I was 16 the first time I saw my father cry.
It was his mother’s funeral, where I was doing my impression of a Weeping Willow at a Rave. I was dripping snot and spit all over the place because I had not yet learned to contain things like grief.
I was too young to know pretensions, so I made my way through life like a naked monsoon tripping all over myself. The expression of every emotion like an animal in the bush, wild and free.
Those are the days we long for, no?
But when my grandmother died, the wind got sucked out of the belly of the family.
We didn’t just cry. We wailed. Long and loud. And even when it stopped, you could still hear the hole she left in the family. The echo of her absence bounced off the walls for years.
It was my initiation to grief, and it was my father who taught me two things about being a man that time:
- Men cry.
- But not the way other people cry. There is a particular way in which a man cries. There’s a protocol for this, handed down from “the Old Country,” from grandfathers to fathers to sons.
“Don’t make a big show of it”, he whispered. “Don’t keep it in. Let it out. But just let it roll off your cheeks, that’s all. No drama.”
And so it is written.
Men cry with restraint, with dignity. It involves a lot of swallowing.
Often, the tears doesn’t even look like crying. It looks like other things, like meanness, like anger, like indifference. History noted this. Thus the myth that men don’t cry was created… and that a man who can’t cry is a dangerous man. That last part might be true.
As years went on, I found it harder to cry. I learned to shut that down, unless a woman left me. When a woman leaves me, Niagara Falls comes begging for a drop, acting like a thirsty sand pit. Because like most men, there is no pain equal to the loss of a lover.
But other than that, you have a better chance getting tears out of Mt. Rushmore than you do out of me.
When a man cries, you don’t get the whole thing. You get the Bach remedy version: the Essence of Griefsicle. You stick a tap in that tree and draw out a little sap, but the tree doesn’t wince. If you’re lucky, you get a few drops of that sweetness. That’s it, move on.
“Nothing to see here folks!”
A few years after Grandma Liotta died, the family cat, Tawny, died. People think you’re not supposed to feel the loss of a pet as much as you do a person. Staring out the kitchen window, my father said,
“It’s strange. You try and tell yourself its just a cat, but…”
and then the lone tear begins its slow climb down his cheek. The tear takes its time, like a man standing on a ledge contemplating the jump, not really sure he wants to take the leap, and not comfortable with all the attention. So he lingers.
True Confession: About 30 years ago I swallowed the 7 seas of grief. Every loss gave rise to incredible fire, which I doused with anything I could get my hands on. I swallowed everything. Meanwhile, the grief compounded. Grief sat on a ledge somewhere inside of me, lingering, thinking it over. Once in a while, a drop dribbles out. Most of the grief just says, “what the hell,” turns around, and goes back in. That’s not easy when you’re a fire-breathing dragon. You fly around swallowing your own fire a lot, and believe me, there’s fire in those tears.
Scientists analyzed the chemical make-up of tear drops. H2o, saline, & cortisol. Cortisol, that’s a nasty little piece of poison that will burn a hole through your gut if you don’t spit it out. Some years ago, autopsies were done on men who were considered “Type A Personalities”. Guess what they found? Ulcers in the coronary arteries filled with cortisol deposits.
When a man shuts his emotions in, his body turns into a burning building. Excess cortisol acts like people trying to jump out the window, but when a man shuts the gates of his eyes, those little guys are forced back into the furnace. They find their way into the arteries and the heart. A 4-alarm blaze.
Yeah, that stuff is not supposed to stay in the body for more than a few minutes. Then it turns into coca-cola and eats its way through the rust in your veins.
But, like most men, I swallow it. Decades of denying my grief, shoving tears down, swallowing sadness, transmuting it into fraudulent anger (which feels so much more powerful than grief,) keeping my face in one position like Chief Joseph sitting for a photograph while his feet are in shackles.
A face of stone often foreshadows a heart so rigid it stops working. Keep your face like Mt. Rushmore long enough and the heart turns to stone.
Grief has a life, and like all living things, it wants a voice.
Grief wants to be seen, heard, acknowledged. If we shut the gates, grief finds another expression. For many, grief looks like depression. Depression for a man often looks like anything but depression. Sadness likes to masquerade as anger for men. The irritable, angry man is most often a very sad man. A sad man unable to create anything of beauty in the world.
Those angry barbs, the sharp tongue, the short temper….that’s Halloween for a man’s grief. Put on a scary costume, maybe nobody will know the ocean of tears sitting in there. The nightmare leaks out.
Grief seeps out in anger, sarcasm, self sabotage, compulsions, addictions, and unkindness. A man containing a belly full of grief often looks like the Grinch who stole Christmas.
No wonder women outlive men by approximately 5 years in the USA. Cause of death: Drowning by unspoken tears.
The man who’s life has become a howl may never shed a tear, yet he’s a walking cage full of muted sobs.
We ought to build pits where men can go just to cry.
Native Americans had sweat lodges. I found my way there some years ago, and became addicted to the soft embrace of the Mother. Now you know why so many white men gravitate toward that ceremony, despite the accusation of cultural appropriation. I pledge a thousand years of gratitude to my brothers & sisters for that gift. Call me whatever you want. I just want to cry a river.
Because swallowing oceans of grief invites a darkness called depression. Depression turns a man into a thief. Depression steals his gifts from the world and harbors all his gold like a dragon holed up in a cave.
You know, there’s a little-known fact about dragons. Fire builds in a furnace in their bellies. It gives their wings fuel to fly, but once in the sky, they must spit it out, or they lose their capacity to fly. That fire is essential for shaping new life in the world. A dragon with no fire is impotent. The dragon that can’t put their fire into the world becomes grounded. The fire sits in there and eats him up.
When a man swallows all his fire, he becomes socially impotent. The fundamental purpose for every person on this planet tis o find out what his/her gift is, and to breath its life into being. Joseph Campbell once said that, for a man, it is essential he find a way to give birth to something of value in the world. A man consumed by his own self-interest is a vampire. A man suffocating beneath his self-pity, remorse, and despair is a grounded dragon. Unable to fly, unable to bring the terror of transformation to “the way things are”.
I’m sure there are women reading this saying,
“Oh, I think its so beautiful when a man’s not afraid to cry. I love it when a man cries. I want to find a man who cries.”
Lets talk about that for a moment shall we?
- We don’t believe you.
- It doesn’t matter. Men don’t need to cry to make women like us. We need to cry to make the world a safer place.
Every now and then depression settles on me like an unwelcome squall. Blinds my vision so I can’t see what’s in front of me. All I see is my past, or the nonsense my mind likes to fabricate. Someone once said to me,
“well, if you’re going to go down into that dark cellar, you may as well bring something back. Don’t come back up until you find the gift.”
Then he walked away, left me to figure out the next part. Every darkness yields a gift, and once a man gets his hands on that, the next thing to do is hand it over. Give it to the world. This is how men give birth. If a man can’t find a way to give birth to something in this world, there’s no point in being here. It’s the rent we pay for living in this majestic palace called Earth. It’s the best way to cry.
Let my grief become water for this parched earth. Let my tears become songs that grow fields to feed the world.