Our youngest daughter Ru, short for Ruth, called home from college crying. She rarely calls home since she started her freshman year, so my antennae immediately went up. I’ve had plenty of experience getting bad news over the phone, so it’s no wonder I go from zero to 60 in seconds and assume something must be wrong when I get an unexpected call from one of my three children.
But this call was different. Ru was calling to tell us how happy she is.
My daughter has found her community at her school, and while college certainly isn’t easy ― essay writing in particular is bumming her out ― she feels she is being challenged in all the best ways. She thanked us for always supporting her, and when we hung up, I cried with relief.
Last summer, mourning doves built a nest in the gutter under the awning over the back deck. For weeks, the hen and cock took turns sitting on their eggs. We all got much joy watching the fledglings hatch and feed. My husband, Ru, and I sat outside in the cool of the day under the flight path of the Burbank airport and watched the goings-on of this little family. Those babies were greedy little bastards ― always hungry.
They grew quickly over the course of a week and walked around on the roof like they were inspecting the place. Two mornings prior, they left the nest, which to the three of us seemed far too soon. We went into a frenzy of Googling for information on mourning doves and their fledglings. The irony was not lost on me. Ru, the youngest of our three children, was in the midst of transitioning from male to female while preparing to leave for college.
Dove fledglings fun fact: Eggs hatch after a 15-20 day incubation period. Within 11 days, they are strong enough to leave the nest and when they do, it will take them another three to four days to fly. They must find ground cover to survive.
Ru struggled all summer. She grew out her beard in preparation for electrolysis, hoping to be free of facial hair before beginning school. Both the treatment and being continually referred to as “he,” “him” and “dude” while sporting the beard was painful. She didn’t come out of her room except in the mornings and evenings, and only then to observe the doves.
We watched as the hen and cock fended off prey, chasing away other birds and predators who ventured near our house. The fledglings congregated under the giant tomato plant in my garden while Ru and I sat together in the early mornings. Ru read from her Google search.
Hen and cock: Mourning doves mainly eat seeds, but the young are fed crop milk. Both males and females produce this milk.
We were mesmerized by Ma and Pa dove bobbing their heads to regurgitate crop milk. The fledglings, in feisty sibling rivalry, stabbed greedy little beaks down their parent’s throats fighting for their fair share.
“Who knew gender fluidity existed in the bird kingdom?” I said.
“Google,” Ru replied.
When Ru came out to us, we insisted she store her sperm before starting hormones. “Who knows,” we said, “someday you might want to start a family.”
She insisted she wouldn’t, but at the tender age of 16, how can anyone know for certain what one will or won’t want in time? At her age I swore all the same things.
When she was 17, a friend remarked what a good mother she would be and Ru basked in the compliment. She exhibits all the qualities of a good parent, caring and concern but with healthy boundaries, and she knows the limits of her abilities when distressed friends come to her with problems ― kind of like a parent. We do what we can to help them grow.
Our job goes from changing diapers and kissing boo-boos, to standing on the sidelines, cheering, “You can do it, sister!”
Ru confided in my husband how hard it was to be neither perfectly male nor perfectly female. She felt she was failing at both. What if she wasn’t happy in college? What if she didn’t find her people? Her father told her that perhaps she was being too hard on herself ― that she is perfectly transgender and that is enough.
We worried when the larger fledgling flew first. The other, smaller sibling sat beneath the chaise lounge not moving. The hen and cock took turns trying to coax it out of hiding, but it wouldn’t budge. Eventually they flew to the roof to wait. Only when its sibling flew down did the youngest fledgling stand.
“It looks like they’re talking,” Ru said.
The two of them strutted back and forth from the vegetable patch to the chaise lounge. Ma and Pa dove finally joined their babies on the lawn. The family of four picnicked on seeds and crop milk.
Ru came out first to her brother and sister, and they held her secret. They circled her until she was ready to come to us many months later, then her father and I joined the circle and we held her, together. The whole family attended her first doctor’s appointment related to transitioning, our oldest on FaceTime from Washington, D.C.
From that moment forward we stopped referring to Ru as he and him ― and by the name we had given her at birth. We still messed up, but kept trying until we got it right more often than not. Now she is simply our girl, Ru.
As we did a deep dive researching what it means to be transgender, trying to catch up to Ru’s knowledge, what we learned from doctors, scientific experts and researchers was the same: Gender identity comes from the brain, not from your anatomy. Simply stated, our beautiful daughter knows she was assigned the wrong gender at birth and is now living as her true gender.
When the smallest fledgling finally flew, we cheered. It visited the nest where it was born, flew into our kitchen window, bounced off and fluttered to a nearby tree limb to shake off the confusion. Under the watchful supervision of Ma and Pa, it finally figured out the terrain of our backyard, and when it came to rest on the arm of our back-porch couch, the whole family joined. We whispered our hurrahs and yippees so as not to scare them off.
When Ru was ready to tell the world, we spent an entire Sunday calling and emailing all of our family and friends from around the country to share the news. We told the people we love the most what we’d learned about the transgender community, how gender dysphoria works, how gender and sexuality differ, how high the statistics for suicide are for those who are not supported by a loving community and how transgender people — especially trans women of color — face incredibly high levels of violence and discrimination just because of who they are.
“We are team Ru,” we said. “We hope you will join us.”
Not a single family member or friend rebuffed her or us. I know that is rare and how lucky we are.
“When Ru was ready to tell the world, we spent an entire Sunday calling and emailing all of our family and friends from around the country to share the news. ... 'We are team Ru,' we said. 'We hope you will join us.' ... Not a single family member or friend rebuffed her or us. I know that is rare and how lucky we are.”
On the long drive to college, Ru expressed equal parts elation and worry, excited for new academic challenges and independence, but also deeply concerned for her safety and future. I can confide in you that I worried, too. I felt I hadn’t prepared Ru enough or schooled her enough on womanhood. I could only hope others took the time to see Ru’s kindness, her deep curiosity about the world and most of all, her remarkable courage. Who am I to say there is danger when there just as easily can be safe harbor?
Mourning dove fun fact: If the fledglings refuse to leave the nest, on the 13th day the hen and cock will stop feeding them. The babies must learn to fly to survive.
Our mourning doves are gone now, off to wherever they fly when they are grown, someplace we can’t know or see.
I always sing to Ru this little ditty I wrote. It annoys her, but I will not be stopped. Mothers get to keep some privileges, and being annoying is one of them.
Ruth Deluth is living proof that joy can come when you live your truth.
That’s crop milk, baby. Pure crop milk.
Deb Spera has been published in The New York Times, Garden and Gun, O Magazine, Six-fold: The Wascana Review, and L.A. Yoga Journal. Her debut novel, “Call Your Daughter Home,” was an Oprah “summer reads pick” and was recently acquired by Netflix. A native of Kentucky who currently resides in Los Angeles, Deb is also a television producer and owns her own company, One-Two Punch Productions. She has developed and executive produced over a thousand hours of television including “Criminal Minds,” “Army Wives,” and “Reaper.”
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