Not with a bang

I have a friend who's dying. I can't save him. He may not see fifty and he's probably going to die alone because he won't reach out. Probably thinks he can't.

I know what this friend needs to do, and what he needs to do will be painful and difficult. It will require a faith on the level of abdicating his sovereign right to make his own decisions, at least for a while. It will require him to tell uncomfortable truths. The odds of that are...well.

I watched another man I love wither into a frail husk in front of me when his wife passed. He got lonely. He rattled around his house with little to do but mow the lawn. He stooped. He met his golfing buddies once a week and talked sports and weather and lawn care, until that ended. He stopped putting sheets on his bed. His mind started to go until he'd moved from forgetting the date to not comprehending how a day could have a number.

Then he met a woman. He dated again. And he has returned to us, to life.

These men are like most men. They've each only got one really close friend: the women they love. They have no one else to burn for. Without those women, or with the wrong one, they start to die. Slowly.

My wife tagged me on this essay that's making the rounds. I've been chewing on it for a while now. And I hesitate to speak up at all, because "what about [white] men" is a disproportional analysis. But then again this is a pretty solid episode of the hit series Patriarchy Hurts Everyone, so here I go.

I'll tell one on me too.

I had a job half my life ago selling jewelry. We had a fairly tightly-knit staff. Someone, not sure who, got in the habit of ending conversations with a little musical "love yoooouuuuu..."

It caught on. Should this ring shank be replaced? Yes, and add an unset/reset charge for the emerald. Okay, love yoooouuuuu. Love yooouuuuuuu.

Months went by and those love-yous got a little less drawn out and musical. One day someone pre-pended the earnest pronoun "I".

Can I have Saturday off? No, sorry, Josh is off. Okay, I love you. I love you too.

This was my twenties. Three other salesmen on that staff with me, and another man I connected with by chance. All stood with me on my wedding day. We're now scattered across four states and two time zones. We still stay in touch. We still proclaim our love. One day I kissed one of them on the cheek when we hugged hello. I surprised myself; I don't kiss anyone who isn't family. But it felt like breathing, so I kept it up.

Didn't always have that, though. I've had years of mere existence, staring every evening at a screen in my living room, reaching out to strangers there in the aether and wishing everyone in my physical proximity would leave me to live in my own idiot head. I was starving myself.

One day I stood before my wife, nearly in tears, saying "I miss my friend." A week later she was pressing a plane ticket into my hand. I did not deserve that or her. I'm trying to make up for that now.

Now I have another, local group of friends. We have a regular dinner thing. We talk. About sports, about lawn care. About our terror and shame and hope and love. I recently told one of them that I love him. The others are on deck.

Let me tell you about my boy.

My boy burns hot. My boy feels every drop of his feelings. You are his friend, even if you haven't yet met.

My boy loves. Profoundly. So much that it's hard to get him to tell me his darker thoughts. I can see the wall of embarrassment: what if Dad loves me less if I tell him? And I will own that sometimes the messiness of his feelings inconveniences me, that I reach to contain it and keep us on schedule, rather than guide him through.

I know that the world is going to do its damndest to beat his love and affection out of him. I know that I have to be vigilant, or I will help it. I have to protect him from me.

What I have seen, time and again, is that men are starving as I have starved. And we have to dress up our love and need in no-homo bullshit to justify it to each other. Iron John forest howling. Promise Keepers. White men doing hakas. Hugging that inexplicably involves hitting. Love yoooouuuuuu.

Yet I tell my son: Enough. Could you just calm down. Breathe, buddy, it's not that big of a deal. Every blow tempers him. I do not tell him enough that we feed each other with handfuls of our insides. That making a feast of our hearts makes them beat more loudly.

We are obsessed with masculinity. Masculinity is cosplay and individualism a cancer. We smother the best parts of us in the name of some facile made-up John McClane bullshit. We chase the myth of the self, as if the self exists. So now it's hard for us to turn the the person next to us and say "I'm really happy right now," much less admitting out loud that we're absolutely fuckin' terrified. And so we die.

I learned emotional labor and emotional nourishment relatively late in life. But there is my boy, and there are these men, this boy and these men for whom I burn. I look into the eyes of men who have found what I found and sometimes I see the wild and exultant desperation that I feel, the fear that this can't go away, not ever, or I'll die. It lashes my heart to the earth.

I was alone when I spilled my blood into the walls of my house. I was alone when I shook the soil of my home out of my shoes and onto an island in the Danube. I was alone when I forded a creek in search of my son, trying not to scream.

These stories, you need to hear them so that you know that we are here, you and I. If I do not tell you them, I will die, and if you do not hear them, then I never will have lived.