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.