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.

Life continues.

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.

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  1. Bill Dameron November 29, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    How difficult that must have been, not only to notify them, but to listen to their pain. When my father died, I had to call people and let them know. One of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

    • Jack November 30, 2012 at 12:22 am

      Hi Bill,

      The hardest part wasn’t the “telling” but the grief that came from those I told. You are so very right about how their pain can just hit you in the gut. It is not easy.

      I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to let people know about your father while you were grieving.

  2. Ben November 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    The burden of notification is such a heavy one – no tto be the instrument of pain, but to be the one weilding it. Well captured.

  3. Ginny Marie November 28, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    It is so true what they say, that everyone grieves in different ways. I have seen my dad cry many times over the loss of my mom, and yet my husband is calm and never cries, even after his mom died. And so we go on, as my dad likes to write at the end of his emails.

  4. Kiki November 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    That’s a lot of weighty news to share! Wow… Thanks for sharing these stories and I’m sorry you had to go through that, but glad you can see some of the ways it made you grow on the other side.

    • Jack November 29, 2012 at 9:40 am

      Hi Kiki,

      Yeah, it definitely helped me grow and since there is no way to stop people from dying I suppose it was a pretty good lesson in more than one way.

  5. TriGirl November 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    My grandfather was my superhero too. He passed away when I was 12 and I was in complete shock. Even though he was sick, I just didn’t think he could die. That was the first time I saw my mother cry too. It was a scary day. But things change, and you grow, even if things don’t get easier.

    • Jack November 29, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Hello TriGirl,

      Grandparents really hold a special place in the lives of many grandchildren. It is too bad we can’t stop the clock and spend more time with them.

  6. Dilovely November 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Beautiful post. There is so much love in your words.
    (For the record, when I moved in with my then-boyfriend – now-husband – I remember thinking it was just like having permanent sleepovers with my best friend… and it IS cool, don’t you think?)

  7. Azara November 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    I really liked how this flowed, just carrying me along through each scene. Beautiful, moving post.

  8. Kaarina Dillabough November 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    A most profound and moving post. It was like I was with you on the journey…and that’s the highest compliment I think I could give any writer. Cheers! Kaarina

  9. Stacie November 27, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Wow. I’m so sorry you had to be the bearer of bad news like that. Your Dad sounds amazing – you are lucky to have him!

  10. Grand New Mom November 27, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I know exactly what you mean about putting your grandpa on a pedestal. Mine was always up there too. There was nobody I respected more than him.

    What a powerful story, told really well.

  11. stephanie November 27, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Moving story, Jack. It’s fascinating how we process our grief. It makes you think of court cases and how they analyze the behavior of people who they feel don’t act appropriately. What a great example you have in your life. And I love your story about your 8 yr old self and Uncle Jimmy living with his best friend.

    • Jack November 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      Hi Stephanie,

      Yeah, those court cases don’t ring true to me. I am sure that some of them are spot on in their assessment but so many people don’t scream out loud so…

      My folks like to tease me sometimes about that moment with Uncle Jimmy. I have to laugh at it too.

      But part of what I love best about my folks is that they never treated my uncle differently for being gay. Sure, things were changing in the 70s, but they still weren’t like they are now.

      And when he told us he was HIV+ they never changed their behavior. We still saw him as often as possible.

  12. IASoupMama November 27, 2012 at 8:09 am

    I am very sorry for your losses.

    Processing grief is such a nebulous thing — yes, there are five steps, but everyone takes those steps at a different time and in a different way. My mother is a very dramatic griever — she sobs and keens and rends herself asunder. I can’t do that. My grief is, was, and always will be quieter. That doesn’t make it any less potent. I would have reacted like your dad, truth be told.

    • Jack November 27, 2012 at 11:23 pm

      I have had the “good fortune” of passing on this sort of news on multiple occasions and to multiple groups of people. I suspect that I have been asked because I tend to be very calm, but that is neither here nor there.

      What I have learned is exactly what you shared, people grieve in different ways. I have seen so many different versions it has impacted my reaction to cop shows. It usually goes something like this, cops tell husband/wife that their spouse is dead and then decide spouse is guilty because they didn’t fall down upon the ground screaming.

      Some people just don’t do that and that is ok with me. I am not sure that there is a “proper” way to grieve.

      Quiet grief is still grief.

  13. Joe November 27, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Hi Jack,
    Right now I’m struggling with writing a post about my uncle, who died when I was a baby and turned my family’s world upside down. My cousin is helping me with it, providing his memories, but ultimately the final product falls on me and I’m not sure how I will react to that responsibility. But I know its something I have to write, and I don’t believe anything I will write after it will be as important.

    The prospect of writing it and promoting it keeps me awake at night. Reading a post like yours makes it easier to think about. But it will still be difficult to write.

    • Jack November 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm

      Hi Joe,

      I struggled with this post and that rarely happens to me. Most of the time I just write with reckless abandon and then if necessary do some basic spit and polish to whatever I have written.

      But this one didn’t flow the way I wanted it to and I had to wrestle with it a bit to make it work.

      The best advice I have is to just write and then worry about editing it later. Once you have words on paper it gets to be much easier.

  14. Greg November 27, 2012 at 2:40 am

    I and my younger brother had much the same awefull task
    Our mother died two years ago from alcohol abuse,s silent drinker after her third husband died
    She was 64 and her mother,my Grandmother was still alive,we had to break the news to her
    My brother felt he could not talk to our grandmother from not getting on with her through his childhood-a split family
    So I took the responsiblity as at the same time our grandmother had fallen and fractured her pelvis,putting her in hospital
    I needed to inform her that our mothers funeral was in a week and that she my grandmother was going to be unable to attend
    It was hard but had to be talked about and my grandmother or mothers mother was 7
    The funeral was all very quick as me and my brother both live abroad,so we were forced to move the funeral as quickly as possible
    I understand your situation and realise that though difficult,some things just have to be faced and dealt with in order to expidite the situation

  15. Betsy Cross November 27, 2012 at 1:59 am

    This brought back the memory of the day my sister died and my mom wouldn’t go to tell my dad. I had to. I waited from him to cry but he just took my hand, looked into my yes, and asked if I was okay. He probably cried when I left. Now when I visit him and her name comes up he breaks into tears and then apologizes. He always gets me crying!

    My brothers are bitter about their relationship with him. They needed (they say) for him to connect to them emotionally- to show them how to be a man who could cry. They have no relationship with him because of their resentment. They just can’t accept that he was “damaged” as a child and hasn’t worked it out, yet, and probably won’t in this life. They wanted so much more from him. And he couldn’t deliver. But he isn’t cold and uncaring, just shut down.

    Interesting, isn’t it, how we all express ourselves differently and yet we share the same feelings?

    A lot for me to think about.

    • Jack November 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm

      Hi Betsy,

      I didn’t see my father cry until I was almost 30 and I think it probably has a lot to do with why I don’t cry very easily at all. I guess we all handle things in our way.

      I can’t imagine how hard it was for you and your family the day your sister died. Some moments are just beyond words.

  16. Stan Faryna November 27, 2012 at 12:21 am


    I apologize for the lack of words in my comment but, powerful, says it all.

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