When confronted with the reality that his dog was dying only weeks after the loss of his brother-in-law, Brian Gawlak was shocked to learn his three daughters had never seen him cry.
My 45 year old brother in law died several weeks ago after a brave three week battle with cancer. I am still trying to process the fact that he was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, never mind the fact that he is gone and so quickly. He entered the hospital short of breath out of nowhere, and three weeks later was gone. I am certain I have cried a river of tears for this amazing man/father/husband/brother/friend and how quickly and how tragically he was taken from this world.
The stillness and the silence of his absence are still omnipresent as I move forward with my life. My brother was not just an older brother and good friend, but sometimes a father to me who taught so much about things as simple as hanging curtains and installing an air conditioner properly, to setting an example of how I can be a good father when my girls reach their teen years. The loss of him is profound, and as the weeks will turn to months and eventually years, the river of my tears will likely flood.
I have no qualms about discussing or expressing the fact that I cry. I am a proudly sensitive and empathetic man and I don’t feel shame for crying. I am a man who was raised to express himself and to give meaning and words to my emotions.
You could say I am having a bit of a “full” time. Last week, our seven year old dog began dragging his hind legs and fell ill. We brought him to the vet and it was discovered that his breed (Shih-Poo) has congenital spine issues and he had several spots of concern in concert with terrible arthritis. We were given medications to help with the swelling and pain, and were told he was likely going to pull through as he was only 7 years old and was healthy in every other regard. Two days after the visit to the vet, he lost the ability to walk. It became clear not even surgery could prevent the inevitable.
I had a moment, totally overwhelmed, where I realized I had to tell my children, who had just lost their uncle, that we were going to lose our beloved pet. My wife and I embraced and cried with our faces buried deep into each other for comfort and support. We were unable to attend my brother in law’s funeral many states away, and I think for us both, we had an overdue moment.
I gathered myself and advised my young children of the dire situation our dog was in and of what the humane decision was for him. As the words parted my lips, the tears broke from my eyes and flowed freely down my face. I anticipated the tears and the upset that would follow the difficult news, but nothing would prepare me for what I heard next: “Daddy, YOU cry?” My youngest twin climbed on my lap and dried my tears whilst her own flowed, as she tried to comfort me as I embraced her.
I was completely taken aback and dried her tears with my own tear-soaked hands. “Honey, of course I cry, all people cry!” I exclaimed with shortened breath. I turned to my oldest daughter, who I was sure I must have cried in front of, and asked her to explain to her sister that everyone cries, and she said: “I only saw you cry once, daddy, and you put on your sunglasses and walked outside, and that was when Grandpa died a few years ago.”
I had a true moment of learning, as I am known to be a man who is in touch with his feelings. My family and friends joke about how I’m sensitive (in a positive light). My younger brother has a mock-cry whenever a sensitive subject comes up where he acts out his version of how I cry. How could I have never cried in front of my 7 year old twins and only once in front of my 11 year old daughter? Is it truly that ‘unmanly’ to cry that even a self-proclaimed sensitive man never cried in front of his kids? Is there a layer to my masculinity and manhood I’ve allowed stereotypes to mold?
I made the difficult decision to not only be with our dog when he was euthanized, but to make sure his little face was in my hands so I could give his forehead kisses and say my “I love yous” to ensure that was the last experience he had. I was clenching my jaw so hard my face was shaking from trying to fight back tears as the line which was delivering the propofol to ease him to sleep broke.
The vet apologized over and over as her assistant ran to fetch another vial. It is as though Kip knew what was happening and began to fight, falling under the drug’s spell, but still strong enough to try to run with his front paws. I kept kissing his head, holding him in place, and telling him he was going to be better soon and that I loved him.
The assistant returned after an eternity, and I looked at the vet through my sunglass covered eyes, jaw clenched, and thought about the fact I would never see Kip again. I broke. I began sobbing and crying – over Kip, over my brother, over my children experiencing all of this – and an unabashed, unapologetic soul-level outpouring ensued. I can’t say I felt any embarrassment, because I did not. I broke, and I allowed it to happen as one of my best friends died in my embrace.
The vet administered what was necessary and advised us Kipper was gone. She put her hand on my shoulder and broke down crying and sobbing. She took a step back and took a deep breath and apologized for her display of emotion. I was whimpering and shaking and pulled up my sunglasses to assure her it was fine that she was crying.
She asked me, as I was holding Kip’s paw, if I would like some more time with him. The 4×6 room began closing in on me, my wife, my dead dog, the vet, and everything else that was going on, and I decided I had to leave. I gave Kip a final kiss goodbye as she carried him out the exit into the hallway towards the back room as I faced the exit on the opposite side of the room. I heard the vet begin to wail and cry on the other side of the door, as it slowly closed shut. I took my wife’s hand and we walked out the door into the rest of our lives without our dog.
I had an “aha!” moment when I walked into the parking lot with my wife as we both again embraced and dried each other’s tears in preparation for our return home to lift our girls’ spirits. I realized I don’t cry in front of my children as a “professional courtesy” so they will view me as one of the capable people in charge of keeping them safe and loving them and guiding them. I can’t, as someone “in charge” show any weakness or vulnerability, otherwise I won’t be their “rock.” Really?
I don’t know that I would call it a catharsis, or a huge life changing revelation. I did learn an important lesson as a father, though: I need to teach my children that men do cry and that even parents sometimes hurt, and even those who guide are sometimes lost. I need to help them give meaning to everything they must be feeling in this impossible time. I need to remain strong and proud and brave – and share my tears with them as they share theirs with me.
Yes. It is true. I cry.
Photo: Flickr/Abd allah Foteih
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