I am sitting in the waiting area of the mechanic, thinking of Sean. Sean and his damn VW bug with the rear-mounted, air-cooled engine that no one has any right to attempt to drive in the Phoenix heat. I can still hear my dad cursing that car which seemed perennially scattered in his father’s driveway.
Sean, I think, looked up to my father the same way I did, saw his busted knuckles as a badge of honor, the result of a victorious tussle with a carburetor, alternator, or some other mysterious and probably dirty car part ending in -ator. I was a little jealous of Sean, consulting with my dad, the sage of all things mechanical, working side by side, bonding with him in a way I never could, bleeding and cussing and finally, triumphantly, making the damn thing WORK!
From the day my dad taught me how to clean a carburetor—I think I was five—I have been hooked on muscle cars and gearheads like my dad. He smelled of grease and gas and WD-40, black grime in the whorls of his fingertips, burns and divots on his stubby, plump fingers. When he’d clean up, he’d carefully scrub his hands to the elbows like a surgeon, studiously comb his hair into place after a shower, emerging smelling of Brute and hairspray. Sean was a young, blonde version of him with tousled hair, a smear of grease on his forearm, but most importantly fluent in the language of car.
And, oh, what a crush I had on him. My ears pricked up like a bird dog’s every time my dad mentioned his name. Usually “Sean” and “that damn car” appeared in the same sentence. I never understood about that car anyway. It seemed so un-Sean-like, seemed like he needed something more muscular, like a Nova or a Chevelle. I’d say something more reliable, but the bug very reliably sat.
And now Sean sits, or lies more specifically, perhaps yet in a hospital bed, waiting for a surgeon to harvest his organs, much like he would have pulled a part from a dead car in a junkyard to give life to another. More likely this has already occurred and he is lying in the morgue while someone else is living for him, because of him, a life he no longer wanted.
Hard to say why, but I think he came upon a problem he didn’t know how to fix. I think he should have called another mechanic.
I wrote the above words in 2010, after Sean died by suicide. Details of that day are sketchy, but I know there was a fight with a long-time girlfriend that forever ended when she found Sean hanging in a closet. That’s not the whole story, of course. People don’t end their lives over a fight with a girlfriend without some underlying issues.
Everyone was surprised, however. No one saw it coming. I think this speaks to the stigma of asking for help, particularly for men. Men, you know, don’t need help. They don’t have emotional problems. At least that’s what the male stereotype would have us believe.
But this is just another form of toxic masculinity. Not the variety that oppresses women that we hear so much about, but the one that oppresses men.
It’s ridiculous that male emotions, with the possible exception of anger, are so frequently equated with weakness. It saddens me that men like my father, who is a wonderful, kind, decent human being, are emotionally constipated as a function of essentially arbitrary gender roles.
From my limited perspective, Sean seemed to struggle, as many men do, with the “right” way to be a good man. He never really found his passion or, if he did, was not able to turn that into a career, something many men see as an essential component of the “good man.” I think this made him feel incomplete and unworthy, less than a man.
Rarely are men able to express that, at least not without confronting restrictive gender typecasting and the men, women, and institutions that propagate it. Sometimes, men are not even equipped with the language to express themselves. When boys are not encouraged to express sadness, loss, and hurt, they grow up to be men who don’t know how. Sean needed to be as fluent (at minimum) in the language of emotions as he was in the language of car. We need to teach them as boys. We need to encourage them as men.
Women have and continue to demand the right to cast aside these stereotypes in favor of being a whole, complete person, of being assertive and direct and not being called a bitch, of being sexual and not being called a whore—things traditionally celebrated in male gender roles—and we are right to do so. It’s well past time for men to have the same space to feel and express genuine human emotions, something previously acceptable only for women, and feel safe and valued and masculine while doing it.
The only right way to be a man is to be the man that YOU are, your best possible, most authentic, wonderful self. It angers me that men like Sean pay the ultimate price to accommodate some twisted caricature of maleness.
Sean was not the first to be sacrificed at the altar of toxic masculinity. But we should do everything we can to make him the last.
Photo credit: Flickr/VetaturFumare