I recently read a piece on fatherhood and attachment parenting (AP). I read and participated in the comments as well. Since then the aftereffects have been bouncing around in my head like a pinball (yes, there is that much room in there) and it just won’t leave me alone.
It has nothing to do really with AP or any other kind of parenting. It was more about the emotional reaction I had to the discussion of men and their feelings.
It has reminded me of my father. Not him as a parent, or even a man, but actually the emotional aftermath of his death.
About a month after my father passed I was with a friend in a tavern. It was one of those rare places suited for someone like me. It had walls paneled in dark wood, oversized leather seating strewn across a carpet thick enough to keep the room near soundless, even when it was busy. And it had the look of never having been busy. The memory of quiet conversations hung in the air like the secret history of a thousand friendships. A single, gentleman barkeep polished glasses; on the ready to pour your choice of poison or listen to a joke.
We were just there making quiet small talk, probably poking a little fun at politics or maybe discussing the latest in movies. I don’t exactly remember what we were talking about that day. It was over twenty years ago.
At some point, in the middle of a short lull, he asked me, almost as though it were an afterthought. “So, how are you doing now…since your Dad?”
And I told him, you know, pretty much in the way of small talk between two friends in a bar.
“Oh, you know. It’s a process. It goes up and down. Pretty normal path of grief, actually. But I am getting along with it. Doing well. It happens to all of us, you know?”
My friend listened to me, nodded his head and downed the last of his beer without saying anything. Then he hopped up from his chair, took a step away, then turned back toward me and leaned down. He spoke, almost whispering, “Another beer?”
And as he spoke he rested his hand on my shoulder. He gave me a gentle, almost non-existent squeeze; just enough pressure, just barely enough, to register, and in it I could feel the most profound love of my friend. It was a touch that made words useless; that transcended any crazy notion that there was something that needed to be said, and indeed proved just how empty and useless the human mouth can be at times.
With that touch, a tear instantly slid from my eye and mercifully tracked down the other side of my face, away from his view.
And before you decide to butcher that moment by observing that I should not be ashamed of my tears, or that I think they should be hidden, please don’t do that. I am not ashamed of my tears, nor would my friend have ever harbored any such thought.
The thing is that he did not need to hear the admission of my pain, or see my tears, to know my grief. He knew me. He knew my father had died. So, he knew what he needed to know. He did not require anything from me to offer his love in a way that my heart could take in, like water on a dry sponge. I did not need to lay my grief at his feet or satisfy his need to pull my feelings about the loss of my father out through my lips.
He honored my privacy. He did not dig and scrape and invade underneath my platitudes to get at the rawness of my loss. Nor was he fooled by the shallowness of my answers. He simply walked around all those things and offered me what only another man could. The silent, undemanding love of a brother.
In his touch was the compassion of a thousand therapists. And in his honor of my private way of grieving was the skill so few therapists ever learn. He, in that brief but timeless moment, was the protector of my broken heart; standing as a sentry guarding my wounds and allowing me to lean on him in the way of men.
These days, when I hear the prattle of the allegedly enlightened about the hearts of men, I almost always laugh at their lack of understanding; about their desperation to prove competence and expertise in matters on which they are truly clueless.
I listen to them talk about men’s need to be ok with sharing their feelings, about being emotionally open, but most often this is all framed in the most disrespectful and ignorant tone of someone asserting that men would be better off if they were more like women.
As always, a bushel of foolishness usually contains a kernel of truth. Certainly men do need to give themselves more permission to feel, and to express it. But as I look past all the sneering condescension of those who think men would benefit from sitting in circles and passing Kleenex, satisfying the sick and outrageous egos of book hucksters and Oprah aficionados, I am reminded of my friend and his healing love.
I am reminded that emotional pain is not a dog and pony show, that love is not a brass band or a group hug, and that friendship is defined and proven by the people in it. With all respect for women, and in honor of their ways to handle their own hearts, this is all especially true for men.
I am not pretending you can meet all of a man’s needs with such a simple expression. But I received healing that day; a kind of healing that I carry with me and always will. It did not require an emotional breakthrough, or some vast cathartic moment or rounds of counseling, insurance forms and the dissection of my childhood. All that was needed was the company of a friend who chose to see my pain, and who chose to offer comfort, not with his ego and false wisdom, but with his love and grounded respect.
This is the way of men, when we get out of their way and choose not to force them into the mold of ideologues. Look as hard as I may, I can find nothing in it to fault.