A Father’s Affection
It was a cold, dreary, fall day when my grandmother died. She’d had congestive heart failure and died on the operating table. The woman was all of four foot eleven and I think four inches of that was the mound of white hair she had on top of her head.
I was in the eighth or ninth grade at the time, attending Southwestern High School in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. I grew up there amidst the backdrop of a post modern, post industrial, post economic powerhouse that was once The Motor City.
Amidst the ruins of old factories that resembled ancient crumbling castles, amidst the train tracks scarred by graffiti of various declarations of eternal love and, of course, gang symbols like Egyptian curses warding people away from certain areas of town, throughout the busted concrete and shattered windows of empty homes, we lived. It seemed as if the city, even in the summertime, sagged with the realization that nothing or no one was allowed to rest upon their laurels. The city that had once, literally, drove the world, was like my grandmother had been. Tired and old.
Around us, all up and down our street were neighbors of all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds lost in a sea of lower working class existence. Modest homes were kept clean, yards were kept mowed, streets cleared of snow in the winter, and in the early years of my childhood, was relatively quiet.
My entire existence was contained in one small portion of that city block. From the corner lot where Mr. Avila and his family lived, as well as my best friend Shannon and her cousin Donny on occasion, all the way down to the bushes that bordered grandma’s front yard. Beyond that, was no man’s land when I was little. And Grandma or Grandpa would always be out on that old front porch. Grandma with her dirty dishtowel in her hand or grandpa with his filter less Camel cigarettes that he’d flick out into the yard when he was through.
For years, my friends and I owned that bit of earth. We tore up and down the street playing tag, hide-and-go-seek, and even made up our own games like running and hiding from the city bus that would make its way down at three in the afternoon to stop in front of our house. We called it, “The Monster Bus.”
And that bus was a real threat to us in our imaginations. NATO should have been alerted to what we knew and we would have told them, too, if we knew what the hell a NATO was at that point in our lives. Surely the CIA would have taken us seriously.
Anyway, I thought my life was normal. That was until grandma died. Despite the doctors best efforts, the surgeon who had conducted her bypass emerged from the Operating Room absolutely beside himself with grief, my mother told me years later. What should have been a normal procedure ended because grandma’s body was just too worn out.
I don’t think, even in the early years of high school, I had wrapped my head around death, yet. I didn’t understand the finality of it all. Or maybe I wasn’t made ready to understand it. See, when I went next door to tell my friends and their family that grandma passed away, I remember Shannon’s Dad, Herman, told me how sorry he was and gave me a hug.
No big deal, right? It’s a hug. A familiar expression of affection meant to comfort.
But it was a big deal. The hug shocked me. That open display of affection and understanding in that gesture sort of threw me. And suddenly I had to deal with the fact that perhaps my life wasn’t as normal as I thought it was. Because here was this grown man, my friend’s father, embracing me and by God, I didn’t know what to do.
It was uncomfortable. Not in some skeezy, sexual way, or not because he had bad body odor, or whatever else, but because he was openly affectionate to a child he assumed was in pain. And I was. In pain. But the pain I carried inside of me went far deeper than the loss of the family matriarch. It went beyond the death of the little old Irish lady with white hair.
I had come to a crossroad at that moment when my eyes were opened to what I had in my life and what I didn’t have. And I didn’t have affection. Looking back, to be quite honest, when there wasn’t abuse going on, the home was austere, cold, and wary. We were watchful, and suspicious of motivations. We tiptoed around each other and were always on guard.
We used to joke all the time, and I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this but when someone acts bad, usually an adult, we hear people say, “What’s the matter, weren’t you hugged enough as a kid? Is that it? Is that why you’ve done X or are Y and have done Z?” These words are always dripping with condemnation and disdain for the individual in question. But what if that’s the right question delivered in the wrong way?
What if the people asking the question intrinsically knew what the fucking problem was from the word go?
Joe Biden and Hunter Biden have a picture (displayed above) of Joe kissing Hunter. Conservatives laughed at it, called it weird, and I read an article by John Pavlovitz, minister and famed writer, addressing his experiences with a father who loved him dearly. Joe, who lost his son Beau to cancer, and his wife and daughter to a car accident, loves Hunter and that is apparent. But I don’t think that’s simply a product of having lost so much or maybe it is. Maybe Joe Biden is desperately clinging to his son, Hunter, because of the amount of loss in his life but the way he speaks of Beau, I seriously doubt that. And I say that because despite his grief at the loss of his son, he doesn’t seem to express any regrets.
Joe Biden loved them. Openly. Honestly. Affectionately.
In a world of Proud Boys, AR-15s, Toxic Masculinity, supposed “Alpha” males and death threats, maybe this is simply the natural maturation of a generation of men whose fathers didn’t hug them enough. Who didn’t show their boys that hardness is brittle and is bound to break but to be tough comes from being able to endure. And the way that we endure is knowing that someone loves you bigger than the problems that you face, or the things that you may have done, or for having failed at one thing or another. Who knows that a man, a real man, knows how to ask for help instead of trying to ‘white knuckle it’ whatever ‘it’ is in their life. That shows mercy before condemnation. That is open to a relationship, a real honest to God relationship with their progeny as not only an authority figure and someone who pays the bills but of someone who is willing to be a teacher and mentor.
A Father in all that word encompasses.
I know in my life now, there’s a seventy year old man whom I affectionally refer to as ‘Daddy’, from a family that has more or less adopted my husband and I, that hugs me whenever I walk through his door. I hug this man because I love him and he hugs me back because he loves me. I know this as sure as I know it’s two in the morning and I shouldn’t have drank that cup of coffee this evening because I am writing this instead of sleeping.
I also know, now that I’m barreling down on my fortieth year of life, a hug should never shock a child. Affection should never bewilder a man. And no one should ever have to question whether or not they’re loved. No one. Not even your sons.
If this is the case, you have failed them.