One afternoon about a week before Christmas, my family of four piled into our minivan to run a short errand, and this question came from a small voice in the back seat:
“Dad,” began my 5-year-old son, Patrick, “how come I’ve never seen you cry?”
Just like that. No preamble. No warning. One minute it’s, “Mom, what’s for supper?” The next it’s, “Dad, how come …”
My wife, Catherine, was as surprised by this as me. But she is one of those lucky souls for whom tears come naturally, are spilled spontaneously then quickly forgotten.
Patrick has seen his mother cry dozens of times. So my wife was entitled to turn my way in the front passenger seat with a mischievous smile that said, “Explain this one, Dad.”
I couldn’t, of course. I mumbled something in reply about crying when my son was not around, at sad movies and so forth. But I knew immediately that Patrick had put his young finger on the largest obstacle to my own peace and contentment, i.e., the dragon-filled moat separating me from the fullest human expression of joy, sadness, anger and disappointment. Simply put, I could not cry.
I know I am scarcely the only man for whom this is true. In fact, I believe that tearless men are the rule in our society, not the exception. When did John Wayne or Kirk Douglas or any other archetype of manliness shed tears?
We men, we fathers and sons, have been condemned to follow their lead, conditioned to believe that stoicism signifies strength, emotion weakness. We are calm on the outside, secretly dying within, determined to medicate our anguish with alcohol, or work, or hours spent sitting mindlessly in front of televised sports.
Take me. For much of my adult life I have battled depression, an awful and insidious thing that saps life of its color and meaning, and too often leads to self-destruction. Much of my problem is physiological, an inherited chemical imbalance, something akin to diabetes. But years of swallowing my rage, my sadness, even my joy, is also to blame. Drunkenness and depression are safer for men like me than tears.
I could only hope the same debilitating handicap would not be passed on to the generation that followed mine.
Hence our brief conversation on the sunny December afternoon after Patrick’s question. He and I were back in the van after playing together at a park. I turned and thanked him for his curiosity of the day before. Tears were a very good thing for boys and girls alike, I said. Crying is God’s way of healing people when they are sad.
“I’m very glad you can cry whenever you’re sad or whenever you’re angry,” I said. “Sometimes daddies have a harder time showing how they feel. You know, Patrick, I wish I were more like you in that way. Someday I hope I do better.”
In truth, I held out little hope. Lifelong habits are hard to break. In the days before Christmas, I prayed that somehow I could be restored to at least a few of my own unshed tears.
From the time he was an infant, Patrick has enjoyed a passion and affinity for music. By age 4, he could pound out several bars of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” by ear on the piano. More recently, he has spent countless hours singing along with the soundtrack to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” happily directing the music during the orchestral parts. But these were hidden pleasures for him, enjoyed in the privacy of his own room, or with the small and forgiving audience of his mother, father and older sister, Melanie.
What the church youth director suggested was something different altogether.
“I was wondering if Patrick would sing a verse of “Away in the Manger” during the early service on Christmas Eve,” Juli Ball asked.
My son’s first solo. Catherine delicately broached the possibility with him, reminding Patrick how beautifully he sang, telling him how much fun it would be. He seemed less convinced. His face crinkled into a frown.
“You know, Mom,” he said. “Sometimes when I have to do something important, I get kind of scared.”
Grown-ups feel that way, too, he was assured, but the decision to sing on Christmas Eve was left to him.
“OK,” Patrick said. “I’ll do it.”
Patrick practiced his stanza several times in the next week with his mother. A formal rehearsal at the church went well. But I could only envision myself at age 5, singing before hundreds of people.
My son’s solo came late in the service. Patrick and his young choir took the stage. A spotlight
found my son, standing alone at the microphone. He was dressed in white and wore a pair of angel’s wings, and he sang that night as if he had done so forever.
Patrick hit every note, slowly, confidently, and for those few moments, he seemed transformed, a true angel, the bestower of Christmas miracles. There was eternity in Patrick’s voice that night, a penetrating beauty rich enough to dissolve centuries of manly reserve. Heavy tears welled at the corner of my eyes, and spilled down my cheeks.
His song was soon over and the congregation applauded. I moved quickly to congratulate Patrick, but found he had more urgent priorities.
“Mom,” he said. “I really have to go to the bathroom.”
So Patrick disappeared. I knew I had only a short window, only a few minutes before my stoicism closed back in around my heart. I found my son as he emerged from the lavatory.
“Patrick, I need to talk to you about something,” I said, sniffling.
Alarm crossed his face.
“Is it something bad?” he asked.
“No, it’s not something bad,” I answered.
“Is it something good?”
“It’s something very good.”
I took him by the hand and led him down a long hallway, into a darkened room where we could be alone. I knelt to his height and admired his young face in the shadows, the large blue eyes, the dusting of freckles on his nose and cheeks, the dimple on one side. Tears spilled again.
He looked at me quizzically, with concern.
“Patrick, do you remember when you asked me why you had never seen me cry?” I began.
“Well, I’m crying now, aren’t I,” I said.
He nodded again.
“Why are you crying, Dad?”
“Your singing was so pretty it made me cry.”
Patrick flew into my arms. I began to sob.
“Sometimes,” my 5-year-old son said into my shoulder, “life is just so beautiful you have to cry.”
Our moment together was over too soon, for it was Christmas Eve, and treasures awaited our 5-year-old beneath the tree at home. But I wasn’t ready for the traditional plunge just yet. I handed my wife the keys to the van and set off alone for the mile-long hike from church to our home.
The night was cold and crisp. I crossed a small park and admired the full moon hanging low over a neighborhood brightly lit in the colors of the season. As I left the park and turned up a street toward home, I met a car moving slowly down the street, a family taking in the area’s Christmas lights. Someone inside rolled down a window.
“Merry Christmas,” a child’s voice yelled out to me.
“Merry Christmas,” I yelled back, as tears began to flow once again.