My phone should not ring at six in the morning. Occasionally my boss will call on her drive in to work, and we will talk about something interesting she saw in the morning paper. But she has a special ringtone, an upbeat get-up-and-answer-the-phone-buddy-boy ditty, and this wasn’t it. At six in the morning, you hope for a wrong number.
It was my brother-in-law, Richard. He’s a great guy and I like him, but I don’t want to hear from him that early, because he is probably going to say exactly what he said: “I have bad news….”
My father passed away, taking his leave quietly in the early morning after about eight months in hospice. Richard ran through the facts: how my mother and sister were holding up, who had been called, what they were planning to do. As close as he had been to my father, he didn’t say, “Boy this is hard” or “I know you’re sad” or “You can go ahead and cry if you want.” Because we were speaking the language of men.
Cynthia called. A close family friend, she had already heard and was crying on the phone and saying exactly what Richard didn’t. I spoke to Ketta B., who said “I don’t know what to say.”
Steve called, saying “If there is anything I can do…” and I said “Thanks.” And we slipped into the value of hospice care, and health insurance, and beaches on Moloka‘i, and the nature of the truth in a world driven by politics. We mentioned getting together to play some music. The language of men.
I think about Randy, in Seattle for the funeral of his own father. He’ll call when he can, and no one overhearing our conversation would understand.
Men take a lot of hits for being non-communicative. We should share our feelings, open up, be more in touch. But the language of men among men is a language so subtle that it operates at a different frequency, like the whisper of a well-tuned engine to an experienced mechanic, or a whistle to dogs. It is the language of standing shoulder to shoulder, the language of joint efforts and long experience. No one ever says “I love you, man,” no matter how good the beer is. We just share space—mental, physical, emotional—and exist together.
You learn the language of men from men, and I learned it from my father and his irrepressible cronies like Albert and Jess and Robert and Mike, together the funniest men on Earth. All of them were a generation or two above me, all of them gone now, but all willing to let me hang around and learn whatever the project of the week could teach. The proper proportions of strong concrete, the importance of tack rags, how to hang drywall, swap an engine, sew upholstery, lap valves, lay carpet and cook up fresh haupia from real coconuts. How a day of hard work makes your body ache in a good way, and makes a beer taste better. And in the process I learned the power of a quick wit and how a look in your eye tells your victim that the prodding wisecrack was just a way of being together, a means to express a bond. I learned that the bond among and between men is deeper and more durable than any that could be imposed by outside forces.
The language of men says, “We are here because we choose to be here, together.”
Don, Al, Jess, Robert, Mike are all gone now, but the bonds stay with me. I imagine them standing together, regarding a task with quiet dignity and an occasional quip, planning their approach. United again, with the language. Surely, heaven would be a place with projects.
I stand today with Richard and Steve and Randy and Bert and the Two Johns, talking music and woodwork and politics. Speaking the language of men to honor the men before us.