A Grown Man, Crying

Just about anything that takes me back to Mister President has been bringing me to tears. This is true whether it’s something as pronounced as recounting for friends and family how he came to pass so quickly, or something as mundane as reaching for a scarf on the coatrack and, through muscle memory, picking up the old boy’s leash and collar by mistake. When I looked down and saw it in my hands, all my composure crumbled right off me, and the tears started pouring.

For men, crying is a complicated thing. I don’t claim to be John Wayne, but I do have a nontrivial amount of my identity invested in being emotionally anchored and resistant to dramatic mood shifts. I think of myself as “manly” or at least aspire to “manliness,” and gaps in that veneer are uncomfortable, something to be avoided, hidden, and left unspoken. The corollary to that is I also harbor a dread of weakness, or even the appearance of weakness; few things seem as unmanly or as weak as crying.

Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I have been crying. On the subway, at the grocery store, walking down the street, talking to strangers, on the phone, at dinner, and many more places besides. It’s awkward for me, and awkward for the people before whom I’ve been sobbing like a helpless child. No matter how enlightened most people claim to be, the reality of a grown man in tears ignites immediate discomfort.


The truth of it, though, is that I don’t really want to stop. The act of shedding tears, hyperventilating, losing my balance, letting the despair beat me down without a fight… it all brings a real and tangible relief. There’s comfort in it, a feeling as warm and intimate as a cherished blanket.

I’ve come to feel grateful for the crying, actually, and I even relish it. It lets me feel the loss fully in the moment, and allows me to hold the memory of my dear, lost companion very close to me, almost like an embrace. I’m clearly not yet ready to let him go, and for now the closest I can feel to him is when I drop all pretenses of strength and resolve, and just succumb to the pain.

A day after Mister President passed away, I cried so many times that by nightfall I felt spent, exhausted, almost numb, and I couldn’t utter a single additional whimper. I woke up that way the next morning too, and it scared the shit out of me. I tried to bring tears to my eyes, but I couldn’t. It felt like he was already slipping away from me, disappearing into the past.

Then, while washing my hands in the bathroom, I suddenly broke down. There was no specific reminder or provocation, just a sudden, involuntary flooding of grief that made me almost double over and fall to the floor. Laura came in and put her arms around me and just let me weep.

By the time the crying dissipated and my breathing returned to normal, I felt incrementally restored, like I had gained just a little bit of my strength back. I guess that’s how one grows to accept death: bit by bit, tear by tear.

When this all started I wondered whether I should really let myself cry in front of my family, especially my daughter Thuy, who is just three years old and has been bewildered but luckily not distressed by the sudden disappearance of the family dog. She is still too young to understand the reality of what happened, and regards his absence as just another event for which she needs no particular explanation.

And yet these kids miss nothing, and I’m sure she senses the anguish in the household. Even if I wanted to hide my crying from her, I don’t think I could have. I’ve just had so many feelings on my hands that I couldn’t possibly pretend they didn’t exist, or even stash them out of sight. I’ve wept in front of her, and I’ve wept with her in my arms.

A friend told me that when a father cries openly in front of his child, it is a kind of gift in and of itself. It’s a palpable example of being a complete person, a demonstration of how to be unguardedly and wholly present with your own emotions, no matter how overwhelming they might be. To paraphrase his wisdom: when you are emotionally real with yourself, you give your child the opportunity to grow up to be emotionally real with herself. I liked that, and I hope it’s true.

+

11 Comments

  1. Real men cry. Don’t ever stop. Ten years with a companion, even an animal, is a long time of bonding and friendship. I didn’t know Mr. President, but all the photos you ever shared showed just how much you loved him. If I could, I’d give you a big hug right now.

  2. Khoi, This post is such a generous gift to anyone holding back on expressing these sorts of emotions.

    Our cat of 18 years died last fall and I went through the same spontaneous crying fits and dark moods you describe. It was hard to be at work and feel a bit crazy to be on the edge of tears in a meeting. But the crying did help me feel and express in a healthy way.

    We now have a small rescue dog Molly who we both feel in love with and when the day sadly, eventually comes, it’s going to be a devastation. Living with dogs is such a close experience (she is my first dog) it can sometimes be a shock to me how much “in love” with this little animal I am.

    Thanks

  3. When my cat died suddenly of kidney troubles – Friday she was fine, Monday she was sick, Wednesday she stayed at the vet, Thursday they put her down, Friday we buried her in our friend’s yard – I howled and screamed and cried myself hoarse. All I wanted was to have my cat – my first ever pet – back. I didn’t care if she was sick, I just wanted her back.

    No-one outside really saw this. Unlike a dog, there’s not many things you do outside with a cat, but so many things within our home made me sad. Crying in the shower because she wasn’t waiting for me to step out; cracking up while cooking because she wasn’t begging for food; tearing up in the mornings when she didn’t wake me up…

    This lasted, to one extent or another, for a good month, before it just became an ache. Our other cat missed the compnay so within two months we got a new rescue cat, despite swearing we couln’t bring ourselves to do it. Two years on, our house has three very individual cats who we love, but we couln’t get another tortoiseshell for quite some time,and everytime I see a torti, it breaks my heart.

    Get it out of your system naturally – break down, cry, yell – and eventually you’ll have just good memories and a bearably small, empty place in you heart where Mr. President used to live that warms up whenever you think of him.

  4. Rest In Peace Mr. President
    I’m sorry, Khoi.

    a friend sent this to me when I lost my last dog.

    it hurts
    and
    it helps

    http://www.petloss.com/poems/maingrp/dogspryr.htm

    Treat me kindly, my beloved master, for no heart in all the world is more grateful for kindness than the loving heart of me.

    Do not break my spirit with a stick, for though I should lick your hand between the blows, your patience and understanding will more quickly teach me the things you would have me do.

    Speak to me often, for your voice is the world’s sweetest music, as you must know by the fierce wagging of my tail when your footstep falls upon my waiting ear.

    When it is cold and wet, please take me inside… for I am now a domesticated animal, no longer used to bitter elements… and I ask no greater glory than the privilege of sitting at your feet beside the hearth… though had you no home, I would rather follow you through ice and snow than rest upon the softest pillow in the warmest home in all the land… for you are my god… and I am your devoted worshiper.

    Keep my pan filled with fresh water, for although I should not reproach you were it dry, I cannot tell you when I suffer thirst. Feed me clean food, that I may stay well, to romp and play and do your bidding, to walk by your side, and stand ready, willing and able to protect you with my life, should your life be in danger.

    And, beloved master, should the Great Master see fit to deprive me of my health or sight, do not turn me away from you. Rather hold me gently in your arms as skilled hands grant me the merciful boon of eternal rest…and I will leave you knowing with the last breath I drew, my fate was ever safest in your hands.

  5. So sorry for the loss of your trusted friend.

    I look at my little boy, Mr. Chung (http://www.kistlerart.com/Gallery.html#2), and dread the day we will have to say goodbye to him, though it is hopefully many years in the future.

    My wife and I often debate whether life is, in the aggregate, a joyous (her position) or a tragic (mine) experience. Of course it is both, and the two inextricably bound to one another.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  6. I’ve been reading Subtraction for years. Coincidentally, we had to let our dog of 11 years go on Wednesday and I’ve been experiencing almost 1-1 the things you’ve been writing about. So first, I’m so sorry that Mr. P’s journey has come to and end. And second, thanks for sharing so much of your experience here. If someone I respect so much is feeling the kind of things I am, I’m not being quite as silly as I think I am.

  7. Crying is a wonderful relief. We all need it, and it helps us deal with grief in ways we probably still don’t understand.

    I am so tired of the macho men image who won’t shed a tear. I cried a lot when Steve Jobs died, and even more when I read his sister’s amazing obituary describing his last minutes with us.

    We all have our soft points, love our partners and companions. Crying is such a healthy release…

  8. I have only seen my father cry once in my lifetime (I’m 31), when our beloved family dog of 16 years died a few years ago. The whole family was devastated, and we were devastated together. I’m glad you got to enjoy Mr. President, and I’m equally glad you are able to grieve for him.

    On a side note, I lost my own two pets over the last few months, one last week. They were rabbits but nonetheless, they were my ‘dog.’ I miss them greatly, and shedding a tear seems a small price to pay to enjoy a memory.

    Keep remembering.

  9. Khoi, I’ve just found this post and I’m in tears yet again. We had to put down our best dog Mikey last week. He was 16 years old, which is a phenomenal age for a lab/shar pei cross.

    He was our first dog as a couple; the alpha dog of our little “rescue” pack; and the friendliest, slobbiest big dog I’ve ever met. He loved us and we loved him, unconditionally. He was in much the same state you describe for Mr. President so it was time. When the vet gave him the sedative he buried his head in my arm pit as if he knew what was coming, but he didn’t fight it. My husband and I broke down in tears and we’ve been crying on and off ever since. Thank you so much for sharing your pain, in some way it helps.

    The only phrase that seems to soothe me is this one: Don’t cry because it is over, be happy that it happened at all ~ Dr. Seuss

    Be happy.

  10. You are giving Thuy a beautiful gift. When she weeps she will have this connection with you to draw from. She will know herself that much more, she will be that much more whole.