The man that got away

by Christopher Hamblin

But fools will be fools. And where’s he gone to...Ira Gershwin

It was actually kind of a “normal” day. Not that my days are ever quite “normal,” but, for me, it was actually kind of a normal day. I’m busier than I’ve been in a long time, so my normalcy barometer hasn’t quite regulated itself yet. It’s a classic Carpenters “rainy-days-and” Monday, so a little blueness seems apropos. Mom has brought her niece and two nephews to Knoxville to see their cousin at college and to take them to Celebration Station–the Sam’s Club of arcade. I’ve had to cut my time with my family short because I’ve got a piano lesson in two hours and I’m afraid I’m not prepared. No Celebration Station for me. No celebration, indeed.

It’s been a week since I heard about Leonardo. He asked us to celebrate Movement. But where’s the Movement Celebration Station? Where do you drop your token to see your friend move on to a place you can’t follow? It’s been a week. Not long enough, but long enough to pretend. The cousins are rowdy today and the pretending is a little easier than usual because I realize how little attention they are paying me, and, moreover, how little attention they need from me as they play ping pong and air hockey in my apartment building’s recreational room. Nothing warned me about the news that was about to be revealed. Mom didn’t seem particularly harbinger-ish today. I was totally unprepared for it when she said, “Do you remember Brandy Thompson?”

It is handy that the family has stopped by on this rainy Monday day, because they could give me a ride over to the music building. We cram into the SUV, the six of us, some quite a bit smaller than others, and pretend not to be uncomfortable for the few minutes of the ride. But nothing good ever comes from a sentence that begins with “Do you remember...” But you can never quite see it coming until it’s said. Then you know what you don’t want to. You know. She’s dead. Four friends dead in a year. Ben a year ago, Jonathon six months ago, Leonardo two weeks ago, Brandy today. It hit me. It just did. It hit me. There was no real stopping it. I began to cry a bit. Not a lot, but a bit. Here in a university parking lot on my way to go practice and not to Celebration Station with my stepfather, mother, and three Logan, Loren and Colby cousins, I cry a bit for my friend.

Colby is seven. His father died before he could memorize him. Before any of us could. We all cried then. More than a bit and in more than one parking lot. I can still see him screaming at his father’s coffin, “Daddy, daddy.” But today, on his way to Celebration Station, he is seven. And he is with me as I cry a bit for my friend. Colby does NOT like this. He says to me, “Why are you crying? You’re a man. You’ve got to get it together and stop crying.”

Perhaps he did not need attention from me. But today, at age seven, on his way to Celebration Station, he got it. I yelled. Something I almost never do, but today, as I cry a bit for my friend, I yell. I yell because my sacred space of grief has been violated. The other two kids know. The adults know. They are silent as I collect my things and go to practice not crying for my piano lesson. My mother hugs me long and meaningfully. She misses her brother so badly and is shocked by the words that have just come out of his son. She misses her own son even as she hugs him and tries to grab hold of the hurt and fix it, but she knows she can’t. But she tries. That’s her.

I come away stunned. Was my masculinity actually just challenged by a seven year old? Yes, as a matter of fact, it was. At seven years old–need I say it again? At seven years old, my cousin whom I love, my cousin Colby, my dead uncle’s son, accused me of being less than a man for expressing sadness over a friend’s death–a friend who struggled with depression and addiction and who, at age 23, left behind two incredibly loving parents and a four-year-old child of her own before they could memorize her. Of course I don’t expect Colby to understand the full tragedy of the situation. He has no relationship to Brandy, Leonardo, Jonathon, Ben, and I don’t expect him to be moved at all. But how is it that so early in his life he already has such a fixed image of male gender?

I suppose there are in this world people who are “naturally” stoic, though it seems clear that I am not in their number. And perhaps–just perhaps–there are more “naturally” stoic males than females. But at what point did “unemotionality” become not only associated with but expected of males? How did it come to be that one can’t “be a MAN” and still cry a bit for his dead friend?

I am reminded of the television special “Free to Be...You and Me.” I remember seeing it for the first time recently (thank God for Netflix) and realizing how boldly it addressed the issue of ‘sissiness.’ It went so far as to propose to young children that the true ‘sissies’ of the world are those who do not allow themselves to show emotion, for they are the ones giving into fear.

But fear of what? Fear of weakness? Fear of public mockery? Or, perhaps most simply and humanly, fear of feeling the pain associated with the need to cry? These are questions that years of psychoanalysis and cultural studies might not be able to answer. I mean, there is nothing scary about crying itself, right? No one runs away screaming at the sight of a tear. Hitchcock never simply showed someone crying to get the shock value and scare his audience. But there must be something frightening about the experience of crying. It seems that the young man in this society is taught that expressing too much emotion–particularly that of sadness–reveals a feminine side of himself that exposes his inability to deal with a particular situation ‘like a man.’ He learns as early as seven years old that tears directly compromise his masculinity and therefore his social status. Most simply put, crying weakens a man and is absolutely socially unacceptable.

But that’s them. Not me or my family. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, MY cousin Colby told me that I shouldn’t cry.

His father was what one could call a “man’s man.” He was very hard on me, and until he died I thought he was ashamed of me. I was never a “man’s man.” At best I was a girl-y boy. He rarely showed any emotion, and, if he did, it was very “masculine” anger. He worked hard in the tobacco and hay; he designed and built his own two-story house with no more than a very few college classes under his tool belt. He even added on to the house when his family began growing. All the while I was buying every Bette Midler recording and movie I could get my hands on and ringing handbells and singing and acting and all those other “girly” things. Probably much like many of you reading this, I was brought up to believe in my inferiority based on my “femininity.” I was made to resist standing up for myself for fear of inability to defend myself.

Recently in an entry-level college class I took, I was consistently mocked upon speaking in the class. It eventually became necessary for me to stand up–a first for me in this way. I stopped the class and made it clear (with the support of my amazing teacher) that this was unacceptable and would not be tolerated any longer. As the class continued, there became many discussions of gender. Many of the males in the class spouted the stereotypical “masculine” things expected of a boy–learn to throw a baseball, stand up and be a man, don’t cry, find a good wife, etc. I found myself wondering, though, how many of them would have stood up for themselves in the way I had to. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that the “sissy” had “been a MAN?”

After Mark died I realized that his yelling or scolding or reprimanding was the only way he knew how to show me love. He himself had been taught a certain form of masculinity that often prevented us from being as close as we would have liked to be. When the boys came along it was a bit different. Mark loved Colby and his older brother Luke better than anything in the world. He had married his high school sweetheart who hung the moon and the stars and was adored, so having two symbols of that love in the form of Luke and Colby softened Mark up quite a bit.

But here’s what I know for sure. Mark’s love came first. Not his masculinity or his fear. He fought fiercely for his love. He even suffered through a production of Le Nozze de Figaro that I was in. THAT was love for Mark. Never in a million more years would he have sat through another opera if I hadn’t asked him to. But he did it. That’s him. And no matter what his own feelings, expressed or unexpressed, about men crying, I know that he would never have allowed his son to believe such a vicious lie as the one his Colby has learned to believe.

I could say a lot of things about how my cousins are being raised, but I’m not in their everyday lives, so none of it would be quite accurate and even less fair. I could say a lot of things about how Mark would have done things differently, but, much to my dismay, I didn’t memorize him well enough to put words into his prematurely silenced mouth. But I can say that I am proud to have cried a bit for my friend in front of my seven-year-old cousin Colby on his way to Celebration Station. And I can ask you to honor the human tear, whether it be your own or someone else’s. And I do ask that if you ever meet a seven year old on his way to Celebration Station, or if you have your own Colby, Luke, Logan, Christopher, that, if you need to cry a bit for your friend, you do so and you tell him in love why it’s ok that his Daddy, Cousin, Brother, Uncle, or Any Man is crying.

Photo by Tanushree Rao on Unsplash

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