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The American Man: Growing Up

Grief is personal, but it’s also gendered.
Detail of a mourning sculpture. (Photo: Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock)

Detail of a mourning sculpture. (Photo: Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock)

We need to set a date for Mom’s memorial but my brother and sister and I wait. Personally, I am waiting for her to come back or to die differently and I am the oldest and in some ways the prodigal son so we may be waiting a very long time.

When Mom died. When Mom died. When Mom died.

They say grief is personal, but it’s also gendered. The uncles outside her hospital room; hands on my shoulders—the first-born, the oldest son. The beer offered, the dinners paid for, the muscle moving her keepsakes out the door. The doctor in the conference room with the paperwork for me to sign, the do-not-resuscitate, the give-it-to-me-straight, the driving my little brother and sister in silence on that last night, the indie-folk lullaby on the radio and all of us crying quietly, companionably, to ourselves, the urge I had to stop at every empty-road, small-town red light and wait forever for the green to click into place, my job to protect them like the precious cargo they are, to contain us—our tiny, new family.

My aunt said, at dinner, “You aren’t an adult until your parents are gone.”

I am 33. I thought being a man was about building yourself, about the intentionality of my weekly shot, the years I’ve spent constructing my body, my biceps, the way I take up space so as to make room for others. But being a man, I know now, is about who you are when you are lost, when what matters most is gone. Who you are in the absence of signposts; who are you when you are alone with your terrifyingly small Mom and her outer-space brain, handwriting her a cheery little list to keep her calm when she can still talk but maybe not read, so keep it simple:

Things I can do to feel better today:

1. Eat
2. PT
3. Socialize

When Mom died this September, it was dissonantly warm and sunny. My whole summer vortexed toward the hospital in central Pennsylvania where she spent her last months, the friendly, Pittsburgh-accented nurses, all of whom wanted to move to New York. They brought us coffee and cookies and, eventually, a minister. They hooked her to the morphine drip, they listened with us to her terrifying, rattled, hiccupped breathing as we let her go. They said: Tell her to let go—because she wouldn’t. She hung on, barely breathing, for over two days, and I slept to her death, in the bed across from her those two nights, her brain damaged from lack of oxygen. She was unresponsive but I sent her messages with my mind, and I will never tell you what they were.

In the months before, as her brain got addled, she lost me. She didn’t remember my new, testosterone-shaped body, she called me by my brother’s name. I’d only been her son for a few years and those years faded first. And yet, I named myself after my Uncle Tom, who died when I was five. Right before she left us, she looked at me and said: “You’re not old Tom, you’re new Thom.” I squeezed her bloated hand. That has to be enough.

I set up her cremation, in secret, months before she was gone. I went back to the hospital and insisted on applesauce she didn’t eat. I brought her books she didn’t read but allowed us both to pretend she did. I called her every day I wasn’t with her and said, “Mom, how do you feel today?” More and more, she sounded like a child. “Not good,” she told me, mad. She lost the language to make sense of it. “What hurts?” I’d ask, taking stupid notes I already knew would do no good. She loved lists, her whole house was full of them, we discovered later: notes for my brother’s upcoming wedding, important phone numbers, how to get back on her feet. “It hurts everywhere!” she howled, frustrated that none of us could make it stop.

My few years on testosterone have left me ill-equipped for this sort of earthquake and the expectations it inspires in everyone around me. I cry my strange, desert tears—I cry in barbershops and on busy streets and alone in my apartment. Little hyperactive sobs pass through me like weather, mysterious and ugly.

Now I send papers to a lawyer, who sends me papers back. I try not to think dark, lost-child thoughts like, Who am I now? What am I missing? Who will ever wholly know me again? I get stoned and see myself, my selves, back with her and everything I’ve lost on a subway platform, the person I was before we both died waving me off as the train pulls out of the station.

How do men grieve? I am learning. I walk past a woman my mom’s age in a purple scarf on 5th Avenue, I turn toward my girlfriend, I see a Christmas tree, and suddenly feel like I’ve been punched through with holes, like a paper doll. It’s visceral, like getting the wind knocked out of you, like a body disappearing—all of the small ways we lose each other until we’re gone.

Ritual, then, is a cap on this boiling pot. According to Catherine Bell, professor of ritual studies and author of the preeminent textbook on the subject, ritual is an action that lacks a “practical relationship between the means one chooses to achieve certain ends.” It follows a similar arc, across space and time and culture:

1. Separation: Old identity is lost.
2. Transition: Rites or tests that gives the person a sense of control.
3. Reincorporation: Return to the group, knowing that you are changed.

Dying isn’t an action, it’s a messy, timeless state—like a state of mind; like Mom’s mind, crumbling as she said, “I love you” to my girlfriend on the day they’d first met, a jaundiced blessing. “I love you too,” Jess responded, automatic as a vision I had of her a few weeks after we’d first met: airplanes to rickshawed destinations and future babies with classic, sturdy names and the same secret fire in their bellies as their well-mannered, New England mother.

“You’re the right mix of tough and tender,” she tells me by which she means I am a man, and for her I am a grizzly. I am a man who sleeps with a knife under his pillow in a spooky country cabin, sure I can keep us both safe from predators she imagines when her eyes are closed even though I know that what’s more terrifying is to sleep so exposed to one another, knowing that one of us will lose the other eventually. I am the man I’ve become because of what I’ve lost. I am found here.

In the months before, as her brain got addled, she lost me. She didn’t remember my new, testosterone-shaped body, she called me by my brother’s name. I’d only been her son for a few years and those years faded first.

Love isn’t an action, it’s a state, organic as this universe I’ve surfaced in after Mom died, gasping like a fish and paralyzed with morphine in a friendly, rural hospital far from where I grew up. It’s as strange and sharp as the smell of her perfume, or the weight of the ring the funeral director pulled off her finger that I now wear on a chain around my neck—how it swings against my chest when I walk, like a ticking clock.

Love is a loss, I am learning—a cleaving and a coming together. The night before my brother’s wedding we go down to the water in Mexico and put a little of Mom in the ocean. We ritualize what we can control, we make the chaos into a tension, like warriors put their hands in gloves of fire ants to become men, we put our arms around each other and watch her disappear in a way we can understand.

The next day, my little brother danced with his mother-in-law instead of our mother and my sister and I stood on the side, crying but not saying anything, our reactions pure and perfect and our own. Then my girlfriend put her arm around me, then the DJ played the song we sang to Mom as she lay dying, then my brother danced with my sister and I danced with my sister-in-law, then my sister danced with my sister-in-law and I danced with my brother, and I can’t speak for us but I think I will, I think we all said goodbye to Mom under that Mexican sky, her ashes already out to sea, all of us the best man and the bride and the bridesmaid, all of us the mother of the groom, all of us in love and busted open, all the people that we were before and the ones spinning around one another now, if only for just the length of a song.

The American Man is a semi-regular series that features gonzo reporting from barbershops, boxing gyms, frat houses, and other bastions of masculinity in an effort to define what makes a modern man.