My dad died while he was on vacation visiting me in Casper last year. He’d briefly mentioned some unusual back pain but it didn’t stop him from helping my neighbors move, cooking huge meals, installing electrical wiring, and working on my car in the summer heat. That’s the kind of dad he was and the kind of dad a lot of us know: someone who can complain nonstop about government disrespect for the Second Amendment and always finish a hard day’s work, but won’t say anything about his health or his relationships. According to the autopsy my dad died of a heart attack. But it’s clear in hindsight that what actually killed him was almost 60 years of living as an American man.
Throughout my dad’s life, he had two main emotions: anger and apathy. His favorite form of communication was sideways sarcasm. He always had a thinly veiled excuse to spend almost all his vacation time out in Wyoming: “Your dogs aren’t getting enough exercise during the day,” or “I need to make sure the A/C in your car is working right.”
After I realized this was my dad’s roundabout way of getting me to invite him for a visit — as if being my dad was not a good enough reason — I started noticing that this was a strategy other men often use with each other. At first, it was interesting to watch such transactions and negotiations repeated in different settings between different men. One man says he’s bought a new compound bow, and the other says he knows a good spot for bow hunting. One man says he’s perfected his golf swing, and the other says they should go play a round at his country club. Now I see how dangerous these exchanges are, how it erects barriers in their friendships and sets men up for loneliness.
Relationships between men don’t seem to have recovered from the start of the Cold War. Suddenly, out of the band of brothers that came home in 1945, men were pitted against each other by McCarthyism and the witch hunt for anti-American spies. This is not what was needed to recover from the trauma of a world war. To be close with another man or to show emotion was to be gay. To be gay — then a crime in itself — was to be a communist sympathizer. To be a communist was to be hated and to lose everything. Men especially are still living the emotional legacy of the brave soldiers who came home from World War II. It’s an emotional legacy that’s killing our dads.
There’s an open secret among women in Wyoming: that the men in our lives — our husbands, sons, dads, brothers, friends, and co-workers — struggle to relate to other men. They tell us how difficult it is to have deep discussions with their male friends, and about how difficult it is to start a friendship to begin with. “What if I am bothering him? What if he thinks I’m needy? What if he thinks I’m hitting on him?” In other words: What if I am not enough? What if I do not have something to offer in this transaction?
The irony of this is that men are talking with women about this, and women are talking with women about this, but men do not seem to be talking to each other.
From an early age, we emphasize the value of friendship and connectedness with girls, and stoicism and independence with boys. Women share the responsibility for creating these expectations, but women alone cannot fix this. We can encourage, cajole, beg and suggest, but we cannot fix this.
No mother can prepare her son for the isolation of manhood. No wife can erase a lifetime of emotional denial.
Men can begin to repair this invisible damage by being kinder to each other, more patient with each other, more open with each other, as we all work towards a better way of connecting. We need boys who have the depth to participate in creating communities, men who can name and experience their emotions before turning to violence. This is not about teaching men to be feminine, not about teaching women to be manly — this is about life and death.
The deepest irony in my dad’s death by heart attack is that his best friend since early childhood, my godfather, is a cardiologist. But my dad, for many reasons, never mentioned to his best friend that he had high blood pressure. If they had felt comfortable talking the way many women talk with their friends — with an easy exchange of information and emotion — maybe he could have better managed the stress of living as an American man. Maybe he would have taken blood pressure medication. Maybe I could have come home from work last summer and had a beer with my dad on my front porch instead of performing CPR.
If we can broaden what is acceptable for men in the ways they relate to each other, maybe we can have more Father’s Days with our loved ones.