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Not an Ordinary Holiday
Toronto, October 29 – November 6, 2010

November 15, 2010

The large audience in the church – now temporarily a concert hall – became quiet.  The 100 voice choir stood silent, expectant, as the conductor and the four distinguished soloists entered.  My eyes filled with tears, because – proud father that I am – one of those soloists was my daughter Ariel.

Then the conductor raised his baton, the musicians with their strange and wonderful period instruments readied themselves, and the concert began.

I suppose that even if Ariel had not been one of the soloists I would have enjoyed the music.  Normally I’m not carried away by Renaissance music, but this Vespers by Claudio Monteverdi was rich and varied and sonorous, and it held my attention.  Ariel sang beautifully, and deserved every bit of the enthusiastic applause the audience gave her at the end of the performance.
Grand River Chorus, conductor takes a bow
After the Concert
The Conductor thanks the audience
- the distinguished soloists are seated (Ariel is second from right)

This was something of a second début for Ariel as a professional singer.  For many years, she had a distinguished career in some of Canada’s finest classical choirs (the Elmer Isler Singers, the Elora Festival Singers, and the Tafelmusik Baroque Chorus), but not as a soloist.  Then, not too long ago, she was forced to cut this career way back, having injured her voice.  Only with rest, and careful vocal coaching has she now re-emerged, with an almost entirely new voice, with a specialty in early music. 1

When Heather and I heard that Ariel would be performing in the Monteverdi Vespers, we simply had to be there.  The concert was in Brantford Ontario, about an hour southwest of Toronto, so we flew from Winnipeg to Toronto, rented a car, and sat near the front of the audience as proud as punch.  And, we were ready with a bouquet of flowers to present to our soloist at the end!

My extended family

I have well over one hundred relatives in the Toronto region, and ever since the Harwood-Jones family reunion of 2008, I have enjoyed keeping in touch with many of them.  So, having arranged to attend Ariel’s concert, Heather and I also made sure we could do some family visiting while we were in the area.  The day before the concert we drove out to Orangeville and enjoyed a delightful dinner with two of my cousins and their wives.  Earlier that day we went in the opposite direction, to Whitby Ontario, and visited another cousin – whom I really haven’t spent any time with since 1955.  And, we stayed at the home of Judy Lewis, a cousin on my mother’s side of the family, who was enjoying the visit so much that she even decided to come with us to Brantford for Ariel’s concert.

All of this was very very satisfactory.

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An awful accident

However, during the time we were in the Toronto region, something terrible happened to the grandson of yet another of my cousins.  I’d like to tell you about it, but having some respect for privacy, please allow me to use only generic names: Grandma, Mom, and Handsome Boy.

Handsome Boy is eleven, and he is exactly what I am calling him: a very good looking, intelligent and talented young man.  He and his brother and sister were at Grandma’s home, playing on an X-box video game.  Mom wasn’t there.

Grandma decided that there was too much sitting around in front of video screens, so everyone had to go outside and do something healthy.  The children obeyed, and were soon playing very nicely in a nearby greenspace.

Then Handsome Boy somehow got a stick right in the eye.  The injury was so serious he was rushed off to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, where the doctors immediately put him into surgery to try to save what could be saved of the eye.

I can only imagine how devastated Grandma must have felt.  It is bad enough when your own child sustains a serious injury, but when it is your daughter’s child that you were taking care of, the feelings of guilt and sorrow have to be unbearable.

And, how can anyone guess what Mom felt when she was notified?  “Nightmare” would probably be too weak a word.  She went straight to the hospital, where she stayed for the next five days, hardly ever leaving her son’s side.

I didn’t hear about the accident right away.  Heather and I were simply enjoying ourselves.  We went to church; we had Sunday dinner with our daughters and our son-in-law; we went shopping; we went to church a second time (it was All Saints’ Day); and then we sent Heather home.

Yes, you read it correctly: we “sent Heather home.”  Rachael and I took Heather to the airport and put her on a flight to Winnipeg.  But I stayed on in Toronto.

Poor Heather is not retired like I am.  She has that busy law practice.  I, meanwhile, had lots more family and friends that I wanted to visit.  Besides, I had just learned of a public lecture due to take place the next Saturday (about an Anglican theologian in whom I take a great interest).  I very much wanted to attend this.  As a result, it was decided that Heather should return to Winnipeg, but that I would stay on at Judy’s – visiting people to my heart’s content – until after I had been to the lecture.

One of the people that I wanted to see was Handsome Boy’s mother.  Not knowing about the accident, I phoned to set up a date for coffee.  But there was no answer.  So I sent her a message via FaceBook.

Mom replied almost immediately (there are computers at the hospital for family use) telling me about the accident and how she was spending all her time at the bedside of her son.  She asked for prayers.

Shocked, I immediately went into prayer mode, and after typing up a quick note of sympathy, I said, “Would a visit to the hospital be appropriate?  If so, what hospital is he in?”

“Sick kids” she replied, and told me about some of the doctors’ procedures and her huge pain, uncertainty, and fear for her son.  “I hate that I have 2 perfectly good eyes and cannot just give one to him,” she said.

And, a few minutes later, “...if you can come ...please... only if you can...” and she gave the floor and room numbers.

So I went, promising her that I would not stay long.  I would be there, I said “ the fashion that I do as a priest: touch the patient, say a prayer, stay less than ten minutes and leave.”

It was an important visit.  Very emotionally draining, but deep and good.  Handsome Boy was curled up in his hospital bed, not wanting to open even his good eye.  With Mom’s consent and with her standing at my side, I used the ancient Christian gesture of “laying-on of hands” with prayer, then Mom and I went over to a quiet visiting area and just talked for a while.

Later in the day I spent time on the phone with Grandma while sorrowful things got sorted through.

Word went out – to the rest of our large extended family – to offer thoughts and prayers and emotional support, but to give these people some space to attend to their immediate day-to-day concerns.  FaceBook was used as an information conduit, and judging from what was posted there over the next few days a lot of people threw themselves into prayer as hard as they could.

Handsome boy was discharged the same day I saw him, but he faces several more surgical procedures.  However, a week after the accident the doctors registered surprise and pleasure at how much healing had taken place.  They upgraded their goals from merely “saving” the eye, to the possibility of limited vision.  Prayers are continuing.

That was not a light-hearted and “fun” aspect of my pleasure-trip to Toronto.  But it was eminently worthwhile.

And, there was another family matter of an entirely different nature for me to attend to.

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Why can’t a woman be like a man!??

When Rex Harrison uttered those words in My Fair Lady he probably didn’t envisage a world such as ours in 2010 where women in some numbers actually try to become men through surgery and hormone therapy.  Males, too, seek by similar means to become women.  It gives a whole new meaning to the whimsical song of that confirmed 19th Century bachelor as he began to fall in love with Eliza Dolittle.

My oldest grandchild was born female, but this year, at the tender age of nineteen, she left university, changed her name, began taking testosterone, had a double mastectomy, and is living as a male in Toronto.  She has done this so thoroughly that even her official government-issue ID now has an “M” in the “gender” box!

All who have known this person since birth – parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts – have experienced these developments with varying degrees of revulsion, alarm, confusion, tears, anger, struggle, love, wonder, acquiescence, and acceptance.  Some of us have felt every one of these things, and for none of us has it been a straight line from rejection to acceptance.  Often we bounce from comprehension to incomprehension and back again.  For some, acceptance is still pretty far off.

For a number of years I have been particularly close to this grandchild of mine, and my conflict with her over these changes was intense, to the point where we had nothing at all to do with one another for a significant time.

But on this trip to Toronto, I spent five hours with her.  Basically we had a very long lunch, but I also introduced her to my cousin Judy; and, at the end of our visit, I was taken to meet the people at the place where she is staying.

On the whole, it was a great visit, and indeed I think we both had a lot of fun.  There were hugs, there was some revisiting of the gender issue, but mostly a lot of good conversation about family and friends and religion and principles and philosophical wonders.

I tried – not too successfully – to use the newly-acquired male name, but I almost completely failed to transform that tiny little word “she” into a “he.”.  She was patient with me, and forgiving, but insistent.  She honoured the fact that I was making an effort, but remained adamant that I must learn to say “he” about her one of these days.

My difficulty may simply be one of use: I have known her as a girl for close to 20 years.  Through much usage, female pronoun paths have been etched deeply into my brain.  But there is also this: when I look at her – even when she tries to stride like a boy and use macho language – she doesn’t look masculine.  She is small of stature, slight of build, delicate of feature, and graceful of movement.  To me, the word “he” does not compute.

But there is also a huge adjustment of moral principles being demanded of me here.  I am by nature and by profession a person who must try to figure out the “rights” and “wrongs” of human behaviour.  And I know for a fact that just because a person may long to do something with all of his or her heart, such longing does not automatically make that something right.

I was able to observe in those hours that I spent with my grandchild, that she is infinitely more happy inside herself – now that she legally and surgically goes about the world as a male.  But I am not yet able to say that this means that transgendering is “good” and “right” and desirable, or that trangendering is not part of the broken and sinful side of human life.  Heck, at the present time, the psychiatric world itself – not always a good arbiter of right and wrong – calls my grandchild’s condition a “disorder.”  It’s clinically called “Gender identity disorder,” which doesn’t suggest that the condition is morally “good,” or fully integrated and healthy; merely that surgically honouring it may be a necessity.

So I am holding fire on the rights and wrongs of my grandchild’s condition and decisions in life.  I know that I love her.  Indeed in many respects I am in awe of her and admire her.  But I am not ready to say that the journey she has undertaken is morally “right” and “good” for a person who has been diagnosed with her disorder.  There may have been a better way.

If nothing else, I wish she had been able to wait, to finish university, to get a career, and to mature a little bit more.  In so many other respects we would consider a nineteen year old making a permanent and unalterable life decision to be doing something highly unadvisable: get married?  have a baby?  become a monk?  or even drop out of school?  The adults around would say, “Please wait!  You’ve got some more maturing to do yet!  Let’s see how you feel in five years or so!”

But she didn’t wait.

And yet we two had an amazing visit while I was in Toronto; and I shall pray, and I shall struggle, and I shall try to figure out the moral ins and outs.  Meanwhile I shall love my grandchild with an old sinner’s grandfatherly love, to the very best of my ability.

Are we having fun yet?

By now you can see that our trip to Toronto had an extremely serious side.  But solemnity did not in the end rule the day.  After Heather had returned to Winnipeg, not only did I have the experiences described above, I had some delightful visits with friends, long and enriching conversations, and at the end of the week an informative and stimulating lecture that was well worth staying in Toronto to attend.

But you have probably had enough of this blog for now, so I’ll spare you the details.  Immediately following my return to Winnipeg, Heather and I went to a Mennonite ordination, and we are continuing our pilgrimage to a different type of church every Sunday.  My next installment of this blog will likely entertain and enlighten you about all that.  At least, I hope it will entertain... and enlighten!  Stay tuned.

Tony Harwood-Jones

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1  You are welcome to visit Ariel’s professional website at  She’d love it.
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