Boys Don’t Cry?

When I was six, my grandmother on my father’s side passed away peacefully in the tiny bathroom of the modest home in which she had lived the bulk of her 77 years. Of my four grandparents, she was the only one I knew to any significant extent; I remember her consistent offerings of Nilla Wafers (always a tad stale), spinning tops on her pitted, brittle kitchen flooring, the smell of mothballs near the bedrooms, and the super futuristic rotating Christmas tree with fiber-optic needles that shone stunningly in red, green, and yellow.I was too young and insulated, though, to feel fully comfortable in this alien world. The house was old, as were Ann and her Nilla Wafers, and the tops were ‘50s vintage at best. Still, I could feel the palpable love and adoration my Mother had for grandma, but I could equally sense the measured, stony distance kept by my Father. He was there in body on those visits, but his mind by force or by nature was elsewhere. On these trips, then, I sensed three distinct feelings–the welcome of a sweet old woman, the encouragement of my Mother to embrace my extended family (something rare in our tree), and, that I was actively betraying my Father by siding in some sense “with the women.” So it was. And there can be nothing else.I had no way of knowing the wounds my father bore and carried–deep gouges in the tattered hide of his psyche (and this, my Superman!), nor did I know his Mother had once left him crying on a cold porch, watching as she left her husband and two youngest sons, suitcases and belongings in tow, but taking with her his two older half-brothers. A boy of five can’t be expected to understand the perverse calculations that factor into such a decision. Nor perhaps, can a boy of any age.

Ann’s funeral is the first I can remember. As all children must, I had to learn not only how to behave in the somber ceremony, but also how it is we grieve. I watched pensively as relatives and old friends hugged and smiled and shared remembrances, while others wept, slumped in a chair all alone or in small congregations. Even then I quickly understood that part of death is the affirmation of life, and that the converse is just as true.

My Mother was shattered, torn from the tight bond that had grown through the years. How helpless I felt seeing her eyes in the murky distance behind ebbing tears. Her body shuddered. My Dad displayed only stoicism, undoubtedly due in part to pained memories, but also just as he had learned from his Father. I joined him as he walked toward the coffin to view the body. Peering inside, I wondered “Why does she look so waxy?” I also recall truly grasping death in that moment—she was now long gone and she wasn’t coming back. I began to cry. My Father gently placed his hand on my shoulder, lowered his head to mine, and said “Don’t cry. That’s not what men do.”

I choked it back, wanting to please him, or, rather, not to disappoint. Doing so felt a betrayal of the grieving crowd, but his statement was unequivocal. Archetypal God figure spreads the lesson to the child. The child follows.

Despite growing into a particularly sensitive and emotional young man, I didn’t…or couldn’t…cry for years after that day. In my early twenties, I’m not even sure I remember why, the levee broke. Years of sorrow, tears of comfort. Since then, they come easy and I’m okay with that.

I don’t blame my father for this, although I used to. I blamed him because I suffered guilt for my emotions and carried shame when it finally let loose and I cried pitifully in a woman’s embrace. But why the guilt and the shame? Crying is catharsis. Is it truly a measure of a man?
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When my Father was 68, his hip shattered while attempting a routine tennis shot. My sister was first to the hospital, but called with the news and particulars. When I arrived at Mercy, I found him lying prone, helpless and in great pain. His wallet sat upon his chest. When asked why he joked that he was keeping it where he could see it before the doctors (“quacks” may have been his actual term of choice) got to it. When he tried to shift slightly, however, the real purpose was clear. He placed it firmly between his teeth, bit hard, and groaned.

This was not the first time I saw the effects of age and mortality in my Father, though it would prove most poignant. “Flashing Blades Stang,” an alter ego he claimed when playing “ice honkey” on freezing Saturday mornings on the small lake behind our home, had clearly lost a step by the time I was in my early teens, and by my twenties I was moving around his beloved tennis court better than he. When my shots were accurate, I could overpower him with ease.

The man had dispatched me on the tennis court consistently and mercilessly for at least 15 years, my power nullified by a lack of consistency and a healthy dose of what he referred to as his “doo doo” shots. He could always return the ball if reachable, and he’d often slice it so thinly and unpredictably that most opponents felt they were cheated—that it was almost “dirty tennis.” He once delivered doo doo so intense the ball dropped into my front court and instantly returned to his without my having touched it. It made me furious, knowing I had the physical skills to win, yet couldn’t. Then, in my early thirties, something changed. Dad lost a step. Funny to find that when I could finally beat him (we used to joke that my first victory would come when his wheelchair battery ran out rendering him helpless at center court), I no longer wanted to. That’s life I guess, but I didn’t want his to change and in turn force a change in mine.

By his bedside I realized every man certainly has his limits—a threshold of physical or emotional anguish beyond which social norms must be retired. In between his joking, pain-filled moans, and wallet mastication, tears welled up in his eyes. I stood beside him as he had by me at his mother’s funeral. I touched his hand, leaned down, and said “You just let all of that out now, you just go ahead and cry.”

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