How To Be A Man
Eighteen years ago I made my grandfather cry and my grandmother howl. If I close my eyes I can still hear that awful sound and see the tears flowing down his face.
Technically it wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t the cause of his pain but I was the messenger and that was enough to sear the moment into my memory.
Two hours later I gave my father the same news and held my breath while waiting for a similar response.
It didn’t come as I expected and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Life never slows down. It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t wait. No matter how badly you try to hold on and no matter how desperately you beg for it to just give you a moment to catch your breath you are forced to accept a simple truth.
In the midst of your glory and in the middle of your pain life continues. The river just never stops flowing.
Those are my words and though they were written in June of ’06 they were really born the day I made grandpa cry.
Until that day grandpa was one of the superheroes of my life who could do no wrong and always knew the right thing to say.
And then came the awful moment when I saw a piece of him break off and dissolve and I saw firsthand what I intellectually I knew, but emotionally never accepted, grandpa was just a man.
There is nothing wrong with being just a man. He never asked to be put on a pedestal or made any attempt to be treated differently than anyone else.
He didn’t hide his flaws from me and perhaps that was part of why he was one of my heroes.
In many ways my grandfather led a much harder life than I have and far more colorful. We could talk about his time in the carnival business or his time in the service and have more than a few stories to discuss, and I loved his stories.
The moment that made my grandfather cry wasn’t completely unexpected for him or for me. We had never talked about it, but I know he must have thought about it before it happened.
That is because when your child is ill it doesn’t matter how old you or they are. You find out what needs to be done and you do what you can to see that it happens.
But I didn’t involve myself in that particular discussion. I didn’t because I wasn’t asked and I respected the silence.
It would have been different if it happened now. It would have been different because at 43 I am a father and I have a better understanding of the kind of horror a parent feels when they receive terrible news about their child.
I made my grandfather cry because I was the one who told him that Uncle Jimmy had died.
And then I waited for my father to come home and told him his little brother was gone.
I was 17 when I found out that two of my uncles were gay. Uncle Jimmy thought it was funny that I hadn’t figured it out. I had been to his apartment and met his boyfriend, but it never clicked.
Can’t remember what my parents said other than Uncle Jimmy was lucky to live with his best friend. I think I was eight when they told me that and when you are eight you think that being able to have sleep overs with your best friend every night is cool.
Sometimes when I think about that day I am amazed at how strong my father was. When I told him about Uncle Jimmy I could see the pain in his eyes and noticed the change in his expression, but the first thing he did was ask if I was ok and then told me he needed to speak with his father.
I don’t think I recognized how remarkable it was then, but at 25 I was far less contemplative or observant.
Twelve years after Uncle Jimmy died my dad called to ask me a question. He had promised my mother that he would take her on a trip but was concerned because grandpa wasn’t doing well.
He wanted to know if I thought he should cancel the trip or if he should go. It was a seminal moment in our relationship and the first time I really remember him leaning on me.
I told him to go. I said that grandpa was almost 92 and at that age every day was a gift. They were my grandfather’s words but my dad understood.
Since they were driving up north I was confident that if something happened they would have plenty of time to come back home.
I was wrong.
Two days later I received a panicked call from grandpa’s caretaker and raced to the hospital.
The drive over was hard. It was early Saturday night and I hadn’t seen grandpa that day. I had intended to, but I was really tired so I planned on going Sunday morning.
The ER doctor didn’t mince words, grandpa was gone.
For the second time I had the responsibility of telling my father that someone important had died, but this time I had to do it by telephone.
And for the second time my father made a point to ask how I was doing and instructed me to check on my sisters to make sure they were ok.
No one learns all how to be a man from just one or two experiences but sometimes you can look at a handful use them to see the essence of the kind of guy you are supposed to grow up to be.
Those moments you just read about are some of mine.