Bye, Max. (We already miss you.)

4 Feb 2008

Max and Tamara Beck and familyMy friend and intersex activist colleague Max Beck died a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what to say about him here, because his widow Tamara said it would be OK for me to write about Max on my personal site. Actually, she didn’t just say it was OK. What she wrote was so beautiful and generous, so typical of Tamara in that way:

“i am very glad for you to post about max, to link to anything of ours, and in general to share or create whatever words are helpful to you in grieving and honoring max.  i will continue to be honored to see max's works and his words go forward through that of his friends and community, and i know he would have loved that as well.” 

While he went through the cancer, Max kept a blog on it. Reading his blog, I was always struck by Max’s ability--like Tamara’s--to tell the truth, to forgive and yet not forget, to find joy and growth in pain and death. No one should have to die of cancer, but knowing Max might die of cancer was especially awful because of his blog, because it made so obvious that he was such an extraordinary person, a person who would be utterly irreplaceable to his partner, his children, his family, and his friends. To the world.

I said to Max a couple of months ago that, if the love and admiration others felt for him was curative, he would live forever. But it’s not curative.

I tried to call Max on a regular basis when it became clear he was dying. Sometimes I was slow to pick up the phone. I was afraid maybe he would have already died--that I would have waited too long this time--or maybe he would be too drugged to even know who I was. But he always knew who I was, no matter how many pain meds he was on, and he was always so sweet--the cancer changed him not at all that way.

Sometimes the pain meds did make him pretty incoherent. And sometimes I wasn’t sure, as we talked, whether he was with it or out of it. That wasn’t just because he would drift in and out on some of the drugs, but because Max always had such a poetic vision of life, sometimes I just couldn’t tell if he was delusional or telling me something real using one of his typically elegant metaphors. In that case, I would write to ask Tamara which it was, and she would sort it out for me. That happened one time when he was telling me about their children being “danger boy and danger girl,” related to their blood types and adventurous spirits, and I kept flashing to that picture up there, wondering if he was serious or if he was just stuck in a memory of the Halloween where they dressed up as The Incredibles.

That’s a picture he and Tamara gave me to use when I was putting together the handbook for parents born with intersex conditions. It was a picture that, if you knew the backstory, felt completely right. What Max and Tamara had gone through--what had made their children possible not just physically but emotionally--it was all incredible. More incredible than any fiction.

Sometimes after I talked to Max in the morning, I’d see a friend for lunch, and my eyes would be swollen and red, so that the friend would ask why I had been crying. And I would say, “My friend Max is dying,” and they would ask what he was dying of, and I would say, “He’s dying of vaginal cancer.” And every time I said that, and the friend looked at me funny, I was struck again by how, even in death, Max’s story brought life to intersex.

This year, instead of donating to the Heifer Project for the holidays, we sent Max and Tamara a check to help with all the bills that come with cancer. Tamara told me they were happy to be our heifer. I told my family about this donation (we donate instead of doing individual gifts, and let folks know of the donation), and told my family the basics of Max’s story--born intersex, made a girl, fell in love with Tamara as lesbians, changed gender to male, got married to Tamara, had kids, had a bad car accident where he ended up with complications because some medical personnel didn’t want to help a guy they discovered was trans--even the more conservative members of my family had to stop and realize that, when it comes to things like intersex and gay marriage and transgenderism, real people get hurt by stupid ideas and stupid laws.

As I understand it, Max actually died of mullerian cancer. The cells that would have become the female reproductive parts (had he gone the typical female developmental path) eventually went cancerous. So the intersex that made Max’s life what it was also killed him. I’m sure Max would be quick to point out that the intersex also brought him so many wonderful things, not least, his truly extraordinary companionship with Tamara, his beautiful political voice, his selfless ability to help thousands and thousands of others. But I have always had the sense Max would have been good, wise, loving, and loved, no matter how the cells of his body divided. We were just all lucky he happened to be born intersex.

In the last few months, intersex activists from all over the world came to visit Max. When I’d call and ask who was visiting now, his guest list read like a Who’s Who of intersex political history. It brought him such joy to have folks come and see him, even while he was in pain. I remarked to Tamara that I thought there was something going on here--that it wasn’t just that people were going to miss Max, thought that was obviously the case. Max at some level represented something bigger to many of us. I think it was that he represented the early times of intersex activism, when things were simpler, more clear, less overwhelming. Things are better now--attitudes among physicians are much improved--but it is also much harder now to do the change that still has to happen.

And we’ll miss having Max helping with that change. Max had a way of being so right and true, a purity of vision and of soul, a genuine peace in times of war. And all that feels lost with him.

I wish he didn’t have to go.