Not even one day after my father died, a family friend called me.
“Noah, you know what you have to do now, right? It’s time for you to be the man of the house.”
I was thirteen. I was barely a “man” at all, let alone ready to be the man of the house. I didn’t know what that even meant — was I now supposed to manage the bills? Did I have to get a job? No one answered these questions for me, because I was too afraid to even ask them.
But as the days wore on after his death, more and more people started telling me the same thing:
“You’re the man of the house now.”
Every stranger at my dad’s wake said it to me. My uncles said it to me. My cousins said it to me. My teachers said it to me.
But I was thirteen fucking years old. I was not ready to be the man of the house. I was not ready to all of the sudden be a replacement husband for my mother, a replacement father for my siblings. I didn’t know how to be a husband. I didn’t know how to be a father. I didn’t even know how to be a teenager yet, let alone be an adult thrust into a world of responsibility that I was not equipped to deal with.
I’ve always been a crier. I still cry; I cry during movies, commercials, songs. I cry when my students graduate and hug me goodbye. I cry openly and nakedly, in front of others and by myself.
But I didn’t cry when my father died.
I didn’t cry staring at his cold, ashen face as it sat openly in his casket during his wake.
I didn’t cry when his friends cried to me, or told me how sorry they were.
I didn’t cry watching my mom convulse and shake, wracked with grief and pain the likes of which I’d never experienced before.
I didn’t cry as my cousins and uncles picked up the casket and walked silently out of the church with my father.
I didn’t cry when my father’s casket was lowered into the ground, out of my view and life for the last time.
I didn’t cry during the twenty-one gun salute, given to him by the Navy.
I didn’t cry that night, or the next. Or the next week. Or month.
I cried about other things, of course. I cried over broken relationships and the same high school traumas that others experience. When I cried during those times, I felt weak, I felt small, I felt stupid. I wondered, though, why I couldn’t cry about my father, why that grief stayed buried and covered, hidden behind some invisible border that I could neither see nor touch.
When I became the man of the house, I was bad at it.
I was not a good surrogate father to my siblings. I didn’t understand how to raise my sister, who was six, or my brother, who was seven. I was barely even a good brother, let alone someone who could function as a father.
I was supposed to be a role model of masculinity for my brother, but I didn’t have the strength for it, or the resolve. I tried to instill discipline, but I saw the confusion in my brother’s face, and backed down.
My sister missed her father. I was not him. He wasn’t tall, but he was strong. I was small. Skinny. My hormones were out of control and I couldn’t even focus on school.
But I was still supposed to be the man of the house.
I sat downstairs, quietly, silently, as my mother wept in the darkness of her bedroom, holding on to my father’s pillow, trying to inhale the last scents of him that still remained in its fragile threads. I started up the stairs so many times, only to turn around and sit myself, in the darkness, longing for tears that would take more than half a decade to finally arrive.
As the years wore on and my family fell into disrepair and dysfunction, I knew I had failed as a man. I had not raised my silbings correctly. I had not been a good counselor for my mother. I had not held the family together, even though that was my only job, the one thing I was supposed to do.
I found solace at school, where I was not expected to be a father. People made fun of the music I listened to, or called me a momma’s boy because I spent so much time with my family trying to right the ship. But I was still only expected to be a kid, not a man. And that was a relief.
When I moved into the dorms, it was the first time in five years that I was no longer expected to be the man of the house.
One night, I was talking with a friend about my family, and started talking about my father. I talked about who he was. I started talking about the things I’d now realized he would miss. My college graduation. My wedding. My kids, if I ever had any. My trials and tribulations, my pains and victories. The rest of my life, without him. This I finally understood.
And then I felt it. It came up from somewhere deep inside, a place I had locked away and kept hidden. It moved slowly, around the different areas of my brain, through the tracts and ducts and pathways and corridors inside of my head.
And then it hit my eyes, and it came pouring out of me, one tear after another, and it came powerfully and unwaveringly, from the deep recesses of my wounded soul. From deep within me, gutteral noises and wails, and my friend, in a moment of deep compassion, reached out to me and held me close to her, crying with me.
“Let it out,” she said.
So I did. Finally, free of the burdens and expectations of my home life, I understood that I was not the man of the house, and had never been, and never should have been expected to be.
I was supposed to be a teenager. I was not a father. Not a husband.
I was a boy.
I’m not ashamed of being a crier, though others make fun of me for it.
It took me five years to finally cry for my father, but after that point I never really stopped. I understood, from that point, that to be a man was to understand my whole self, my authentic self. And who I am as a man is someone who grieves, who feels, and who expresses sentiments and emotions.
I encourage my male students to be open and authentic. To never bury or hide their feelings, because those can be the best parts of them, the parts of them that will help them understand the world and lead them to be the people I want them to be.
To cry, to grieve, to feel; these are beautiful things.