“TICKLEY TICKLEY ROUND YOUR TUMMY,” she would whisper in a sing song tone as she traced her fingers across my stomach. The two of us snuggled up on her couch.

“We Yike, jeopardy, don’t we Gamma,” the 6 year old version of me would look up at her and smile.

“We sure do!” she smiled back, returning to her tickling song.

“Tickley, tickley round your tummy, if you laugh you’ll be a mummy,” her long fingers making loop da loops on my belly.

This is about the time I would clench and hold in my giggles with every part of my body, believing that my Grandma knew everything.

“And if you don’t you’ll be a dad,” she tickles some more, giving me space to laugh… and then without hesitation she would carry on, “Tickley, Tickley little lad,” rather than the alternate ending, the one she would use when my mom was around, the one that I knew the sting of inside and out:

“Tickley, Tickley little lady.”

I reflect on these moments and I feel nothing but love and comfort.

I see a terrified woman who tried her damnedest to keep me safe, but also let me know that she saw me.

She let me know that she knew me. And although she couldn’t be brave enough to carve out space for me in the world, she was brave enough to carve out space for me in her living room. That space let me breathe, it let me survive.

And so long after I was way to cool to take my shirt off and sit in front of my grandma while she tickled my back and chest, I sat for hours with her: reading together, playing Nintendo together, letting her stroke my back and speak healing words over me.

“Tickley, Tickley, little lad,” she sang over and over again...

We only spoke about it once in real words.

“I’m so sorry,” she said as I cried on the front steps. The other boys were running around in just their shorts, shooting each other with water guns, and I was forced to wear a shirt. It was neon pink and yellow and the shame felt like road rash every place that shirt touched my skin.

“This just isn’t your life kid.”

I cried for hours.

I don’t think that she could have imagined this world I live in now.

I don’t know that I could have either.

This world where I am loved and celebrated and ALIVE being ME.

To be honest, I mostly can’t believe it either. The little boy stuck in the wrong clothes, with the wrong hair and the wrong name, dreamed of the beautiful, smart, interesting wife he would have one day— but he definitely didn’t think it could be a reality. He definitely didn’t believe that he could be loved for who he actually was.

Except he was wrong. I’m living my dream, and although my feisty, badass of a grandma isn’t here to see it, my wife has unknowingly carried on the tradition of laying beside me each night tickling my back and speaking healing words over my body.

And I carry on this tradition with my own babies, holding them close, stroking them softly and speaking all the words they just might need to hear over them until I find the ones that land, the ones that stick. The ones I know they need just like I did.