I have seen my dad cry only once. He cried at a funeral that didn’t matter to me, didn’t matter to him. A funeral that didn’t matter.
The funeral didn’t matter to me. My great-grandmother, my dad’s grandmother, had passed in her sleep. I say she passed because she did not kick or scream or otherwise protest against the nothing that faced her ahead. An indoor funeral with a guest list of fifteen was the only fanfare awarded to her.
We stepped out of the car, into the damp heat of a country-club-funeral-home that smelled an awful lot like my great-grandmother’s retirement unit, and not at all like the syrupy pines of Marietta, Georgia, where she, and my father, grew up. I clocked a Get Well Soon balloon on a grave, before I was swarmed by a crowd of Southerners that had gone to church their entire lives so that this day could be a celebration to them.
We were brought into the main parlor, where my great-grandmother’s body sat at the far end of the room. The air conditioning harshly overcorrected for the outside heat, and we walked past the twenty or so rows of pews as though we were the first family to arrive at mass. Once all of the guests were seated, only the first two rows were occupied. The first two rows and the closed casket that ate the entire stage at the end of the room.
The first thing to note about my father is that he was a cadet at the Citadel during his more formative years. I believe they broke him there. When I was young, he would tell me the most outlandish stories from his time spent there. He would tell me of the cockroaches they let loose in cadets’ mouths to initiate them. A 10-year-old version of myself squirmed at the thought, but laughed it off. My dad did not tell me the stories of being treated like he was nothing. Less. He did not tell me that the cadets did not have names for their first year. He did not tell me that puking, crying, being worked nearly to death, was par for the course each day. He did not tell me that giving up was not a luxury he was afforded.
I remember driving to South Carolina for his college reunion. I remember everyone there looked the same. Not just because they were all men. Not just because they all looked like they could snap me in half and suck the meat out of my shell. They all looked broken. A whole courtyard of military-trained men who looked completely and utterly broken, even 25 years later. The eyes were the dead giveaway. The eyes in that courtyard did not cry when they watched movies. They did not cry when their sons or daughters graduated preschool, or high school. They did not cry out of joy, or love, or reunion. And they did not cry out of pain, or loss, or sorrow. These men held their grief. They knew what it meant to feel weakness. To feel hopeless. They did not intend to show it.
The funeral didn’t matter to him. He did not have a speech prepared when they asked him to speak. Instead, the words were given to him: a letter he had written while he was young. It was crumpled and stained, and my dad read it as though he were reading aloud financial paperwork, or perhaps the ingredients on a box of cereal; there was no real emotion attached to it. The letter was a thank-you to his grandmother for the financial support and opportunities she had given him through his young life, and it was kept brief, the grateful bullets staccato. But as my dad neared the end of the letter, I felt a riptide sweeping out towards my father, away from the solid oak pew I sat in. The air chased him as though it were magnetized, and a single tear fell down his cheek. He cleared his throat as my eyes hit the carpeted floor, not wanting to intrude on a moment that I surely was not meant to see.
The carpet was a sad blue-gray with scraping intersections of beige.
I heard him sniffle and choke on his next words, affirming the tear was not alone.
It felt to me as though a funeral home should have a more cheerful flooring, to counteract the grief swallowed by the rest of the room. Yet here it was, a morose depiction of blue-gray lament, streaked by jagged beige lightning that held pain.
I hadn’t heard any of the words he had said after that first tear fell. The words didn’t matter. The constant throat clearing, desperate attention to the nose, his rising panic that people were watching, his subsequent clawing at the cheeks to erase any evidence of the breakdown. These details mattered.
I presume his letter continued beyond what he read, but he stopped abruptly. “Your grandson, Shane.” He offered no further comment on her life, their relationship, or the joy she may have brought to those around her. He did not note that she was a warm smile on a warmer Georgia afternoon. He did not retell the stories she told. He did not embellish her visits. He thanked the small crowd, and stepped off the stage into his seat at the pew, not meeting any of our eyes for the rest of the funeral.
It had not occurred to me that I had never seen my father cry until it actually happened in front of me. I did the best I could to make sense of the event in my head to little avail, as the occurrence was entirely foreign to me. I realized as I traced his stained cheeks in my mind, it wasn’t only tears that were so estranged from my vision of him; the entire concept of sadness seemed decidedly disconnected from my father. I had never seen him in a state of upset like this. I had seen him wear anger, I had seen his face cloaked in disappointment, but it was never sorrowful.
I second guessed myself. I started sorting through every memory I had of him. I created different piles in my head to try to map out his emotions. By the end of my obsessive reorganizing and cross-checking of my memories, I was left with many piles. Different faces he wore. Piles of disappointment. Piles of regret. Of anger. But not sadness. There existed only one, newly carved out memory of him wearing sadness. A memory that was not mine. A memory I had intruded on. Was that really his darkest moment?
I resented him for it. For the lack of emotion. For the lack of emotion on my behalf. I understood why he never cried for me. But I wished he would. I needed him to. I needed him to feel the weight of my being. I needed him to feel the dagger of his little boy going off to preschool for the first time. The pain, the pride of seeing his boy become a young man. I had no evidence that my life had any effect on his. I bore no weight. I was not held precious.
Did he not cry for me? I repeated the question over and over in my head until the thought sickened me. I needed to be wrong. I needed him to grieve, to feel, to anguish over my burden. Because without that weight, I wasn’t sure he was any different for knowing me. For raising me.
Did he not cry for me?
The funeral didn’t matter. We stepped out of the country-club-funeral-home. Back out into the damp Georgia heat. But everything felt stickier now. Sweat glued my collar to my neck.
I didn’t remember the rest of the funeral.
I tried not to look at my father as we walked out, but I noticed a few things about his demeanor through the corner of my eye.
One, he was sweating. The rest of us were sweating too, but this was from more than just heat. It clung to his skin, masking the rest of his face.
Two, he was habitually removing and donning his viser, covering his eyes each time he did so, allowing a stream of salty water to fall from his hair.
Three, he kept his gaze fixed on the car as we walked. He was determined to leave.
The southerners swarmed us like locusts. Down the line, we hugged them, one-by-one, each of them all-too-happy to be in attendance at such an event. I noticed my grandmother pull my dad in close and hold him there for a moment.
My father was not a hugger. Usually in favor of the half-hug, he never lingered for more than a second with any given person. That was not the case here. The rest of us safely crossed to the car, as I turned back and watched his beady, lumbering form sink into her embrace. I do not know what held them together. I do not know why my father gave in to familial comfort in that moment. I do not know what they said to each other. Only the private memory shared between a mother and son knows.
Maybe she asked him about God. About his seeking, his finding, his losing of God. If asked, maybe my dad replied with a joke about how much good it did his grandmother, who remained indoors now, on her passage to heaven. Maybe he said hell to drive his point home.
Or maybe she simply hugged him. Maybe they both understood what the other needed.. Maybe she did not need to ask are you okay? for the question was obvious, and my father likely would not respond in truth. Maybe he found console now in her hug that he had not found in his youth, and this resigned him to speechlessness as they broke from their embrace, and he joined us at the car.
We did not speak on the ride home. The air conditioning from the front seat was frigid, and I could feel it filling up the car, pushing against the windows as we swelled like a balloon.
Ten minutes passed. I looked to the rest of my family. I looked for some sign that they were feeling this, too. That they, too, were sitting in the same funeral parlor with me. That they, too, had watched him break. They kept their heads down.
Twenty minutes passed. I wanted to speak. I wanted to spill out everything I felt, but the air conditioning pushed back against me, choking me, until I could not remember the words to say.
After half an hour of choking silence, we arrived at the hotel. My father put the car in park, but did not make a move to leave. He must have felt our eyes, felt the way we choked, because after thirty passed, he spoke.
“I don’t know what came over me. I wasn’t sad about Irene. I guess I just thought about you boys, and how you’ll have to see me die. And see each other die. That’s all.”
There was breath. And then silence. He added “I’m sorry,” before abruptly exiting the car, leaving the rest of us to choke on the A/C.
So he did cry for me. He mourned my mourning. He grieved the day I felt grief. He felt the weight of my life. The weight of my emotions.
I didn’t want that anymore. I had wanted it before, but I didn’t want that now. I don’t want that. Could we not return to when I lamented his nonchalance? His ignorance to pain?
I feel now like I am a burden to him. I know now that he does cry. He does cry, but he does not cry in front of me. He keeps it not from himself, but from the world. From his children. He does not want me to know the weight he carries. He does not want me to grieve his emotions. He wants me to live independent of what he is feeling.
I do not want that anymore.
I don’t know how to tell you any of this. I don’t know what words to say. If there are words to say. I don’t know how to voice the impact you’ve had on me. On how I view emotion. How I view masculinity, and repression, and love. I picture you, breathless and sweaty and panicked, as I realize that to live – to feel pain, to grieve, to love so completely it must be wrong – is to burden you.
I wanted to tell you that it was okay. In that car ride. I wanted to tell you that it didn’t matter that your walls fell down for just a moment at some country-club-funeral-home in Marietta. I wanted to tell you I understood. I understood that feeling you had, that feeling that the people we love will one day mourn our absence. That feeling that the mourning will detract from the love you felt in the first place. I wanted to tell you I understood.
I wanted to laugh about it with you. I wanted to tell you about a memory I had in that moment, a memory of when I cried during a little league baseball game because I thought the ball might hit me, and you told me to just suck it up. I wanted to tell you to just suck it up and we both would have laughed at it together. I wouldn’t have meant it. Of course I wouldn’t have meant it.
Instead, I said nothing. In that car ride. I didn’t know how to say any of it. I still don’t know how.
I am afraid that the person I want to be is writing this. I am afraid that the burden I give you is deeper. I am afraid that, as I sink into the tidepool of emotion I so often feel, I burden you with dependency, with disappointment, with a mandatory surrogate smile that tells the people around you how proud you are of me.
I am afraid, dad. I am afraid I will die and you will have to see it. I am afraid you will have to live with my burden.
I hope I see you die first. I hope you never have to feel the weight of watching your own sons grieve. I need that from you.
Blake Croft is a sophomore studying theatre. You will probably see him dancing alone out in public. If you do, please join him. He needs it so bad.