aunts also tried to direct the dietary habits in the home until Mark met with them and told them to stop.It was a tense exchange because the aunts had brought the rabbi from their synagogue.Mark had asked Dan for guidance before the meeting and felt that he had a basic understanding of the Jewish dietary laws.Mark refused to let the rabbi inspect their kitchen.Mark refused again when the rabbi suggested he instruct the children on what they could and could not eat.When he had finally had enough of the goading, Mark told them that he would maintain the household the way he wished and would not be subjugated to their instruction and inspection.The rabbi reminded Mark that they preferred to think of the children as Jewish and asked one last thing:for him to inspect Robert to ensure that he was circumcised according to Jewish law.Mark nearly blew a gasket as he escorted the man from his home.He was still outraged when Dan got home.
“Be glad that the rabbi doesn’t know about Belinda.He would be at a total loss when he inspected her penis.”
They both laughed at that thought, and the storm clouds passed.Mark had agreed that they would go to the Shabbat services on Friday nights and that Robert could, if he was interested, attend the Torah studies on Saturday morning accompanied by Uncle Samuel.Belinda was more interested, but Uncle Samuel told her that she would not be allowed because she was a girl.Mark chuckled, thinking that Uncle Samuel had not come up against Belinda before and was due to learn a hard lesson if he refused her.
The aunts knew they had seriously overstepped the boundary of interfering with Dan, Mark, and the children, so they sent gifts of apology to Mark.Dan instructed him to keep them and to send thank you notes.They both knew that the aunts were testing Mark, and he had gained points by standing them down.They may have disagreed, but they respected that he was firm in his resolve.
“Remember, we may need them one day.They are of old Algiers and know many people who may be helpful to us.”
Mark knew how to write a thank-you note that could be read as either a thank you or a fuck you, and he smiled as he put pen to paper.He chose to write heartfelt thank-you notes to the women.They were doing what they felt was best, and the fact that they went to so much trouble indicated their desire to include him and the children as part of the Lillie-L’Oranise clan.
Cecilia and Sufiyan met with Belinda and Erin every Monday morning to review what was happening at the house during the week.Erin would suggest certain foods that Mark and the children might like and helped Cecilia prepare them.Most of the meals were Sephardic Mediterranean styles of cooking that were delicious and nutritious.They ate outside every night, and they grew to expect the smell of meat cooking on the grill.All of the fresh produce and fruit was helping Mark lose his few extra pounds.He was learning to eat Middle Eastern food but still preferred rice over couscous.He would often be giddy after dinner from drinking the pitcher of wine that was always present at meals.
Mark did lament one day that he wanted a combination dinner from Parker’s Barbeque in Wilson, NC.He loved their pork barbeque with half of a fried chicken and a side of Brunswick Strew.He missed hush-puppies.He grew very homesick while the kids seemed to be enjoying this new cuisine.He hid his feelings because Dan reveled in making this a home for the family.
Suddenly, Mark was swamped with work as Duke tried to figure out how to handle their international properties and students returning to study.Mark knew he had to fly to France and planned to stay in their Paris home.There were lots of tears and goodbyes when he left the house for the airport.It was just a hop across the Mediterranean Sea, and he took the metro from the airport to a stop near the house. Mark had studied the maps and knew he would have to figure out how to get around ancient cities in Europe.He spent a week visiting the Parisian sites before flying to Rome.Luckily, the administrators at each site were bi-lingual, which gave Mark some grace time as he learned the various languages he would need.He sent post-cards to the children and Dan from every city he visited.He told them that the following summer, they would take an extended vacation traveling around Europe and to decide where they would like to visit.
Joe sent Mark emails about what he observed when he was in his office at Duke.He was only a consultant, but Duke provided him nice office space.Joe wasn’t convinced that Mark was being kept up to date, but then again, it was hard to know the latest as everything was shifting daily.Time took care of some of the problems when students from the U.S. could not get visas to study in Europe.Likewise, many European students had trouble getting visas for the U.S., and their parents were concerned about their children traveling.A new way of thinking about their studies evolved, and many European students went to nearby sites.Luckily, none of the Duke satellite facilities were being closed.The constant juggling and trying to find solid ground in life wore Mark down physically and mentally each day as he traveled and met with new site administrators.
Late one Friday afternoon, he arrived in Paris and happily got out of the puddle jumper airplane.It had been a short jaunt but scary as they flew through a summer thunderstorm.When Mark arrived at the house, he walked into the foyer and heard music playing in the library.He walked into the room and wrapped Dan in his arms.They had not seen each other in two weeks, and their needs were overwhelming.
After being satiated from lovemaking, they showered and went to a local café to eat a late dinner.
“We have a call scheduled with the children in the morning.”
“Really?It will be good to hear their voices.I miss my children – our children.”
Mark looked at Dan with an apologetic smile.
“We are going to Zoom with them so we can see and hear them.”
Mark couldn’t stop grinning.He loved and missed his children.
The next morning at 10, Dan dialed into his Zoom account, and then the children appeared on the screen.Erin was sitting between them with Cecelia and Sufiyan in the background.It was the first time that Belinda and Robert had Zoomed.
“Oh my gosh, look at you, the two of you look so good.I could hug you all day long.”
“We miss you, daddy and papa.”
“I know, but we can see each other through the computer.This is great, thanks to your Papa Dan.He is a magic maker with technology.”
Everyone had a good time chatting, especially Sufiyan and Cecilia, who thought it was incredible to communicate in this new way.
“When are you coming home, daddy?”
“Well, Dan and I will need to be here through next Friday, so I think we will fly out on Saturday morning.We should be home in time for lunch.”
“Uncle Samuel is coming this morning to help us with our Arabic language studies.Sufiyan and Cecilia help also.It is the only language they use in school, so we are working hard to learn.”
“Good for you.I know it is hard, but both of you are very smart and will learn it soon.You are much better than me.”
“Nan, is there anything you need for us to bring you from Paris?”
“No, Daniel, just to have you home will be a blessing enough.”
“Well then, by this time next week, we will be together.We will take a taxi from the airport.”
Everyone said goodbye and hung up.There were disappointed looks in Algiers and Paris as none of them liked being separated.Mark was gutted because he had never been separated from his children.He was practicing gratitude and blessings that Dan, Erin, Sufiyan, and Cecelia were created a new normal for their lives.He even was thankful to the aunts and Uncle Samuel.
Dan grabbed Mark’s hand and said they were having a late lunch in the Eiffel Tower, and they should dress.The men ran upstairs to their bedroom.Mark had wandered through the mansion when they first arrived in Paris and again when he came to the continent to visit educational sites.He didn’t know if this mammoth space would ever feel like home.Then he looked at Dan and knew that his husband was his home, and life would be complete and filled with love.